Alright, first things first: Once Upon a Monster is a game for the little ones, and there are no two ways about it either, with none of the nudging and winking that you’d see in Pixar’s films to accommodate the older demographic. What we have here is pure unadulterated Sesame Street that, as an experience, is all the better for it provided it’s let loose on the right audience.
So why am I reviewing this game at all, then? If there was one thing aside from the endless reruns of Transformers, Robotech and Voltron that influenced my childhood, it was Sesame Street. The simplicity of it as well as the universal message behind each sequence or episode transcended geographical, cultural and language barriers, and has more than likely had a significant impact in the route my formative years took.
As an adult though, and with rose tinted glasses set aside, it takes a few moments to adjust to the fact that Double Fine haven’t fashioned another ode to a sub-culture of music or a psychotic summer camp simulator. I found myself frantically looking for the ‘catch’; something vaguely ‘adult’ that would put me at ease with what I’d gotten myself into.
There wasn’t one.
However, once you’ve made peace with the fact that you’re well and truly playing a game for youngins, you’ll start judging the game for what it is: a fine interactive storybook that teaches kids the same values that have laced every Sesame Street hour since I was a wee lad.
Structured as a storybook that you can flip through, you play your way through bite-sized mini-tales all revolving around monsters that need helping. You’ll have plenty of company from Elmo, Oscar and Cookie Monster along the way, making the journey somewhat of a novelty for kids. You’ll accompany these iconic characters on what amounts to a series of mini-games bookended by story sequences by way of non-interactive cinematics. These mini-games are mostly tailored to the target audience, although there are a couple of timing-based ones that require some adult supervision.
And that’s about all it amounts to, really. A set of mini-game-laced stories. The good news though, is that the Kinect controls function well enough for the most part, with seamless two-player gaming supported (perfect for parents who want to join in on the fun). While this is perfectly fine for what it is, i.e., wholesome entertainment for the little ones, I can’t help but feel that Double Fine could have done so much more with the concept.
The mini-games that are there may be amiable enough, but the game really does ache for some variety, not just in the kinds of activities available, but also in their creativity. What I wanted to see were activities that made use of the Kinect sensor in interesting ways. Stuff like co-operative games, greater character interactivity, voice recognition, or image or object (or person?) transference would have been awesome to try out. The Sesame Street license should have been reason enough to go all out.
In the same vein, as cute as the new monsters are, it wouldn’t have hurt to throw in more regular Sesame Street characters into the mix. The audio is uniformly flawless, with the exception of dialogue snippets within mini-games being repeated multiple times. For a game that will live and die by its ability to capture a child’s attention, there really should have been more attention paid to not only recording a greater number of audio clips, but also to the script itself.
The visual presentation gives you less to complain about, however. Right from when the game was announced, there was always the danger that Double Fine wouldn’t be able to accurately translate Jim Henson’s muppets to the digital medium. Lose the look and you just wouldn’t be able to relate to the characters the same way. Thankfully, Tim Schafer and gang have pretty much nailed it. They’ve got the movement and mannerisms down pat, which was always going to be tricky given how you’re mostly only exposed to their upper bodies on TV. Textures, especially fur, are another standout. Just seeing Cookie Monster’s matted coat will make you all fuzzy inside (provided you’re as attached to Sesame Street as I am).
Would I recommend this game? Absolutely. What’s here is top-of-the-shelf, but what kind of irks me is what isn’t here. I would have liked to see more involved mini-games and less repetition, for instance. Let’s hope this game does well enough for a sequel to be green lit. There aren’t enough kids games in the market that actually treat kids with the respect they deserve. And for that alone, Double Fine deserve a tight hug.