The Best Video Games For Your Holiday Gift List

Dec 15, 2011
Originally published on December 15, 2011 3:40 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Even hardened gamers can admit to some confusion this holiday season, or maybe just an embarrassment of riches. The latest "Call of Duty" video game racked up a billion dollars in sales in just 16 days last month. That's a day faster than it took "Avatar" to reach the same number at the box office. Other popular shooters like "Battlefield 3" and "Uncharted 3" are on a lot of wish lists, too. And then there's action-adventure games like "Super Mario Land 3D" and "Batman: Arkham City," some classic re-issues, and that's not to mention games for mobile devices.

What video game are you looking to find under your tree this Christmas? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us from our bureau in New York is Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen magazine. And nice to have you with us.

JAMIN WARREN: Hello. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks. So what's driving the interest in video games this year? That $1 billion in just a little over two weeks for "Call of Duty" can't just be from purchases made by hardcore gamers.

WARREN: Sure. I think you're seeing a wide market penetration of videogame console devices such as the Nintendo Wii, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. All of them have had relatively robust sales, although the PlayStation 3 has lagged. But what's been significant is, in November, it was one of the strongest months for video game sales since February of 2009, which was considered to be the peak for the traditional console market. There's been a slide, but the last three months have been incredibly robust, in part due to tent-pole titles such as "Call of Duty," but, again, also the number of consoles that are out in the market right now.

CONAN: You mentioned the Nintendo Wii. Isn't that getting a little elderly?

WARREN: It is, actually. That's one of the things that analysts are looking at, is 2011 might be one of the last years for Nintendo Wii in terms of its sales. It's really lagged far behind. And so Nintendo had placed a lot of faith in the Nintendo 3DS, which saw a very high price point, which consumers didn't really like, and it faced a precipitous drop almost immediately. So Nintendo's certainly looking for new options in 2012.

CONAN: Mother of mercy, is this the end of "Zelda"?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARREN: I don't think it's the end of "Zelda." In fact, there was a new "Zelda" title that was released called "Skyward Sword" for the Wii, which saw popularity amongst gamers. So, you know, one of the things Nintendo always has is key franchises, such as, you know, the "Super Mario Brothers" franchise, which we saw the release of "Mario Kart 7" and the aforementioned "Super Mario Land" for 3DS.

CONAN: And those of us who don't pay strict attention to this industry might think the Wii has a monopoly on that sort of participation part, where you - it sees your emotion and you control characters through your body. Not so. There are other ways to do that.

WARREN: Absolutely. One of the things that's happening in the video game market is you're seeing a rapid expansion in terms of not just the types of titles that are out there, but the types of gamers that are being introduced to titles. Microsoft has something called the Kinect, which is a very amazing little device which picks up all these different articulation joints in the body and doesn't use a controller at all, just uses this sort of "Minority Report"-style swiping in front of the screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We hope the other aspects of "Minority Report" are not included.

WARREN: Yeah. All those are excluded.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So I'm told it's a very, very effective device.

WARREN: It is. It uses speech recognition, and Microsoft is really looking at the Kinect as a way to introduce people who've been turned off by the number of buttons on traditional console controllers. They're seeing it as a gateway device, so to speak, for an audience that may have felt left behind.

CONAN: There is also the relatively newer phenomenon, given the power of smartphones: mobile device games that, well, that seems to have opened a whole new industry.

WARREN: Absolutely. And for those who don't want to brave lines at Best Buy or GameStop, certainly mobile platforms like the iOS devices allow for a different type of gameplay experience. And, in fact, those often offer lower price points. And certainly the types of games that are coming out, because they're so much less expensive to produce and also to get out to the marketplace, you're seeing a lot of experimentation in that field, as well.

CONAN: So do we pay too much attention to those console games?

WARREN: Well, I think it's just a matter of - there are all different types of game players that are out there, not just, you know, 17-year-old teenagers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARREN: And so I think, you know, one of the problems is that from a sales perspective, a lot of times sales for things like iOS devices aren't made public, so you don't get the kind of figures that you get to release when "Call of Duty" sells $1 billion, for example. But, yeah, there's certainly lots of types of gamers out there, and it's really exciting to see all different stripes of people getting interested in games again.

CONAN: And we were talking about the Nintendo Wii. In fact, the Nintendo system that sold the most is the venerable DS.

WARREN: Yeah. Absolutely. So, you know, handheld devices work really well at the lower price point, allows for, you know, for people who don't want to make the investment in a HD title. And they're really popular, obviously, amongst kids as well. You know, one of the things I've been excited about were the two titles that we talked about earlier - "Super Mario Land," which was one of my favorites. It's an homage to the classic "Mario" franchise. And another one, "Mario Kart 7," for folks out there who might be familiar with the "Mario Kart" franchise.

Again, these are the types of games that you're going to want to play with other people, share your experiences. They're not terribly difficult to pick up and play. And again, that invites a lot of different types of folks to get involved.

CONAN: We're talking with Jamin Warren of Kill Screen Magazine about the video games and other digital devices that are likely to find their way under more than a few Christmas trees this season. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Christopher and - with us from Chittenango in New York.

CHRISTOPHER: Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

CHRISTOPHER: Hi. Longtime listener, first-time caller. I was really interested to hear this stuff about video games. I'm actually really looking forward to "Batman: Arkham City." I've seen a lot of the gameplay videos, and I'm even seeing some of the demos out there. But I've also actually recently purchased the "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3," so that - I'm part of that $1 billion there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARREN: And Activision thanks you. Both of those titles are excellent. The thing that's been great about the "Batman" franchise is it certainly always - the dream is to be Batman. And, you know, for a fan such as me, this is the first experience you have where you really feel like you are the Dark Knight. You know, with the "Call of Duty" franchise, one of the interesting things to note is that there is a subscription service that Activision has started to offer alongside of the purchase of the game.

It allows for a free version, which allows for stats tracking and social media integration such as Facebook. But you can also pay for $50 a year and have access to downloadable content. At this point we can start to think about the "Call of Duty" franchise more as a platform than just a game. It's something that comes out every single year. And at this point so many different types of people are playing them. You're able to see these types of services layered on top of them to allow for, you know, further fun further down the line.

CHRISTOPHER: It's certainly innovative with them originally just having a platform, like, just a game and then now integrating it to make it a - more of a franchise than just a game.

WARREN: Absolutely. And at this point the games come out like clockwork. They'll be out every single year.

CONAN: In addition to being Batman, I understand you can be Catwoman too.

WARREN: Yes. That was something that we discussed as well. There's an additional Catwoman add-on pack that you can play as Catwoman for additional missions. You know, again, one of the joys about playing video games is that you could take these characters that you might have experienced as a kid or as an adolescent and play them out. You get to be those characters, and that's certainly very exciting.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Chris.

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you. Have a great day.

CONAN: Catherine in Lansing emails: My daughters want "The Black Eyed Peas Experience" and "Just Dance 3" and something called "Dance Dance Revolution." Most games seem to be targeted at boys. Why is that?

WARREN: Some of it is a function of marketing. There's always been a large segment of women who have played games, but sometimes their voices haven't always been heard. One of the things that's exciting, again, about the - all the different types of devices that are out there is that it's really opened doors for new types of gamers. Another game that I might add to that category is the "Dance Central" franchise, which is actually my favorite of all of those dance games in that you don't need a controller or anything like that.

You stand in front of your Microsoft Kinect for the 360, and it picks up all the different movements for your body. So there always have been women gamers out there. I really think some of the problems have been more on the marketing side and that the perception is that only boys play games, and that's certainly not the case. And in fact, if you look at who plays iOS games, it's much more heavily weighted towards women than some of the other devices that are out there.

CONAN: Let's go to Carly, Carly calling us from Oakland.

CARLY: Hi. I was listening to your show as I was driving up to the local video game place in Oakland. I'm shopping today for my boyfriend and my nephew, and essentially all the games you mentioned are exactly what they want. Are these really good games? Should I be worried of any violence in the "Mario Bros." or anything like that for my nephew?

WARREN: Oh, certainly not in the "Mario" franchise. You know, one of the things is to talk to the employees of the store, and then check the ratings as well. You know, video games have a rating system and can give you a good rundown. Also sort of - you could sort of look and see what the types of games are. So, certainly a game like "Arkham City," for example, you're playing Batman, but the level of violence sort of varies.

Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things that'll be important, certainly for parents, is talking to the employees and saying, oh, these are the type of - this is the level of, let's say, violence or horseplay that might be acceptable for my child to consume. It involves some dialogue.

CARLY: Okay. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Good luck.

CARLY: Thanks.

CONAN: A one-word email from David: "Skyrim."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARREN: That's really popular in our office. "The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim" series, it's an action role-playing game, kind of set in the fantasy, medieval fantasy universe. And it's one of those titles that when it comes out, there are large swath of productivity that are lost. You know, it's one of these games where you're enveloped in this enormous world. One of the things that people have liked about "Skyrim" is really the attention to details.

The universe that they've - that Bethesda has created is really robust in terms of the graphics and also in terms of the characters. It really feels like it is really a large immersive world. So "Skyrim," perhaps that's the one word that says it's all for fans of that franchise.

CONAN: Another email. This one from Joe in Anne Arbor: "Star Wars: The Old Republic," exclamation, exclamation point. Can't wait. I gather that's not coming out until, what, the 20th?

WARREN: Yeah, right. That's out December 20. Yup. You know, the "Star Wars" - that franchise, again, one of the great things about - one of the problems with "Star Wars" has been is that there haven't been the same type of excitement around those releases as compared to "Batman." And so some fans are saying that they think that "The Old Republic," that might be the title that gets people interested in "Star Wars" as a video game universe all over again.

CONAN: We're talking with Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen Magazine, from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Chris is on the line, calling from Rochester.

CHRIS: Hi, Neal, first-time caller here. Love the show.

CONAN: Thanks.

CHRIS: I'm an avid gamer, 30 years old, have been all my life. And I just wanted to say that my eight-year-old daughter will be receiving "Rayman Origins" this year for Christmas. It's sort of a gift to us both because it's a cooperative platform, it's great for kids, and I think we'll have a lot of fun sitting around the living room playing the game together.

WARREN: That's great that you noted the cooperative aspects of the game. You know, I think that's one of the things that, you know, parents often have trouble with is trying to figure out what types of titles are going to be good for the whole family. And what's great about the "Rayman" franchise is, one, it is the same vein as the "Mario" series. Although people, you know, sadly I don't think - as many people pay attention to that franchise as perhaps they should, but, yeah, that's an excellent, excellent choice. And again, I would pair those with the "Mario" games as well. That's a good pairing.

CONAN: Chris, I'm unfamiliar with "Rayman." What are his attributes?

CHRIS: Oh, it's a classic franchise from developer, I believe, Michel Ancel , if I got that right. And it's kind of just a nonsensical, cartoony, fun and quirky really beautiful game.

CONAN: Well, good luck. And I hope you and your daughter enjoy it.

CHRIS: Thanks very much. I think we will. Take care.

CONAN: Thanks very much. There's one game that's been getting particularly good reviews and that is involving "Uncharted 3," which stars Nathan Drake.

WARREN: Absolutely, so the "Uncharted" franchise has been one of my favorites over the last couple years, in part for anyone who grew up with "Indiana Jones," which is lots and lots of people.

CONAN: Like everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARREN: That is, it's like everybody. The "Uncharted" franchise you play as Nathan Drake, who is the heir to the explorer, Sir Francis Drake, in search of different treasures from place to place. One of the things that that developer has done so well is really the storytelling in those games are really, really robust. They really create this magical universe.

You know, that's one of the things when you were watching the "Indiana Jones" series, you often felt like, oh, I wish I could be there. I wish I could be that sort of person. And that's really the type of experience that the "Uncharted" franchise has really delivered.

And so, again, in addition to the story, the graphics are incredible. It was one of the marquee titles for the PlayStation 3. And that was the — that was one of the titles was really going to show off what this console could do. But for anyone who likes action-adventure, that's certainly the title. And again, it's one of those games that it's not so profoundly difficult that people can pick up and learn and play along the way.

CONAN: I think it's the third iteration in that particular series. Obviously the "Call of Duty" is, I think, the four billionth. Does it matter if you have skipped the first two versions and you start with number three?

WARREN: No, it doesn't. So for those three games, again, that's something that they've done really brilliantly, as they stand as independent games that are connected with the same characters, but it's not as if you need to go dust off the previous versions of "Uncharted" to play the third one. And frankly, that's something that becomes true of a lot of franchise titles, with a couple exceptions. But for the most part, no matter the number of the series in game, whether it's the third or the fourth game, you don't necessarily need to know what's happened in the previous titles.

Again, that's not true for most games, but you're finding that developers would like to introduce new parties to play these games. So they're not saying, oh, you need to have everything, you need to have everything figured out, have done a ton of research. We just want you be able to pick up and play.

CONAN: Let's go to Andy, Andy with us from Iowa City.

ANDY: Hi. I have a Wii, and I - oh, by the way, great show.

CONAN: Thank you.

ANDY: And I was just wondering if - what the best dance game is for a wife on the Wii console.

WARREN: That's a really good...

ANDY: I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: OK. Andy, thanks.

WARREN: So the "Dance Dance Revolution" franchise is really good. That would be one that I will look for. There's some older dance titles, you know, for the Wii that work really well. But, you know, again, I think one of the things that's been great about dancing games is because they're new technologies, it allows for you to kind of recreate some of these dance movements.

CONAN: Here's an email from Angelique(ph): I'm a 35-year-old mother of three who still owns her original NES. I am now loyal to my Xbox 360 and love the "Fable" series and very much look forward to "Fable IV" and the time away from my kids to play it.

WARREN: You know, actually, there was a game that we haven't talked about that I would recommend, is a game called "Bastion." It's one of my favorite titles. It was a smaller title, a downloadable title for the Xbox 360. But the "Fable" franchise was one that was done by kind of a famous game maker named Peter Molyneux. Really, he created this kind of fantasy universe. It's kind of set in days of yore. But this title called "Bastion" is really amazing; it kind of reminds of the old "Zelda" games that you play, this sort of young, faceless man searching for the shards in this universe. One of the most notable things is that the voiceover work in that game is really powerful, really, really evocative. And that's a good in-between title for someone who might like the older-style games, but is looking for something with - looking for something with a new twist. The art style, really incredible. It's the cel-shaded kind of design, very colorful. So I would recommend that title as well, "Bastion."

CONAN: And there are a couple of classic re-issues rebooted for high-definition. But I was interested, there's apparently a CD out of "The Greatest Video Game Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARREN: So there is something called "Video Games Live," which is orchestral arrangements of classic video game tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARREN: And you - they actually, they perform live. They do a bunch of different dates. It was done by a video game composer named Tommy Tallarico. But, yeah, for fans of video game music, that would be absolutely a place that - that might be a good gift for someone who's a fan of video game music.

CONAN: Jamin Warren, thanks very much for your time today. We hope you get every game you want. I mean, you get them for free under your tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WARREN: I buy them for other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: OK. Jamin Warren joined us from bureau in New York. He's the founder of Kill Screen Magazine. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at the hunt for the elusive God particle and what fresh data reveal about the particle's whereabouts. See you again on Monday. Have a good weekend, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.