Published in 1989 by Hi-Tech, with development by Rare, Sesame Street 123 was part of a selection of Sesame Street video games released on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System console. Where does it stand amid the other “edutainment” titles of the era?
Sesame Street 123 is an educational game, presumably aimed at children, and assumedly to assist in teaching them how to count or otherwise use numbers. Curiously, there are actually two separate “games” included: Ernie’s Magic Shapes and Astro-Grover, with Astro-Grover being the only one that actually has to do with numeric values. Ernie’s Magic Shapes is purely about… well, shapes. Obviously.
Granted, each of these two separations does include a menu of different variants. For Ernie’s Magic Shapes, this means a few challenges involving simply selecting a shape that matches the color of a shape given, or selecting the same shape as given regardless of color. Then, a latter few challenges, that show multiple shapes to coordinate in color and/or form.
The control scheme is child-friendly, for sure: Any press on the D-Pad will scroll forward one choice, while pressing either A or B makes the selection. In essence, the entire left side of the NES controller serves one function throughout, while the other serves the other, respectively. Incorrect choices are gently dismissed with minimal consequence, while being correct earns a victorious animation involving a cute little pixel bunny rabbit appearing behind the magician’s hat.
Then there are the variants of Astro-Grover, which actually have slightly more variety. Whereas all methods of Magic Shapes took place on the same background and overall screen scheme, Astro-Grover changes it up. Sometimes the space action takes place over a neighborhood skyline, sometimes it involves an array of antennas pointing at “Zip” aliens, and sometimes different spacecraft are offering math problems among the stars.
The premise remains straightforward, as each of Grover’s sequences involve selecting the right-numbered answer. There are multiple ways that Grover tasks the player with merely counting the on-screen aliens. The hardest it ever gets is one-third of one of the selections, where a little basic addition is necessary. Well, actually, the last game does have a strange “which two amounts form this sum” angle to it, which can legitimately be confusing for a few seconds.
That is the cut of Sesame Street’s jib: This is a child’s game, but even within that context, there are issues. Some of the animations between actions are drawn out over several seconds; as a form of reward for a completion, this would be fine, but between mere selections or starting a game? Some of the mini-games are better at this than others; however, the point is, in order to hold anyone’s interest, there should be a clear distinction between cinematic cutscenes and the instant feedback of real-time gameplay. In 123, this distinction is often fuzzy, blurry, or lost altogether.
Is it fun? Not really. Mildly amusing, at best, perhaps. Or, maybe, Sesame Street 123 could be good for laughs among close friends drunkenly partaking in it for amusement, viciously taunting someone who misinterpets an on-screen shape. Then again, compared to something like Fisher-Price Perfect Fit, the varied gameplay modes are welcome, and Sesame Street does seem to have a slightly better grasp on how to incorporate educational concepts into a virtual environment. Unfortunately, the NES was just not a great setting for those incorporations.
Rare really worked some magic into their 8-bit development responsibilities. Tucked within this otherwise innocous-seeming children’s plaything are some of the best-rendered pixel animations on the system. Really! Honestly, some of the effects are a wonder to behind. Check out the multi-colored star-stream animation whenever a Grover mini-game begins, or the classic-looking scrolling starfield of the initial choice screen. Gaze upon the tractor beams that Grover utilizies, or the pseudo-three-dimensional magical fields that Ernie conjures. This is a colorful game (emphasizedly so), and a visual treat. Seriously, the graphics might be the most significant source of enjoyment for this title.
Rare also did excellent work within the universe of controlled air-molecule vibration, but it has little chance to shine here. Other than the wonderful title screen track, other instances of background music (and they are just that: instances) are understated. The effects are fine, but pass without much fanfare, not being very memorable. In fact, much of the gameplay takes place against a canvas of stoic silence. Which is fine, but not as amazing as, perhaps, what could have been.
Let us talk about replay value. For an adult gamer, what are the odds that this sees much play? Zero. Even for its intended, targeted audience, why would this stand out side-by-side against other NES cartridges? Once all the modes have been tried, what then? One still has room to wonder if tools such as flash cards would be just as effective, which leaves Sesame Street 123 in an awkward place of being a lesser educational device with the advantage of 8-bit presentation, thus resulting in something not quite teaching nor entertaining. As is the case of many edu-titles, this is not a good game, but at least 123 has enough presentational spunk to keep it from being truly painful.
Overall rating: 1.5/5 stars.