It is utterly mind boggling to think about Minecraft‘s route to fame. Starting out as a free-to-play alpha, moving on to beta a year and a half later, and late last year finally getting a “full” PC release, every stage of its development has resulted in another round of critical acclaim. This has led to a slowly rolling snowball of awareness, a snowball that has nearly reached the bottom of the mountain having gone beyond mere popularity into ubiquity.
Two months ago, my daughter came home having played Minecraft at her friend’s house. I was impressed with her friend’s taste. In the past few weeks, however, I’ve come to realize that pretty much the entire elementary school knows what Minecraft is. Baseball practices are punctuated with discussions of how to find diamonds. Arguments break out at birthday parties over whether playing on “peaceful” mode is a cop-out or not. Kids organize playtimes for the express purpose of showing off their Minecraft masterpieces.
Some are even savvy enough to express a preference for the PC version over the Xbox version.
Rest assured, it’s never the other way around. Only a few have played the Xbox version, really, but those who have played both never, ever try to espouse the virtues of the console version over the PC version. The preference makes sense; given the choice between using a mouse for a “god” game and a joystick — even an analog one — there’s really no contest as to which is preferable. So many attempts have been made to come up with an interface appealing enough to replace the mouse over the years, and they all fall short. Some of them are even decent games on their respective consoles: Sim City was fine as an early SNES game, Populous was certainly fun enough on the Sega Genesis, and more recently, The Sims have found a fairly sizable console audience. Still, nobody’s willing to take up the cause for the consoles over a good old-fashioned PC when it comes to these games. A console release is a victory lap.
Minecraft is no different. The Xbox 360 version is actually quite well done, taking into account the limitations of the controller and coming up with a menu system with enough easily remembered shortcuts and navigation paths as to quickly become second nature.
Like all of the console versions of the games previously named, the Xbox Live Arcade edition of Minecraft is for those prospective miners who just don’t have regular access to a PC — or at least access to one that they can play games on. It looks like the real thing and it sounds like the real thing, and when you don’t know what you’re missing, it may as well be the real thing. Crafting is particularly streamlined here — for better or for worse — and every game-defined thing that you can build or create is helpfully laid out for you by the menus that pop up when you begin your crafting experience. Exactly what those things are that you happen to be creating is subject to change. The first thing that you’ll want to build (after you’re protected from the nasty things that come out at night) is still a crafting table. All it takes at that point, though, is standing at the newly built crafting table and opening up the menu, and everything is helpfully laid out for you.
If you have the materials, you can instantly make the item. No more proper placement, no more grid navigation. Easy peasy.
Of course, the ease in creating the game’s limited set of things is only somewhat compensation for the relative difficulty in creating, you know, whatever the heck you want. Build a castle, build a lighthouse, build the world’s largest jack-o-lantern out of hundreds of small jack-o-lanterns… almost anything that you can think of, you can build, just like the real thing. But without a mouse, well, it’s just not that easy. It’s not so much that getting used to the analog stick is a problem, it’s more a matter of the idea that an analog stick is simply not capable of becoming an extension of your hand the way that a mouse can.
Still, with the proper amount of patience, you can still put together whatever your heart desires. Some may balk at the limitations of the map size (1024×1024 doesn’t sound all that big until you’re walking around in it), but it is big enough that 99% of players won’t feel trapped by it. The “game” elements remain the same, as the player still needs shelter from the creepy crawlies that come out at night, and achievements offer some nice short and long term goals for players who feel lost in this sort of sandbox. Players with HDTVs can even play split-screen multiplayer, a surprisingly effective experience that can result in some pretty intense planning discussions.
Perhaps best of all, the Xbox Live Arcade edition of Minecraft is not being treated as a finished product; it’s going to be patched and updated just like its PC-bound sibling. Perhaps we’ll get more things to build. Perhaps we’ll get a bigger playground. Whatever we get, it’s comforting to know that we’re getting something. Sure, it may be one more rickety bridge over the chasm between PC and console gaming, but it’s an important one.
Unfortunately, console games and PC ones are destined to remain separate entities until the consoles can think of a good way to either replace or incorporate a mouse-like interface. Maybe the Wii-U with its tablet controller is the answer. Or, perhaps console players will simply continue to be content with playing something that’s, you know, close enough.
For someone who doesn’t have a PC, Minecraft‘s Xbox Live Arcade edition is certainly close enough. That’s just as certainly not at all an argument for picking up the console version if you have a perfectly good PC lying around.