Playing and reviewing nearly EVERY game that comes out in a year, give or take a few, gives us the unique opportunity to do some exhaustive ranking. And if there was a wilderness that needed a bit of navigating, it’s those Xbox kids’ games. Dozens get released in a year – some of them inappropriate, some of them plain bad – and no parent has the money or willpower to play them all.
So, let us be your guide as we take you through the ten best kids’ games on the Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S from 2021. Hopefully there’s a little nugget that’s more gold than chicken.
10. Just Dance 2022 (Ages 3+)
A staple of many a family’s gaming backlog, Just Dance 2022 is essential if any of your family has a dancing bone in their body. For the past few years, Just Dance has separated its kids’ songs from its other songs, and that makes it a fantastic curated playground for your family to play in. You just choose a song, vaguely follow the dancing people on screen (five stars is achievable by anyone over 5) and then choose another.
Just Dance 2022 falls down to tenth placing in the list, only because no new kids’ songs have been added to the 2022 edition. What you’re getting is the same as 2021. So, keep that in mind if you’re purchasing. But if you’re new to the Just Dance franchise, none of this will matter: Just Dance 2022 is a riotous package.
9. Beach Buggy Racing 2: Island Adventure (Ages 3+)
The first Beach Buggy Racing is a bit of a lame duck, so don’t be tempted to compromise and go for the cheaper game. What you want is Beach Buggy Racing 2: Island Adventure, which surprised us all by improving on the first in almost every aspect, being a fully featured, accessible and eight-player (eight!) local multiplayer game. Improving it even further, a Hot Wheels expansion was added at the tail-end of the year.
We’re not blessed with a surfeit of quality karting games on the Xbox, but the best of the year was undoubtedly Beach Buggy Racing 2. If you have kids who are carping about playing Mario Kart and buying a Switch, this is a far cheaper alternative.
8. The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf (Ages 3+)
We expected nothing from The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf, but we completely underestimated it and Microids, its publisher, who had something of a stellar year. Even if you or your children have no interest in The Smurfs, this is a fantastic game to play, simply because it borrows from two classics of the genre: Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion.
You have a reasonably large world to explore, but it’s been taken over by Little Shop of Horrors-style plants. You use a vacuum backpack to suck up all the plants, and by clearing them out of an area, your surroundings rejuvenate and glow up. The simple action of ‘cleaning’ an area is great fun, and The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf was bug-free and entertaining. We’d argue that players should be seven or up to get the most of this game, as there are numerous buttons to master and plenty of reading.
7. Catlateral Damage: Remeowstered (Ages 3+)
Some of the best kids games take a simple but fun premise and run with it. Catlateral Damage: Remeowstered is definitely in that category. Anybody would be tempted by being a cat with the sole aim of causing as much damage as possible in a set timeframe. You are dumped in bedrooms, kitchens, museums and even laboratories, and your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to knock as much stuff onto the floor as possible.
It may not look like much, but this rough-edged little indie game is absolute carnage and just as fun as it sounds. We found that all ages can get something from it, and you have so many game modes that there’s replayability packaged in too.
6. Steven Universe: Unleash the Light (Ages 7+)
The Steven Universe RPG-lite series (almost always ending with ‘the Light’, as a shorthand) has been running for the past few years now, getting better with each iteration. This year’s edition is Unleash the Light and it is absolutely superb. If you have any love for the characters, the series, or RPGs and JRPGs, then this should be sought out.
There are caveats: there’s a huge amount of reading here, and the pace can get slow. We’d suggest that 7+ is absolutely the minimum to enjoy Steven Universe: Unleash the Light. And while it can be played independently of the other games, and with no knowledge of the series, we’d say that it’s improved dramatically if you have some love for them.
5. Pile Up!: Box by Box (Ages 3+)
One of the real surprises this year was Pile Up!: Box by Box. We had little hope for it, mainly because the idea of a platformer where you play a cardboard box seemed lazy and unappealing. But, oh my, we were wrong.
This is a hugely characterful and gorgeous little platformer that takes a leaf out of Little Big Planet’s book and makes the world tactile. Everything is made from cardboard and textiles, giving it a homely feel. But the joy is in the co-op: this was made to be played two-player, ideally with a parent and a child. You can stack on top of each other’s heads and play through a large 3D platforming campaign together. If someone gets stuck, just jump on top of the other player and let them do it for you.
The stacking mechanics are lovely, and Pile-Up! keeps adding new ways to take advantage of the mechanic. Gather frog boxes and lick the other player. Wear propeller boxes and spin to higher platforms. This is a generous little platformer that you won’t regret picking up.
4. Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania (Ages 3+)
Super Monkey Ball is a bit of a classic. Ever since its debut on the Nintendo Gamecube, it’s been gracing each console, bringing equal amounts of joy and frustration to further generations. It might be time to introduce the new generation in your house to it.
The gameplay of Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania is extremely simple. You are a monkey in a little plastic ball, and you have to roll through collectible bananas and tricky pathways to an arch at the end of the level. Gravity and physics are your enemy, as navigating the various obstacles is far from easy.
The latest iteration is ideal for your little-uns, and one of the best Monkey Balls yet, simply because of how comprehensive it is. It’s Super Monkey Ball 1 and 2, alongside dozens of new minigames, bringing the level total up to 300+. With up to four-player local multiplayer, your kids can also experience the sublime joys of knocking you off a track.
3. The Addams Family: Mansion Mayhem (Ages 7+)
It may have generated one of the worst movies of the year, but The Addams Family brought us one of the best children’s games in the form of Mansion Mayhem. Once again, we had little to no expectation for this game, but it wowed us by understanding exactly what a younger player needs from a game.
For a start, it’s a long, fully featured platforming campaign that can be played by four players cooperatively. That’s rare and awesome, and makes this feel like a cousin to a Lego game, albeit when TT Games have produced very few recently. But what makes this essential is the toys that you are given. On each level, you are given a weapon, and that weapon is incredible fun. Our favourite was a giant bomb that you can ride on like a wrecking ball. You’ve never experienced fun like rolling a giant bomb into a friend’s face, or exploding a pack of enemies.
2. Marsupilami: Hoobadventure (Ages 7+)
Another unexpected joy of the year, Marupilami: Hoobadventure is a game based on a French/Belgian comic book character and, as such, means very little to most people on our shores. He’s a kind of leopard/primate mash-up with a huge prehensile tail, allowing him to hook onto things and propel himself to higher platforms.
Microids take this lesser known character and create a 2D platformer that is as lavish and as good as some of the best in the genre. It shares a lot of characteristics with Rayman Origins and Legends, and if you enjoyed those games, then Marupilami: Hoobadventure will scratch that itch. It’s colourful, characterful and absolutely laden with secrets to find. While it’s not long, you will be trying to outdo each other’s scores and find that very last collectible red feather.
1. LEGO Builders’ Journey (Ages 3+)
We may have been starved of mainline LEGO games (LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is due next year), but our best kids game of the year was still made from those charming plastic bricks. Arriving on Xbox after a successful run on Apple Arcade, LEGO Builders’ Journey absolutely charmed our socks off. It’s a wistful, beautiful game, and – as the best kids’ games are – could be played and enjoyed by absolutely everyone.
LEGO bricks have never looked so good. Our first impression was that everything looked so real and gorgeously lit, and – unlike other LEGO games – there are no faked bricks here. These are all bricks that you could buy in a shop. It’s a short-ish campaign told in LEGO dioramas, as you make paths for a little brick man and his son to follow, and we’d recommend you sit down with your child and follow it to its end. You won’t regret it.
Frankly, it’s been a stellar year for kids games. Publishers like Microids and Outright Games have found their feet, beginning to understand what children look for in a game (and what they can achieve by themselves without help). They’ve opened the doors to multiplayer, allowing parents to collaborate with their children to solve puzzles. And some of the best games have been licences, managing to capture the essence of the franchises that they’re attaching themselves to.
Hopefully this list has given you some ideas for what to play with your children in the New Year. You can be sure that we will continue to follow and review children’s games in 2022.
Have we missed a fantastic kids’ game from 2021? Let us know in the comments below, or on our various social channels.