lil' gamer's delight?
November 10, 2006 9:46 AM   Subscribe

i know we shouldn't, but if, only if, we were to cave in and decide to get our little boy a handheld video game thing, which would you suggest?

there's such a jungle of platforms/formats out there, it's hard to get your bearings. consider that we don't have a tv (so nothing that needs to hook up to one), and he hasn't used the computer other than as a screen for movies.
in terms of the sort of game to have it run, he's very much into fairytales, knights, archery, snorkelling, skateboard and soccer - but he's been pining for about a year specifically for a ninja "gameboy" (his generic term for something i gather a friend's brother showed him).
i'd also be interested in family rules regarding videogaming.
last two details: we're in europe, and he's turning four.
posted by progosk to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (39 answers total)
(embrace your gamer self, allkindsoftime)

Nintendo DS Lite

Games are relatively cheap, and there are lots and lots of nonviolent (yet still awesome) games available, if you don't want to expose him to space-ninjas like in Metroid.

I'm sure he would enjoy any Zelda game (about a fantasy knight rescuing a princess).
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:54 AM on November 10, 2006

The Gameboy Advance SP is great. Region-free, cheap, and tons of games available.

I love my Nintendo DS (which can play GBA games), but I don't know if it would be appropriate for a four year-old.
posted by mealy-mouthed at 9:55 AM on November 10, 2006

We've bought our five-year-old daughter a Leapster for Christmas (she doesn't read yet, so I feel safe posting this here).

She got to play with one over the summer and it seemed just about the right speed for the 4-6 age bracket. Some "learning" games, some strictly fun, all aimed at little kids rather than their 8-12 year old siblings, so no gore, no extreme violence, etc.

Still thinking through what the groundrules will be, but I don't expect her to become an absorbed videogame hound, either, so it may not be an issue in our house.
posted by briank at 9:56 AM on November 10, 2006

This is an easy question: You want to get him the Nintendo (what you misheard at "ninja") DS. The DS means "dual screen," one of which is a touch screen on which you can use a stylus, and this new functionality has prompted some true originality -- one of the system's most popular games features time trials of arithmetic equations!

Furthermore, the DS will play not only touch-screen capable DS games, but it will also play Game Boy Advance games, which means he can tap into one of the vastest library of games out there. Despite having a daughter who will turn four later this month, I really can't put my finger on just what her videogame acuity is, but she does love to manipulate virtual playspaces, even if it's just using the stylus to drag shapes around a screen to no discernible end. I have a memory/concentration card-pairing game that she likes to play.

I must say, with the right games, this might be something that you and the other parent could come to enjoy. Recent popular games include cooking simulators, surgery simulators, boardgame replicas, analytical thinking puzzles ... I'm sure others will provide lots of links. Moreso than perhaps ever before, you can buy this and the right games and have a truly useful toy for someone so young.
posted by blueshammer at 9:56 AM on November 10, 2006

One thing to consider:

I've read the Playstation Portable is pretty fragile.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:00 AM on November 10, 2006

I'd suggest a Nintendo DS. It's Nintendo's current generation hand-held system. The advantage of this system is that it has a wide variety of kid-friendly games like Animal Crossing or Nintendogs that focus on cooperation, planning, and problem solving instead of violence, but are still loads of fun for all ages. The DS is well-known for those kinds of games, including games like Brain Age that are essentially just a collection of puzzles and mental challenges that make you think a little more than most games. Not that the DS doensn't have a variety of action-oriented games, I'm just pointing out that the DS is especially good at young-gamer-oriented games when compared to systems like the Playstation Portable.
Another strength of the system is cost: the DS currently costs $129.99US new, and you can easily find one for $100US or less refurbished or used, and games are usually $30US or less.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:02 AM on November 10, 2006

To answer your question about family rules - our boys can only play at home on weekends, except when 'grounded'. They always want to play video games then, but never for very long. They're also nice for car trips, and during 'waits' (Dr.'s office, etc.).
posted by LadyBonita at 10:28 AM on November 10, 2006

He's not even 4, I think a Nintendo DS is probably a bit advanced for him. Not to mention odds are good he could easily break the touch screen, and would probably quickly lose the stylus.

They make a Gameboy Micro (or the Gameboy SP) which MIGHT be good for him, but I think you'd have a hard time finding a good collection of games for someone his age. Someone recommended the Leapfrog, and I know a kid who has one, and seems to be genuinely entertained by it.

The PSP is pretty much right out, it's expensive, it's delicate, and there are probably no games for a kid his age. Not to mention he'd probably damage the discs pretty quickly.
posted by KirTakat at 10:28 AM on November 10, 2006

Most of the games on the Nintendo DS require a reasonable reading level. Even kid-friendly games (Nintendogs, Animal Crossing) are aimed more at 10-12 than 4 years old. However, if you're willing to help him, it may be a good choice. My 5-year-old niece loves my Nintendo DS, but only because I'm there to help and have unlocked most of the interesting portions of games.

The regular Game Boy Advance (gba), on the other hand, has a lot of games released on it for younger kids. The DS also plays GBA games, as mentioned above. But a GBA SP is almost half the price.
posted by Gary at 10:34 AM on November 10, 2006

As for BrianK and KirTakat's suggestions. A Leapfrog is probably a better choice in terms of educational content and age-level. But if your son is asking for a Gameboy and you get him a LeapFrog, it's going to be a disappointment. They are very different things.
posted by Gary at 10:39 AM on November 10, 2006

Definitely a Nintendo DS. They're fantastic and have a lot of innovative, fun and even educational games on them. The system has made me rediscover my love for Tetris, for example, which I hadn't played since I was maybe 8 years old. Not to mention games like the New Super Mario Bros. which are fun for everyone (/generalization).
posted by DrSkrud at 10:41 AM on November 10, 2006

The PSP isn't a good choice (the main problems being hardware durability and age-appropriateness of the games), and the GP32 (and the WonderSwan, the Game Gear, the Lynx, etc.) is for grown-up nerds and collectors, not children. The GameBoy, GameBoy Pocket, GameBoy Color and GameBoy Advance are legacy systems--the GameBoy Advance SP does everything they can do, and usually better. And the GameBoy Micro doesn't play GameBoy and GameBoy Color games. That just leaves the DS and the GameBoy Advance SP.

The DS is great, but I'm going to endorse the GameBoy Advance. Unlike the DS, the GBA plays GameBoy and GameBoy Color games, which are available for next to nothing these days and, to generalize, are probably more age-appropriate anyway.
posted by box at 10:42 AM on November 10, 2006

The DS is a little pricey for a four year old. The Game Boy is aimed right at this age. There is a small one (Micro) which is too small IMHO. This leaves the choice between rechargable (the Advance SP) or regular batteries (Advance), your choice.
posted by caddis at 10:44 AM on November 10, 2006

He's turning four? He's a bit too young for a Nintendo—there are very few games that would be appropriate for him at that age. Wait at least 3-4 years, and get him a Nintendo DS and an exploratory plotless game like Electroplankton.
posted by hooray at 10:47 AM on November 10, 2006

Our son got a Leapster for his 4th birthday and really enjoyed it - lots of games for pre-readers. He's recently graduated to his sister's hand-me-down Game Boy because he's figured out that non-learning games are more fun.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 10:51 AM on November 10, 2006

Our 3 year old and 5 year old LOVE their Leapster. Since it's all they know - they aren't tempted by Gameboys and the like.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:54 AM on November 10, 2006

Nintendo DS for sure. There are lots of games for kids, it's pretty rugged, and really has no other competitors. (Don't get a PSP.)
posted by chunking express at 10:58 AM on November 10, 2006

I'd get a Nintendo DS, easily... The Playstation portable is a nice system, no doubt, but there are SO few games - while the Nintendo DS is a) cheaper b) more and better games and c) plays game boy games. So you have a lot more options.

The drawback is it doesn't use the multimedia features the Playstation portable has, but few chilcren are going to use that.
posted by Gideon at 11:05 AM on November 10, 2006

Another vote for the Leapster. My 5-year old nephew loves it.
posted by Sangre Azul at 11:10 AM on November 10, 2006

If you want to see them for yourself, have a look in your local electronics mega-store type place, and see if they have display units of the DS. You can see the kinds of games, how they play, and what reading skill is required, since you know best whether it would be a good match for your son. My assumption would be that the DS games will require too much reading skill for a 4 year old, but then I don't know what his reading level is.

Also, I suggest looking around on, which is a website for parents who play PC and videogames with their children. You will find their forum a friendly place to ask questions too.
posted by Joh at 11:18 AM on November 10, 2006

Both the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS have plenty of games for kids his age.
posted by caddis at 11:23 AM on November 10, 2006

Seriously, I think the people recommending the DS are really missing the "He's 4" part of the post. I LOVE my DS, and were the kid 8, I'd say it'd be great for him, but I just don't think a 4 year old is going to be able to play one that easily. There just aren't a lot of games for it that are aimed at that age group. Think about the way he draws, does he draw in little boxes, or does he draw all over the page?

With the DS, the control screen is about 2/3rds the size of a credit card. How easily is he going to operate a 3" long stylus in that area? And if you look at the games, while there are plenty of games that wouldn't be too mature in content, it's rather in control that I think you would find an issue.

A Gameboy Advance SP (or possibly a Micro, if the buttons weren't too small) is probably the best Nintendo bet, but none of these are aimed at children that age. Something like the Leapfrog, that's designed with his age group in mind, is going to be a best bet, but he might be a bit disappointed that it's not a Gameboy.

As an aside, I love the concept of a "Ninja Gameboy."
posted by KirTakat at 11:25 AM on November 10, 2006

Caddis, the very first game on that Amazon link is "Brain Age", all that search is doing is returning all games with the "E for Everyone" rating. That hardly says whether or not it's a game that's appropriate, ignoring content, for a 4 year old.
posted by KirTakat at 11:26 AM on November 10, 2006

"E for Everyone" is actually 6+. The "Early Childhood" rating is probably a better guide to find suitable games. Here's a list of some of them for the GBA.
posted by Gary at 11:47 AM on November 10, 2006

Defintely, definitely the Leapster.

It's a game system as far as a 4-year-old is concerned, and all of the games are educational and effective at teaching.

My daughter's just turning 6 and she hasn't lost interest in hers over the last 2 years. The games are targeted at exactly this audience, they teach more than hand-eye coordination, and they're just as fun to kids this age as a "real" game system.
posted by hutta at 12:07 PM on November 10, 2006

I'm guessing that a lot of you do not have much exposure to a child this age.

My son is about exactly the same age as the OP's. He does occasionally play with a Gameboy Advance SP, but I've watched him play. He doesn't really get the idea that these are games with a goal. (and the idea of "saving" is pretty much right out.)

What he does enjoy the most is games that involve walking around and talking to people (he can read). The one that he has enjoyed the most? Harvest Moon. He's not about to be able to grow any crops, or sell them, or otherwise "win" the game, but he loves to just walk around the town. And it's nifty when it starts raining/snowing, etc.

I have a Nintendo DS, and I cannot think of a single game that would be appropriate. Remember, lots of 3-4 year olds generally don't even hold a crayon properly! (fist grip).

Since we've seen that he isn't actually getting much out of the Advance SP (he only started playing it because he found ours on a shelf, and we continued to let him), we are planning on getting him a Leapster.

And yes, set groundrules!
posted by gregvr at 12:21 PM on November 10, 2006

Thanks Gary, you are right.

I'm guessing that a lot of you do not have much exposure to a child this age.

When my son was four he had no problem figuring out and playing Gameboy games. Leapsters are great, and certainly more educational than a Gameboy. However, the kid is asking for a Gameboy. He wants to have what his friend has. My only point is that he is not too young for such a device.
posted by caddis at 12:31 PM on November 10, 2006

not just Gary, KirTakat too.
posted by caddis at 12:32 PM on November 10, 2006

oh man, if he wants a gameboy, I'd either get it or not. No substitutes.

I'm *still* telling people about the time I asked for Transformers and got Gobots.
posted by fishfucker at 12:36 PM on November 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

for a 4 year old, definitely go simpler than the DS. GBA or Leapster.
posted by gnutron at 1:48 PM on November 10, 2006

To add another anecdotal data point, my son is 4 going on 5, and while it did take him a while to "get it", he is now a wiz at Mario DS on the Nintendo DS. He also has no problem with the touch screen.
I never gave him any instruction, he just enjoyed making Mario run around, and then he figured out how to climb trees, and so on and so forth, until he figured out that he has to collect the star to finish the level. While he isn't able to finish all the levels, he's perfectly happy playing the same ones over and over again, and he likes the mini-games too.
posted by JohnYaYa at 1:51 PM on November 10, 2006

Yet another vote for a good old fashioned book or, if you must get something electronic, a Leapster. My son is 4 and has a My First LeapPad, but he'll outgrow it soon. I'm not a big fan of handheld video games for the obvious reasons - they're a complete waste of time that budding minds could be using actually learning something useful. Good luck with whatever you decide.
posted by forensicphd at 1:56 PM on November 10, 2006

Warning: this post contains self-links!

Here's a vote for a Game Boy Advance SP provided you're there to help out sometimes. It's compact, has a backlit screen (get one of the new models; the original SP variant only has a frontlit screen, and the original GBA has no light at all). Get him a Super Mario game or maybe something from the Kirby family to start him off. The Super Mario Advance series is highly recommended, as they are remakes of the original Mario games that involve running and jumping across platforms and turtle-like enemies. The Super Mario games are considered some of the best games ever made and are fun (and appropriate) for all ages.

4 years old seems a bit young for gaming, but then again I was 5 or 6 when I first encountered an original Nintendo Entertainment System with Super Mario Bros. at a friend's birthday party (this was 1st grade as I recall). I've been hooked ever since, yet I was an A-student all through school. It's possible to be immersed in games as a child and yet still grow and develop into a normal, balanced life (in case that's a concern).

Now I'm 25 and while I work as a Computer Analyst by day, in my off hours I review video games professionally for the Advanced Media Network and keep my own gaming blog. I thank my parents every day for encouraging my interest in gaming. All these years later I still love those old characters and stories found in the best games of yesterday. Some of my favorite memories involve these games, and on more than one occasion a game has kept me centered and focused while terrible things went on in my life (such as devastating illness and major surgery).

Give your son the gift of games and he'll thank you forever.
posted by Servo5678 at 3:41 PM on November 10, 2006

What Servo5678 said. My dad got me an Atari ST when I was 7, I never looked back. It is a great gift as long as parents set a framework that helps them use it responsibly.

Plus Super Mario rocks
posted by greycap at 3:53 PM on November 10, 2006

briefly: thx muchly so far.
posted by progosk at 5:00 PM on November 10, 2006

As a total gamer household, if we had to narrow down for one system for my (recently turned) 7-year-old daughter, it'd be the DS.

She quickly tired of the Leapster-type device, the DreamSketcher, etc. Educational does not always equal boring, sure, but the high price and formulaic nature really turned her off (Maybe they've come out with amazing stuff for it since then).

The PSP doesn't have games for her age bracket that interest her -- although she'll watch over our shoulders at Loco Roco.

The Wario Ware games are silly, super quick and aren't strategic in the least bit. You can find (cheap, used) arcade classics compilations in almost any format and nothing says 4-year-olds entertainment like Frogger or Ms Pac Man (yes, it hurts that she was excited by that more than modern games at first, but they're a lot simpler to get into).

Also, she's good about letting me borrow it for a bad commute or a business trip and I find lots of stuff to be entertained by for the DS.

Our family rule for gaming is she gets an hour of screentime a day. That's video game, movies, TV, everything combined. It's what the pediatrician recommended, and unless we go out to the movies or have a family movie night, we stick with it. It's taught her about time, budgeting and priorities (although we had to put a limit on the "time roll over" as she got slightly older and wiser and planning Harry Potter marathons).
posted by Gucky at 11:26 PM on November 10, 2006

My son just turned 4 and he's loved the DS for about a year now. There are a number of games that he can play and enjoy, plus it plays all the gameboy games anyway. There is a built in drawing program that is perfect for little kids and the tactile touch screen is actually better for him then buttons and a directional pad alone. He loves it.
posted by visual mechanic at 11:30 PM on November 10, 2006

I had an original gameboy when I was three. I could play it reasonably well. The long car rides spent playing Tetris and Kirby's Dreamland were probably more beneficial than detrimental. I'm not sure how the touchscreen the DS has would affect anything, but the original gameboy's large buttons seemed fine for a toddler.
posted by phr4gmonk3y at 1:47 AM on November 11, 2006

because he's figured out that non-learning games are more fun.

Now, isn't that GREAT?
posted by spock at 12:49 PM on December 21, 2006

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