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The Empire Strikes Brick
This *is* the kid-friendly co-op game you’re looking for
Changing gears. Cousin Richie voice: I review games now.
It started, as many things at this age do, with a
bribe reward chart.
He hadn’t been sleeping well for weeks. A little before turning four he transitioned into his own bed, in his own room. But it all went south. Now he was waking up in the middle of the night, crying, telling us he could see a large scary face coming through his wall (genuinely terrifying, fwiw) and could only calm down in our bed. He’d then fall back asleep before somehow shifting his body around and waking me up with his foot in my face.
We couldn’t get him to get through the night. We broke out the chart. The initial promise of a Sonic cuddly toy didn’t shift things fast enough, so we broke out the big guns.
Here comes the pitch: “If you sleep in your bed for five nights, we can get a new game for the Nintendo Switch.” I had the trailer cued up, ready for the sell-in. Truth be told, I’d had my eyes on the new Lego Star Wars game since its release last year: The Skywalker Saga promised a family-friendly romp through the main nine episodes (no Rogue One: booooooo! No Solo: hooray!), taking us from Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon conducting lightsaber-based trade negotiations through to whatever the hell happened in The Rise of Skywalker. (PSA: Rotten Tomatoes ranks that movie lower even than The Phantom Menace. Who knew?)
Thanks to the joys of parenting in the slipstream of popular culture—never being entirely on the bleeding edge, but within spitting distance of it—Amazon had reduced the price to almost a third of its RRP, putting it at a much more affordable €19.99. This didn’t feel like an absurd amount of money to invest towards a potential 7+ hours of sleep. Even if he only slept well for the requisite five nights, I’d happily have paid €4 a pop for each of those. So I bought it and—in an action that could well be perceived as child torture—placed the sealed copy on the living room bookshelf, promising we’d unwrap it after he amassed enough green stickers on his chart.
He wouldn’t feel the pain of waiting alone.
Since 1982’s The Empire Strikes Back hit the Atari 2600, over a hundred Star Wars video games have been released. Many have been decent, a few have been genuinely great (1997’s X-Wing vs TIE Fighter and 2003’s Knights of The Old Republic come to mind), whilst others have stunk worse than the inside of a tauntaun: Kinect Star Wars, I’m looking in your direction; Han Solo busting dance moves has to be seen to be believed.
Games that heed closely to the original trilogy will always retain a divine ability to pull me in, space-age nostalgia pumped directly into my veins. I’ve ripped my snowspeeder around Hoth’s icy plains at least once a decade since the 90s, and I still break out in a huge smile when I watch an AT-AT crash face-first into the snow like a drunken elephant on his 18th birthday.
The Lego games have always taken a wry perspective of their source materials—whether Harry Potter, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Batman, or Lord of the Rings—finding humour in subverting everything we know and love about these fictional universes. Like the Family Guy parody episodes, Robot Chicken’s perfect “Don’t Tell Vader” sketch, or the entire Spaceballs movie1, your enjoyment of these moments will correlate with the time you’ve spent watching these films on VHS, DVD, and Disney+ in the years since. Every iconic moment is given the Lego treatment—it would be a shame to spoil them all here. The rug-pull reveal of Padmé in Episode I becomes a homage to Spartacus: ”I’m Padme Amidala”, “No, I’m Padme Amidala!” In a subversion of norms, and a nod to the new progressive society norms, Leia picks up Luke before swinging him across the chasm on the Death Star. And care is given to ensure potentially traumatic scenes are filtered through the multicoloured Lego lens, which adds black humour for the parents: Luke no longer finds the charred corpses of his adopted parents on Tatooine, but looks for them through the binoculars before shrugging his plastic shoulders and moving on.
Over the weekend, we did a double bill—the new Paw Patrol movie (my nap was bliss, thanks for asking), followed by an hour spent flying our X-wings through the trenches of the Death Star together. We flew to the UK a few weeks ago and took the Switch with us, meaning he could play it with his sister on the plane, the battery life lasting just long enough to make it to landing. And as soon as we were back home, we could pop it in the dock, and pick up on the big TV where we left off.
A vital mechanic worth calling out for parents is the drop-in/drop-out co-op system. If you want to play together, you only need to pick up a second controller, press a button, and the screen will split in half. You can play along, help them get past a particularly tough section, and use the menu to drop back out. A second child—second child sold separately—can also jump in using the same mechanic. Parts of the game are open world, where you wander around searching for collectables, and you can swap between any character you’ve already unlocked here—meaning my son could walk around with a shit-eating grin on his face as he made Darth Maul run around Mos Eisley (non-canonical!)—but certain story sections must be played with plot-appropriate characters, leading to minor frustration and direct quotes such as: “I don’t want to be these robots. They are DISGUSTING.”
The game also seems to have re-activated, Manchurian Candidate style, two sets of toys in the house—the Lego Large Creative Brick Box (AKA good ol’ 10698) and the pair of Hasbro Forge Lightsabers we own. It’s also brought a renewed interest to the Star Wars Little Golden Books, which are surprisingly well-done, and we end the day reading them, talking through the parts we’ve already played, and what is coming down the pipeline. And then, he sleeps—at least for now.
His Star Wars obsession didn’t start with this game but has been intensified by it. His previous fixation on superheroes has been replaced by the happenings of Sith and Jedi—bad news for Marvel, but good news for Disney shareholders. We recently went to a friend’s house for a barbeque and he found a dusty Kylo Ren mask deep inside a toybox. It hasn’t left his side since—even for bedtime.
“You can’t wear that mask to bed, little dude,” I offer.
“Yeah,” my daughter concurs. “Even Kylo Ren takes off his mask to go to sleep.”
I am sure some parents are reading this in horror, exclaiming: “He’s encouraging his son to play video games?”(“Won’t somebody PLEEEASE think of the children!”) While my attitude to screen time may be different from yours, I can’t help but feel this is time well spent. I loved watching his little face as we started making our way towards the climactic final battle of The Phantom Menace, the movie’s final fight scene almost paying off the preceding 90 minutes of galactic trade battles—a Brexit tale very familiar in a galaxy far, far away. Like many kids born in the 80s, I didn’t grow up with parents setting TV timers and agonising about how long is too long—and though I don’t want my kids to become couch potatoes, I’m always thinking of how we can be more open-minded to the opportunities that modern media present.
One of the most significant shifts I see with parents today is we’re much more conscious about burdening our children with our own unmet goals (”You WILL play the piano!” “You MUST become a lawyer”) and trying to put our energy towards becoming the parents they need, and the ones we sometimes wish we had.
Over the last few weeks of playing this game—4 episodes down, 5 to go—I can honestly say it’s been a delight losing ourselves in this world together. It’s something I hope might form a core memory for him: maybe, sometime in his future—a long, long time from here, in a galaxy very familiar—my son will look back on the time we spent smashing Lego bricks with lightsabers and feel that smile on his face once more.
3 things to read this week
“Group-Chat Culture Is Out of Control” by Faith Hill in The Atlantic. At the time of writing, I have 20 unread messages in my WhatsApp inbox. 13 of those are spread across group chats—school groups, relics of previous birthday parties, and a meme-sharing thread with some old friends. Faith Hill—no, not that one—writes in The Atlantic about the tyranny of group texts, or “grexts,” and how they can harm us as much as help us. “Grext anxiety is hard to resolve because it isn’t really just about the group-chat form or even mobile technology in general; it’s about the eternal tension between individual and collective identity, between being our own person and being accountable to others. Ultimately, most of us do want connection, even if it involves some obligations; we’ll take an avalanche of messages when we’re busy if it means we can reach out when we’re hurting.”
“Never Past Your Prime! 13 Peaks We Reach at 40 or Later” by Emma Beddington in The Guardian. Who said I was past it?! Here is a compelling list of various activities that we actually get better with as we age, including happiness, conflict resolution, chess, arithmetic, and running ultramarathons (apparently, the male peak is aged 45-49, so there’s still time for me yet.)
“I’m a ‘6 Music Dad’ and Proud—Don’t Laugh at Me” by Phil Hilton in The Times. I’ve long felt BBC 6 Music, the UK’s alternative digital radio station, is a calm oasis amongst the turbulent storms of the radio dial; introducing you to new music, whilst retaining the warm comfort of those songs from your youth. Seems like I’m not the only one. ”I feel seen. And I’m kind of into it,” said Anthony, when sharing this with the other dads in our community. “When I first came across [6 Music Dad] it was so perfectly observed and so completely captured a new kind of older man it was uncomfortable. I think of myself as a unique individual shaped by distinct influences. When a number and two words utterly pinned me down I felt like an insect discovered by a Victorian naturalist. My first instinct was to wriggle out of the glass case, but then I realised it’s OK to be a 6 Music Dad — in fact, it’s glorious.”
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
Branding by Selman Design. Illustration by Tony Johnson. Survey by Sprig. Kids these days don’t know they’re born—who in their right mind doesn’t invert their Y-axis flight controls? “I can’t fly! It goes down when I press up!” Life is tough. Better you learn it here and now.
Damn. You old.
Anyone else notice an overabundance of Simpsons references for a supposed Star Wars issue?