Now that summer’s started, I had this grand plan of exposing my oldest daughter, who recently turned seven, to as many of the classic video games that I think she should get to see as I could. (Basically, I’m trying to catch her before she discovers Minecraft and then loses interest in everything else, video game related or otherwise.) We play together as much as we can during the school year, but the summer, with the lack of a defined bedtime for her, and less traffic that gets me home from work earlier in the evening, lends itself better to extra time to play together during the evenings.
I’d built up a collection of a number of classics, through purchases and judicious use of Club Nintendo coins: Super Metroid (woman in space kicking ass, so of course); The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (not among my favorite games, but she’d been asking about it for months and we were able to finally get it for free thanks to Mario Kart 8); The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (she’d read the manga books, and I can’t remember if I’d played it or not); Mega Man X (because I’m borderline obsessed with Mega Man and it has robot penguins, which should appeal to her); and probably some others I’m forgetting. We’ve pretty much covered all the Mario games, so this is the next level, as it were.
But then I went on a trip to the library with my wife, and went over to the video games they have available to check out. It’s a meager selection and all decidedly last-gen titles for the most part, but last-gen still has some good games and you don’t get a much better deal than checking out a game for three weeks for free. That’s where I stumbled upon the game that probably hasn’t derailed my carefully curated curriculum permanently, but certainly has put it on hold for the time being.
The game was Kirby’s Epic Yarn.
It should be noted that my daughter has developed her own minor fixation on Kirby over the last few weeks, mainly thanks to the recommendation of my supremely talented podcast co-host Maddy Myers, who talked on one early episode of Isometric about replaying Kirby and the Amazing Mirror because it brought her back to her childhood, and put the idea in my head that those games might appeal to my daughter as well. It just so happened that Kirby’s Adventure was available for the low, low price of 200 Club Nintendo coins at the time, so I purchased it and downloaded it onto my daughter’s 3DS that she’d gotten for her birthday (the Yoshi special edition, for the record), and just kind of left it there for her to discover.
It took her about a week to find it, and she had to ask me a couple of times whether it was OK to open the app because she didn’t know where it came from, but I assured her it was fine, and was hers to play when she was ready for it. She played it for about 15 minutes and then went immediately back to her game of Disney Magical World, but over the next few weeks she was spending less time with Cinderella and Donald and more time with Kirby and King Dedede. It reached the point where she asked me if there were any more Kirby games we could get, and by this time Kirby’s Dreamland for the Game Boy was available at Club Nintendo, so I got that for her as well. (“I can tell this is really old because it’s in black and white!”) So now it’s all Kirby, all the time.
I honestly expected to hate Kirby’s Epic Yarn. I’ve never really been a fan of either the Kirby or Yoshi games, even though I like both of the characters. By the time that the first games in those series had come out originally, I was already well past the age where they would appeal to me; I was spending afternoons finishing Mega Man 2 for the umpteenth time, so Kirby’s Adventure was downright pedestrian to me at that point. So basically, I have zero nostalgia for the games themselves. Also, we’d bought the Kirby Dream Collection, which has what are supposed to be some of the best games in the series, but she was too young to really be able to control them at that point, so it was up to me to play through the games, and I found them (Kirby 64, in particular) excruciatingly boring. They’re not necessarily easy games, but they’re really slow paced, and at the end of a long day at work, that’s not really what I’m looking to play. But I did for her, of course.
So when I booted up Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and I got into the saccharine sweet art style, I was completely prepared to be disappointed once again. The cuteness in the game, mainly because of everything being drawn out of strings of yarn, is over the top, and that’s really not what I go for. I felt like it was too much, and the read-along style of the voice acting in the cut scenes didn’t help, either. Of course, I’m not a seven year old girl; the art style played extremely well to the intended audience.
What grabbed me, though, is the co-op. Not only did it turn out that the gameplay done well enough to maintain my interest (which, to be frank, is secondary to my daughter’s interest in these types of situations, but it helps to keep me engaged more fully if I’m enjoying playing the game personally and not just vicariously through her), but the co-op was done well enough that it made the game for me, and it’s kind of amazing that so many games that are ostensibly aimed at kids get this wrong.
What you don’t realize when you’re a geek dad planning to raise gamer kids is how bad kids really are at playing games, for a long time. A controller, especially a modern one, is really tough for a kid to get her hands around, literally. They’re designed for adult hands with adult thumb lengths, and kids can try to reach, but it’s awkward for them. Plus, using an analog stick to remotely manipulate a character on a screen is a foreign concept, especially now that most of their early interactions with games are on some sort of a touch screen, where she’ll literally drag the character around on the screen, or the character will move on its own and she’ll just have to tap the screen to make it jump at the right time. Even the idea of press left on a d-pad to move the character left is kind of hard to grasp, and it can be frustrating when you’re trying to get her to follow along in a particular direction.
The better kid-friendly co-op games make it hard to get separated. Skylanders, for all its wallet draining superpower, does a really good job at this, because it keeps both players on the same screen at the same time and won’t let them go off on their own. (The first two games didn’t even have a jump button, which is also a difficult concept to get your grade school head around when you’re just trying to figure out how to walk in the right direction.) Ironically, the Lego games, which are more or less every geek parent’s first stop in co-op gaming with their offspring, are terrible in this regard. Not only will the game go split screen if the players get separated, but many of the puzzles require both players to be in specific positions at a specific time, and that can be really frustrating to orchestrate with a kid who’s still learning to simply work the controller.
So while I thought I’d hate Kirby’s Epic Yarn, the game’s really grown on me very quickly in a way I didn’t expect at all. The yarn motif changes up the Kirby formula enough that it’s fresh, especially in sequences when Kirby and Prince Fluff (the second player’s character) merge into a surfer sliding over yarn waves, or a tank blowing up adorable enemies. It’s hard not to smile at some of the things the designers came up with.
The co-op is really well done, as well. It keeps both players on the same screen, and drags them back to the first player if they get too far away. This in itself can be hard to pull off (Skylanders, for example, has a bad habit of getting confused as to which player is further along and ends up making the stages more difficult rather than less), but Epic Yarn does a good job of only doing it when needed and bringing the character who’s falling behind up to the leader. There seem to be unlimited lives as well, which takes away some of the pressure of needing to finish a tough level for fear of having to start it all over again. If all else fails, one player can pick up the other and carry her through the level, or even use the other player as a projectile. This, as one could imagine, is endless fun for my daughter, who gets to pick up her old man and chuck him at the bad guys.
So, in short, it’s fun. It’s fun for her, it’s fun for me, and it’s fun for both of us together. Would I play this game on my own? No, probably not. It’s not really the kind of thing I’d look to play in my limited time for “Daddy games”, and the incentive of collecting furniture to decorate Kirby’s Animal Crossing-style apartment, easily my daughter’s favorite part of the game, holds no appeal for me. But as a game for the two of us to play together? We’re still early on, so the difficulty may ramp up to the point where this changes, but so far, it’s fantastic.
What I realized is that, while it’s fun to play through some of these single player games with her, it’s not as much fun for me to play through a game while she watches, or vice versa, as it is to be playing at the same time. Of course that sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in “Man, I can’t wait until she gets to experience a Zelda game,” and forget the mission at hand, which is primarily her having a good time, and secondarily the same for me. That’s not to say that we’re never going to play through some of those single player games that I’ve collected to play with her, but they can wait a bit. I’d rather have a game that’s not quite as much of a classic but can let us play together, at the same time. There will be plenty of time for Super Metroid and Wind Waker when we’re ready.
Ultimately, this stuff is important because this is our time together. I know there are concerns about screen time for kids, but I grew up with this stuff, and I turned out OK in the end. And from growing up with games, I know the positive effects they can have on a growing kid. They teach problem solving and persistance, just for starters, which are two traits that will serve my daughter well later in life. Even absent that, though, I’m not exactly a toss the ball around in the backyard kind of guy, but this is something that we both enjoy that we can do together, and that’s important no matter what. So even if it has no other redeeming value on the surface, we’re making memories together, and that provides value in and of itself.
So we play.
At one point early on in the game, we come to a level that involves climbing up a beanstalk on top of some enemies that are floating on balloons. This is a bit tough for her, so she asks me to pick up her Kirby with my Prince Fluff, and carry her through it. So I do, and we climb up the beanstalk together, me holding her above my head as I jump from balloon to ledge to balloon, up in the clouds.
“Now remember, Daddy, don’t let me go!”
I won’t, kid. I won’t.