When I first began hearing about Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s Sesame Street titles for the Wii and Nintendo DS I was ecstatic. I’ve long lamented the lack of both substance and proper presentation in the kinds of shoddily produced systems and games currently on the market for pre-schooler-friendly play, but as a gamer parent it’s a hobby I’ve long wanted to share with my young daughter. Between Warner’s backing and the Sesame Street license, I had high hopes for the titles. Unfortunately they didn’t manage to wow me as intensely as I’d hoped.
On paper the true selling point of the Wii incarnations is a simplified control scheme that removes a lot of the more complicated gesture controls and constant button presses of other titles. Unnecessary buttons are covered by a character-themed Wii remote plushie that hides all but the center array (the -, Home and + buttons used for system navigation) and the 2 button (used to confirm in-game selections). In Sesame Street: Elmo’s A-to-Zoo Adventure, for example, a branded, non-skid Elmo cozy makes it easy for younger players to grasp the Wii-mote for game play.
Unfortunately, in addition to covering unused buttons this also blocks the remote’s infrared pointer, making it an unbelievable pain to try and launch the game from the menu screen with the cover in place. Sadly, this isn’t the only place where the control scheme falters.
As kids advance through Elmo’s zoo adventure – which is divided into a number of themed habitats like Jungle, Arctic and Savannah – three to four game types are presented per level. Before each round controls are succinctly explained on-screen. These generally involve things like using a scooping motion to capture rhyming words or match a lower case letter with its upper case equivalent. While this mechanism works well enough, children are just as likely to be instructed to tilt the controller left or right to move a character or cycle through a series of objects and then use the 2 button or the controller’s motion sensing technology (by way of jumping) to make a selection. From the get-go this control scheme seemed sketchy at best and inadequate at worst – more often than not the motion sensing seemed too loose to adequately detect my daughter’s movement, and the jump-to-select option, the concept of which I found wonderfully innovative, seems all but broken.
Even worse, the fully realized character designs and animations that I’d so hoped to see in such a major licensed property proved wholly absent. While Elmo, Zoe and their cast of animal friends are recognizable enough, the overall visuals are uninspired. The design is likely competent enough to hold the attention of most youngsters, but it’s only slightly more palatable than those of their dumbed-down cousins on kid-specific platforms. Elmo’s spoken dialog, which is prevalent enough to actively engage even the smallest Sesame Street fans, falls flat when paired with the rudimentary jaw-flaps of the title’s character animations.
That’s not to say that Sesame Street: Elmo’s A-to-Zoo Adventure is totally without merit. Multiple profile slots allow up to four children to keep individual character records, and parents can easily access these profiles to see how each child is progressing. Motivated caregivers can also choose to limit game time thanks to a handily integrated play timer, or take a hands-on approach with a second Wii-mote should a child need a little additional help.
While Sesame Street: Elmo’s A-to-Zoo Adventure‘s focus is sound, its execution is shaky. It provides a solid curriculum of letter, color and shape identification, rhyming and matching activities and even a nice primer on common letter combinations, but its wonky interface and cheesy graphics will likely prove disappointing for both parents and kids alike. It’s a step in the right direction with regard to edutainment titles on modern consoles, but more a baby step than a true stride.
WIRED: reinforces early language and literacy skills with the help of the Sesame Street characters kids love, robust parental controls
TIRED: control issues abound, poor animation detracts from content, character-themed Wii remote cover hinders as much as it helps
Interestingly enough, the DS iterations of this series seem to fare a bit better. My review copy of Sesame Street: Cookie’s Counting Carnival included the same level of parental control and statistical overviews as its big brother on the Wii, but with none of the controller headaches.
Kids guide Big Bird and Cookie Monster through a series of carnival-themed mathematics exercises and receive golden cookies for their effort – what’s not to love?
Well, the animation for one thing. Once again it shows that developer Black Lantern falls into the same trap of other kids game creators by dumbing down the visual representation for an audience that (admittedly) has very little in the way of a point of acceptable reference. That being said, the diminutive nature of handheld gaming does make this trespass a bit more forgivable.
The same can be said for the game’s pack-in bonuses. Though Sesame Street: Cookie’s Counting Carnival does lose some points for forgoing the regular plastic retail box in favor of a cardboard sleeve, it does include a jumbo click-style stylus that’s perfect for little hands and a wrist strap to add an additional level of system safety.
Content-wise Cookie and Bird teach tykes a lot about number identification, pattern recognition, relational concepts and spatial reasoning. More importantly, these topics are aided by a super-simple control scheme. With rare exception – kids actually need to blow into the DS microphone to inflate balloons in the carnival’s Food Court – players need simply tap the correct answer to each exercise with the stylus. This doesn’t make for the most varied and compelling game play, but at least it works.
While not nearly as ambitious as the Wii title, Sesame Street: Cookie’s Counting Carnival for the DS succeeds by fine-tuning its approach. It might not be game-of-the-year material, but it’s a solid educational offering wrapped up in Sesame Street charm. And at nearly $10 less than its big brother, it is truly the wiser choice for those looking to give the gift of gaming to the pre-schoolers on their list this holiday season.
WIRED: good use of touch screen interface, pack-in jumbo stylus and wrist strap, lots of spoken dialog from Cookie Monster and Big Bird
TIRED: cardboard game sleeve instead of storage box, animation looks like something from a dated browser-based Flash game, controls are incredibly repetitive
Review materials provided by: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment