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Watching my kid take his first steps in gaming

by: Rob -
More On: Super Mario Run Vampire Survivors Mario Party Superstars

I remember my gaming origin story - it was Christmas Day and my brother and I unwrapped an Atari 2600. We couldn't even believe my parents could afford such a thing and devoted hours on PacMan, Missile Command, and Combat (we tried to play Pitfall but it was too hard as we were too young). This kicked off my obsession with gaming that is still going strong these 35 or so years later. Now I'm a proud father and this last week got to watch my son take his first steps into gaming as well. 

He's been watching YouTube clips (we call them "tiny videos") of Mario Party Superstars for a while. So he's familiar with most of Nintendo's lineup of characters despite never having played a game. He even recreates the mini-games in the bathtub mapping various toys of matching colors (mostly Duplo bricks and a collection of baby shark cake toppers) as stand ins for Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Bowser, etc.

So the first game I ever let him play?... Vampire Survivors of course! While at first this might not make much sense and you may be entirely correct to question my choice to introduce a game with horror themed villains to someone so young (and no, I'm not even going to list my son's age here as even mentioning I have a kid is already more detail that I'm comfortable with sharing online...), Vampire Survivors is this unique game, $5 on Steam, that has taken the GN staffroom by storm. Basically you are a survivor and Dracula and a horde of undead are coming to take you down. You collect gems to acquire and level up your weapons and hope you become powerful enough to survive wave after wave. If you make it to 30 minutes you have "beaten" the level and death himself comes to finish you off. (You can actually beat Death once, if you have the right weapons and power-ups but then another Death that can't be damaged comes to end your run for good.)

(continue reading at the "Read More" link below the video... Also, you can play the Vampire Surviros "demo" for free over on itch.io: https://poncle.itch.io/vampire-survivors)


The reason this game is so good to introduce my kid to gaming is - all he has to do is move around the screen. There are no buttons. All the weapons fire automatically, and while some require a bit of skill to successfully line up and kill enemies on screen, some are really simple for newcomers, namely the garlic (creates an aura around your character than can one hit kill the early smaller foes) and the magic wand (auto targets the closest enemies). These two offer an abundance of protection to the new player. Now, beginning players don't typically have this option, these are unlocked after first starting with the humble whip and earning them through play. 

So, my son happened to see my bluetooth controller sitting next to my iPad (I typically play Vampire Survivors by streaming the game via GeForce Experience to the iPad Moonlight app) and I thought "why not?" He survived 10 minutes on the first try where I was selecting weapons and upgrades and coaching with an endless prompt of "keep trying to pick up the gems!" Bear in mind, he was not only benefiting from my weapon selection but a ton of unlocks like increased health points and regeneration, damage boosts, revives, rerolls of the random weapon unlocks and upgrades drawn in-game, etc. But not bad for the lad. 

His next step into gaming came on the weekend, when I let him try Super Mario Run as he desperately wanted to scratch that Mario itch. This... didn't go as well. Despite only having a single "button" to press, Super Mario Run was a little tough for someone's second game ever as there are two factors that seem intuitive to us as experienced gamers but were not for a newbie. The first was the long press for the higher jumps. He was fine with short jumps even if his timing wasn't precise, but the concept of a long jump with a long tap was tough to get his head around, prompting a quite frequent "Help me baba!" as he tossed the iPad my way when a long chasm was bearing down on our little sprinting Mario. I was not able to react in time from the handoff in most cases, but thankfully there is an "Easy" mode with unlimited lives/tries. The other issue was - this kid has grown up with touch screens, they are an extension of his arm at this point, but Super Mario Run is using the touch screen as  one big button. His first inclination, however, was to try and touch what he wanted, like most other app experiences have taught him to do. If you want to interact with a thing on a touch screen - you touch it. So reaching that high pink coin or jumping to that level, he wanted to touch on the spot of the screen where he intended Mario to go, not touch anywhere and expect Mario to accept a command input. It made sense but was a little frustrating. Overall, not as smooth as that first Vampire Survivors run, but I was happy to see him back at Super Mario Run a few days later, even if the little snot had snuck the iPad when he wasn't supposed to have it and was playing games unsupervised, a "no-no" at this point in his young life.

Finally, we had another go at Vampire Survivors, more recently, and he actually survived all 30 minutes on his second run ever (see screenshots above). The visible joy at "beating" the game was awesome to see. Hopefully, we're creating some lasting memories that will help him have a healthy relationship with games for a lifetime to come... as long as all that vampire talk doesn't end in real world nightmares... heh heh.