As the saying goes, when I became a man I was meant to put aside childish things. As an adult, it is my responsibility to pay bills, take myself to the dentist without causing a fuss and refrain from dressing like Spiderman just because I feel like it. Through Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster, Tim Schaffer and the fine folks at Double Fine have allowed me to regress, however, to a simpler time (whether they meant to or not).
Once Upon A Monster is the first licensed title from Double Fine, a studio previously known for its sleeper hits based around quirkily unique concepts backed up by their inventive, slightly twisted signature art styles. Being a Sesame Street game, the Psychonauts and Brutal Legend creators have toned things down and kept it on brand but their renowned attention to detail and polish thankfully remains.
A Kinect-exclusive title, Once Upon A Monster is aimed squarely at the younger gamer. Just in case you had any illusions that this would be a game for the people who originally grew up with Elmo and co. I have to warn you, this may be a disappointing experience. Still, if you have kids, there couldn’t be a better way to tire them out and help develop those key motor skills than playing through a chapter a day with them.
Following a simple premise, Once Upon A Monster pulls you into Elmo and Cookie Monster’s favourite book to meet a wide range of other furry friends and enjoy a range of activities including setting up the best birthday party ever and helping a shy monster make some new friends. Following Jim Henson’s original vision of providing an experience that’s both funny and educational, the game introduces young players to a range of interactions that will feed into how they see the world around them.
The Kinect technology is utilised to varying levels of success. Turing the pages in the book, dancing (you and your kid will dance at the end of every segment so leave your sense of embarrassment at the door) and guiding monsters as they flap, dash and leap across stages is smooth and forgiving enough so that it won’t lead to Baby’s First Rage Quit. The controls do fail in the same areas as they have before, namely any task that involves throwing or fine-aim. It’s awkward but the game does a great job of moving things along rather than grinding to a halt should the player start struggling. For more advanced players this can be patronising but it’s a wonderfully thoughtful addition from a studio that clearly knows its audience.
As is to be expected of Double Fine and Sesame Street, the whole world is gorgeous. It took a little while to get used to the fact that what were previously puppets seen only from the waist up now had legs (and you can really see the toll that a lifetime of scoffing cookies has had on poor Cookie Monster) but everything fits in well. The UI is always clear and Elmo & Cookie are perfect guides, directing your movements in every challenge.
Being able to jump in alongside player 1 means that parents can be a part of the experience rather than relying on the game to act as a babysitter. Again, the developers should be praised for the approach they’ve taken, encouraging you to interact with your child and share in the fun. With proper reinforcement, this is a perfect introduction to gaming and it teaches some important lessons at the same time.
There are times when the pacing falters or the game gets in its own way. What were intended to be forgiving mechanics can lead to confusion. Successful actions are rewarded with stars but these hardly matter and are easy to pick up to the point of being patronizing. Even the newest inductee to gaming will soon notice that they can breeze through and not worry about missing too many pickups or hitting a string of wrong notes in a music game. The praise is relentless and does occasionally annoy.
Equally frustrating is the feeling that grows as you play that you’re not really having much of an impact on the game itself. Following instructions and getting feedback is great but there are few opportunities to be creative and do your own thing, another vital lesson for youngsters, which would have made the game a far richer experience. There is a final mode that allows you to help create your own unique story but it’s such a late addition as to make you wonder why it wasn’t a key feature when the game was originally designed.
In a market where children’s games are often poorly thought out, limited experience, Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster is a breath of fresh air. Encouraging healthy ideas through play and letting parents get involved at the same time means that if you have a Kinect and a kid, this is essential playing from the fine folks at Double Fine. It’s short lived but, as many parents can attest, children will ask for the same story over and over again, finding new ways to enjoy them every time.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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