When the dust settled after Microsoft’s Kinect-heavy E3 presentation, one game emerged as the clear frontrunner for demographic and design fit with the Kinect hardware. No, it wasn’t the Fable title and unfortunately, it wasn’t Kinect Star Wars. The clear winner wasn’t even for the core market, but a studio overflowing with gamer street cred designed it. Double Fine’s Once Upon a Monster is a triumph of writing, presentation and design and, when it comes to the Kinect, you can do no better for the younger members of your household.
You’ll notice that we have a new badge and a new site category. Not only did this game receive our Editor’s Choice award, but it is also the first game featured in our “Dad Approved” category. Dad Approved games are not only good games for kids to play, they need to be titles that have enough enjoyment to keep parents coming back, while being accessible to and designed with children in mind. Dad Approved is reserved for games that parents will want to play with their children, and are friendly for even the youngest of gamers. We are proud to award our very first Dad Approved badge to Once Upon a Monster. Read on to find out why.
Even before you load up Once Upon a Monster for the first time, you can tell that the game was designed with accessibility in mind. Not only will children be able to easily mimic most of the required motions, but the comprehensive manual serves as a guide for parents. Each of the game’s six stories is broken down into five or six pages that focus on a different gesture set. The manual includes a page-by-page breakdown so parents can choose the story to take on (once unlocked through normal progression). The game is essentially like having six interactive Sesame Street episodes, complete with familiar characters and new friends.
For the most part, the game revolves around Cookie Monster and Elmo, though players will also control Grover and new monsters along the way. In each story, players will encounter a monster in need of assistance, whether it’s poor Marco celebrating a party alone or the large, unintentionally scary GrrHoof who just wants to be friends with the Puffalopes. In order to help these furry friends accomplish their tasks, players will need to mimic poses and dance steps, play dress up, flap their wings to fly, drum out fun beats, tune singing flowers and more. One beautiful feature of the game is that it supports drop-in/drop-out gameplay. Should a child wander away or simply decide to stop playing, it won’t disrupt the other player’s experience at all.
In addition to the activities, each story has a strong social message. The monsters cheer each other on, participate in overcoming shyness, clean up a trash-covered garden and help encourage others to participate. The whole game feels good and it’s wonderful to see children interacting with something that is purely positive. Throughout the game, players earn stars for completing tasks. These are awarded generously, but earning all five on a page is not a given. The star mechanic allows for replayability while eliminating the need to have any sort of failure mechanic. The game allows progress even without a perfect performance.
It is this reason that gamers as young as three years old can find enjoyment in the delicately and lovingly crafted world that has become the hallmark of every Double Fine endeavor. The presentation is fantastic. Cookie Monster and Elmo are more charming than they have ever been and, while it’s no surprise that the dialog is superb, Double Fine is at the top of their game. Throughout the game, there are little nods to the parents playing with their children to keep the adults entertained. Whether it’s Cookie Monster telling Grover that he can come to the party as Cookie’s “plus 1” or Cookie mentioning he’s on an emotional rollercoaster (come to think of it, Cookie Monster seems to have all the best lines), kids aren’t going to get the references, and that’s ok.
Visually, the game’s storybook feel is friendly and detailed, while still maintaining enough of the realism that the long-running Sesame Street television show so carefully blends with puppetry. At time, the game appears to be full motion video of the familiar characters, but even when animated, the fidelity is so good that the switch back and forth works.
Cookie Monster, Elmo, Oscar, Grover and even Slimy (Oscar the Grouch’s pet worm) all sound fantastic. The storybook monsters have voices, but don’t speak intelligibly. The stories are conveyed through gesture and visuals and interpretation from Elmo and friends. This helps younger children follow the story more easily, as narrative only comes from one or two characters on screen at any time.
I had the opportunity to watch Grace (7) and Paul (3) play the game independently and together. One thing that was a joy to watch was Grace helping Paul when he needed it. She was able to help guide his gestures through simple commands and advice (including when he stepped to far in one direction). They were thrilled with every success and, more importantly, they were able to continue through the stories without having to repeat sections due to failure. This kept them interested for quite a while.
I did notice that Paul had trouble with the leaning mechanic necessary for the third-person running segments. It is a hard concept to convey to a young child that you have to move back and forth by leaning without moving your feet. Thankfully, even playing alone, he would have been able to progress past those sessions due to the forgiving game design.
The Kinect tracking is as good as it gets in Once Upon a Monster. This is in part due to smart tutorials and gesture training, but also because of the more forgiving nature of the controls, especially in the drumming and mimicry segments.
As part of the Dad Approved feature, we’ll be including responses to some basic questions from one of our young players. Today, we’ve asked Grace to respond to her time with Once Upon a Monster.
Q: What was your favorite thing about playing Once Upon a Monster?
A: My favorite thing was getting to cuddle the Puffalopes.
Q: Do you want to play Once Upon a Monster again? Why?
A: Yes, I want to play it again. You get to play with the Sesame Street characters, scrub a dirty monster and help put on a play.
Q: Did you like you playing with Paul? Why?
A: Yes. It was really fun playing with him. It was fun to do the dance moves with him.
Q: Was there anything you didn’t like about playing the game?
A: No! I loved everything!
Q: Was anything too hard in the game?
A: No. It’s really a little kid game, but it’s fun and easy for big kids to play with their little brothers and sisters.
Q: What would you say to Mom or Dad about playing this game with their kids?
A: I would say that if you have younger child, they can come over and play Once Upon a Monster because it’s a lot of fun.
Double Fine has achieved an amazing feat with Once Upon a Monster. Not only is the game ideal for children in both design and presentation, but it is a game that parents will want to play with their kids. The six stories provide approximately 6 hours of content, but Sesame Street (and many other educational children’s shows) are designed around repetition. Once Upon a Monster makes returning to other stories fun for both adults and children and there are even achievements for playing stories multiple times. Oh, and most of the 1,000 gamerscore points are extremely easy to achieve, which is something the adult gamers will be pleased to know.
If you have a Kinect and a child in the Sesame Street age group, this game should be on your shopping list if not immediately, then before the end of the year. This is one video game that is a perfect holiday gift- if you can maintain more self-discipline than Cookie Monster and not crack it open early.
Review copy provided by publisher.