Despite the mounting evidence that they indeed have weasels in gabardine at high-level management positions, Microsoft sure makes life easy for us gamers. No credit? No problem! Even if you’ve been pre-pre-denied for a Macy’s card and the collection agency has your number on speed dial, Microsoft’s playing a trump hand with Xbox Live by getting rid of the credit card requisite. The only pieces of plastic you’ll need to get into this online community and game-matchmaking service are minted by Microsoft themselves, purchase-ready at the mall.
And while there, pocket a few Microsoft Points card (the current exchange rate charts at $19.99, including tax, for 1600 points). Redeemable online by punching in a 25-digit code on the back of the card, use the points to purchase knickknacks to customize your Xbox interface and little pictures representing your online visage. If that’s not exhilarating enough, visit the Xbox Live Arcade where homebrew games and golden oldies are downloaded onto your hard drive.
Xbox Live Arcade
Online co-op and deathmatches, densely packed high score tables, and Microsoft-sanctioned tournaments: they’re getting it right by treating these games with the same care and attention as an EA blockbuster. Considering that there’s no shortage of homebrews and classics, it’s somewhat strange we’re only receiving one game every month or so, instead of game cargos every week, but what is here is downright respectable.
Price: 400 points
For every instance of eye-rolling dialogue about video games uttered in Lifetime tele-pics or dinosaur shows like Law & Order, I always consider that the writers probably played a mean game of Gauntlet in their day.
Dungeons, dragons, potions, secret chambers, and buxom Valkyrie babes—Gauntlet’s the quintessential 80s game. It’s also so long and confusing that it begs discussion with other players, trapping yourself in conversations like “You have to hold down the right combination at this part or else the trolls eat you,” or “Dude, if you take this exit, you can totally bypass the ghosts in level 14!”
Facing your demons alone arguably makes Gauntlet the worst single-player game ever released by a respectable company. Looting and battling your way through dungeon corridors against a million-strong monster horde may look nice on paper, but it’s an unworkable task in actuality. And a tedious, boring, quarter-munching one at that.
But like some wondrous mathematical law, join an online game or get your friends (up to three more) to cover your back and the fun multiples accordingly. Despite Midway’s endless parade of crappy sequels, the original Gauntlet is something of an obscurity today, totally ripe for rediscovery. Every labyrinthine level is fascinating, enemy and treasure locations remain random and unknown, and the ambush of death incarnate still elicits fits of panicked laughter and cursing. Through teamwork and communication, you learn the shortcuts, angles, and completely obscure secrets the 100-level dungeon hides. And thus a somewhat poorly designed game becomes extraordinarily enthralling. Xbox Live Arcade was made for this.
Geometry Wars Evolved
Developer: Bizarre Creations
Price: 400 points
Set on a giant grid in some nether void (Geometry Wars Evolved would look right at home in that Simpsons 3D Halloween episode), you take control of a tiny yellow ship and fight against an unlimited horde of kamikaze geometric figures aiming to tear you a new hypotenuse. It’s simple, two-button gameplay meets the visual appeal of a slick fireworks display. Retro-chic, thou art defined.
The strength of this game—what separates it from all the other Robotron-esque games, Robotron included—is its unbroken, level-free structure. When you first start out a variety of enemies charge one by one, allowing time to observe their patterns and movements, develop strategies and a warm confidence. Within a few minutes you’re crashing into walls, scrambling out of corners, flying and shooting straight into the heart of an itinerant hive of 100 enemies, the game’s mocking you for thinking any kind of rational forethought can help you survive. Geometry Wars evolves (devolves?) into a thunderous, hand-cramping mosh pit of bullet streams, explosions, and really cool colors. You die every ten seconds and get an extra life from a skyrocketing score nearly as often. It’s the condition of any Geometry Wars addict: out on welfare, living 1-up to 1-up.
The game’s significant drawback? With each subsequent play, the several minutes it takes for the action to get interesting increasingly reeks of mindless, unchallenging busywork.
Marble Blast Ultra
Developer: Garage Games
Price: 800 points
Now this one feels like some garage programmers got hold of a kickass 3D map editor, made a couple dozen levels, and wondered what to do next. Instead of turning it into a first-person shooter set on Mars, they turned you into a marble stuck in these mazes floating miles above the Earth’s surface, each filled with platforms to jump, walls to scale, and pits to avoid. Marble Blast Ultra‘s an entirely run-of-the-mill game saved by some rather creative level design.
Now multiplayer, where you and up to seven other players roll around picking up gems, is where these marbles should’ve really shined. There are a handful of power-ups to collect for unpredictable, varied action, and the deathmatch levels are as finely crafted as the single player’s. So what went wrong? For one, the jewels come in waves, appearing when the previous wave has been collected, and usually in one of four spawn points. Because of this curious design, matches are often hectic-free as players camp spawn points or roll around in stiff patterns.
Equally frustrating is the lack of reward for bumping off other marbles. Respawn time after falling or getting pushed off the edge is barely a second, and you’re not even given any points for successful aggression. So while pushing other marbles off the edge is insulting and kinda funny, it’s also completely inessential and robbed of any satisfaction. Despite the criticism, it’s not hard to enjoy Marble Blast for the mindless little game it is, but considering this should’ve been the Xbox Live Arcade’s undisputed deathmatch game, you can hardly call it the cat’s eye.
Price: 400 points
Everyone who’s always saying you can’t improve upon perfection must’ve known we reached it back in 1982. Not even the presence of three other Xbox Live Arcade games heavily inspired by Robotron: 2084 can diminish the triumph of this early 80s masterpiece and, in fact, serve only to emphasize it. Sure, Geometry Wars Evolved looks glamorous. And, yeah, Mutant Storm Reloaded (800 points) has creatively designed levels, while Smash TV (400 points) is… well, it’s amusingly tacky and gruesome. They each have their own strengths, but Robotron pools them together into one retro-hip place of frantic doom and gloom.
The controls remain the same across all four games (use one joystick to maneuver, the other to aim and shoot hundreds of bloodthirsty bad guys) but the most striking difference between them is revealed in the pacing. While the others take a bit of time to warm up, Robotron is utterly brutal from stage one and never relents: by the time Geometry Wars gets interesting, in Robotron you’ve been murdered five times by a dervish of lumbering hulks, self-spawning robots, and big-brained monsters. And you’re already pumping in more virtual quarters ready for revenge.
Also unique are the humans bumbling around the stages that you must collect… or watch die! Each consecutive rescue rewards you 1,000 points more than the previous, and with an extra life at every 25,000 points, it’s obvious how valuable each human is. And that’s the sweet spot of the game, how deftly it forces you to defend yourself while trying to do the same to others. It’s a beautiful ravenous merge: destroy everything and save everybody as fast as you can. You want to play as long as you can, not necessarily because of a compulsion to live, but more to never allow this high to die.
Price: 800 points
When American “entrepreneurs” steal game designs from foreign countries, they usually repackage it with stupid names like Snood, slap on MS Paint-grade graphics, and finesse it with noise from a bargain bin sound effects disc. Because that’s how you avoid the jail sentence. By making your ripoff so stupid that no one with taste’s going to want to get near it, let alone buy it, and when it becomes a big success, everyone’s too busy wondering what the hell’s going on as you slink off with your moneybags. But not so with Popcap’s Zuma: it looks gorgeous, sounds good, and plays equally well. Which, of course, is why Popcap’s being sued by Mitchell, developer of 1994’s Japan-only Puzzloop.
And Mitchell’s going to have a strong case. Not only does Zuma ripoff Puzzloop‘s Mayan-inspired graphics, but also its entire core gameplay. In both, your job is to prevent trails of assorted color balls from reaching pits in the ground by using a cannon to shoot more balls into the trail. Connect at least three balls of the same color and they disappear. Zuma‘s more droning than most of its insta-puzzle brethren in that there are no external obstacles to juggle with: it’s never more than just you, the cannon, and a convoy of balls rolling towards its doom. I’ll find the lack of variety annoying one day, and discover the next day I can’t put it down even as my vision withers away. But regardless of mood, after a while this me-too puzzler’s flagrant derivativeness inevitably will weight down on any gamer, like Tetris blocks stoning a guilty conscience.