Children of all ages light up when they get to unwrap a brand new video game — I can't forget how exciting it was to find Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 64 under the tree oh so many years ago. If you want to help make those same cherished memories for the little person in your life, check out some of our recommendations for games targeted at children this holiday season. (All Metacritic scores are out of 100)
[ Related: Five hot video games for teen and adult gamers ]
New Super Mario Bros. U
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Metacritic Score: 83
Rating: E (Everyone)
You didn't think I'd start with anything other than Mario after my own experience, did you? What better way to put the new Nintendo Wii U console through its paces than with a new Mario Bros. adventure. Those familiar with Mario platformers (and other installments in the New Super Mario Bros. series) will know what to expect from this game: you're jumping on Goombas, putting on power-up suits and rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser. In this game, Bowser has taken over Peach's castle and banished Mario from the Mushroom Kingdom, and you must fight your way back to save her. There's a couple of small changes, and one really big one: in addition to a new power-up suit (acorns transform Mario into Flying Squirrel Mario) and Baby Yoshis coming along for the ride, one player can now control the Wii U GamePad, helping the other players (between 1 and 4 can play using Wiimotes) successfully make their way through the levels. This isn't just for kids, either: Mario is something just about anyone can get excited about.
Just Dance: Disney Party
Platforms: Xbox 360 (with Kinect), Nintendo Wii
Metacritic Score: N/A
Rating: E (Everyone)
This is definitely a game for the younger crowd, but it's one they'll likely be shaking their groove things to for hours. The third Just Dance game focused on kid-friendly music showcases 25 Disney songs, ranging from Disney Channel shows like Wizards of Waverly Place and Camp Rock to Disney movies, including Tangled, Enchanted, The Little Mermaid, Lilo & Stitch and The Muppets. As with the Just Dance Kids games, the stylized avatars used in the rest of the Just Dance series are replaced with real children performing the dance moves along with the player. The basics are still the same: hold the Wiimote in your right hand or stand in front of the Kinect camera and perform the dance moves as they appear on screen. You get points depending on how closely you match those moves. And since the game is aimed at kids, the moves aren't too complicated. The Kinect version lets the player star in his or her own Disney music video, and the Wii version offers special multiplayer modes. A great choice for any young Disney fan!
LEGO: The Lord of the Rings
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, PC, PS Vita, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS
Metacritic Score: 83 (PS3), 80 (Xbox 360)
Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10 and up)
Anyone who is already a fan of the LEGO games probably has this on their wishlist, but if you or your little one are considering trying the LEGO series for the first time, this is a definite must-have. Arguably the best installment of the LEGO games, the player (either solo or with help from a friend in local co-op) follows Frodo, Gandalf and the rest of the Fellowship on a journey with the One Ring, with plenty of quirky details added-in like only the LEGO games can. This is a perfect game for a younger player to partner on with an older sibling or parent; your character doesn't die (at most, you lose some coins), so you can bounce back in right where you left off without getting discouraged, but there's also lots to challenge older players too — anyone who aims to complete the game by collecting all the gold bricks will have many, many hours of gameplay ahead of them. Whether you're a fan of the books or the movies, or completely new to The Lord of the Rings, the LEGO take on this Tolkien classic offers something for everyone, and shouldn't be missed.
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS
Metacritic Score: 80 (Xbox 360, Wii), 79 (PS3), 61 (3DS)
Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10 and up)
I can't help but feel that we're all reliving the Pokémon craze with the "gotta catch 'em all" mentality of Skylanders, but the widespread success of the series so far proves that kids still love monsters they can collect and fight with in battle. Skylanders Giants is the sequel to last year's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, and brings to the series 20 new monsters to explore the Skylands with, including eight 'giant' monsters. For those who aren't familiar with the series, players purchase monster figurines, which when placed on the Portal of Power, appear in the game world as playable characters. The Skylanders figures track stats individually, so if you want to bring your figure to a friend's house to play on his game, you can do just that — regardless of the console they're using (between PS3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii). The new Giants are bigger characters in game, bigger figurines, and light up when placed on the Portal of Power. You'll need to get a Skylanders Giants: Starter Pack to start playing, and it comes with a Portal of Power, a Giant (Tree-Rex) and two regular sized figures (Jet-Vac and Cynder).
Angry Birds Star Wars
Platform: iOS, Android, PC
Metacritic Score: 88 (iOS)
With so many games now available for iOS and Android devices, it would be a real shame to overlook mobile devices as gaming platforms. If the little person in your life gets to play with your smartphone from time to time, or perhaps given them an iPod Touch of their own, Angry Birds Star Wars is a good addition to his or her gaming library. Fight the evil Imperial Pigtroopers with favourite Star Wars characters in Angry Birds form: Luke Skywalker as Red Bird, Obi-Wan Kenobi as Black Bird, Han Solo as Yellow Bird and many more. Many players have said that it's a great blend of the Angry Birds and Star Wars franchises, and the new mechanics provide added challenges for those who have already mastered previous versions of Angry Birds. As with other Angry Birds games, you've got your choice between the regular version for free, and the high-definition version for $0.99 on iPhone, or $2.99 on iPad. You can turn your purchase into a gift they'll really love by also purchasing some of the extra levels (the base game starts you with 80), and wrapping up one of the new Angry Birds Star Wars plush toys so they'll have something to unwrap when they find out what you got for them.