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.

Clumsy Ninja

This is one of the many games the kids have tried on the iPad and the Android phone, and months later they still play it.

What is it

The free ‘action-adventure’ game shows a 3d character dressed as a ninja who reacts to the user’s actions in the same way used in the ‘ragdoll physics’ games from a few years ago.

The player can pick him up, give him high-fives, throw objects at him, tie balloons to him to make him float. Each action has the potential to help ‘train’ the ninja, earning points, leveling up, etc. There is a narrative in the game, about getting the ninja to find a missing friend, but that is not overt.

Most of the actual gameplay is flicking balls and other stuff at the character to make him dodge them.

Who is it for

The game is rated ‘family’/’everyone’ and is very G-rated. There is the violence of throwing objects at a virtual character, or dropping him from heights, but it’s very cartoony and not violent like many other games are.

What Kids Like

The kids seem to like the toy aspect of the game rather than the narrative. They like playing with a virtual doll. And they like earning points they can use to ‘buy’ new objects. They also like competing against each other to see who can get to a certain level first.

What Parents Like

It’s not a game that I have any interest in playing, but it seems like harmless fun for the kids.

What the Critics Think

MacWorld rates the game 3.5/5. They have a lengthy review.

That rating seems unfair given that the game gets 4.8/5 on iTunes and 4.4 on the Play Store. And the game was an iTunes ‘editor’s pick’

Concerns/Flaws

The game used to have ads, including those awful ‘watch to earn’ ads. The latest version of the game is supposed to have removed those.

There are also in-app purchases, which is presumably how the developers make money, so you have to be careful to restrict that action on your devices.

Who Made it

Clumsy Ninja is made by NaturalMotion, who also makes games such as “Dawn of Titans” and “My Horse”

History

The game was first released in 2013 and is the first mobile game to use the Euphoria game engine

Where Can I Get it

iTunes for iPad and iPhone

Google Play Store for Android devices

Puzzlescript

What is it

PuzzleScript is an open-source HTML5 puzzle game engine. Open-source here means that it is completely free and all code is visible to anyone who wants to learn from it. HTML5 is what we used to call DHTML back in the day, and essentially means it’s made with JavaScript, and runs in a web browser. Puzzle game, meaning that the games produced are of the logical variety, as opposed to the action kind. And game engine means that the PuzzleScript libraries include all the logic you need to make a game. You don’t need to do any base-level coding, just design the levels and configure the libraries.

Visit the PuzzleScript site for more

Puzzlescript is JavaScript-based game engine that is very easy to use and is a great way to introduce people to programming. Just about everyone I know who is paid to write code got their start because they were motivated to create games.

Puzzlescript games are very blocky and retro-looking, which may not appeal to kids used to the cinematic look of modern video games, but that is part of the price of having such a simple engine.


[typical puzzlescipt game screenshot]

Many of the games are good, however. Most are of the “sokoban” push-the-blocks around type.

Some examples are “Flying Kick” by Aaron Steed and “Boxes and Balloons” by Ben Reilly and many others can be found in the official gallery

Some games include the concept of bullets but most do not and none could be described as violent. The nature of the engine means games end up being logical puzzles.

Puzzlescript code looks like this:

[Enemy | Wreck] -> restart

[ > Player ] [ Ship ] -> [ > Player ] [ > Ship ]

[ >  Ship | Iceberg ] -> [  >  Ship | > Iceberg  ] Sfx1
[ Enemy | ... | Ship ] -> [ > Enemy | ... | Ship ]

So, rather than lots of intimidating jargon, the code uses names and simple punctuation to set the rules.

Puzzlescript is completely free, and creator Stephen Lavelle deserves a lot of credit for opening his creation to the world. Even better, games made with Puzzlescript have the code immediately available, so if you want to see how something is done, just look at the code someone else wrote. For example, all the code used in the Flying Kick game mentioned above is here, open in the code editor no less, so you could start modifying that game.

Any good instructional system has to reward curiosity, and the Puzzlescript engine does that very well.

Main Puzzlescript site
How to make a Puzzlescript game

Who is it for

Most of the games I’ve seen written in PuzzleScript have been made by young adults, but the interface is simple enough that adolescents could learn it.

What Kids Like

Kids like making things they enjoy. They see a funny video, they want to make a funny video. They see a cool stop-motion animation, they want to make a cool stop-motion animation. They see a computer game they like, they want to make a computer game they like.

PuzzleScript is simple enough that a kid can make something playable very quickly, and since every game made in PuzzleScript has its source available (click ‘hack this game’ below the game) they can easily learn how others have achieved the mechanics of their games.

Also, becasue HTML5 runs pretty much anywhere, publishing your game and sharing with others is very easy.

What Parents Like

JavaScript is a great way to introduce kids to the concepts in programming, and PuzzleScript makes this much easier by skipping over the more boring and frustrating aspects of coding, thus keeping kids’ attention a bit longer – long enough to stay motivated and actually build something.

What the Critics Think

I have not seen any reviews of PuzzleScript. Because it is free, there are no advertising dollars that would lead to reviews.

Itch.io has lots of PuzzleScript games which is a sign that developers at least are taking it seriously.

Concerns/Flaws

If you look at examples of PuzzleScript games, you will see that they all have the same low-resolution look that may remind you of old Atari games. Kids today are used to photo-realistic graphics and the retro, old-school appearance of PuzzleScript may be a turn-off to some kids.

Who Made it

PuzzleScript is the work of Stephen Lavelle, who goes by the handle increpare. He is a prolific developer with many experimental projects on his site.

History

PuzzleScript began in 2013 and has been regularly updated since then. New games written in PuzzleScript are released all the time – every week if not every day

Where Can I Get it

Visit the PuzzleScript site for examples and full documentation. The coding interface is right in the browser window so nothing needs to be installed.

There is a Google Group where users compare notes, troubleshoot code, and share games they’ve made.

And there are books that can help walk your child through the process.

If you just want to play the games, the official archive has plenty to choose from, although it is not at all an exhaustive list.

Some of my favorites are

Cratopia
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7114130

Heroes of Sokoban I, by Jonah Ostroff
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6860122

Heroes of Sokoban II: Monsters
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6910207

and Heroes of Sokoban III: The Bard and the Druid
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7072276

The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

Finn Caspian

What is it

Finn Caspian is a free, weekly podcast about the adventures of a boy and his friends in outer space. They work with (and against) robots and aliens on board spaceships and strange other worlds.

The podcasts are usually 20-25 minutes long, with about 15 minutes of storytelling and the rest devoted to going through reader mail, much of which are space-related jokes.

There are a few seasons of the show online now, each with 15-20 episodes.

Who is it for

The show seems aimed at ages 5 to 10 but there is enough going on that kids a bit younger or a bit older could enjoy it as well.

What Kids Like

The kids like the adventure stories, which are humorous and suspenseful, most ending on a cliff-hanger that is resolved the next week.

The narrator, Jonathan Messinger has a virtual sidekick/cohost in the form of a robot, BeeBop, who is snarky and a bit rude (in a kid-friendly way) and the kids love that character.

What Parents Like

We like that our kids can listen to a story without zoning out in front of a screen. It hearkens back to the days of radio dramas when kids had to make up the pictures in their imaginations, in an active rather than passive way.

The stories are clever and one of the themes of the series is that it is stuffed full of references to existing children’s books, so we can play ‘spot the reference’ along with the kids.

It’s been essential listening on long car rides and I’ve been reading to them less frequently at bedtime, instead playing two episodes of Finn Caspian.

And it’s free! With no ads!

What the Critics Think

I haven’t seen any critics’ reviews of the show, but it gets ~4.5 stars on all of the streaming services that carry it.

Concerns/Flaws

Jonathan Messinger is a good writer but not a polished voice actor and some of the delivery sounds amateurish. His elocution has improved over the course of the series, however.

The voice of the character of BeeBop is created with a ‘roboticize’ voice filter that can get annoying after a while.

Who Made it

Finn Caspian is written and performed by Jonathan Messinger, author of Hiding Out, former web editor of Time Out Chicago Kids.

ZooGlobble has an interview with Jon about the show from 2017

The podcast is the first from the publisher Gen-Z Media. You can listen to their other podcasts for kids at Bestrobotever.com

History

The show began in the summer of 2016 and Jonathan has been putting out a new show just about every week since then.

Where Can I Get it

From the source:
FinnCaspian.com

From the publisher:
BestRobotEver

From a podcast aggregator:
KidsListen.org
Stitcher
Player.fm
iTunes
Google Play

RoverCraft

What is it

RoverCraft is an app that lets players build “space cars” and drive them along bumpy alien landscapes, collecting coins and avoiding crashes.

Who is it for

The game is simple enough for kids as young as 4 to have fun with it, although only older kids would be able to understand it well enough to get high scores.

What Kids like

They like the building, and they like the driving, and they like the upgrades. As the player collect coins, they can use the money to buy more and stronger materials for their vehicle, and unlock other worlds (Mars, Titan, etc.) The achievements are attainable, but take a little work, so the reward system is well-balanced and engaging.

They also like the catastrophic failure that ends every driving run. The player basically drives their car until it crashes, and the crashing is fun, so even when they lose they can enjoy it.

What Parents like

The building part is creative and forces problem-solving (how to structure the chassis so that the vehicle can cross the chasm without falling in?)

The driving part is thrilling but not overly competitive. The players are effectively racing against their own previous times.

What the critics think

The app gets 4.4/5 on Google, 4.5/5 on iTunes, and 4.6/5 on the Microsoft store.

Criticisms are that there are too many ads and that the developer (Mobirate) doesn’t update the game frequently enough.

Concerns/flaws

There are a lot of ads that the player has to endure or click off. There are in-app purchases that can distract from the gameplay, and we as parents need to make sure that the purchasing feature is disabled on the phone/tablet.

Who made it

RoverCraft is made by Mobirate, who also makes the Parking Mania series, other space-themed games such as Space Expedition and Space Bikers, and several others (Stick Fu, Jelly Jumpers, Dead Ahead).

When was it made/history

Mobirate was founded way back in 2003. RoverCraft was first released in 2015 and has had sporadic updates since then.

Where can I get it

Google Play Store, iTunes, and the Microsoft Store. You can even use Amazon to get it for Android devices, if you wanted.

Bloxels

What is it

Bloxels is a free make-your-own videogame app that lets kids (or adults) create 8-bit style sprites and levels for 2D platformer games without needing any coding. The Bloxels kit includes a 13×13 grid with colored blocks so that younger kids can manipulate ‘pixel blocks’ (bloxels) physically before committing them to the game.

There is now also a Star Wars version

Who is it for

Bloxels is recommended for kids age 8-12, but our 4-year-old has had a lot of fun with it. Older kids will get more out of it, but it’s fun for just about any age. The bloxel cubes are about 1 cm2 (¼”2) so it could be a choking hazard for very young kids.

We’ve had fun with it at home, but PixelPress is pushing for the games use in classrooms and I can easily see it used as an educational tool.

What Kids like

Our kids have played with Bloxels on and off for the past few months, since we got it, so it has passed the ‘lost in the closet’ test – that is, the kids choose to pull it out every now and then. The older ones do everything on screen, using only the free app. The younger ones like designing characters using the physical bloxel cubes. Everyone enjoys playing the levels they make.

There is a community aspect to Bloxels, where you can play other people’s games, but we haven’t gotten into that.

What Parents like

Bloxels seems like a great way to introduce basic ideas of programming without having to get into actual code. The kids spend much more time creating (designing characters and levels) than they do playing (running and jumping and shooting).

What the critics think

Bloxels has been nominated for several education and game awards and most reviews I’ve read have been positive.

Concerns/flaws

Most of the criticisms I’ve read have to do with how the app captures the image of the 13×13 bloxel grid. The image capture relies on the camera in your phone or tablet and can be frustrating to use, although we haven’t had much trouble with it.

There is really only one type of game that can be created with Bloxels, and that’s the 2D platformer, where a character runs, jumps, collects power-ups, shoots monsters, etc. There are so many other kids of games, and if your child doesn’t like 2D platformers, they won’t have much interest in making them. But that is a theoretical concern in our case, since our kids like that kind of game. As a parent, I would rather the games involve puzzles or problem-solving, rather than shooting monsters, but as a former game designer, I realize that those sorts of games are much more difficult for children to do well.

And the Bloxel pieces are quite small – possible choking hazards for little siblings, and they hurt to step on when not put away properly! but that’s a problem we have with lots of toys (e.g. Lego) and is not an inherent flaw with Bloxels.

Who made it

Bloxels is made by Pixel Press, which makes a few other similar make-your-own game apps, such as Floors and Adventure Time Game Wizard. Pixel Press has since been bought

When was it made/history

Bloxels started as a Kickstarter project in 2015 and got enough funding to go mainstream and eventually partner with Mattel.

Where can I get it

You can get the Bloxels app on iTunes, Google Play, and for the Kindle Fire. And you can get the physical kit on Amazon or the Bloxels site

Spaceflight Simulator

Every week we try out at least 5 different apps, either on an Android phone or the iPad. They are all free except for the rare occasion when we decide that the paid version will be worth it (e.g. in the case of Plants vs. Zombies). The apps are free usually because they have ads, and often the ads are so frequent and interrupt gameplay so inconveniently that we delete the app altogether. Some apps are free because they are promoting a product, such as all the Lego games. But I was surprised to see that the Spaceflight Simulator app was entirely free. The developer decided to use the mobile version as a free trial, hoping that those who like it will spend money on the Steam or console versions. I hope this monetization model succeeds. Mobile is the obvious place to casually try things with minimal commitment.

The game itself is a stripped-down Kerbal Space Program clone, in which you build rockets out of various components, try to get the rocket into orbit, and ultimately reach other planets. It’s fun for adults and kids but is an absolute sensation with our 7-year-old, who has only ever gotten into orbit once, yet still has a blast just building and testing.

One problem we have with many of the free mobile games (apart from the ads) is how so many of them rely on violence and aggression to play the game. Spaceflight Simulator does have explosions, but they are the negative consequence of poor building, not the objective. Instead of trying to blow up other people’s virtual property, in this game you inadvertently blow up your own creation. So the child still gets the little thrill of seeing a crash, but not the reinforcement equating violence with success.

The interface is very simple and plain. Anyone who wants the garishness of games such as Candy Crush will be disappointed.

The game is great way to teach physics and basic engineering, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for STEM/STEAM-type apps.

On Google Play Store
On Apple iTunes

ABCYa

ABCYa.com has 300+ kid-friendly games, some of them quite challenging and fun. The site is free, with banner ads (for things like Froot Loops) or you can pay $7/month to sign in and avoid ads. Unlike some other sites, ABCYa doesn’t seem to use video ads, which we find more intrusive. We tried using ad-blocker with the site, but the games were disabled when we did so. If you have trouble seeing the games, try disabling your ad-blocker.

Most (or all) of the games had been made with Flash, which is supported less and less each month. (Chrome will soon drop support for the Flash plugin altogether, but you should still be able to use Flash games with with Firefox, Opera, or Edge.) But ABCYa has been porting its games to HTML5, which is supported well by all browsers and you should be able to access the games with any device.

Our 4-year-old asks for this site all the time, a few ties each week. There are so many games that they can find something new every time. While some of the games are pure fun, none are violent and most reinforce some educational concept such as addition, letter shapes, etc. We occasionally let the kids use sites such as HTML5games.com but that has more intrusive ads. We prefer that the kids play the games on PBS Kids but many of those games are a bit too difficult for the younger kids.

Chrome Music Lab

Chrome Music Lab is a collection of 13 free online musical ‘toys’ that let kids (and adults) play with music and in the process, learn something about pitch, rhythm, and structure.

Chrome Music Lab

They require no instruments or musical knowledge. The site relies on JavaScript, which is supported on all browsers on all devices.

Each ‘toy’ (or ‘experiment’ or ‘app’ etc.) focuses on a different aspect of music and all differ in how technical they are. None are difficult to use. Young (3- or 4-years old) kids seem to enjoy Kandinsky and Oscillators, which make fun musical sounds based on the user’s mouse movements. While slightly older kids can get into constructing melodies, playing with modifications of their voices, or exploring visualization of tone and rhythm.

Overall, it’s fun and educational for kids, and a great alternative to videos or video games during ‘screen time’.

From their website: "Chrome Music Lab is a collection of experiments that let anyone, at any age, explore how music works. They’re collaborations between musicians and coders, all built with the freely available Web Audio API."

musiclab.chromeexperiments.com

The site is not just free, but has no ads of any kind.

One drawback we found is that there seem to be memory issues with JavaScript on some browsers, so using the site for a while will fill up memory and slow everything down. Quitting the browser and opening it again seemed to take care of it.

Peppa Pig

Peppa Pig is a British animated show for younger kids. The owners of the trademark have been liberal with licensing the image and there are Peppa Pig playsets, dishes, even bicycles, as well as books and DVDs. Based on the licensed products, it seems the show is aimed exclusively at girls but our boys love it. There is an idea in children’s media that girls don’t mind watching shows with boys as protagonists while boys don’t like girl protagonists, but Peppa Pig has shown that idea to be untrue.

Part of the appeal for our kids is the snarky, even rude tone of many of the characters. They are frequently bickering and mocking each other in a realistic way that most kids can probably relate to. In one episode, the kids make fun of the dad for being fat and spend a lot of the episode fat-shaming him. I feel like an American show would not depict this kind of thing.

The dialogue is witty in a dry, British way that makes it appealing to us grownups as well. I laugh at some of the lines, even if the kids don’t quite get it. Other subtle aspects are funny as well, such as that all the animal characters speak in British English, with various U.K. accents for each species (Irish for one, Yorkshire for another) while the talking vegetables all have ridiculous French accents.

The animation is extremely simple. It looks like they drew it in Flash. You can even see where the vector lines don’t quite match up in places. But that simplicity is probably part of the appeal as well. My kids just don’t seem to like photo-realistic media. They much prefer highly abstract cartoony-looking stuff.

The official Peppa Pig website has games, videos, and activities.

And you can watch free, full episodes at the Peppa Pig Nick Jr site

The videos are all on YouTube as well, but those have ads, and not always appropriate ones.

If your child is a fan of Peppa Pig, they will probably like Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom which is made by the same company (Neville Astley and Mark Baker, and produced by Astley Baker Davies and Entertainment One) and has the same look and feel, even the same voice actors. It also has music by Julian Nott, who may be best known for creating the music for the Wallace and Gromit movies.