I was the first person to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons in my house. I didn’t realize the power that would be bestowed upon me as the island’s primary resident representative. Now that my spouse and kid are enjoying the game – and playing more than me – we’ve discovered New Horizons’ frustrating limits on local co-op, holding back an otherwise endlessly endearing family game.
The first and biggest limitation is that every local player using the same Switch must share an island. Each player can use their own Nintendo accounts and set up their own homes. But they end up on the same island that the original player, the resident rep, chose at the beginning.
To play local co-op, each player will need to start the game on their account, set up their starter tent, and unlock the Call Resident app. From there, a player can use Call Resident in the Nook Phone menu to add a local player to the session. The player who started first will be the Leader. Only the Leader can talk to islanders, craft objects, and access their inventory. Players can switch leaders by going back to the Call Resident screen, or by shaking their Joy Con.
Sharing an island automatically creates several problems that online players with rowdy friends may have discovered – other players chopping down trees, destroying rocks, and otherwise harvesting all of your resources and altering the island.
Any player can use a Nook Miles ticket to travel to other islands, possibly meeting new potential islanders for their own island. If you’re sharing your island with others, it’s easy to end up with new island residents that you’ve never even met before (thankfully my kid picked an awesome pink frog with great musical tastes). These issues can be solved with communication and some household ground rules, but resources can become annoyingly scarce with everyone competing.
To make matters worse, only the resident rep can turn in quests and supplies to Tom Nook (or Isabelle), and receive the rewards in DIY Recipes and tools, as well as advance the story’s main events. The other players will have to purchase the recipes and tools they need after they’re unlocked.
This is particularly annoying during an early game quest that involves furnishing three new houses with indoor and outdoor objects. Not only is the resident rep given the only DIY recipes to make the dozen or so needed objects, but the other players can’t even see which objects are needed for each house – they’re simply told to ask their resident rep, as if they’re not real players themselves.
Thus my spouse was left harvesting wood and stone and mailing them to me, so I could craft the tables, chairs, and clotheslines needed for the houses, a needlessly annoying workaround.
Yet when it comes to the museum, my kid quickly donated the 15 initial bugs, fossils, and fish and unlocked the full museum before I barely had a chance to chat with Blathers. The museum keeps track of which player donated which item, which is admittedly a neat feature, but the rules of who can do what are oddly inconsistent.
Simultaneous co-op is even more strictly regulated, to the point where we hardly ever bother with it. One player is designated as the Leader. The Leader is the only player who has full access to their own inventory. The camera is tied to the Leader, teleporting any other players if they stray too far.
Non-leaders can still access whatever tools they have on them by cycling through with a button press (another minor annoyance). They can still chop trees and fish, but everything they pick up will be transferred to a shared stash instead of their own inventory. Since you kind of need access to your inventory and crafting tables to do much of anything in Animal Crossing, playing simultaneous co-op is next to useless compared to just taking turns. Thankfully you can swap between Leaders without restarting the co-op session, though this too can quickly become tedious.
It’s a huge shame that we weren’t given full split-screen co-op for New Horizons, but the Switch’s handheld mode makes split-screen prohibitive. With a a never-ending stream of fun tasks, charming atmosphere, and engrossing customization, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has all the makings of the perfect family game. It’s a shame local co-op was treated as an afterthought.
It’s the calm before the storm as we head into 2020, with with a pair of next-gen consoles looming on the horizon from Sony and Microsoft. This year was more than an afterthought for games, however, and Nintendo continues to release smash hits for the Switch.
Gaming families had plenty of excellent choices this year, though you’ll definitely want to own a Switch if you don’t already have one – nearly half the games on our list are exclusive to Nintendo’s excellent handheld hybrid. Here is the (alphabetical) list of our favorite family games of 2019.
Doraemon: Story of Seasons
You may not have heard of classic 1970s anime and manga series Doraemon, but chances are the words Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley will excite you. Doraemon: Story of Seasons infuses the enjoyable farming gameplay of Harvest Moon (now called Story of Seasons) with the youthful characters of Doraemon, including the titular time-traveling cat and his helpful gadgets.
Platforms: PC (Steam), Switch
Dragon Quest Builders 2
Dragon Quest Builders mashed up two great tastes that taste great together – the colorful enemies of venerable RPG series Dragon Quest, with the building, crafting, and blocky world of Minecraft. The result was an instant hit. Dragon Quest Builders 2 adds online (and local network) co-op multiplayer, and is available on Nintendo Switch.
Platforms: PC (Steam), PlayStation 4, Switch
Kingdom Hearts 3
Kingdom Hearts fans had to wait an eternity for the return of Sora, Donald, and Goofy with this beloved mash-up series of Disney and Final Fantasy. While the gameplay in Kingdom Hearts 3 is still firmly rooted in its original early 2000s PS2 era, there’s an undeniable joy playing within the Disney and Pixar worlds like Frozen, Toy Story, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Luigi’s Mansion 3
Nintendo knocked it out of the park with this excellent follow-up to the Luigi’s Mansion series, turning the haunted mansion into an entire ghost-filled hotel. Luigi is armed with more ghost-busting abilities, such as cloning himself as Gooigi, which can also serve as a family-friendly local co-op mode. On top of a fun campaign, up to eight players can play competitively or cooperatively in various multiplayer modes.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order
It’s been ten years since we last enjoyed a Marvel Ultimate Alliance co-op brawler, and The Black Order more than satisfies our need to punch, blast, fry, and zap henchmen and villains. We love mixing and matching our team of different Marvel heroes from a roster of over 30, including Avengers, X-Men, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
As a full park sim Planet Zoo is geared more toward teens and adults, but thanks to the excellent animal AI, robust creation tools, and focus on animal conservation, it makes an excellent game for families to work together to learn about animals and their complex habitat needs. A lengthy campaign help introduces the park tools and management systems while offering a wonderful variety of biomes and locations, then you can try your hand at building your own zoo from the ground up in sandbox or franchise modes.
Platforms: PC (Steam)
Pokémon Sword and Shield
There’s little doubt that a Pokémon game will grace our list of best family games. Even with the somewhat mixed results of Pokémon Sword and Shield, there’s no denying that it provides hours and hours of catching hundreds of Pokémon and battling through the UK-inspired Galar region. The free-roaming Wild Area alone is worth the price of admission for Pokémon’s eighth generation.
Super Mario Maker 2
Super Mario Maker was a phenomenal game when it released on Wii U in 2015, finally giving us the power to create our own 2D Mario levels. The Switch sequel is basically more of the same, plus tons of new features like new enemies, components, day/night and biome themes, and the Super Mario 3D World tileset. All that along with a much improved single-player campaign and online and local multiplayer makes Super Mario Maker 2 a must-have for Mario fans.
Untitled Goose Game
The official tagline nails this quirky indie game’s description: It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose. Play as a goose in Untitled Goose Game with a checklist of hilariously mischievous tasks such as stealing from a store, knocking over vases, hiding in boxes, and causing light-hearted mayhem for these poor townsfolk.
Platforms: PC (Epic Games Store), PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a much improved spin-off of the 3D platformer series that combines 3D overworld travel with 2.5D level designs, starring the chameleon Yooka and his bat companion Laylee. The result is a satisfying spiritual successor to classic 2D platformers like Donkey Kong Country.
Platforms: PC (Steam), PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One
At this point there are more discontinued (or on hiatus) toys-to-life games than ongoing. In the span of a year we went from most major game publishers wanting a piece of the surging toys-to-life pie, to suddenly being left with a grim outlook for the future of the genre.
The concept of “toys-to-life,” that is, physical figures with built-in Near Field Communication (NFC), began with a little known toy series called U.B. Funkeys in 2007. U.B. Funkeys was a PC game with cutesy figures designed by Mattel.
I’d never even heard of it, and it looks more like a toy with a gimmicky toys-to-life mode rather than a full-blown video game. Being PC-only appeared to cause lots of technical headaches and vastly limited sales, and it was discontinued in 2010.
The House That Spyro Built
Meanwhile Activision took a chance with developer Toys for Bob (who ironically originally pitched their toys-to-life concept to Nintendo). They used a similar concept as U.B. Funkeys, using well-made physical action figures armed with NFC readers along with a “Portal of Power” that digitally transported the figures into a vibrant game world. The entire concept was still commercially uncertain, so Activision slapped a semi-recognizable brand and character on top of it. Skylanders: Spyo’s Adventure was born.
Skylanders’ immediate success was at least partially due to the exciting novelty of the toys-to-life technology. But its staying power is owed to the quality of the figures as well as the solid, kid-friendly, cooperative gameplay. Skylanders included funny characters, simple puzzles, fast-paced action, and a light-hearted Saturday Morning Cartoon story.
Every year begat a pricey new Skylanders starter pack along with several waves of figures and bonus levels. Each game introduced new types of figures or concepts (you couldn’t even jump in the first two games).
The third game, Skylanders: Swap Force, was particularly noteworthy by adding swappable figures with interchangeable top and bottom halves. In many ways Swap Force represents the peak of both physical innovation and brilliant game design. Trap Team added Pokémon-style monster catching, while the most recent game, Imaginators, let you create your own digital custom Skylanders with multiple unlockable body parts and weapons.
Activision was able to leverage the series into a full-on kid franchise, saturating the Skylanders brand from everything to paper plates to an animated series on Netflix. Skylanders became the World of Warcraft of the genre, the one game that dominated its space and dared anyone else to compete with it.
Disney answered the call in 2013 with Disney Infinity, an unabashed Skylanders-like game that also used NFC figures along with a portal and 3D platformer-like gameplay. Anticipation was huge; this was basically a Skylanders game but coupled with the immense backing and popularity of Disney characters and series.
Avalanche Software produced three games in three years, each modeled after a major Disney property: Disney movies, Marvel, and Star Wars. Figures ranged from superheroes to princesses to obscure Tron characters, though there was some criticism for conforming such a wide variety of characters into a uniform art style.
Unlike Skylanders, Disney Infinity’s gameplay pushed more toward a Minecraft model. Players could build their own levels and content and share them online. The community that sprang up was impressive and some of the content and level designs were amazing and creative. Unfortunately official gameplay was limited almost exclusively to the playsets. Disney made the odd decision that only characters from that franchise can play in their own playset.
Between the two game series I vastly preferred Skylanders. Skylanders’ gameplay was much more RPG-like and the combat more fun and interesting. The level designs also felt more like an actual game.
Disney Infinity’s figures all controlled too similarly and simplistically, with only major differences coming with figures like Tinkerbell who could fly, or Star Wars characters with Force powers. The user-generated content was a really neat idea, but Activision wasn’t making money off of it, they needed to sell playsets and figures. If Minecraft + Disney couldn’t end up successful, what chance does anyone have?
We may joke that Nintendo is always a step behind the times, but when they enter a new market it’s almost always hugely successful (see mobile development, and Wii sales). Nintendo introduced amiibo figures in 2014 to immediate success. Unlike all other toys-to-life games, there wasn’t an actual game to go with the figures. Instead Nintendo uses its figures to unlock goodies in other games, such as costumes or extra levels or power ups in games like Mario Kart, Smash Bros., and Super Mario Maker.
This simple concept proved so effective that a New Nintendo 3DS was built with an NFC reader to accommodate amiibo scanning. Both the Wii U and Switch came with built-in NFC readers.
While not having a centralized game is bizarre, it’s proven effective in lowering the cost of buy-in. There’s no pricey $70 starter pack required; all you need is the appropriate Nintendo console. Nintendo’s recognizable roster of characters have proven extremely popular for collectors, despite their limited gameplay use.
Yet even Nintendo’s toys-to-life beacon is beginning to dim. Nearly 25 million figures were sold in the 2015-16 fiscal year, taking full advantage of then-popular game Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U. Super Smash Bros. used amiibo figures as RPG-like fighters you could level up.
But the first three quarters of the next fiscal year (ending March 2017) saw only 6.5 million amiibo units sold. No game since Super Smash Bros. has been able to effectively use amiibo figures beyond simply unlocking a costume or perk.
Many complaints have surrounded amiibo as little more than physical DLC you can buy for Nintendo games. There’s also the sadly typical Nintendo frustrations regarding limited supply. Amiibo figures are still popular (millions of units sold is nothing to scoff at), but without better game tie-ins like Smash Bros., the future doesn’t look good.
Everything Isn’t Awesome
LEGO Dimensions’ cancellation is equally upsetting, though probably the least surprising. Warner Bros. and Traveler’s Tales (TT Games) have been successful making fun, cooperative, family-friendly LEGO video games for over a decade. Creating a toys-to-life version, with actual LEGO toys, feels like a natural evolution.
LEGO Dimensions was released in 2015. It launched with a starter pack that took advantage of the popular LEGO Movie along with Warner Bros’ access to various movie franchises, everything from Lord of the Rings to The Goonies. They planned on a three-year cycle of expansion pack content. That’s a long time for an increasingly aging game that still supported last-gen hardware.
They would make it to the end of year two before the announcement hit this week. Figures and sets weren’t selling as well as they’d hoped, and any parent is all too familiar with how expensive LEGO sets run.
They banked heavily on blockbuster movie tie-ins, which didn’t quite pan out with big sets like Ghostbusters. I also question the target audience for LEGO Dimensions. Their tie-in franchises ran the gamut from The Simpsons to 80s stuff (The A-Team, really?) to modern kiddie cartoons. I can see kids being interested in Batman and Harry Potter, but Knight Rider and Gremlins?
LEGO Dimensions’ wide-net approach has proven unsustainable, and TT Games will return to making regular LEGO games, such as the upcoming LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2.
The future of the genre looks bleak. The only new AAA toys-to-life game on the horizon is Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which was announced during Ubisoft’s E3 press conference. It will feature buildable spaceships that will spring to digital life by attaching directly to the controller. It has a tentative Fall 2018 release date, but Ubisoft is very aware of the current market of toys-to-life games, and there’s a chance this game won’t even see the light of day.
Lightseekers uses bluetooth technology instead of requiring a portal. It has a very Skylanders aesthetic but with fully articulated figures and AR cards that can be scanned in game or played physically. Both cards and figures are actually optional, and the mobile game is completely free to play. Only the two initial launch figures are available, however, and there’s no telling whether Lightseekers can ever reach the sales numbers of the once titans of the genre.
Amiibo figures are still being produced and selling millions, and Skylanders technically hasn’t been canceled yet. It’s entirely possible Skylanders will pull an Assassin’s Creed and shift way from an annual release schedule. Meanwhile season two of Skylanders Academy just hit Netflix, and a third season is in development for next year.
Toys-to-life games are an intriguing blend of toy and game and can be a lot of fun, particularly for families. I’ve enjoyed playing both Skylanders and Disney Infinity with my young daughter (she’s only recently discovering LEGOs). I particularly enjoy the progression of leveling up Skylanders figures over years of games.
The toys-to-life genre offers the rare kind of game that both of us can enjoy equally and excel at, despite our vastly different gameplay levels and experiences.
I’m very saddened and worried to see all these death notices pile up. It reminds me of another genre that was mined, exploited, and died all too quickly just a few years ago – rhythm games with physical instruments. Like that genre, toys-to-life requires pricey initial buy-ins and upkeep, and physical goods are not exactly cheap for companies to produce. I was hoping game publishers learned their lesson about over saturating a lucrative, but expensive market. Time will whether toys-to-life games will meet a similar wistful end, or find the right balance to remain a welcoming avenue for family-friendly gaming.
Anyone who knows me knows that the original BioShock is my favorite game of all time. I doubt I need to explain its appeal, but let’s just say it’s the perfect combination of story and gameplay that I’ve ever seen and it has one of the best, if not the best, stories in a game. If you haven’t played it you should. Like, right now.
Me with my probably toxic Adam extractor.
One of the things that was always striking to me about the game was the elements of the Little Sisters and their Big Daddy protectors. I’ve long been a lover of creepy-cute anything. so the Little Sisters were right up my alley. I even dressed up as one for Halloween one year, complete with Adam extractor that my husband and I hand-made. We broke up a bunch of those neon glow bracelets and put them is a small jar. In hindsight, that was probably not a completely non-toxic thing to do, but, hey. It looked cool.
So needless to say, when I heard about the BioShock Collection, which includes remastered versions of all of the games and their single-player DLC, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to go back to that fascinating place called Rapture. As I started up the game and went through the opening sequence, I was literally bouncing with excitement. You know how some older things don’t quite hold up when you see them later? BioShock wasn’t like that. I had the same experience of excitement and then awe as Andrew Ryan’s speech ended to reveal the first images of Rapture.
I took my time and slowly explored through the first area of the game leading up to the introduction of the Little Sisters. I remembered this part because it was one of the coolest moments in a game full of cool moments. The first time I played the game years ago, I watched in fascination as the little girl repeatedly stabbed a corpse to extract the Adam. My reaction this time around was different and not really what I was expecting.
Just like with everything else in the world, I was now looking at this display through a mom lens. And not only a mom, but a mom of a little girl who is now about the same age as the Little Sisters look to be in the game. I wanted to run to her and pick her up and tell her how what she was doing was wrong. I was physically in distress. I think only mothers can know what this means, but when your child cries, you are physically uncomfortable. It feels like your arms and chest are going to jump right out of your body. But the distress only got worse.
WARNING – The video below shows some graphic gameplay from BioShock. It illustrates the action of saving a Little Sister.
I couldn’t run to the girl like I wanted and needed to because the game makes you watch a sequence where someone hits the girl and then she screams to summon her Big Daddy. It was hard to sit there and watch helplessly as the scene played out. For the first time, I felt a huge amount of empathy for the faceless hulking beast that is a Big Daddy. If anyone were to hit my daughter I too would want to bang them up against a wall and stab them through the stomach with a huge arm drill.
Later, when the game introduces you to the gameplay element of rescuing or harvesting the Little Sisters, there was no question what would happen. Even before I was a mom, I couldn’t bring myself to harvest them, even when I was attempting a second playthrough to get the alternate ending. In this part as well, the game kept me from responding the way I would have liked. As the little girl cowered in the corner, I didn’t want to go up to her and grab her. I wanted to bend my knee, hold out my hand and tell her it was going to be ok. But, regardless of your intentions, you roughly pick up the girl. Seeing her push against my hand and say, “No! No! No no!” was another moment that hit hard. Anyone with a preschooler hears that a lot. Hearing it in a little girl’s voice made it all the worse.
But then the stress finally stops. You can rub her face and head and she turns into a normal little girl who thanks you for saving her. That part of the gameplay always touched me, but this time around, everything was turned up a notch. I haven’t yet made it to the Little Sister Orphanage, but now I know I probably need to expect some new reactions there as well. The seeds of anger toward Dr. Tenenbaum for doing this to little girls have already been planted. I know I have to act as an ally to her later in the game, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play out in my brain.
But does all of this change my love of this game? Not at all. If anything I love it more. It’s managed to stir up such visceral emotions, and no game or movie or any other type of media has ever come close to doing that for me in the same way. Even after all of these years, BioShock continues to surprise me and I think that’s a testament to just how good of a game it is.
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