Gentlemen—and Ladies—Start Your Consoles…

For many kids (and tweens, and teens, and—let’s face it—adults, too), gaming is a part of life. It can be a great way to unwind by yourself or (better yet) to log some major parent-child bonding time. As you put the finishing touches on this year’s Holiday lists, you may want to include a few of the following for your favorite gamers (or gamer wannabes).

wii deluxe bundleWii U Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Set Bundle (Nintendo)
Do you own a Wii U yet? If not, you won’t find a better way to start than with the Wii U Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Set Bundle, which includes the Mario Kart 8 and Nintendo Land games, an MK8 steering wheel, and, of course, the deluxe 32GB Wii U console, complete with a Mario-themed red Wii remote (or Wii-mote).
The Wii U is Nintendo’s sleek, new console, which has next-generation graphics that are comparable to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Images and textures are sharp, the sound is clear, and the characters look like they’re about ready to hop right off the screen to join you on the couch.

Speaking of screens, the Wii U GamePad controller, with its 6.2-inch touchscreen, is the star of the show. The GamePad has dual analog sticks, the usual buttons (A, B, X, Y, Home, Select, and more), as well as left- and right trigger buttons. Use it to control action on the TV screen or to access additional features such as in-game maps. Oh, and you can even use it as a TV remote control. If you’re just getting started, this bundle is a very good deal at $299.99. You’ll find it at your local retailer or http://happyholidays.nintendo.com

super smash bros.Super Smash Bros (Nintendo)
If you’re not ready for the Wii U or you just prefer to play on the 3DS, Super Smash Bros. is the way to go. This fighting game has a host of Nintendo and non-Nintendo characters who face off in multi-person, last-man-standing battles. Each character has different weapons, different speeds, different heights and weights, and different ways of attacking. That should make it pretty easy to decide who your favorite is—and who your arch-enemy is too. What’s especially nice about Smash Bros. is that there are just a few buttons, which makes it easy for players—even complete novices—to master their character fairly quickly. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is available now for $39.99 from all major retailers and the 3DS e-store.

pokemon art academyPokémon Art Academy (Nintendo)
For a somewhat less enervating gaming experience, take a look at Pokémon Art Academy, a Pokémon-themed version of Nintendo’s highly successful Art Academy. This one includes 40 lessons that will have anyone and everyone painting, sketching, and drawing the Pokémon characters you know and love. It starts with a stylus on the 3DS. But the Academy introduces kids (and their parents) to an incredible variety of media (including paint, pastel, pen, pencil, and a few others that don’t start with P), and teaches them skills and techniques that they’ll be able to use in real life and that go far beyond Pokémon. Pokémon Art Academy costs $30, and you can download it digitally or buy a hard copy at your favorite retailer or on the Art Academy website at http://artacademy.nintendo.com/pokemon/

Toyota Venza: Smart and Stylish

2014 toyota venza

2014 toyota venzaLet’s get the disclosure stuff out of the way up front. Toyota gave me the use of a 2014 Venza—how else am I supposed to do an honest review? No, they didn’t pay me, and yes, all the opinions are mine.

The Toyota Venza is a crossover, meaning that it’s smaller than an SUV but bigger than a station wagon. But on the inside, it still feels like an SUV—and I mean that in the nicest way possible. It’s roomy and comfortable, the roof is high enough to accommodate fairly tall people, and it has all sorts of cargo-schlepping space–30.7 cubic feet, to be exact; more than double that when you fold down both sides of the 60/40 split rear seat.
It has the high ride of an SUV, which allows for plenty of visibility, but the ride is smooth and it handles the tight turns in the Bay Area hills like a car.
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Loveable Characters

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and chances are, you probably haven’t bought your turkey yet. But we’ll bet you’re already on the lookout for Holiday presents for everyone on your lists. Here are some fun options that will bring a smile to everyone’s face.

rilakkumaRilakkuma (Aliquantum)
We know, we know, it sounds like something from Pippi Longstocking (who lived in Villa Villekulla), but Rilakkuma is the latest in a long line of adorable, collectable characters from Japan to have finally made it to the U.S. If your kids (or you) are into anime, all things Japanese, or simply cute plush toys, this one should be on your list. Some people have called Rilakkuma a “mysterious brand,” which is odd, considering that he’s been quite popular in their homeland for more than a decade. Here’s the backstory: Rilakkuma (a bear) and his friends Korilakkuma (another bear) and Kiiroitori (a chick) appeared out of nowhere in the Tokyo apartment of a hard-working woman named Kaoru. The three friends—each with a different personality—go on adventures and make mischief while Kaoru is at the office. All three are soft and sweet for little kids to cuddle with, plus Rilakkuma has a secret zipper pocket in his back for hiding small treasures. But, anime and Japanese crossovers are popular with plenty of tweens and teens too. Available at FAO Schwarz and Hot Topic, from $8.99 to $199.99.

snoopySnoopy, Charlie Brown, and many, many more figures (Schleich)
Schleich makes a dizzying array of realistic figurines and toys, including animals (from chicks and frogs to whales), mythological creatures (including elves, dragons, unicorns, and Medusa), and your favorite cartoon characters. Some of the most popular items are the riding sets and Peanuts. The riding sets come with a harness, saddle, rider, and a horse, of course. The Peanuts characters—Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang—come individually or in “scenery packs,” which include several characters and scenes from the comic strip featuring those characters. Definitely not your average plastic toys, Schleich figures are high quality, solid, and beautifully hand painted with amazing detail. Collectors will love Schleich, as will kids ages 3 and up. The figures come individually or in beautiful sets with buildings, vehicles, and other accessories. Prices vary widely, depending on the size of the figure and the size of the kit, so check the site. http://www.schleich-s.com/en/US/

rumble fistsRumble Fists and WWE John Cena Spar Bag (Tech 4 Kids)
Playing with gorgeous collectible toys is great, but after a few days cooped up in the house, the kids are going to be climbing the walls (and you won’t be far behind). Tech 4 Kids’ Rumble Fists and WWE Spar Bag are perfect for making playtime more active. Rumble Fists are giant WWE-themed “gloves” that fit over kids’ hands and make noise (a punching sound and adoring fans cheering) when they touch anything. Kids can choose from John Cena, Dolph Ziggler, or the Rock. Rumble Fists are squishy so they won’t do much damage, but you should have some safety rules in place.

spar bagRumble Fists go perfectly with the WWE John Cena Spar Bag. It’s about three feet (or a meter) high and has a full-figure image of John Cena in mid-punch. Inflate it, fill the bottom with water, and flail away. The heavy base makes it pop right back up after every smack. It’s a great way to work up a sweat, and it’ll give kids bigger kids an alternative to tormenting younger siblings. Rumble Fists are $24.99, the Spar Bag is $9.99. Available at your favorite retailer or http://www.tech4kids.com/

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Have you noticed lately that a lot of your favorite toys from the 80s are making a comeback? Some, of course, never completely left—they just moved to less-prominent shelves and were overshadowed by the latest and greatest. But others seem to have suddenly resurfaced, like zombies returning from the grave (except they don’t bite and we’re generally glad to see them). Either way, despite those promises you made to your parents that you’d never be like them, you may find yourself giving your own children the very same toys you played with back in the day.

Care BearCare Bears (Just Play)
Bringing toys out of retirement can be a risky business. In many cases, the new ones are similar, but they sometimes look as though they’ve been run through a funhouse mirror: legs too long, eyes too wide, head too small, etc. Not so with Care Bears. New-generation ultra-plush Bears look very much like the old ones. And their mission hasn’t changed at all: teach kids about responsibility, caring, sharing, empathy, and being a good friend. That’s a pretty big job for a little bear, so it’s a good thing they still have those magic “belly badges,” just in case they need a little help from Care-a-lot. Care Bears come in a variety of sizes and retail for $3 to $25 at places like Target and Amazon.com

Doodle BearDoodle Bear (Just Play)
Doodle Bears are sweet, cuddly bears that you can create your own artwork on. When you need a new look, just toss Doodle in the wash (in a pillowcase or “delicates” bag), hang him out to dry, and you’ve got a brand new canvas. The original Doodle Bear comes in three colors, or you can get the Glow Doodle Bear, where kids do their doodling with light. Each one comes with special, Doodle-Bear-Only markers (Glow comes with a magic light pen and stamps). Available for $20 and up at your favorite retailer.

k'nexK’nex (K’nex)
K’nex have been around for ages, and are one of America’s top building sets. They have unique shapes and snapping pieces, bricks, struts, and big, flat swatches to hold the pieces together. The old sets were pretty free-form: dump the pieces out on the living room carpet and build whatever you want. Today there are all sorts of targeted sets that are based on old classics like Nitendo’s Mario and today’s sensations like Plants vs. Zombies (in this case, it’s a zombie-fied football helmet). But just as it was when you were a kid, your imagination is your only limit. Most sets work with each other, so the more you collect, the more you can connect. You may even be able to combine your old ones with your child’s new ones and take the building-bonding experience to a whole new level. Prices vary greatly, depending on the size of the kit. Available at retailers everywhere or at http://www.knex.com/

movie viewerFisher-Price Classics Movie Viewer (The Bridge Direct)
While not exactly an 80′s toy—the first Movie Viewers were introduced in 1973—the new versions look just like the ones we played with as kids. And despite being very low-tech, they’re just as much fun. Movie Viewers work exactly the way they did when you had yours: slide a cartridge into a slot, and turn a hand crank to play the “movie.” You can go forwards, backwards, fast, or slow.  Comes with two cartridges (one for learning letters, the other for numbers). If you still have your old Snoopy cartridges, they should work too. No batteries required. Available for about $30 at https://www.fatbraintoys.com or http://www.fisher-price.com/

Chip Off the Old Blocks

Here at Parents@Play, we’ve been reviewing toys and games for a long, long time, and one of our absolute favorite categories is building systems. They’re a great family activity, they appeal to kids of all ages, and they’re wonderful for developing hand-eye coordination, thinking-, and other skills. Some, like Lego and K’Nex, have been around since before we were kids, and we love them. But we also love seeing how some companies have put new spins on old systems, and how others have created new and unique pieces that go together in new and unique ways. Here are three that we know you’ll enjoy as much as we did.

instructuresInstructures (Poof-Slinky)
Instructures (a blending of “instructions” and “structures”) is one of those new-twist-on-old-blocks games. It uses regular, wooden blocks in a variety of shapes (columns, cubes, arches, triangles, and so on) and sizes. The new twist is that building becomes a competitive team sport. Here’s how it works: Players divide into two teams and each one gets a set of blocks. One person is appointed Foreman (it doesn’t matter from which team since there’s a new Foreman for each round). The Foreman takes a card from a deck that has photos of different structures build out of blocks. No one else sees the card. He or she then describes how to build what’s in the photo, and the teams race to the finish. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Each round is different. For example, the Foreman may have to give directions only by pointing and gesturing—no words. Or players are blindfolded so they have to build by touch alone. Or everyone looks at the card for a minute or two and then has to build the structure from memory. Instructures is a huge amount of fun and quite challenging. It’s also great for developing teamwork, cooperation, as well as spatial, memory, and problem-solving skills. Comes with two sets of blocks and three decks of cards (each with a different degree of difficulty). Minimum of four players, ages 8 and up. About $23 at Amazon.  www.poof-slinky.com

amaze 'n' marblesAmaze ’N’ Marbles (Poof Slinky)
Another new-twist building set. Builders create mazes that will get marbles from the top to the bottom using only gravity. The sets include regular wooden blocks and specially designed blocks with holes and channels to help keep the marbles on track. Because the mazes can be as elaborate or as basic as the builder wants, Amaze ‘N’ Marbles is great for kids of all ages. It’s also great for logical thinking (how can you get a marble to change directions or go around a corner) and physics (how fast does a marble have to be going to go up hill unassisted?). Ages 5 and up. $20-$75, depending on how many pieces are in the kit. www.poof-slinky.com

 

color clixColor Clix (Aliquantum)
This is one of the most innovative constructions systems we’ve seen in a long time. The pieces are colorful, sturdy, and come in a number of shapes that snap together in configurations that mimic the structure of atoms, crystals, and DNA molecules. But you definitely don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy Color Clix: You can also use them to build pretty much anything you want. Comes with an “Imagination Guide” with 14 project suggestions to get you going. After that, you’re on your own—and you’ll have a blast. Since the pieces snap together, clean-up is super easy (just pick up your structure and shove the whole thing under the couch). $14.50-$34, depending on the kit (beginner, intermediate, advanced).