Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster|
Beginning in 1969 as a Public Broadcasting (PBS) and Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) experiment to "master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them,” Sesame Street is now educating its third generation of young viewers with its exceptional presentation and quality.
The folks at Sesame Workshop are no strangers to the world of educational video games and with Once Upon a Monster, they have enlisted the services of the renowned Double Fine Productions – the folks behind classic titles Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and Stacking. Once Upon a Monster is the first Kinect title for either party, but you would not know it from playing, as it one of the most enjoyable and educational titles to grace the consoles in as long as I can remember.
Once Upon a Monster takes the form of a storybook –three storybooks to be precise – in which Elmo has to help various characters complete a variety of tasks that help them on the way to reach the final goal. The final goals are rather silly – getting to a birthday party, planting a garden, etc. – but it’s the variety of interactive and immersive tasks in between where the game really shines. Over the course of the four hours it takes to complete the game (yes it is brief), gamers will find themselves riding on the back of a monster to grab overhead fruit, banging a pair of conga drums to a fantastic beat, basketball-hooping trash into Oscar’s can, watering plants, getting down with Grover, and performing a ton of other great tasks. While these mini games may sound mundane to seasoned gamers, Double Fine’s incredible incorporation of Microsoft’s Kinect technology really makes these mini-games stand out as some of the best of their type on the market.
For starters, when gamers speak of seamless drop-in drop-out cooperative play, it does not get any more seamless than with Once Upon a Monster. Every challenge in the game involves two characters working cooperative, regardless of whether the second character is controlled by the programmed AI or by a second human player.
Let’s say that a gamer is playing as single player and a friend wants to join in – all the friend has to do is step in front of the Kinect camera, and within moments they are in complete control of the second character. If they want to leave, they simply walk away and the character reverts to AI control. It is fantastic to have the game seamlessly keep playing and not leave a co-op gamer hanging when the other needs a bathroom break or decides he or she has had enough.
The Kinect control is surprisingly accurate, yet Double Fine uses it in just the right degree to keep kids interested and positive. For instance, the motion tracking during the conga segment is spot-on, but the game is forgiving as to when it sounds the drum beat with respect to the music. Likewise, the movements during the dance segments (with Disco Grover) require the kids to make “similar” movements, to which the game applies a pre-programmed animation to make it appear that everything is in sync.
In any other game, this assistance might come across as cheap or lame, but in Once Upon a Monster it is a godsend. As a parent of three children under 10, it is obvious that the folks at Double Fine understand that perception is the key with children, and crushing their spirit by halting the gameplay is not going to keep their interest. But they also maintain a sense of consequence with having the onscreen character break form whenever the gamer stops putting forth an honest effort.
Once Upon a Monster features impressive presentation, blending 2D storybook illustrations with 3D characters. The voices of all the popular Sesame characters are spot-on, and all of the navigation is gesture-based via the Kinect controller. The scripting is definitely geared toward the younger crowd, but the writers continually interject witty jokes and heartwarming nostalgia to keep parents entertained.
One moment that comes to mind is during the conga sequence, in which Grover – upon missing a couple of beats – announces something to the effect that “they call me the different drummer” – obviously referencing Thoreau’s quote, "If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” This witty, intelligent humor is a hallmark of both Sesame Street and Double Fine, and is the perfect example of how well matched this seemingly odd pairing really is.
Once Upon a Monster is the finest Sesame Street game on the market, and one of the best Kinect games to date. This perfect blend of entertainment and enrichment fills a void on the home console, and provides a wonderful experience for the whole family.