The Xbox Series S is official: a $299 console with 1440p resolution, a 512 GB SSD and the ability to run any Xbox Series X game. This tiny gaming box isn’t as powerful as the $499 Xbox Series X, but it could appeal to casual gamers, lapsed gamers — and, if Microsoft plays its cards right, young gamers.
While gaming today arguably appeals more to teenagers and adults, modern console gaming very much started out as a kids’ hobby. And yet today, only Nintendo puts children front and center, meaning that the only two kid-centric consoles on the market are the Switch and the Switch Lite. This doesn’t have to be the case. The Xbox Series S could be just the console to introduce budding gamers into the hobby, thanks to both its price and its symbiotic relationship with the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.
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Consoles for kids
It’s fair to say that gamers today, demographically speaking, are older than they were back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Look at the games that Sony and Microsoft have used to entice potential buyers for the PS5 and Xbox Series X: Horizon Forbidden West, Halo Infinite, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 and so forth. There’s not much here for anyone under the age of 13. Even more kid-friendly games, such as Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart tend to appeal to tweens rather than young children.
If PlayStation and Xbox court older audiences, other companies generally have to pick up the slack to attract younger gamers. Nintendo is still the gold standard, with kid-friendly series like Super Mario and Kirby. But otherwise, Android and iOS seem to be the only platforms with young children in mind, drip-feeding them cheap, colorful shovelware, often with a hefty side of overpriced microtransactions.
In other words, there is definitely more room in the console marketplace for kids. And Microsoft has a secret weapon that Nintendo doesn’t: the Xbox Game Pass subscription.
Consider the following scenario: A parent wants to buy a game console for their child. Come Holiday 2020, they’ll have a choice among the PS5, the Xbox Series X, the Xbox Series S, the Nintendo Switch and the Nintendo Switch Lite.
The PS5 and Xbox Series X are out of the running almost immediately, as they’ll likely cost $500 apiece. That’s perhaps not an unreasonable price for an entire family entertainment system, but it’s a bit much for a single present for a single child.
At $200, the Switch Lite is the most affordable option — and, indeed, it’s a very popular starter console for kids, especially since they don’t need to share the TV with mom and dad to use it. Plenty of parents will go this route, perhaps with copies of Super Mario Odyssey and Animal Crossing: New Horizons in hand. But there’s still something engrossing about playing a game on a big TV screen, so buying a Switch Lite is hardly a foregone conclusion.
Xbox Series S vs. Nintendo Switch
That leaves the regular Switch and the Xbox Series X at $300 apiece. The Switch is an impressive piece of hardware, if only because it can move seamlessly from a handheld to a docked mode. Asking a child to give up the living room TV is easy, after all, provided they can take their games with them. And with beloved series like Mario and Zelda, it’s hard to imagine a young child wanting more out of a gaming system.
And yet, the Xbox Series S has a lot going for it that the Switch doesn’t. First off, it’s a much more powerful system, featuring up to 1440p resolution and the ability to play games at 120 frames per second. This probably isn’t something that would interest a very young child, but any financially savvy parent knows that the Switch is a few years old, whereas the Xbox Series S is brand new. As such, the Series S probably has more years ahead of it, especially in its ability to run new games. Microsoft’s new console is arguably a better investment.
The bigger selling point, however, is that Xbox Series S is, perhaps more than anything else, a vessel for Xbox Game Pass. For those who don’t know, the Xbox Game Pass is a subscription service that costs between $5 and $15 per month, and gives players access to a library of more than 100 downloadable games. The Xbox Series S is almost guaranteed to come with at least a month-long subscription to Xbox Game Pass.
As such, your $300 essentially gets you one of the most powerful consoles on the market, as well as a complete game library to go with it. That’s a far cry from the $420 it would cost to buy a Switch and two games — or even the $320 it would cost to buy a Switch Lite and two games. Better yet, Windows Central reports that the Series S can be financed for $25 per month as part of the Xbox All Access program, which would make it one of the most affordable console options out there.
While you can’t break down game selection into pure math (Super Mario Odyssey is arguably “worth” more than any four games on the Xbox Game Pass, depending on your child’s tastes), it’s still a good place to start. Suppose you need three games to get the most out of a system — Mario, Zelda, and Animal Crossing, for example. That would bring the total purchase cost of a Switch up to $480, before tax. That extra $180 would also buy you 12 months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Even assuming your child plays only one new game per month, the subscription is still a lot more cost-effective than buying games à la carte.
Thanks to the xCloud functionality in Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, Xbox Series S games aren’t even necessarily tied to a TV. You can download most of them on a gaming PC, or stream many of them to any modern Android device. It’s admittedly not quite as good as having a dedicated console that a child can just pick up and carry anywhere, but Project xCloud also utilizes technology that you probably already own.
Xbox Series S outlook
In short, $300 buys a three-year-old Nintendo Switch without any games — or it buys a brand-new console with a full library built-in. While there are still plenty of reasons to get a Switch instead, Microsoft could be missing a big opportunity if it doesn’t pitch the Xbox Series S as a great option for children.
As of now, the only real caveat is that the “family friendly” selections on the Xbox Game Pass are, at present, so-so. The website lists 65 games, and it’s sort of a grab-bag. Games like Banjo-Kazooie are quite old. Games like Forza Horizon 4 don’t have any objectionable content, but are more geared toward teens and adults. Games like Disneyland Adventures simply aren’t that good. In fact, a lot of the great games listed are indie fare: Totally Reliable Delivery Service, Untitled Goose Game, Golf With Your Friends and so forth. In terms of first-rate Xbox fare for kids, there’s Zoo Tycoon, the two Ori games and not much else.
Then again, Microsoft has a few more months to add more family-friendly titles to the roster. And, failing that, Fortnite is always free to play.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.