New Super Mario Bros. Wii U
Hey, I don't need to teach my kids anything about jumping on stuff. But aside from instilling a respect for the classics, I've got a few ulterior motives for introducing my boys to the bright and cheery wonders of Mario.
The general goals of a 2D Mario game pretty much assert themselves -- go to the right, done - and drop-in/drop-out play ranks as an absolute must, given how "MINE!" is a child's primary response to stimuli. But most importantly, a Mario side-scroller gets them sitting on the couch and competing, cooperating, talking to each other, playing and succeeding together. Much like they do now, only with less real-world kicking and whining. Me and Mommy can even join in, if that's not too uncool.
The deft combination of direct goals, hidden secrets, and messy action pretty much mirrors the alpha and the omega of a young child's life philosophy.
And while I listed a more recent iteration, it really doesn't matter which Super Mario Bros. game you queue up. The gameplay might be opposite of revolutionary at this point, but they all fulfill the same basic function with the same grace and charm. The deft combination of direct goals, hidden secrets, and messy action pretty much mirrors the alpha and the omega of a young child's life philosophy. Maybe that's what makes Mario such an important rite of passage...and an essential co-op experience. Particularly once you subtract all the options featuring chainsaw dismemberments.
The real argument will be over who gets to be Mario. Answer: Me.
Games make you solve problems. Games like Grand Theft Auto make you solve problems with flamethrowers and vehicular manslaughter. Games like Portal, on the other hand, make you think. Then they make you think differently.
Where many titles stick you in a room and make you react to things, Portal makes you figure that room out. Your portal gun creates wormhole doors in nearly any solid surface - step through Point A, instantly step out of Point B. Only, reaching the exit is never so straight-forward, and the game offers no hints. You must employ a variety of physics-based tricks to get where you want to go. It rarely requires lightning reflexes or perfect aim, but brains? Oh, yes. Bring those.
Broken down to its essentials, Portal is a puzzle game, albeit one where you fling yourself hundreds of feet through the air to clear a wall. And like all good puzzles, Portal makes you stretch your brain, apply what you've learned, and connect new ideas together.
The level of menace increases sharply as you progress - it'll definitely encourage kids to trust their suspicions when a stranger offers candy -- so I wouldn't roll this one out on everybody's fifth birthday. But even when Portal's tests take on lethal consequences, your mind remains your best weapon. As it should be.
Sure, all that happy-rainbows-and-hippies crap sounds nice, but I've still got to prep for the day when my boys want to killstreak their way to a deployable sentry gun. So when they're older, they get Bastion.
Bastion is a throwback to (and a significant evolution of) the isometric shooters of old, but with a 21st century awareness of its own actions. You play as The Kid, one of a handful of survivors from a cataclysm that left his world a surreal patchwork of floating, broken islands. His job, as beautifully narrated by another survivor, involves collecting resources needed to power the Bastion, the last hope for their shattered civilization.
Yes, you start off shooting interesting creatures and segue into shooting hostile people. But unlike the faceless hordes of terrorist alien zombies other games throw into your crosshairs, the opposition in Bastion has a legitimate case for stopping The Kid, sympathetic grievances, and understandable fears regarding his mission. The player's choices determine whether or not they're ultimately right. Because past all the gunplay, Bastion is about consequences, responsibility, and the power of forgiveness.
That tips the violence from trigger-happy rampage to reluctant self-defense, an unfortunate-but-necessary concept kids need to internalize. As added bonus, Bastion's RPG-style economy might just instill a little financial responsibility before they start blowing their allowance on video games.
Rus McLaughlin has written for Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Square Enix, GamePro, GamesBeat, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and IGN. He currently works on the PlayStation 4 team for Sony. Follow Rus on Twitter.