previews\ Sep 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster Preview


If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an educational game based on a popular kids’ property that doesn’t really bring anything to the table. It’s one thing to try and teach kids something they don’t know about, but how you do it is just as important as getting the lesson across. For years, so many games have failed to do this, starting with the Sesame Street games on the NES (“I don’t think that’s a word!”). It continued on with Barney’s Hide-and-Seek, a Genesis game that was so practically bad that it played itself, which I believe would discourage kids worse than letting them discover the solution for themselves.

I’m going off on a tangent here. Kids’ games aren’t really that bad anymore, though there are still a number of releases that are aimed at younger players (mostly on Wii, like Sesame Street and – gag – Smurfs Dance Party) while shutting out older players from having any fun. However, Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine could very well change how this formula works with its upcoming release for Xbox 360/Kinect, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster. This isn’t your typical foray down the familiar license – Tim and his team are actually doing something genuinely new, and something that…wait for it…all ages can seemingly enjoy.

The game is presented in a storybook format, telling a tale that involves a series of monsters that just want to have fun with their days. The two main stars are familiar characters from the Sesame Street lexicon – the sweet-eating Cookie Monster and the high-pitched, red-furred Elmo. They appear in this monstrous world and guide the player through the actions of a newly created monster character named Marco. You’ll start out coming upon this creature, as he’s the only attendee at his birthday party (insert sad face here), but rather than discouraging him, Elmo and Cookie Monster engage in a number of mini-games to help perk him up, eventually getting to a birthday party he truly deserves. This is just the first part of the game; other chapters in the story tell different monster tales.

So how does this manage to involve adults along the same lines as kids? Well, keep in mind that this production is the work of Double Fine, the same savvy studio that produced Brutal Legend, Stacked, and the recently released mech game, Trenched. It’s got his style of humor in it, but never to the point that it’s raunchy or questionable for younger gamers. Tim worked very carefully to make sure that the tone stayed in the Sesame Street realm, but by the same token, also made sure that entertainment went hand in hand with education, without the latter overshadowing the former.

As a result, a number of Once Upon a Monster’s mini games are quite entertaining. One, for instance, has Marco taking part in a tandem race while Elmo playfully rides on his shoulders. Utilizing the Kinect, players must move left and right to avoid colliding with objects that could slow Marco’s momentum, while also ducking so that Elmo doesn’t hit his head on a passing tree branch. It’s never to the point that the activities are impossible, and young and old players alike will actually get into them more than you would’ve expected. Other activities include dancing (not hardcore Dance Central style either – we’re talking playful jumping around) and blowing out candles on a birthday cake. The game is packed with all kinds of enjoyable music, so kids can dance along to it, while parents won’t be worn out by it being loaded with thematic messages. Double Fine is making sure it’s fun all around, and not for a certain kind of audience. That’s where Once Upon a Monster’s main appeal lies.

To assure that the game had the same likable tone as the popular public television show, Double Fine worked closely with the teams at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Sesame Workshop to assure that the new monsters fit in with the classic ones, while the stories reflected the kind of proper tone that would be expected from the world of Sesame Street. Considering that many Double Fine staffers were fans of the show when they were growing up definitely helps, as their memories help fuel the events that occur in the game. We still have yet to see what later stages have to offer, but you can bet there will be some sort of fun motion activities that everyone can easily get into. Maybe we’ll even have a cookie-eating mini-game for good measure. I mean, Cookie Monster IS in the game, after all…

As far as presentation goes, the game features the authentic voicework of both Cookie Monster and Elmo, and the new creatures sound great as well. What’s more, the small monster universe that they dwell in is never to the point of being threatening. In fact, it’s quite comfortable, with its relaxed design and its fun, little atmospheric touches, like the mini swamps and the forests. Being able to check it out through the eyes of the Kinect is definitely a smart move, as it simply wouldn’t be the same experience by using a routine controller.

Okay, so maybe we’re a little bonkers previewing a Sesame Street game right after the release of the ultra-violent Gears of War 3. But what can we say? This isn’t typical licensed fare where the point of education is hammered into skulls. This is a delightful take on a classic franchise, going in an unexpected direction thanks to a devoted studio. We’re actually interested to see how Once Upon a Monster ends up when it hits stores on October 11. We’ll be back with a full verdict then, along with a desire to eat a bunch of cookies. Actually, we feel that now. OM NOM NOM!!

Oh, and there will be a demo available next Tuesday on Xbox Live. Check it out if you can.

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