Machinarium – Amanita Design

What is it

Machinarium is a point-and-click adventure game featuring a cute robot solving puzzles in a beautifully-drawn quasi-steampunk city.

Who is it for

It’s for anyone, young and old, but some of the puzzles are pretty tricky and even precocious children under 7 or so would need some grown-up help. But it’s a great game to play with a child.

What Kids Like

The character is cute, the atmosphere is immersive and captivating, and most of the puzzles are very satisfying. There is no speed/dexterity component, so players do not need to rush and can go at their own pace.

What Parents Like

The puzzles make you feel smart when you figure them out, so the game feels almost educational. It is aesthetic, and as stated above, is a good game for an adult to play with a kid. The music, by Tomáš Dvořák, is fun, happy, and pleasant.

It’s been at least 15 years since the ‘Golden Age of free Flash web games’ if there ever were such a time, back when Homestar Runner was the best thing on the Web, and Machinarium came out toward the end of that era. There were so many Flash games that I loved that my kids won’t ever see because Flash will no longer be available soon, but thankfully there are some relics of that period, such as Machinarium, that remain.

I also like the Eastern European aesthetic of the game. The developers of Machinarium, Amanita Design, are Czech, and the look and feel of the game, the characters, the puzzles have a quality that is simply different from the American and Japanese games that flood the market.

What the Critics Think

Machinarium gets 9/10 on Steam, 4.6/5 on Google’s Play Store for Android, 4.3/5 on Apple’s iTunes for iOS, and 4.6/5 on Jay is games, which also has a nice write-up of the game.

  • IGF 2009, Excellence in Visual Art Award
  • Nomination for 13th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards (DICE Awards)
  • Gamasutra, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • VGChartz.com, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • PC Gamer, Best Soundtrack of 2009

In 2011, Adventure Gamers named Machinarium the 17th-best adventure game ever released.

Concerns/Flaws

The only complaint is that some of the puzzles have the quality common to point-and-click type games, where you sometimes have to click on just the right pixel to prompt a reaction and there is sometimes a lot of frantic clicking trying to find that one spot.

Who Made it/History

Machinarium was the first full-length game, made in 2009 by Amanita Design, based in Brno, Czech Republic (more on Wikipedia) after years of success with shorter games such as their Samorost series

Where Can I Get it

You can play the free demo online using Flash. You may need to activate the Flash plugin in your browser.

The full set of links (Humble Bundle, Steam, iOS, Android) is on the Machinarium page

The game is going for $10 these days. If you don’t want to spend any money, or want more of a preview, check out Amanita’s other games, such as the free Samorost or The Quest for the Rest

Steam Train, Dream Train

Price: $10.29
Was: $16.99

What is it

Steam Train, Dream Train is a very charming, beautifully-illustrated book that tells a simple story in verse of a freight train being loaded by animals, explaining all the types of train cars along the way.

Who is it for

Kids as young as 2 (or possibly younger) who are in a “train phase” enjoy the images of the train. Slightly older kids enjoy all the details in the pictures showing the animals and cargo, kids a bit older than that enjoy the verse by Sherri Duskey Rinker and can read along. So 2 to 5 is probably ideal. It’s been a fixture on our shelf for years as each kid discovers it.

What Kids Like

Trains are always a hit for some kids. The illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld are wonderful and full of details for the kids to pick out.

What Parents Like

The theme is of a night train being loaded before bed, and is perfect bedtime reading. The final page makes you ask the question of whether the story you just read is real, or part of a dream.

The cover is attractive and passes the “Melissa and Doug test” of being appealing enough to show off on a bookshelf.

I have a fond memory of buying this book soon after it was published, on a lovely, snowy evening in December at Books of Wonder in New York. I read it to our oldest perhaps 50 times over the next few months.

What the Critics Think

4.4/5 at Barnes & Noble, 4.1/5 at Goodreads

Who Made it/History

Tom Lichtenheld drew the pictures and Sherri Duskey Rinker. They worked together on Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site in 2011 as well.

Dig Out!

What is it

Dig Out! is an app game on Android and iOS. Control a miner in a 2D world, digging gems while avoiding falling boulders and monsters. The game is similar to many others I’ve seen, but this one is polished and developed much more, giving it high replay value.

The game has an infinite number of randomly generated maps, ways to level up and trap monsters, and competitive leaderboard to compete with others or against previous scores.

Who is it for

Anyone can play, but from my experience, the age that enjoys it the most is 6 to 9.

Apple rates the game 9+ while Google rates it Everyone. Our 7-year-old loves it.

What Kids Like

I should point out that of all the games we’ve downloaded to the tablet or phone over the past year or so, this is one of the top 5 that gets replayed the most. (Others include Tiny Rails, Plants vs. Zombies, Whoowasit, Clumsy Ninja, and of course, Minecraft).

I’m not sure what the kids like exactly, but I think it’s the random generation of levels that keeps it fresh, along with the simplicity of the controls. Also, the game permits very quick games or extended ones.

The graphics are very appealing as well.

What Parents Like

Although one aspect of the game is crushing enemies under rocks, the cartoony graphics and otherwise non-violent content makes the game harmless fun.

There is not much to the game in terms of education, other than the kind of problem-solving in most computer games.

What the Critics Think

The game gets 4.6/5 on iTunes and 4.5/5 on the Play Store

Concerns/Flaws

The game is not educational, doesn’t encourage cooperation or anything like that. It’s “just” fun.

The game has ads and in-app purchases, so parents need to keep an eye on that.

Who Made it/History

Dig Out! was made by ZiMAD, an established Russian game developer best known for their Magic Jigsaw Puzzles

The game was launched in 2016 and has been tweaked multiple times since then.

Where Can I Get it

Available on Apple’s iTunes for iOS and Google’s Play Store for Android.

Stinky and Dirty

What is it

Stinky and Dirty is a show based on characters from a couple of books, about a garbage truck and an excavator who solve problems together.

Who is it for

The show is good for kids of most ages, maybe 3-8.

What Kids Like

My kids like the celebration of filth, which is unusual among kids’ shows. Sometimes toys and games rely on the yuck factor, with slime boogers and fart noises, but ‘Stinky and Dirty’ manage to involve mess and rot and dirt without being gross.

The show is also good about how it presents problems and engages the viewer to think of possible solutions along with the characters.

What Parents Like

Years ago we got the original book called “I Stink!” that the kids liked enough to ask for it multiple nights in a row, although I initially didn’t care for it. It seemed a celebration of noise and filth that I just didn’t find amusing when trying to put little ones down for the night.

Price: $7.49
Was: $7.99

A few years later I saw that Amazon was premiering a new kids’ show called Stinky and Dirty that had animation that looked an awful lot like the book, and sure enough, the show is a spinoff of the book and its sequel. I suppose that’s a dream for many children’s book authors and illustrators, to have their work turned into a show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I and the kids really like it.

The books are quite simple, running through the alphabet and showing vehicles making vehicle sounds. But the show is about teamwork and problem-solving, in a way that isn’t done on other shows.

The animation style is unique. It’s 3D but texture-mapped to look like paper illustrations.

The characters drive around together solving problems. Several times each episode, one of the characters asks, “What if…?” And this makes it a great example for problem-solving. Their efforts don’t always work out, but they keep trying.

I also like that the show is following in the somewhat recent tradition of using veteran actors for the voices (Martin Short on ‘The Cat in the Hat’, Christopher Lloyd and Gilbert Gottfried on ‘Cyberchase’, Elvis Costello on ‘Pete the Cat’). In this case, Wallace Shawn (Vizzini from ‘The Princess Bride’ and Rex the dinosaur from the Toy Story movies) plays Tall the crane.

What the Critics Think

7.1/10 on IMDB, 5/5 on Common Sense Media

Who Made it/History

The original book was written by author Kate Mcmullan and illustrated by her husband, actor Jim McMullan.

The show is made for Amazon, by Guy Toubes, who has written for lots of kids’ shows including ‘Odd Squad’, ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’, and ‘Chuck and Friends’.

Where Can I Get it

You can watch the first episode on YouTube

The show is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Pete the Cat

What is it

Pete the Cat is a series of books starring a cool cat and his animal friends.

Pete the cat is now an icon with his own musical and his own TV show on Amazon Prime.

Who is it for

The books are for younger kids, as they tend to focus on simple concepts such as colors, friendship, etc. The show seems to be intended for slightly older kids and has stories and subtle jokes that probably only grown-ups will appreciate.

What Kids Like

Regardless of my initial impressions, kids love it. They love the illustration style and the attitude of the main character, Pete, and they love the repetitive say-along style of the writing.

We have several of the books and frequently check others out of the library.

What Parents Like

I first heard of Pete the Cat in 2008 or so. A local bookstore had a huge poster of the cat and books signed by the author. I did not understand the appeal and thought the writing and illustration was so crude and simple that anyone could do it. It made me think that I could write a children’s book if this thing could get published.

But I haven’t written a children’s book and not only did “I Love My White Shoes” get published, there are now 40+ titles in the Pete the Cat series.

The show is actually interesting to me. I don’t really have much of an opinion of the books, but the show has a certain sophistication that most kids’ shows lack. The characters talk about presence of mind and consciousness that no other show does. If anything, it hearkens back to Linus’s monologues from Peanuts.

Many kids’ shows focus on one subject. ‘Peg + Cat’ and ‘Odd Squad’ discuss math, ‘Super Why’ covers reading, ‘Arthur’ covers issues related to responsibility and friendship, ‘Word Girl’ does vocabulary, etc. But ‘Pete the Cat’ is the only one that covers philosophy. In the Halloween episode, characters have lines including, “I’m not dressed as a ghost, I’m dressed as your preconceived idea of a ghost”

There is also a strong focus on music, and real-life couple Elvis Costello and Diana Krall do the voices for Pate the Cat’s parents.

What the Critics Think

The show gets 8.5/10 on IMDB and the books get 4.4/5 on Goodreads

Who Made it/History

From Wikipedia:

The book uses a character first devised by James Dean, an artist active in Atlanta, who drew up Pete in 1999 and in 2006 self-published The Misadventures of Pete the Cat. Litwin wrote a story about and a song for the cat, and the two began a partnership.

The collaboration between Dean and Litwin was severed in 2011. James Dean and wife Kimberly Dean continue to write and illustrate the Pete the Cat series, now over 40 books, together. Pete the Cat, the animated TV series which was released on September 21, 2018, based on James and Kimberly’s children’s books produced by Alcon, Appian Way and Phineas and Ferb co-creator Swampy Marsh was preceded by a New Years special on December 26, 2017 on Amazon. The cartoon includes the voices of Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.

Where Can I Get it

The books are everywhere. The show is on Amazon

More about the series and the author and illustrator

Children’s Museum Networks

There are four networks of children’s museums in the U.S.:

  • ACM – Association of Children’s Museums
  • ASTC – Association of Science-Technology Centers
  • NARM – North American Reciprocal Museum
  • and ROAM – Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums
  • (If there’s another that I missed, please let me know at matt@matchstick.com).

    Belonging to a network means you can go for free or reduced entry to any other museum in the network. We’ve saved many hundreds of dollars by joining. Typically, the cost of joining one of the networks is $20 or so in addition to the cost of an annual membership at one of the museums in the network.

    We frequently go to children’s museums when the weather is wet or cold, and it can be a great way to have a playdate without having to mess up the house. And then when taking road trips to the grandparents, we will look for a museum on the way that is in one of the networks, and we go for free.

    ACM is the Association of Children’s Museums and has 341 member museums. You can use their online tool to find a museum or look at their PDF, current as of February 2017

    ASTC (pronounced “Aztec”) is the Association of Science-Technology Centers. The ASTC Passport Program is similar to the ACM one, though the focus is on children’s science museums. Their list of 364 participating museums is in a PDF, current as of 2017

    The NARM (North American Reciprocal Museum) Association is another network, much larger than the other 2, with 896 participating museums. NARM includes many historical sites and other kinds of places beyond the STEM-focus of ASTC. Use the NARM interactive map to find museums near you, or look at their PDF, current as of 2017.

    ROAM (Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums) is the newest museum network and has about 330 participating museums, listed on their website. Most of the museums in the ROAM network are fine arts museums, but the list is eclectic and also includes arboretums as well as history and cultural centers.

    Many museums belong to more than one network, so by joining a museum you may gain access to over a thousand other museums around the country.

    Look at these four networks for a children’s museum near you and see if there are other museums in the same network you are likely to visit, e.g. near a relative’s home. You may be surprised at how many children’s museums are out there. Many have limited marketing budgets and don’t advertise much.

    Many public libraries now offer museum passes available to be checked out. You often have to reserve them in advance. If there is a museum you have been considering taking the kids to, but have been reluctant because of the price, ask at your local library for a pass.

    Holes

    Price: $9.99

    What is it

    Holes is a “young adult mystery comedy novel” that was also made into a movie, about a boy working digging holes in what is essentially a juvenile prison camp. There is a parallel story that takes place exactly 100 years earlier, involving some of the characters’ ancestors.

    Who is it for

    The target audience is young adolescents, although younger kids will enjoy the movie.

    The book and movie have some strong language (e.g. “damn”) and some themes (e.g. homelessness, racism) that may be difficult for younger readers/viewers to process.

    Most of the main characters are boys and many of the themes involve the relationships between boys, so I think Holes is essentially a book about and for boys.

    What Kids Like

    Kids like the honesty. The book is rare in how it depicts events such as bullying, being “the new kid”, and dealing with cruel adults – in a way that is realistic without being cynical. Similarly, characters in the story endure racism and other forms or cruelty in a way seldom seen in children’s literature.

    The plot is also very rich, including scenes in the Wild West, a treasure hunt, a mountain climb, wacky inventions, strange characters, and everything is resolved very satisfyingly in the end.

    What Parents Like

    I like the complexity of the plot, which has enough going on for adults to enjoy (and not just sit through).

    And the depictions of bullying, racism, and other themes are really good, sparking interesting conversation.

    The audiobook version is very good, read by actor Kerry Beyer, and has been a welcome CD to play in the car.

    What the Critics Think

    Paraphrased from the Holes Wikipedia entry:

    It won the 1998 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the 1999 Newbery Medal for the year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”. It also won the William Allen White Children’s Book Award in 2001. It was ranked number 6 among all-time children’s novels by School Library Journal in 2012.

    The Holes Novel gets 3.9/5 on Goodreads, 5/5 on Common Sense Media, 4.6/5 on Barnes & Noble, and 87% on Google.

    The Holes Movie gets 7.1/10 on IMDb, 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, 71% on Metacritic, and 92% on Google.

    Concerns/Flaws

    There is some strong language and there are some violent scenes.

    Who Made it

    Holes was written by Louis Sachar, who may be best known for the Wayside School series (Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger) which has since been made into an animated TV series.

    The 2003 Disney movie was directed by Andrew Davis and starred Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson and Shia LaBeouf. I thought Jon Voight was just great in his role of “Mr. Sir”. And Shia LaBeouf really shined in his role, with a quality of acting rarely seen in child actors.

    The audiobook came out in 2016 and was read by Kerry Beyer.

    History

    Holes was written in 1998 by Louis Sachar after finishing the third and final novel in his Wayside School series. The Disney movie came out in 2003. Both book and movie seem as fresh and relevant today as they did twenty years ago.

    Where Can I Get it

    The book is available everywhere.

    Amazon’s Audible service has the audiobook

    Google has a sample/preview of the book

    And the trailer for the movie is on YouTube:

    The movie is available for streaming on Amazon

    The Book with No Pictures

    Price: $13.99
    Was: $17.99

    What is it

    The Book with No Pictures indeed has no pictures, but uses variations in typeface and color to create a very entertaining story that is a hit with young kids

    The story is not about a character, but is instead about itself – about a book that has no pictures.

    Who is it for

    This is one that is meant to be read by an adult to children, so even children who can’t yet read will enjoy it. I would say ages 3 to 7.

    What Kids Like

    This book has been a hit with our 3-year-old and our 6-year-old, getting lots of laughs.

    The premise is that the book ‘makes’ the parent say silly words and phrases against their wishes, which in a way puts the kids in charge.

    What Parents Like

    The book requires some acting on the readers part, and plays with the roles of parent and child in a fun way.

    The Book with No Pictures isn’t about learning to read, or about a particular character, but is almost unique in how it’s about the relationship between parents and kids.

    What the Critics Think

    The Book with No Pictures gets 4.4/5 on Goodreads, 4.8/5 at Target, 4.6/5 at Barnes & Noble, and 91% on Google.

    It was nominated for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards Best Picture Books

    Concerns/Flaws

    It was a hit at the pre-school as well, although the one teacher didn’t like the book’s use of the word, “butt”.

    Warning: the book tends to animate, rather than calm the children, so is not a book to put them to bed.

    Who Made it

    The book was written by B. J. Novak, perhaps best known for his role in the TV show “The Office”.

    Here he is reading it:

    Published in 2014. More information at the official website

    Where Can I Get it

    The Book with No Pictures is available just about everywhere.

    You can see a sample/preview on Google

    Tumble Leaf

    What is it

    Tumble Leaf is a very charming stop-motion animation series about a blue fox living on a shipwreck and his adventures with other animals.

    The animation quality is impressively good. The tone is gentle and sweet.

    If you have any interest in animation or storytelling, the Tumble Leaf page is a fascinating look at how a top-rated stop-motion animation show for children gets made.

    Who is it for

    The target audience is pre-schoolers. There’s a lot to look at so even kids as young as two would get something out of it. Six might be the maximum age.

    What Kids Like

    The animation is very rich with lots of detail, and kids can watch episodes multiple times and see new things. The whimsy and charm of the premise (each day a crab pulls some flotsam from the beach and puts it in the ‘finding box’ on a shipwreck) is captivating.

    What Parents Like

    There is no violence or harsh language or tense situations, but at the same time it’s not dull. The characters engage in creative projects, and although there is no overt education, the show promotes the values of creative problem-solving and discovery.

    What the Critics Think

    According to the series’s website, Tumble Leaf has won 8 emmys and several other awards.

    The show gets 8/10 on IMDB, 5/5 on Common Sense Media, 4.9/5 on Amazon, and 96% on Google.

    Who Made it

    Tumble Leaf is mad by Bix Pix Entertainment which has made many other animations, but none as widely broadcast as Tumble Leaf. Their reel page on Vimeo has many examples of their work.

    History

    Tumble Leaf premiered in 2014 as an Amazon Studios original series based on the short film Miro and is now in its 4th season.

    Where Can I Get it

    The show is streaming on Amazon

    You can see the pilot episode on YouTube and on IMDB.

    StoryBots

    What is it

    Storybots is a series of 100+ educational music videos featuring animated and/or puppet robots. They cover subjects such as the planets, dinosaurs, the alphabet, and more. The production quality is very high and the videos are very entertaining.

    Who is it for

    Kids of all ages can get something from the StoryBots videos. They are highly entertaining, so even if a child doesn’t understand the subject matter being covered, they can still enjoy the music and the silly antics of the characters: Beep (green), Bo (purple), Bang (blue), Bing (yellow), Boop (red), and Hap, their manager (olive)

    What Kids Like

    The music is great, with very catchy melodies and the characters are silly and entertaining.

    The premise of the show is that the robots live inside our digital devices and are constantly trying to learn about the human world by asking questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” – questions that children also wonder about.

    What Parents Like

    The education is snuck in painlessly and kids can’t help but learn. The language is totally G-rated with no violence so it’s easy to leave the screen on without having to worry about what the kids are watching.

    I like the music and, as a fan of animation, love the fact that the characters are sometimes presented in 3d animation, 2d animation, hand-drawn style, puppets, or claymation. I can’t think of any other project that presented its characters in such a variety of mediums.

    What the Critics Think

    StoryBots has won a Winner of Teachers’ Choice Awards, a Tech Edvocate Award, an Emmy, and has been nominated for an Annie and a Peabody award. So in a nutshell, it is highly regarded by critics.

    Concerns/Flaws

    It’s just great. I can’t think of any criticisms.

    Who Made it

    StoryBots is produced by JibJab, who you may remember as the creators of animated political satire during the 2004 presidential election.

    and who went on to create shorts for Noggin and Disney before building their personalized ecard service

    JibJab has been able to attract top talent and many famous singers and actors are part of the videos.

    History

    StoryBots was first distributed as shorts on YouTube in 2012 and “Ask the StoryBots” was picked up as a full-length show by Netflix in 2016.

    Where Can I Get it

    StoryBots has literally hundreds of videos on their
    YouTube channel
    and “Ask the StoryBots” is available for streaming on Netflix. They have a Spotify channel and multiple music albums as well.

    More at storybots.com and Wikipedia