Back to the Future

The Xbox Live Arcade is a high-tech twist on the old-fashioned coin-op.

Mar 1, 2006 at 4:00 am
Last fall, Microsoft hyped its pricey Xbox 360 by promising to reinvent gaming as we know it. The blockbuster "next generation" titles were supposed to harness the machine's awesome power to deliver high-definition graphics and impossibly realistic action.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. The $60 launch titles were mostly retreads, slapdash sequels, and uninspired movie tie-ins. The killer app turned out to be XBox Live Arcade, an online service that offers the simplistic joy of the coin-op arcade.

If you have broadband, you can access the Arcade through your regular Xbox Live service. It features an ever-growing selection of more than 20 titles, each selling for around $6 to $12. They include 20-year-old-plus arcade classics like Gauntlet, puzzle games like Bejeweled 2, and classic board games like Backgammon. These so-called "casual" games are aimed at all players, from kids to grandparents.

Xbox Live is more than just a convenient way to shop at home. You can try free demos, play head-to-head against other 360 owners, or just admire the leaderboards, browsing the trophies and high scores of every gamer in the system. It's like a worldwide arcade, with every kid on the planet ready to beat the pants off you.

The service has already spawned one hit: Bizarre Creations' Geometry Wars Evolved, a frantic 2-D shooter that exhibits a stark sense of design. You pilot a hook-shaped doodle that shoots dashes at squares, doohickeys, and pinwheels. The simple vector graphics pay homage to the '80s classic Tempest, but Geometry Wars isn' t retro so much as postmodern: The backdrop warps, waves, and ripples, as your enemies explode with retina-scarring intensity.

Reflexive Entertainment's Wik and the Fable of Souls is an innovative platformer that casts you as a hopping elf who swings around the board by means of his froglike tongue. You have to master so many techniques that at first it feels a little like juggling while riding a bike, but once it all clicks, you'll become absorbed in the fast-paced problem-solving.

NinjaBee's Outpost Kaloki X is a goofy tycoon game with a cartoonish aesthetic and a swing-band soundtrack. Kaloki puts you in charge of a space station and challenges you to keep it profitable by balancing money-making enterprises with costly maintenance and power generation. Your choices are as simple as they are silly: Do you replace your lemonade stand with a more costly pawn shop? Will the scientists who visit the station settle for a chem lab, or should you pony up for an observatory? The buoyant animation and controls add to the simple but addictive experience.

As for the classics section, anyone who blew his allowance on midway games like Robotech 2084 will find ample fuel for a nostalgia trip. Sure, the graphics look blocky and washed-out on a 60-inch plasma-screen HDTV, and you'll laugh the first time you hear Gauntlet's elf whimper "Ouch!" in 5.1 surround sound, but gamers young and old are eating it up.

That's sending a message that Microsoft might not want to hear: Graphics aren't everything. After all, a game maker can spend millions to make a state-of-the-art title with high-def visuals, Hollywood voice talents, and startlingly lifelike violence -- but what's the point, if it isn't as much fun as Joust?