It’s amazing what a little time can do to your perspective of certain things. When I founded Co-Optimus a game like Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster wouldn’t have even been on my radar - I was a man that cared more about the next Halo game than I did about the next casual or kids title. But now as the father of a two and a half year old girl, Once Upon a Monster instantly appealed to me as a way to entertain her and enjoy something with her, without having to watch another episode of The Fresh Beat Band.
Once Upon a Monster follows Cookie Monster and Elmo through a book of the same name. Each chapter in the book is a smaller themed story set in the world of Sesame Street. Developed by Double Fine, the game utilizes colorful graphics, familiar characters, and plenty of activities for the Kinect to educate and entertain kids..and adults.
For me the graphics stood out immediately as impressive, the 3D rendered muppets are gorgeous with fur that looks soft and plush. At first glance you’d think you were watching a video from the TV show, but there's no puppeteering involved here. The characters look like a muppet should and they all sound appropriate to their character...yes...even Elmo’s annoyingly squeaky voice.
The great thing about Once Upon a Monster is the entire game is designed around co-op play. Every activity in the game has two monsters present to complete it. If only one person is playing the AI takes over for the other, but a second player can drop in at any time simply by jumping into the frame and waving or starting the activity. If you have a toddler, you know they aren’t exactly the type to sit or stand in one place at any time. Luckily Once Upon a Monster does a great job of picking up your little tazmanian devil as he or she zings around your living room while playing the game.
My daughter dropped in and out of the game dozens of times and it didn’t skip a beat. She crossed my field of a view, got too close to the TV, and even switched sides with me throughout activities. Each time the game adjusted or made some sort of audible mention to help us - Cookie Monster or Elmo will say something like - "I'm having a hard time seeing you, please move back." I tried using a blanket to setup some stage blocking for my daughter, it worked for a little, but eventually she just got too involved with the game to stand in a 3 foot area.
The activities themselves are sort of a mix between learning and physical action. One activity has you picking out various outfits for characters; you're instructed to choose specific outfits for a character based on theme or color. You might help weed a garden, plant and water seed, reach for stars, or dance with the on screen characters. All the activities held my two year old's interest quite well, though some seemed to go on a little long for my taste. In a few instances you’ll be asked to mimic a flapping motion to make the characters fly, during which you need to lean and direct your character to collect items. Doing so gives yourself gusts of air to rest - it's both incentive and necessary. The on screen characters, my daughter and daddy all commented on how tired our arms got! This is almost like excercise I thought.
There seems to be plenty of content throughout the game as well, and the later stories do build on some of the gameplay mechanics from the earlier one. Each story lasts a few pages with various activities and almost all end in a dance number.
Another nice thing i noticed about the game is that the motion sensing is pretty forgiving. You don’t have to mimic the actions as accurately as say, Dance Central 2 might require. This means your child will be getting plenty of positive reinforcement from the game (and from Daddy) when you complete objectives. I never really saw my daughter get frustrated because she was doing something and the game wasn’t responding, save for one action which required her to put both arms forward. Aside from motion controls, Once Upon a Monster does utilize some voice controls as well, though it’s for simple actions like yelling Happy Birthday to Marco at his party. I would have loved to see a little more interaction here with the kids talking to the on screen characters - my daughter was definitely eager to interact with them - waving at Cookie Monster every chance she got and saying hello.
Once Upon a Monster utilizes a system of gaining stars to gauge just how well you are doing. Every page in the story book earns you a maximum of five stars and at any time you can page back through past activities and try to do better in them. This gives both you and your child some incentive to go back and play previous segments over again, though my daughter wanted to dance with Grover...over..and over again without even understanding what the stars meant.
It’s easy to see the possibies that Once Upon a Monster has laid out with the first Kinect game geared towards toddlers. It’s simple, fun, and intelligent for kids while still mainting entertainment value for adults. Numerous times I laughed out loud at the dialog and character reactions, it’s a very well written game. While I think my daughter might have been a hair too young to get the most out of the game, she still had a ton of fun playing with daddy. If your child is in pre-school Once Upon a Monster is a perfect fit for co-op gaming, learning and entertainment.