As a parent, it's always tricky to find games young children will enjoy. Trying to tread that line between finding something that's interesting enough to hold their attention, whilst still being easy enough for them to play, without requiring all that much reading sometimes feels like searching for the Holy Grail (although our find a game feature does make things a lot easier for parents searching for games for their children). And while Microsoft's Kinect Sensor might seem like it has the answer – after all, it has no buttons, and therefore could be easier for kids to use – almost every title that's been released so far seems to make everything ten times harder because it doesn't use a controller, as it looks for very specific, over-the-top actions, which sometimes aren't what you'd expect. They say, once bitten, twice shy – and we were definitely quite skeptical about how well Once Upon A Monster would work when we went hands-on with the game recently - but, after a few minutes with it, our jaws were left on the floor, and we left sporting the largest smiles we'd had all day. It really works. And it's great fun for adults, too.
Made by Tim Schafer's Double Fine studio (creators of Xbox Live Arcade Games Costume Quest and Stacking, amongst others), Once Upon A Monster is based on the popular children's TV program, Sesame Street. Playing as Elmo and the Cookie Monster, players discover a lost children's book, called 'Once Upon A Monster', which they begin to explore the chapters of page by page, helping new monster friends with their problems through a series of fun mini-games as they go. And while Sesame Street has always been relatively educational, this game steers away from teaching your children numbers and the alphabet, instead focusing more on what the developers described to us as 'emotional education' - teaching children about things like friendship, co-operation and empathy.
'From Seed To Sky' was the chapter we got to play through during our time with the game, and it follows one flowery-monster called Shelby, who is rather upset that her much-loved garden is full of rubbish and weeds. Being the nice guys they are, Elmo and the Cookie Monster decide to help her out a bit, and clear her garden through the course of three different mini-games. As this is a game for children, it's a great added bonus that a parent can play together with their child - in fact, the game's been designed for an adult and child to play together - like in real life, you'll be the Cookie Monster to their Elmo.
First things first, we needed to deal with the rubbish problem, and what better way than by chucking balls of weeds into Oscar's bin. In order to play, all you had to do was hold your hands in front of you to catch a ball of rubbish, and then make a throwing motion to chuck it into the relevant bin. To make it a bit more of a challenge, there were two different colours of balls – red balls needed to go into the red bin, and green into the green bin, as you cleared things up.
Next, Elmo and the Cookie Monster were sucked into a giant plant, before being spat out having donned bee costumes, complete with wings, so they could fly up this massive beanstalk-like thing. Taking control of the Cookie Monster and Elmo, it was up to you to flap your arms to go higher, and lean to steer from left to right, as you tried to fly over every bud on the beanstalk, which would make the flower blossom, and cheer Shelby up no end.
The last mini-game was one where we needed to sort out some singing flowers, so that they were all singing the right pitches to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Each one sung a random pitch, and you needed to raise your arms to make them sing higher, or lower them to sing lower.
It's already an impressive selection of minigames for a single chapter of the game, but what impressed us most was the sheer amount of research and thought Double Fine had put into their target audience of children, and how they play games. For example, in the flying mini-game, they explained how children vary so much in how they went about flapping their arms and steering – some would be very excitable and over the top, whereas others would be much more reserved and hardly flap at all. They'd tried hard to accommodate this by making the game pick up as much as it can, from the tiniest flap and lean, to the most exaggerated arm movements and steps sideways. Unlike other Kinect games that seem to look for one, very specific motion from you, Once Upon a Monster actually has a selection it's looking for - in the flying game, you could either lean from side to side, or hold your arms at different angles, which would both have the same effect. It was an impressive tour de force of how well Kinect can work - if there's plenty of thought and planning put into it.
To keep everyone happy, too, the game's been structured so it's incredibly hard to get stuck. The longer you play minigames for, the easier they'll get, so that every child, no matter how skilled, will be able to complete the game. Taking the "rubbish basketball" mini-game as an example, with each shot you miss, an internal, auto-aim got turned up, so your next shot was always more likely to hit, meaning kids (and maybe even adults) don't get frustrated, fed up and give up.
With its fluffy monsters, accessible minigames, and huge amount of thought that's gone into making it a game any child will be able to enjoy, Once Upon A Monster is a great game for younger kids (and parents alike!). The game hits stores on the 14th of October. Until then, we have a trailer to whet your appetites - but if you've already got Kinect, and fancy having a go for yourself, why not download the demo off the Xbox Live Marketplace and try it out for yourself?