There are few games that manage to enchant both children and adults alike. Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster is one of those few game. From the second you turn it on, you'll have a smile on your face, as you and your family will be whisked away into the world of Sesame Street, on an adventure that'll have you grinning for hours to come. Funny, well thought out, and overflowing with charm by the gallon, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster is a blueprint for how Kinect games should be done.
Things open with a cutscene of the, er, real Elmo and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, as it appears in the TV show. Elmo, who admit he can't read, has a massive pile of books he's carrying when he bumps into Cookie Monster. It turns out one of the books, called Once Upon a Monster, Cookie Monster's read himself before. Intrigued by Cookie's description (it involves cookies, monsters, cookies, parties, cookies, fun and games, and, oh, cookies) Elmo asks Cookie if he can have a look - and so our adventure begins.
As it quickly turn out, Once Upon a Monster isn't just any book - it's a magical book, that transports Cookie Monster and Elmo into each of the game's stories. After opening up the magical book, you'll be able to flick through the pages to choose which story you want to play through. Each story's divided into different sections, which are illustrated with a picture that helps you tell them apart, so there's no reading for kids here either. Small bookmarks at the top have pictures of monsters or characters from that particular chapter, letting you jump from one to the other quickly, and helping you find your kid's favourite sections with ease. To begin with, though, you'll have access to only the one chapter, called "The Greatest Party There Ever Wasn't", where a lonely monster, named Marco, has attempted to throw a party, but no-one's turned up. All together now - "awwwww". Never ones to enjoy seeing fellow muppets feeling down in the dumps, it's up to Elmo and Cookie to raise poor Marco's spirits, and lend a helping hand.
It doesn't take long for the game to connect with your child, though. Even if they've never really stepped near a games console before, Once Upon a Monster's been designed to ease new players in, and their jaw will likely hit the floor when they see what they can do. One of the first things you're asked to do in the game is to wave at Elmo and Cookie - which seems simple enough to adults, but to a child, when Elmo and Cookie see you're waving, compliment you, and wave back, it's a pretty incredible moment. Something as simple as that is enough to put a massive grin on a child (and their parent)'s face, especially when it's followed up by having to say Marco's name to get his attention. When Marco looks up and comes forward (because Kinect's actually very, very good at voice recognition), your child will be out of the real world, an into Sesame Street. The TV, 360, and Kinect are no longer expensive pieces of machinery - they're magic portals into another world. And it's one adults can enjoy too.
The game's been designed to be played with two players, and unlike other Kinect games that seem to struggle with the workload, Once Upon a Monster's been designed well enough that it picks up any of Kinect's slack. The only problem you may have is with a rather tall parent, and a young child, as Kinect may struggle to see you both at the same time, meaning you'll need a lot of space between you and the sensor. Out of all the Kinect games, though, this is the one we've struggled with the least - we'd be interested to know how parents with large height gaps between them and their children cope - feel free to leave a comment below, and we'll update the review to suit.
Each chapter in the book is made up of a collection of witty cutscenes, which progress the story, and fun minigames, each of which has been designed so that any child should be able to do it. One particular game (which is often repeated through different chapters) sees you flapping your arms to fly up the screen, leaning left and right to steer from side to side to collect various objects. It seems simple enough, but when it comes to children, each child will be different in how they approach such a thing. As the developers told us when we first saw the game at a games convention in Germany, when they were testing the game, they became aware that they couldn't expect children to all do the same things. Even something as simple as flapping your arms to fly higher needs to look for one of a number of things - some children will flap viciously, some will go slowly, some will have their arms outstretched and move their whole arm, others may only waggle their hands. Even something as simple as moving from side to side has had to have several approaches covered - while some children will lean from side to side, others may hold one arm up and put the other down. The game's been designed to look out for pretty much every way you could possibly try to control the games - and unlike what's so common with Kinect, it never feels like you're wrestling with technology. There are mercifully few times where you'll be frustrated, as you do exactly what the game says, only for the sensor to seemingly not realise.
Each of the stories is overflowing with charm and kid-friendly appeal, and there's a variety of things for children to do, too. In the space of the first chapter, you'll help dress Marco, and his friend Shamus up for the party, go for a piggy back ride on Marco's back to collect streamers, play some drums in time with the icons on screen to help write a song for the party, and practice your dance moves when Grover shows up and struts his funky stuff. There's a lot of depth and variety on offer from one game to the next, but most importantly, it all works, it's fun to play, and it's the sort of thing children love. Everything's intuitive, well explained, and friendly enough when you get it wrong - you can't fail, for example, and there's nothing telling you how badly you're doing. In fact, the only problems we really had during the game were loading the chapters in the book - you've got to put your hand on a tab on each side of the page, and pull them apart - and when it didn't quite recognise some of the poses we were doing for the dancing/posing games - both of which were thankfully pretty minor, and infrequent.
Full of quick witted jokes, and plenty of visual humour for those who may not catch the snappy gags, Once Upon a Monster is actually a genuinely funny game that knows its audience well. Almost every character cracks gags on a pretty frequent basis, helping keep that smile plastered firmly across your (and your family's) face. And although you'll spend most of the game playing as Cookie Monster and Elmo, other characters from Sesame Street make cameos too, which are bound to raise a smile with kids who've seen the TV show.
A world above anything else that's available for Kinect at the time of writing, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster will have a smile plastered on your face from start to finish. One of the only games that accurately shows just how Kinect can break down boundaries in order to let anyone play, Once Upon a Monster will keep you and your children coming back for more. If you have young children in your house, and only buy one Kinect game, this should be it.