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.