While the Kinect has yet to win over a sizable portion of gamers, I’ve always been a fan. Anything that gets me off the couch and moving while still earning Xbox Live Achievements is okay with me! Of course, previous Kinect games have all been positioned as either entertainment or fitness products. Microsoft’s new Playful Learning initiative takes a new approach: making learning both fun and physical. Lofty aspirations!
I’ve spent some time with both Playful Learning launch titles, Kinect Nat Geo TV and Kinect Sesame Street TV. Check out my full impressions after the break.
Kinect Sesame Street TV
The world already has an excellent Sesame Street game for Kinect, DoubleFine’s Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster. Does it need another? Sure! Sesame Street TV is much different than Once Upon a Monster. Rather than telling a single imaginative tale with constant interaction (minigames), this title packs eight specially created episodes of the Sesame Street TV show. Most of the episodes’ content is live action, though the new host monster Cooper and many game-specific visuals are computer generated.
Basically, an episode starts out with Cooper Monster introducing the letter of the episode and its theme. These segments feature a character called Mirror which basically shows the player on-screen as if he or she was actually reflected in the mirror. Cooper even changes his shirt to match the color of the player’s clothing. It’s a charming effect that will dazzle kids as they listen to Cooper’s introduction.
The mid-episode sketches feature two primary types of interactions. One is searching for hidden objects. Basically, your kids will watch actual new live-action stories starring various Muppets and humans. At the same time, they’re searching for 20 hidden rulers or other objects. Voice commands take pictures of those objects while also taking a real picture of the players for their photo album.
The other interaction involves characters directly interacting with the player. Elmo will throw balls at you or Cookie Monster asks you to jump in order to shake a tree. These are simplistic interactions compared to actual minigames, but it really puts kids into the show instead of just being passive observers.
Kinect Sesame Street TV also includes access to a wealth of streaming video clips from the Sesame Street show. Searching for clips by name and category is fast and easy, especially since you can use a controller if you like. The Celebrity category has dozens of fantastic segments that even adults will enjoy. Did I mention you get Achievements for watching clips?
Kinect Nat Geo TV
This National Geographic title is aimed at an older set, and thus its eight episodes are structured a bit differently. The all-new hour-long episodes are basically nature documentaries for kids. The host is a real nature lover, as he apparently married an actual bear. Or maybe the bear attended his wedding, I forget.
At three points throughout each episode, large and easily noticeable animal prints appear on screen. That’s the cue for players to yell out “Tracks!” and embark on a ‘side track’ from the main episode’s content. It works much like the Picture-in-Picture special features that so many Blu Rays include. Only here, every side track asks players a couple of questions to keep them involved. You have to make educated guesses at the answers as the host doesn’t necessarily tell you everything in advance. For me, the questions are a bit on the tough side, but I suppose the quiz element is fun enough.
Every episode also has breaks for three minigames themed around that episode’s subject. For example, in the Bears episode you’ll dig through rocks for moths to eat or swat at attacking hornets. The display makes use of augmented reality, placing animal heads and arms on top of the player’s own and decorating the Kinect’s video feed with outdoor elements. It’s quite amusing to watch. A second player can even join in, making Nat Geo TV a more social experience.
Truly the stuff of nightmares
Unfortunately, the actual minigames are a mixed bag. I loved a few, such as the one involving catching river fish as a bear. You just maneuver your body to where the fish are going and your digital bear head chomps them down. But several ill-conceived minigames require rapid flailing of your arms, whether you’re pretending to be a bear digging for treats or a ram fighting with its hooves. Flapping your arms madly and repeatedly at nothing is actually pretty bad for them, and my first episode left me sore for days.
Some of that soreness can also be attributed to having to replay the minigames several times in order to get the best rating. The score goals are so strict, if you make even one mistake you’re likely to fail the level. A second person joining in doesn’t help since the difficulty jumps accordingly. That said, if you’re not concerned with Achievements, you can make do with a lower rating and still complete the episode.
On the plus side, Kinect Nat Geo TV provides one year of access to a host of non-interactive, 45-minute episodes to watch as well. You’ll find more than 25 episodes broken down into a handful of categories. These are legitimate television episodes and thus not aimed at older kids, unlike the main game’s interactive episodes. If you enjoy learning about animals, sharks, bugs, and whatnot, these certainly should hit the mark.
Two versions of each game
Microsoft isn’t known for embracing same-day downloadable releases of retail games; it usually takes months for a full title to become available on Games on Demand. That makes the Playful Learning titles’ release formats all the more interesting. Both games are available as downloadable titles. The client itself is free, but each episode costs 400 Microsoft Points ($5). You can also grab the full season (8 episodes) for 2400 Points ($30).
The retail version of each game sells for $30 as well. For some reason, the Achievements are different in the retail and downloadable versions. That means you can play both versions of either game and earn a total of 2000 GamerScore from what is essentially the same game. Plus the retail versions actually include a code for the downloadable version, so you needn’t even buy the game twice. That makes the downloadable version a crummy deal by comparison, so make sure you buy the discs if you’re interested.
Strangely, the downloadable versions of the Playful Learning titles aren’t available on Xbox.com, so if you really want those versions you’ll need to make the purchase through your Xbox 360.
Kinect Sesame Street TV is a fantastic buy if you have kids who enjoy Sesame Street. How could they not? The experience of interacting and playing with actual live action characters from the show will delight any young fan. Meanwhile, adults who watch along with their kids will love the streaming clips from the show, and perhaps the easy Achievements as well.
Kinect Nat Geo TV fairs slightly worse. The subject matter will likely be more interesting to older viewers, so that’s good. But several of the minigames fall completely flat, dragging the game down a notch. Buy if you want to learn about animals and the outdoors and can tolerate a bit of frustration and muscle fatigue.