What determines whether or not a title is a "kids' game" or not? The simplicity of gameplay? Kid-friendly branding, like licenced TV stars or cartoons? Do you associate kids' games with low quality?
What got me thinking about this was a stroll through Disney Interactive's E3 booth, where I peeped Ultimate Band for Wii and DS. In the Wii edition, players can pick one of four band roles - frontman, guitar, drums and bass - and simulate the instrument of choice through what's essentially air guitar using the Wii remote and Nunchuk. The frontman role focuses more on aerobic performance - think Namco's new We Cheer or the new Rabbids title, to which I saw a lot of people my age or older joyfully disco-dancing on the show floor.
It looked challenging enough that I'd want to have it if it were more my sort of music - no thanks on the Jonas Brothers, and I've had my fill of Weezer's Beverly Hills. Track list is decent for the tween set, though, and in a cool twist, since players can pick either a male or female vocalist, there are both male and female-voiced versions of the songs, swapping the song's romantic context appropriately (like "Fell in Love With A Boy" instead of "Fell in Love With A Girl").
The DS version's rhythm-action gameplay looked innovative and promising enough that I really wished that they'd just aimed it at our audience stylistically and let us have at those mechanics. We'd never have known it was meant to be a kids' title.
In the DS Ultimate Band, you navigate the different venues via a touch-screen map. Once you choose ones, here's how playing goes down — you've got the six strings of your guitar on the touch screen, and little D-pad icons rain down from the top screen into the touch screen indicating what direction you should be holding when you tap the string it hovers over. It looks like it works surprisingly well, and gets quite complex on harder modes.
And as long as you're hitting the notes, there's no penalty for strumming extra notes — between chords, if you're feeling noodly, you can riff your own little solos and extra twangs just for your own entertainment.
Rhythm-action can be a bit hit or miss on the DS — since the astounding (and yet simple) success that was Ouendan and EBA, I've seen many other approaches attempted and none that I really think are a worthwhile alternative to the good old timed beat tapping. But beat-strumming along with the buttons looked really appealing. It made me wish that they'd picked a trendy art style, added a silly narrative, and gotten either some unintentionally hilarious or some more grown-up tracks, and pointed it squarely at rhythm-addicted core gamers.
Disney caters to the 8-14 year old set. But their DS rhythm game appealed to me at least as far as core mechanics, while their kids' title for Wii looks like the exact sort of gameplay we're seeing from the publishers who normally serve our audience. Makes you wonder — what is a "kids' game", really?