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Sesame Street Once upon a Monster brings the Double Fine touch to Kinect's hands free controls. The result is a surprisingly unsentimental set of six emotionally engaging and genuinely interesting children's stories.
There aren't many developers who I follow closely, but Double Fine (along with Naughty Dog and Remedy) has been on my radar since the excellent Costume Quest, Stacking and Trenched (now Iron Brigade). While I love Naughty Dog's cinematic productions and Remedy's sense of drama, with Double Fine it's their writing that I really warm to.
They have the ability to take a simple premise (like candy stealing aliens) and inject it with humanity and humour. This turns what could be an arbitrary role play adventure like Costume Quest into an endearing romp through childhood nostalgia. Who better then to take on the thorny task of turning a beloved TV series into a videogame - and a Kinect controlled game at that?
Once Upon a Monster is instantly recognisable as a Double Fine game. From the setup (acted in full by Sesame Street favourite Elmo) through to all six of the different character themed stories the writing and voice work is spot on. There is an attention to detail of the stories themselves that make them believable and engaging.
Seeing the puppet characters rendered on-screen in such fluffy and tactile form is an easy sell for your kids. This is a game that is designed to be played together with your children. It's controlled with the Kinect hands free sensor and any two people can jump in front to play together -- leaving and joining as they want.
It's a simple approach that works well and keeps the controls out the way so you and your child can enjoy the story. This co-operative play may seem like a nice addition, but actually I think this is how you need to play the game. It resolves a tension between gameplay and controller - the stories and challenges are pitched at a three or four year old, but the Kinect controller really works best with six years up.
It becomes the best entertainment for the family in front of a console for a long while.
By having a parent and child control the game together many of Kinect's foibles are done away with. The hands free controller works very well for adults and older children, and because both players are contributing to the action there is a real sense that even the youngest (and smallest) members of the family are actually controlling things.
As you play through the game you are led through a series of six stories, each belonging to a particular monster in the story book. Some stand out moments for me (ahem, I mean my four year old) were meeting Shelby and helping sort out his garden, hearing about Tallulah's lost marching band and helping her find them again. Finally, my son would find it remiss of me not to mention his favourite: cheering up Marco by giving him a birthday party (birthdays are big in our house at the moment).
While I must admit to feeling overly sentimental about revisiting the places and people I used to spend time with on Saturday mornings growing up, the game itself never overly indulges the heartstrings. By keeping the focus on what's happening in these particular stories rather than reverting to type (in terms of the Sesame Street characters we know) Once Upon a Monster feels fresh and original. This is something that is very rare in a tie-in game of this sort and reflects the fact that it existed as a Double Fine project before the involvement of the big brand.
Parenting is introducing your progeny to what's sentimental about your childhood.
Like The Gunstringer (and unlike Kinect Fruit Ninja or Leedmees) this is a boxed Kinect game. This means that it is more expensive than a download title. In videogame terms Once Upon a Monster is quite good value -- the quality and depth of the experience as well as replayability justifies the RRP of GBP 29.99. However, if you compare this to books or DVDs I think it can seem quite expensive. Some bonus feature like episodes of the TV show or a secondary game (like The Gunstringer's inclusion of Fruit Ninja) would have made this easier
I remember reading somewhere that parenting is basically introducing your progeny to what's sentimental about your childhood, and that rings true here. Although my kids were happy to play this with me, at times I think I may have been getting more out of it than they were. Either way, I was happy that it opened the door to introduce them to the old TV shows on YouTube the following afternoon.
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