-- It's been a good year for video games focused on kids.
Our list of the best kid games of 2011 includes games for kids ranging in age from 4 to 12, spanning all video game platforms. For the first time, we have a preschool game on Kinect (Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster). Educational games that are equally as fun are popping up on the Nintendo DS (The Magic School Bus: Oceans and Team Umizoomi). Revered and iconic characters are returning in new games (Kirby Mass Attack,Super Mario 3D Land, Skylanders Spyro's Adventure and Professor Layton and the Last Specter). Two Lego games provide hilarious re-enactments of classic movies (Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 and Lego Pirates of the Caribbean). The list even has a kid-friendly MMO (massively multiplayer online game) that is full of zany platforming puzzles (Monkey Quest).
Here's this year's best:
FOR AGES 4-6
Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster
From Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, best for ages 4-7, $49.99, for Xbox 360 Kinect. Rated E.
By using Kinect, kids get to play games with the Sesame Street Muppets without having to use a controller. This magical gaming experience has kids jumping, wiggling and running in front of the TV to interact with a variety of friendly monsters. In the process, preschoolers will learn about friendship, working together, facing fears and how to solve problems.
From 2K Play, best for ages 4-6, $29.99, for Nintendo DS. Rated EC.
Based on a Nick Jr. TV show of the same name, this cute math game lets kids join the two pint-sized heroes and their robot friend on an adventure to find missing parts to a rocket ship. Using early math concepts, kids will explore over 25 learning games, which adjust to the kid's ability as he or she plays. This is a great pick for your youngest gamer.
FOR AGES 7-9
The Magic School Bus: Oceans
From Scholastic, best for ages 5-9, $19.99, for Nintendo DS. Rated E.
Kids join Ms. Frizzle's class to go on an adventure under the sea. By exploring six different locations in the ocean, kids are exposed to and play with all kinds of underwater creatures. The game does a great job of combining fantasy travel in the Magic School Bus with fun educational mini-games that teach facts about underwater animals.
From Nickelodeon, best for ages 8-14, $9.95/month, for Win/Mac. Rated E.
This massively multiplayer online game is perfect for kids who have tired of "Club Penguin." In this world, you are a monkey who goes on hundreds of quests to save the world. The world is exciting, funny and beautifully displayed in 3D. It looks and plays like a console platforming game. Whole families can enter this world and play together.
Kirby Mass Attack
From Nintendo, best for ages 8-up, $29.99, for Nintendo DS. Rated E.
Cute, pink, blobby Kirby gets split into 10 mini-Kirbys in this side-scrolling, platform-puzzling game. You go on an adventure to rescue all of the little Kirbys and, in the process, save Kirby's planet. Game play is unique, because you are in control of a group of characters instead of just one.
Super Mario 3D Land
From Nintendo, best for ages 8-up, $39.99, for Nintendo 3DS. Rated E.
The famous Italian plumber is back to save Princess Peach from kidnapper Bowser, this time in 3D. The use of depth, where you can move in the foreground as well as the background, creates a fresh spin on the classic platform-puzzling that is at the heart of this widely popular series of games.
FOR AGES 10-12
Skylanders Spyro's Adventure
From Activision, best for ages 10-14, $69.99 for Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Wii, and Nintendo 3DS, $59.99 (for Win/Mac). Rated E10+.
What makes Skylanders special is that it is more than a video game. It comes with a special portal device and three action figures. By placing an action figure on the portal, the character morphs into the virtual game world. Kids will quickly learn that to defeat the darkness that is trying to overcome the luscious, magical Skylands, they will need to switch between the action figures, because each has unique abilities. This adventure story is beautifully written and filled with age-appropriate humor; and while there is violence, it is the mild "E10+" variety.
Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7
From Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, best for ages 10-up, $49.99 (for Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, PS3), $39.99 (for Nintendo 3DS), $29.99 (for PC, Sony PSP, Nintendo DS). Rated E10+.
For Harry Potter lovers of all ages, this game delivers a tongue-in-cheek recounting of the major events in the last four Harry Potter movies. With plenty of collectibles, interesting puzzle play and great humor, this magical romp gives all wannabe-wizards plenty to wave their wands at.
Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
From Disney Interactive, best for ages 10-up, $49.99 (for Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, PS3), $39.99 (for 3DS) $29.99 (for Windows, Sony PSP, Nintendo DS). Rated E10+.
Available across all consoles, this Lego'esque rendition of the four "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies is hilarious fun to explore. This adventure offers plenty of swashbuckling action, as well as great environments to puzzle through. With treasure to find as well as other collectibles, players can spend hours refining their pirate personas. Yar!
Professor Layton and the Last Specter
From Nintendo, best for ages 12-up, $29.99, for Nintendo DS. Rated E10+.
Combining head-scratching brainteasers and an intriguing mystery, this game is perfect for those who enjoy intellectually challenging games. With a nifty hint system in place, puzzle-solvers of all skill levels can play this adventure and savor solving the mystery of the ghostly appearances in the town of Misthallery.
Gudmundsen is the editor of Computing With Kids (www.ComputingwithKids.com) magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.