If you’ve ever tried to play a video game around a small child, you likely know the struggle of trying to make any progress. Most kids would love the chance to be involved in the game that’s being played, but often they are too young to be a very helpful Player 2. Rather than collaborate as a team, many children would rather cause chaos or do their own thing as soon as they get a controller in their hands.
Luckily, there are games out there that are more forgiving of this sort of play style. Whether you’re searching for a game that will let your four-year-old press a few buttons, or a game that a slightly older kid can apply some problem-solving skills to, this list is for you.
Start With the Nintendo Switch
Though there are games available for kids on every gaming platform, Nintendo has long dominated the kid and family gaming experience. The Nintendo Switch is the latest of a long line of products that are meant to bring family fun to every age, and just like its predecessors, it’s got some great options.
While you can play many kid-friendly games from other companies on the Switch, most Nintendo games tend to be exclusive to their systems. Because of this, we’re focusing our attention primarily on games that you can play on a Nintendo Switch.
One of the best features of the full-sized Switch is its ability to swap from a handheld device to one docked to the television. This means that a kid can occupy themselves on the go during long car trips, but can use the same device to play games with the rest of the family at home.
Each switch comes with its own dock to keep it effortlessly charged and let you play the game together on the TV screen. You can even purchase additional first-party docks to easily switch between any television in the home. (When buying a switch, make sure to note that the Nintendo Switch Lite doesn’t have the ability to output to a TV or monitor, meaning it will not work for multiple players using the same screen. You can find a full comparison of the three models here.)
For those who want smaller controllers for smaller hands, there are some great options available. These fun (wired) HORIPAD Mini controllers feature Nintendo fan-favorite characters such as Mario and Pikachu. For a more retro look that’s also wireless, the NEXiLUX mini controller is a great buy. As a bonus, this Bluetooth controller also works with PC and Android.
For the tiniest and most portable option, the 8Bitdo Zero 2 Bluetooth controller is an adorable, yet functional, way to play your favorite game. It’s as small as the average keychain, yet just as powerful as its larger cousins. It also works with Windows, Android, and Mac setups.
Whichever controllers you pick up, these games are sure to entertain you and your favorite Player 2 from start to finish.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land
Kirby games are familiar to anyone who has kids (or was a kid playing video games themselves), and for good reason. Their bright colors, kid-friendly storylines, and silly antics are perfect for enrapturing the attention of children (and adults) of every age.
The 2022 Kirby and the Forgotten Land is one of the best games to play with an especially young child. The second player in this game plays as Kirby’s ally, Bandana Waddle Dee, who may not share Kirby’s abilities to inhale just about anything but can certainly hold his own, with the ability to smack enemies that come near.
This is one game where Player 1 (playing as Kirby) has a significant amount of control compared to Player 2, which is ideal for playing with particularly young children. The screen stays focused on Player 1’s activities, and if Player 2 strays too far, they are poofed back into view closer to Kirby.
Though Kirby himself will be tougher for a really young kid to play, any child will be delighted with Kirby’s ability to inhale everything from cars to vending machines, whether they’re him or assisting. Kirby and the Forgotten Land is one of those rare games that proves interesting and fun for adults and kids to play together.
Super Mario Odyssey
The 2017 release of Super Mario Odyssey was a great addition to the world of co-op games. Though it’s not quite as easy to play with an especially chaotic Player 2, nonetheless there’s a limited amount of damage that Player 2 can cause in most situations.
In this game, Player 2 acts as Mario’s hat (which is more fun than it sounds), meaning they can interact with the environment and cause things to happen, or just fly around the screen. Because the view always stays with Mario, the hat is limited on how much it can slow the game’s progress. However, the hat also serves important functions in movement and problem-solving, meaning that it’s ideal for slightly older kids who want to help but aren’t quite ready to solve the levels alone.
Mario Kart 8
Mario Kart 8 is a classic for a reason–it’s fun, easy to play alone or with multiple other people, and adapts well to different playing abilities. While the speed must be set to the same pace for all players, there are a number of settings that you can change to make the game more friendly toward younger children.
First, when you are selecting the cart settings, hit the plus sign to see more options. You’ll see three images appear in grayscale which let you decide if you want assisted direction help, the ability to turn the controller like a steering wheel for motion controls, and the ability to keep the car moving even if the acceleration button isn’t pressed.
We highly recommend turning on all three of these for the youngest players. The forced movement option will ensure that your littlest racecar driver never finishes more than a lap behind no matter how distracted they get. The combination of the forced movement and directional help also essentially functions the same way as adding bumpers to the sides of the track, ensuring that even on the most challenging courses (looking at you, Rainbow Road), your buddy fly off the edge.
If the ability to move the controller like a steering wheel sounds particularly appealing to your younger player (or hey, to you), there are great options for the Switch. Talkworks’ Steering Wheel controller gives you the tactile feel of your own steering wheel and can bring an extra sense of fun to racing games for a nominal cost.
If your favorite kid gamers are looking for other group games to play, Super Mario Party is another great one to consider. It is better suited for slightly older kids than Mario Kart, but offers the challenge and fun that will make it a blast for kids and adults alike.
Untitled Goose Game
Untitled Goose Game remains one of my favorite games of all time for its simple, chaotic charm. Two-player mode merely adds to the fun by encouraging your geese to work together—or, alternatively, sabotage—one another for extra shenanigans. Whether your Player 2 chooses to help or hinder, it all adds to the fun.
Causing chaos is the name of the game, so any extra pranks by your Player 2 will only increase the difficulty in an amusing way. Plus, giving a kid the ability to help terrorize a sleepy village is a hilarious way to pass an afternoon.
This game may be too challenging for the youngest players because you cannot move forward if the geese get too far apart. However, for any kid who is old enough to at least follow along with moderate success, this is very much a game that both players are sure to find hilarious.
One warning for those about to introduce kids to the world of the goose: playing this game may lead to real-life playtime in the best and worst ways. Prepare for missing slippers, stolen newspapers, and a whole lot of laughter. If you’re worried things may get a little out of hand, be sure to establish boundaries in real life before your Player 2 becomes too enamored with their new goose role model.
Child of Light
Child of Light occupies a unique place in our list because it is as much an interactive storybook as it is a video game. For this fairy tale, you play as Aurora, a lost princess, and her firefly friend.
This game is definitely best suited to kids who are a little older, as the firefly is needed to complete some puzzles. However, most of the time Player 2 can float around wherever they want within the visible screen, which stays fixed on Player 1’s movements. Player 2 can also light up and do firefly things, helping if they choose, but rarely actively hindering progress.
The rhyming dialogue is a great way for parents to read aloud with their kids and will likely feel like storytime as much as going on an adventure together. The beautiful graphics and charming story are also a big plus for keeping a small child’s attention.
Though it likely won’t be clear to most young children, it’s worth calling out that this entire game is a metaphor for death. It’s a beautiful depiction of the concept but can be a surprisingly dark turn for those who go in expecting a simple fairy tale.
Speaking of death, Spiritfarer is a game that skips right past using metaphor and goes straight for the literal. In this game, the players are Stella, the human ferry master, and Daffodil, her cat. They are tasked with ferrying the dead into their afterlife. This game functions like a cozy management game, and tasks the players with quiet quests where they help their spirit friends in various ways.
This game likely won’t hold the interest of the youngest players because of its quieter qualities, but it’s a great way to broach the subject of death with children while having fun playing a sweet story together.
The biggest reason this game made our list is because of the charm of Player 2’s cat. While your Player 1 works to create a better afterlife for their spirit companions, Player 2 can help or can wander off doing cat things. For most kids, the ability to be a cat doing silly things is likely enough to hold their attention and make them feel involved.
What if I want to play a game that my kid can’t play with me?
Some video games don’t offer a two-player mode, while others are simply too complex for a small child to join in. This doesn’t mean that you can never play them around younger kids, it just means that it’s time to get creative.
When it comes to appeasing younger children with video games, one of the oldest tricks in the book is the “unplugged controller” method. This involves handing your younger sibling/child/niece/nephew/etc a controller that is not connected. In the world of wireless controllers, it’s often easiest to hand them a controller that goes to a different game system entirely.
From there, you claim that the child is controlling the main character with you, or even that they’re controlling all of the bad guys along the way. While this method won’t work on every kid, it can be effective for the youngest and most easily distracted.
However, before you hand over your expensive controller to your local two-year-old, consider one of these alternate options instead. For instance, the Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Toy Game Controller offers a colorful, child-safe toy that will make a toddler feel like they’re participating without any danger of breaking off a piece they could swallow.
In a pinch, I’ve personally found that this retro fidget toy from WTYCD is an easy way to keep a young child occupied for a long time. It lets them do a variety of actions and also offers a way to mimic what their older family member is up to. Just be sure to supervise your pretend Player 2 at all times when it comes to anything that hasn’t been specifically tested for child safety.
What’s the safest way to let a kid play with me (without risking my favorite gear)?
If you’re not so sure that you want to buy your Player 2 their very own controller–or fear they’ll outgrow the smaller size–it can make sense to have an option that can survive a little extra wear and tear.
Nintendo’s stock Joy-Con controllers are remarkably resilient for competitive adults and determined small children alike. While watching my two-year-old cousin, we let her play with one of the Joy-Con controllers that was nearing its end of days thinking it would be an excuse to buy a new one. Despite multiple hours of (supervised) toddler abuse, it’s as strong as ever. As a bonus, the Joy-Con controllers come in a variety of colors, meaning that if you have multiple kids in your life, each can have their own controller to avoid any fights.
If you’re looking for a more standard-sized controller that can take some wear and tear, the TNE Switch Controller is probably your best bet. It is made of durable material that is anti-scratch and slip-resistant while remaining lightweight. Whether you’re hoping it will hold up to a toddler or an adult who has a habit of dropping controllers, this might be your new best friend (and as a bonus, it’s only $22).
Whatever your setup, these tips are sure to make gaming with your favorite kid a whole lot easier, safer, and more fun.
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