Must-read holiday video game guide

Black Friday is just around the corner, and — if you’re a parent to a kid who’s into video games — that means it’s time to study up.

November and December bring about most of the biggest and most highly anticipated video game releases of the year. But which games are right for your kid and his or her maturity level?

Yes, video games are rated by the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) with age-appropriate ratings ranging from EC (Early Childhood) to A (Adults Only). T for Teen is for ages 13 and up. M for Mature is for ages 17 and up.

But, before buying your kid a game, don’t just look at the rating. The intensity of violence, language and even sexual themes in these categories (especially T and M) can vary greatly. That’s why it’s a good idea to also read the ESRB’s content descriptors (which address the reasons a game gets a certain rating) as well as interactive elements (parts of games that allow online sharing of information, including location and even real money).

And beware that your kids might try to stretch in the truth about the degrees of violence and inappropriate content in the popular games they’d like to try. Come on, Mom/Dad, EVERYONE IS PLAYING IT!

I’m speaking not as a parent, but as an avid video game enthusiast and, more importantly, as a former video game sales clerk.

When I was fresh out of high school — and working on my first college degree — I worked for a large video game store at the Mall of America. One of the most frustrating things about the job was the sheer audacity children displayed in lying to their parents to get the games they wanted (and, in my opinion, really shouldn’t have been playing).

When Grand Theft Auto: Vice City came out, kids told their parents (all the time) that it was just “a racing game.” Child after child fooled their parents into buying the controversial, wildly popular game absolutely packed with  adult content. Yes, in Vice City, characters could race. But they also could kill police officers, sell drugs and hire prostitutes (and later end their lives to get money back).

Since the game was rated M, the children couldn’t buy it themselves, but there was nothing to stop their parents from buying it under false pretenses.

Eventually, I began to take matters into my own hands. I started carding the parents when I’d hear the kids spinning their yarns. And I told them in detail why I needed to see their identification. Parents, after being told exactly what the games they were about to buy contained, were dismayed — and their children often left the with no games at all.

You don’t have to do that, however. After doing a little research, you’ll likely know what’s best for your kid and his or her maturity level. (And remember, video games are amazing, fun and — yes! — even educational. It’s all a matter of finding what’s right for you and/or your child.)

Here’s my guide to some of the hottest new games coming out in time for the holidays this year.


Rated E

Games in this category are as tame as G-rated movie.
Nothing scary here.

Pokémon: Alpha Sapphire / Pokémon: Omega Ruby             

Release date: Just Released

Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Having saturated the airwaves, taken over children’s minds and drained parent’s wallets for two decades, Pokémon has become a household name. You may have even played it yourself. With this remastered and improved pair of re-released titles, you can capture, evolve and battle as many of the game’s unique beasties as possible with one goal in mind: “Gotta catch 'em all! The battles are harmless and there’s nothing unpleasant to be found here.


Ultimate NES Remix

Release date: Dec. 5

Platforms: Nintendo 3DS and Wii U

This game is all about revisiting the old-school games of the original Nintendo system, but with a new twist: Face bizarre challenges in classic games. You can play a level of Super Mario Brothers entirely in shadowy black and white, or take Link from The Legend of Zelda through a level of Donkey Kong. There are no advanced graphics here, just a new way of playing old games, and that’s definitely appealing for parents who may want to play with their children. Nostalgia!


Rated E+

Titles with this rating are a little more intense than E, so look at the specific warnings just to be safe.


Super Smash Brothers

Release date: Just Released

Platform: Wii U

The newest incarnation in the Smash Brothers series features a lot of the same type of content as its predecessors. Characters like Kirby, Bowser, Samus and Pikachu from many of Nintendo’s most famous franchises all duke it out in cartoon-style combat, knocking each other off the screen until only one remains as the winner. No need to worry; no blood or gore here. This is the game for families to play together. A cult classic.


LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham

Release date: Just Released

Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, PC

With more than 150 characters from the DC Comics universe to unlock, this game continues the LEGO gaming legacy by providing the kid-friendly action, humor, piece collecting and clean fun that’s made the franchise so successful. Expect cartoon action and mischief from the baddies, but nothing to raise any red flags.


Minecraft: Xbox One Edition / Minecraft: Playstation 4 Edition / Minecraft Playstation Vita Edition

Release date: Just Released

Platforms: Xbox One, Playstation 4, PS Vita

Minecraft allows players to literally form the very world around them. Kids and adults alike build their own castles, create potions and golems (to fend off intruders) and avoid being killed by monsters while tunneling underground to collect building resources. This game is tame where dying is concerned; a simple “you died” screen (and then having to start over) is as grisly as it gets. This game is about building — rather than destroying — and showing off your creations by inviting others to view your world, of course.



Release date: Already Out

Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS

If you’ve got younger kids and any modern gaming console in your home it’s likely you already know everything you need to know about Skylanders. This game (based around buying figurines that can be scanned in to become part of the game) features cutesy cartoon critters battling to stop bad guys from taking over the realm of Skylands. Unless you’re opposed to any type of fighting conflict in gaming, there’s nothing to be offended at here. But be sure you get the exact name of the figurine(s) your child’s looking for. There are many. And costs can add up quickly.


Rated T

These games are meant for teens. Read the specific warnings to find out if the game is suitable for YOUR child.


The Legend of Korra

Release date: Already Out

Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One

This is a beat-‘em-up game based on the Nickelodeon TV series of the same name. It gets its rating for containing “cartoon violence;” so, while there won’t be any blood and guts, there will be plenty of both mystical and martial fighting. However, the game’s overall tone is very similar to the cartoon it’s based upon, so if you let your kids watch the show, the game is much the same. One of the important things to know about this game is that it’s available by download only, which means there’ll be no disk to buy.


The Crew: Muscle Edition

Release date: Dec. 2

Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4

The shiniest driving game your teens have yet seen, this game is all about street racing, ultra-realistic-looking, real-world cars. Kids can tune their ride to be the best performer possible and make others eat their dust in online play. But, a word to the wise: Take a look at the game’s rating warnings — language, mild blood, mild suggestive themes and violence. When the racers find themselves being chased by the police down a busy freeway, things get a little dicey for younger players. Realistic car crashes and a bit of strong language mean this one isn’t for the kiddies.


Guilty Gear Xrd: SIGN

Release date: Dec. 16

Platforms: Playstation 3, Playstation 4

Celebrating its 16th year as one of the most quirky, odd and innovative fighting games on the market, this game plays a lot like an arcade fighting game, because that’s what its roots are. Low on the bloody violence scale, but perhaps higher on the language scale — and the just plain freaky scale (like a fighter that battles with surgical scalpels) — this game earns its T rating by having a little of everything, while not going overboard on anything to make parents of older gamers too concerned.


World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

Release date: Just Released

Platforms: PC, Mac OS X

The latest title in the World of Warcraft franchise offers up a new threat to defeat, new lands to explore, new big bosses to gather groups to conquer and new graphics upgrades. This questing, hack-and-slash, MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) is deserving of its T rating. There’s blood, but it’s not gore; there’s alcohol consumption, but not glorification; and there’s suggestive sexual hints, but, if you blink, you’ll miss them. So, don’t let your 8-year-old play, but teenagers should be fine.


Rated M

Proceed with caution! Be sure just what you’re handing your kids.


Halo: Master Chief Collection

Release date: Just Released

Platform: Xbox One

Ah, Halo. This collection includes Halo 1-4 remastered and ready for the leap from Xbox 360 to Xbox One. It also contains an added sneak peek of Halo 5 and the digital series Halo: Nightfall. Halo is, for the uninformed, a first-person shooter game set in the future featuring gun combat against various alien races collectively called The Covenant. The game is given its M rating due in part to its blood (though it’s not terribly graphic) and its strong language. There’s swearing in every one of these games. My personal opinion? Halo is probably the tamest of the M-rated titles reviewed here.

Far Cry 4

Release date: Just Released

Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One

This game is another first-person shooter where the player gets caught up in a civil war in the Himalayas against a dictator who controls and suppresses his people with fear and extreme violence. The game play features both guerilla-style combat and shoot-‘em-up combat, earning its M rating. Blood and intense violence against both people and animals just tops the list. The game also contains drug use, swearing and some fairly strong sexual themes.


Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Release date: Just Released

Platforms: Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC

This game is all about military-style operation and combat. After the player’s character watches his buddy die in action and gets his arm blown off for his troubles, he’s patched up (with a cybernetic substitute arm no less) and sent to combat the terrorist organization responsible. While the gore is not over the top in this series, there’s plenty of the harsh realities of war going on all around the player. Add to that a slew of slurs and swearing, and parents should be sure they know exactly what they’re comfortable with before buying this for their teens.


Dragon Age: Inquisition

Release date: Just Released

Platform: Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC

The third of this series, Inquisition, follows the format of its predecessors. It’s an adventuring, questing, hack-and-slash, swords and sorcery, character-development kind of thing; and it’s really captivating. But be warned, despite the relatively harmless sounding name and tame cover art, this isn’t a game for kids. There’s a fair amount of blood spilt during combat, and the characters become quite splattered with it from time to time. There’s also sex and partial nudity. Though it’s tastefully done — the sex cuts away before anything too hot and heavy happens — it’s something parents should know of ahead of time before making a decision about buying this game.


Amy Sutton is a St. Paul-based freelance writer who also fights the 'girls-can't-game' stereotype.