I was really excited to get an Xbox 360 back in December. Thinking back, though, I can’t remember exactly why I decided I wanted a new videogame system. I’m not sure which games I was looking forward to, other than, obviously, Halo 3.
I found out about Gears of War and that became the reason I was getting a 360. I played GoW for about a month straight, but I don’t think I’ve played it in almost a week. I’ve beaten the campaign on three difficulty levels and played through the entire game as the second player in co-op, so there are really no more worlds to conquer there (and personally, I don’t find either the gameplay or the campaign quite as entertaining as the Halo series—I’m currently replaying Halo for the second time in two months, having played through Halo 2 in the interim). However, Microsoft has a few interesting aces up its sleeve when it comes to keeping me playing between big releases like Gears of War and Halo 3.
First, there’s the Achievement system. As you play an Xbox game, you unlock Achievements for various milestones you hit (like finishing a level or beating the game) or tasks you complete (such as beating X number of bad guys in under ten minutes). You also get points for these achievements, ranging from five points for really easy stuff to sixty for extremely hard stuff. All the points get added up next to your “gamertag,” your identifying profile on the Xbox Live network. Of course, the more points you have, the “cooler” or “more pathetic” you are, depending on who’s doing the judging. (You can see my gamer profile here.)
It’s an amazing return to the earliest days of videogaming, when earning the most points and getting your three-letter initials (or maybe just “ASS”) at the top of the Space Invaders arcade machine was the only worthwhile goal in life.
But the other way Microsoft has kept me hooked is via Xbox Live Arcade. XBLA is a collection of videogames available for download for Microsoft Points. You buy Microsoft Points with normal money, then pay X number of MS Points to buy a game (usually about 800 points, or $10, for a decent game).
As you’d expect, XBLA games aren’t as large or involved as an Xbox 360 game you would buy at a store. However, you might have bought some of them at a store ten years ago. The XBLA archive includes arcade classics such as Street Fighter II, Root Beer Tapper, Pac-Man. There are also PC and console games like Doom and Paperboy. But best of all, there are brand-new games developed just for XBLA.
Moreover, almost all the games released on XBLA are specially developed with features such as online multiplayer play, Achievements, and player leaderboards so, once again, you can prove you’re better at Pac-Man than that guy who smells funny and always wears a black tank-top. (The Wii also has its Virtual Console, which allows for downloading many of the classic Nintendo games from over the years, but from what I understand these are usually just direct ports, which means there are no online multiplayer options and whatnot. The PS3 may have something like this too, but if I keep checking Wikipedia every two minutes I’ll never get this thing written.)
So far I’ve downloaded six games from Xbox Live Arcade: Street Fighter II, Contra, DOOM, Small Arms, Geometry Wars, and Alien Hominid. The first three games are ports of older games while the last three are new games developed for XBLA.
I should note that Street Fighter II and Contra aren’t the familiar console versions most players would be used to. Both are the arcade versions. The arcade Contra is vastly different than the NES version, in particular because it’s much, much shorter. The old Konami code still works, though (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A). As for SFII, since this is the arcade version (which was intended to bilk you of as many quarters as possible), the computer cheats. Ryu in particular is an unbelievably cheap hose monkey bastard dick.
I enjoyed playing DOOM; I played a lot of DOOM II in my teenage years, but I had never played the original game. (On an interesting side note, there’s a Doom II arcade machine featured during the convenience store shoot-out in the movie Grosse Pointe Blank, but it was a one-of-a-kind prop built for the film.)
I hope we get some real arcade classics in the near future. It was recently announced that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade beat-’em-up will arrive on XBLA in the near future, which is cool. But the one I’m waiting for is The Simpsons arcade game. I was never a big arcade kid (I grew up in the age of Nintendo), but whenever I had a chance to spend a few coins at one, I went straight to The Simpsons for the simple reason that there was never a console port of the game. For that reason alone, Microsoft must bring this classic beat-’em-up to XBLA. (I’d also love to see the original X-Men arcade game, which never had a console port either.)
Now, as for the new games developed specifically for XBLA…I think Microsoft has a great thing going here. A lot of people have dismissed many of XBLA’s games, saying the offerings are weak, but I think they’re getting a lot better. Geometry Wars was one of the earliest games to separate itself from the pack. Think of it as Space Invaders times about a million. You have a little “ship” that you can move around in all directions, constantly firing bolts at other little geometric shapes which will kill you if they touch you. The shapes explode in a burst of fireworks, and at times your blasts take on the look of a sparkler crossed with the aurora borealis—if ever there was a game to give you a photosensitive seizure, it’s Geometry Wars. So far, I suck at Geometry Wars. I worked my ass off to hit the first milestone of 100,000 points—for which I got an Achievement worth a measly five points. I like the game, but it’s kind of hard.
Small Arms was a bit of a disappointment from the get-go. I’d read some positive reviews that called it “Super Smash Bros. with guns.” I was a big fan of SSB so I thought I’d give Small Arms a shot. The graphics are beautiful, but initially, I found the game to be complete chaos. You’re shooting and you’re throwing bombs and you’re riding a train and you’re on fire and the camera is pulled way back because there are four people playing and you can’t tell which one you are and everyone’s screaming…it’s insane. Slowly but surely, I began to figure out what was going on. I’d say it took me about an hour to get good enough not to die every thirty seconds. The game is still hard, even on the easiest difficulty setting, and I’m not particularly inclined to work at the Achievements right now. I think its greatest value will be as a party game. Now all I need is, y’know, a party.
I’m enjoying Alien Hominid a lot more. Initially, it seemed almost as hard as Small Arms. It’s not quite as chaotic, though. While it does have a learning curve, it reminds me more of the early NES games. You usually sucked at those for the first few hours of play. Back then, designers hadn’t quite refined the art of making games with gradually increasingly difficulty, so they were often fairly hard from the get-go (the original Super Mario Bros. is a good example of that).
Alien Hominid, which began as a Flash game on Newgrounds, is kind of a cross between Contra and the cartoon Invader Zim, with a little bit of Toejam & Earl thrown in. You play an alien who gets shot down by the Men in Black. The MIB then confiscate your spaceship, and it’s your job to get your ship back and exact revenge upon the hordes of evil humans who want to dissect your adorable li’l yellow body. The graphics are beautiful, and they’re even in HD for those of you who have taken that step.
As I attempt to master Alien Hominid, I eagerly await the publisher’s next XBLA release, Castle Crashers, a beat-’em-up inspired by the aforementioned Konami classics (Ninja Turtles, the Simpsons, and X-Men).
But the upcoming release I’m most looking forward to is Worms. I’ve played a few different versions of Worms since it was first released (just the 2D versions—the 3D ones don’t sound appealing), and I can’t wait to try the XBLA version, which will offer online multiplayer.
In closing, here are my five most wanted titles for XBLA:
5.) NBA Jam – because I prefer my basketball with flaming thirty-foot dunks.
4.) X-Men arcade – because Wolverine’s laser claws are hilarious. And awesome.
3.) Road Rash 64 – EA doesn’t seem interested in making a new Road Rash, so maybe I can at least get this version. Some versions of Road Rash have been ported to the PSP, but nothing to Xbox.
2.) Duke Nukem 3D – I’ve been playing this on my PC lately. I’d forgotten how immensely entertaining it is. “Your face, your ass, what’s the difference?”
1.) The Simpsons arcade game – for so many reasons, but particularly because it was never available on a console.
I loved XBLA and wish I hadn’t jumped ship so soon – especially in light of some of their recent releases. On Geometry Wars, try grabbing the Achievement for going 1 Minute without killing anything (I think that’s what it is). It’s certainly do-able (I did it on my second try) but it gets crazy as you eventually get chased by a full army and can’t take one shot. Anyway – I love Geometry Wars but you have the description wrong. It’s more like Asteroids or Robotron on crack. I can’t imagine what the light show this game gives off would do to all those kids whose synapses were fried by that Pokemon show a few years back.
BTW The makers of Geometry Wars have their newest XBLA offering coming soon. I believe it’s called Boom Boom Rocket and has to do with fireworks. Those guys won’t rest until they’ve fried every last circut in our expensive HDTVs.
PS3 does have an online store to download original games. They have a small number – their latest release fL0w was just launched this week. Also, David Jaffe (developer of Twisted Metal Black, God of War) toiled on a downloadable PS3 game (Calling All Cars) because he wanted to go back to his roots and make something simple as a way of taking a breather between mega-projects. They also have PS1 games available for download. Like the Wii Virtual Console, I don’t believe they have leaderboards for these games, so MS offers the only true virtual ‘arcade’ setting.
Incidentally, Shigeru Miyamoto (developer of Mario, Zelda and many more) is the key note speaker at the Game Developers Conference next week and he is expected to announce a new ‘channel’ for the Wii which will be an extension of the Virtual Console. It will offer games developed specifically for the WII (not ports of existing games) as well as serve as an arena for indie game developers. Rumors abound that Telltale Games wants to bring their Sam and Max series of web games to the Wii (also to XBLA). Also, their online service gets going later this Spring and it is expected this new channel would feature leaderboards as well. I think eventually all 3 systems will offer this service – although arguable MS has a huge head start.
Post Zelda, I’ve been spending more time on the Wii Virtual Console catching up on all the great Nintendo classics I missed by not owning an SNES as well as playing some old favorites. On my dashboard I currently have Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Donkey Kong Country and Super Castlevania IV. I kind of like having this virtual collection and knowing I will never have to blow into the cartridge to get these things to work. And I am looking forward to the day when I can show Colin and Aria the games that helped craft their Dad into the man he is today.
That said – if I ever get back into the XBLA arena (and now with my brand new 40″ LCD I need to get back sooner than ever) I will gladly crash those castles by your side.
You have my sword.
Don’t you mean “You can count on my steel”? I just know that dude was Ted Raimi, btw.
You practically doubled my post, there—thanks for the content!
I do wish I could get my hands on some of those older Nintendo games…well, maybe DG will get a Wii for Xmas, if we can actually find the dang things.
I was going for Lord of the Rings vs. Army of Darkness hence “sword” and not “steel”.
I have to say, Alien Hominid is growing on me more and more. Yeah, you basically have to memorize every level and the method to beat every boss, but that was par for the course back in the day. And the 2D graphics are fantastic. A reminder that 3D isn’t always better (though I must admit, the 3D platforming in Karen’s New Super Marios Bros. for DS is very well done).
Technically, New Super Mario Brothers is a 2d/3d hybrid. The levels are 2D while the characters all sport 3-D shading. It makes for a great look. I’d still call that game a 2D platformer. Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, Super Mario 64 – those are all 3D platformers.
I’d actually like to see more 2D games given the NSMB treatment. Castlevania gets it this Spring on the PSP with a redesign of Sympony of the Night.
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