Kids grow up so fast these days. One minute they're happy collecting Pokemon; the next, they're begging you to buy them "Grand Theft Auto." But there is a middle ground of games that are easy enough for kids to pick up yet sophisticated enough to appeal to adults.
The news isn't so good for parents who are concerned about creeping commercialism. Almost every children's game we've seen this year has been connected to a larger enterprise such as a movie, a TV show or a toy line. Even an original intellectual property like Microsoft's "Viva Pinata" has morphed into a Saturday morning cartoon.Still, a lot of these licensed games are pretty good. And even some of us grown-ups would prefer to play as Snoopy rather than Scarface.
"Viva Pinata" (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360, $49.99): The most popular Xbox 360 games are bloodbaths like "Gears of War" and "Dead Rising," so it's refreshing to see Microsoft trying to branch out into more family-friendly fare. "Viva Pinata," from "Banjo-Kazooie" developer Rare, oozes charm, thanks mainly to its vibrant cast of pinatas come to life. You begin the game with a small garden, and your goal is to make it appealing enough to attract pinatas, candy-filled critters with names like Horstachio, Elephanilla and Moozipan. If they're in the mood, pairs of pinatas will romance each other and start having babies (discreetly, of course). This isn't the garden of Eden, however: Some pinatas are natural enemies, and you can't always prevent your Buzzlegums from getting into fights with your Raisants. And upkeep costs money, so you may be forced to sell that cuddly Fizzlybear. You end up having to make some odd moral choices: Do you sell one pinata so you can afford to get a different pinata repaired? Is it OK to encourage two Whirlms to mate when you're fully intending to feed their offspring to the Sparrowmints? Such intriguing ethical dilemmas are rare in any game, making "Viva Pinata" a satisfying challenge for kids and adults alike. Three and a half stars.
"Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" (Namco Bandai, for the PlayStation 2, $29.99): Most flight combat simulators are seriously complicated, even for basic chores like taking off and landing. "Snoopy" simplifies all that, and it should be welcomed as well by adults who are too uncoordinated to handle "Ace Combat." Taking on Snoopy's World War I flying ace persona, you pilot his Sopwith Camel across Europe in search of the nefarious Red Baron. There's a good variety of missions you may have to escort a blimp, destroy enemy machines or collect balloons but the action almost always centers on shooting down enemy aircraft. Your own plane maneuvers like a dream, and if you take too many hits you can restore your armor by flying over a root beer icon. Most of the Peanuts characters make cameos: Lucy is a general, Sally is a spy and Marcie is a flight instructor. And the music and animation perfectly capture the vibe of the classic "Peanuts" cartoons. The single-player campaign isn't long enough, but kids can enjoy replaying missions to find all the hidden goodies. Two and a half stars.
"Nicktoons: Battle for Volcano Island" (THQ, for the PlayStation 2, GameCube $39.99): THQ has become the go-to publisher for licensed-character games, some terrific ("SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom"), some terrible ("Scooby-Doo! Unmasked"), most in the mediocre middle. "Volcano Island," alas, falls on the terrible end of that scale. It features three of Nickelodeon's most popular characters SpongeBob, Danny Phantom and Timmy Turner (from "The Fairly OddParents") along with three of their sidekicks. They're fighting to save the island from an "ancient evil" named Mawgu whose apparent m.o. is turning peaceable sea critters into killers. Most of the action involves running left or right, hopping obstacles and bopping enemies, and it gets repetitive quickly. And while the voice work for the characters is solid, the graphics are bland in comparison with the original toons. The levels are boring, offering few rewards for exploration, and most kids will be able to finish the game in just a few hours. One star.