Despite the fact that Nintendo’s entry into this round of the console wars has proven itself a rousing success with regard to sales numbers, the Wii has been saddled with an unfortunate and lingering nickname: the kiddie console. While the comparably low price-point and eschewing of high-def graphics was intended to appeal to a broader, more casual adult gaming demographic, these elements, coupled with a safety first approach to online multiplayer gaming and an abundance of E-rated titles, have given the system a distinctly younger lean than its competition from Microsoft and Sony.
While games like House of the Dead: Overkill, No More Heroes and MadWorld have appeared in an attempt to cater to the more hardcore of Wii owners, such M-rated titles always seem to flounder even despite generally favorable review scores. But on a system where non-threatening first party characters like Mario and Pikachu dominate the NPDs, Nintendo seems content despite any negativity attached to their squeaky clean image. In fact, a recent announcement from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment seems to point to the fact that the Big N is taking this to the next logical level.
This fall, a pair of titles are scheduled to hit both the Wii and Nintendo’s wildly popular handheld the DS from none other than storied purveyor of quality early childhood edutainment Sesame Workshop. Banner characters Elmo and Cookie Monster are all set to make their way once again into your living room, but this time in the form of fully interactive video games aimed squarely at the preschool set.
In Sesame Street: Cookie’s Counting Carnival, America’s favorite binge eater will guide children through a fun-filled carnival resplendent with exercises introducing early mathematics skills like number identification, pattern recognition and counting. Meanwhile, the notoriously ticklish Elmo takes center stage in Sesame Street: Elmo’s A-to-Zoo Adventure, where he, Zoe and a cadre of lovable animal friends explore mini-games aimed at fostering literacy skills like letter identification and phonics.
Since these titles are being made available on a system not specifically geared towards pre-k gamers, developer Black Lantern Studios has taken an interesting step to ensure that the controls are properly scaled to smaller, less coordinated hands. Both the Wii and DS iterations will come bundled with “gameplay helpers.” For the console versions, this comes in the form of Muppet character covers that slip over Wii-motes and minimize unnecessary buttons. For the DS, this includes a “jumbo click stylus” that simplifies interaction with the touch screen and eliminates the need for the system’s face buttons outright.
Since the games are designed for play by preschoolers, they also feature “Parent’s Pages” where we oldsters can review our kids’ progress and customize difficulty levels. The Wii titles also boast the ability for parents to drop in with a second Wii remote to help out as little ones waggle their way through the various learning activities.
My own family’s experience with dedicated children’s gaming systems have been underwhelming at best. From cartridge slots that no kid could possibly manipulate and clunky, line-of-sight, infrared wireless controllers to the almost requisite blocky, static graphics, each entry has paled in comparison to the functionality of systems we already own and enjoy. Perhaps Nintendo’s openness in bringing early childhood titles into the Wii and DS libraries represents a paradigm shift that will at last afford toddler-friendly gameplay on legitimate consoles and handhelds.
Though some will lament this as yet another example of Nintendo shifting further away from the traditional gaming audience, I prefer to see it as a true experiment in total family gaming. If a developer like Black Lantern can create quality early childhood games at a reasonable price while retaining the inherent charm of a beloved license like Sesame Street, then everything’s A-OK.