The Xbox Live Arcade is either the best idea Microsoft ever had or the worst; it really does depend on how carefully the company wants to develop it. At the heart of the concept, it gives gamers access to the kind of pick-up-and-play stuff that few publishers could put on the shelves, and lets Microsoft try out some more left field ideas to see how the public responds - all at an impulse price.
The genius is that it's just such a simple and well-thought out part of the Xbox Live service. For a start, you can try out each and every one of the 17 currently available games for free, and then if you like them, you can pay a small fee (between £7.49/9.99Euros and £11.50/14.99 Euros) and download them. No need to worry about system requirements, configurations headaches and definitely no need to buy expensive magazines just to try and find out if any of the games are worth bothering with or not. In fact, Microsoft is currently offering the demo disk for the cost of posting it out via its call centre (0800 587 1102), through current Xbox Live starter kits, or attached to the Official Xbox magazine (issue 43, if you've got it already). You should also bear in mind that you don't actually need an Xbox Live sub to play the demo disk, although if you do you can obviously unlock and download the full games.
On the other hand, the reason it's taken us more than two months to get around to checking out the Xbox Live Arcade service was the lingering suspicion that the games were going to be the kind of sub-shareware fodder we've been sprinting from for years. Frankly, there are enough bad games to deal with at full price, never mind the cheap and nasty rubbish that the super-budget labels spew out to catch the unwary punters with. Taking it one step further and not even giving you the benefit of having a box and manual for your money seemed an even worse idea to us. At least you can trade in your rubbish boxed games.
But faced with a summer release drought as severe as we've ever known, we decided to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and give its newest service the once over; after all, it's free and we don't have to hassle overworked public relations people in order to try the games out.
Galaga is arguably one of the most enduring arcade shooters of all time, so kicking off the Xbox Live Arcade with a remake sets the right tone. As with all the demo versions available here, we were limited to just four out of the 110 levels and a few of the available weapons power-ups, but it's more than enough of a glimpse to reveal that it's little more than enthusiastic shareware fodder.
The so-called 'modern' graphics are serviceable enough in a kind of late-period-Amiga kind of way, and the gameplay is endearingly retro, but frankly we'd just rather play the real thing than some bedroom outfit's interpretation. There's always room in our lives for another Galaga clone, but we can think of better things to spend £7.49 on. Next.
Two games in and we're already onto block-shifting puzzling. But to be fair to Astropop, it's instantly absorbing fun as you run around the bottom of the screen with a magnet, plucking coloured blocks from above and shunting them back up with the intention of matching four of the same colour to destroy them.
The demo offers eight levels of the 32 'Classic' mode levels, and two minutes of the open-ended survival mode, and out of all of the games currently available we'd definitely recommended trying this one out. It's this sort of frantic, quick-fix gaming that's most likely to bring us back for more, and at £7.49 we could happily live with that sort of outlay.
This top-down interpretation of the pub sport is pretty basic, but offers an intuitive and straightforward take on the game. What it lacks in graphical frills it makes up for with a long list of different types of pool games to try out. Not our cup of tea, to be honest, and ought to be a third of the £11.50 that Microsoft is asking for it.
Ahh, Bejeweled. Regular readers will note our fondness for this shape-shifting puzzling masterpiece, particularly in its guise as Zookeeper on the Nintendo DS. The premise is so simple, yet so crazily addictive we barely leave the house without it.
Simply switch around adjacent shapes (jewels in this case) on a grid with the aim of lining up three or more in a line. This version sports the normal level-based mode as well as time trial, lacking some of the extras that Zookeeper boasts, and the demo grants three levels of Normal mode to give you a flavour.
Its aceness is beyond question, but we're shocked that Microsoft wants punters to pay £11.50 for the privilege. If you want our advice, pay a bit more for the DS edition and get a lovely touch-based version that you can take on your hols and play wirelessly with a mate.
My god, now we're in parlour game territory with this utterly basic Minesweeper clone. The premise is simple, but bafflingly compelling as you try and work out where the mines have been laid on a grid without touching them.
If you've ever had a boring office job, you'll be all-too aware that this has been bundled for free with Windows for more than a decade, so quite why Microsoft imagines people will be willing to part with £7.50/9.99 Euros is really anyone's guess - especially given the shoddy presentation that makes the game look like it's been ported direct from the DOS era.
The number of boards and modes makes this an infinitely replayable brain-teasing diversion, but it's best suited to passing the time in boring office jobs than played in the living room.
This five-minute time-limited demo is described by Microsoft as a "genuine original", but all it amounts to is another block-shifting puzzler, with the idea to clear all the blocks on each of the 17 levels by lining up at least four of them together.
The cutesy 3D presentation is a cut above most of the games on offer here, but although the game is mildly endearing for a few minutes, it's tough to imagine wanting to part with £7.49 in this day and age. Xbox Live multiplayer support offers some respite, but this is fairly uninspiring stuff.
Much like Alien Sky, this Defender clone grave robs the past to provide us with a simple, frenetic side-scrolling blaster with an updated look and feel.
The demo allows you 10 minutes with no restriction on content, and we have to say this is one of the better-thought-out remakes we've seen, with much more going on than the super-hardcore original. Rather than simply blasting aliens and rescuing little stick men, Guardian mixes it up with a spot of base-defending and building bombing.
With 30 levels and five difficulty setting and a more appropriate graphical update, Guardian's firmly in the 'not bad' category - but, again, should have been cheaper.
Another game that bored office workers will be all-too familiar with. Despite suffering from the same awful presentation as Dangerous Mines (no surprise, given it's the same developer), there are literally hundreds of different card games on offer here.
Still, however absorbing these might well be, they're much better played with a mouse on a PC (where they generally come for free), and we're just utterly confused why anyone would contemplate paying £7.50/9.99 Euros for this - things like this ought to come free with the Live service, frankly.
Now this is more like it. Pom Pom's freaked-out, psychedelic take on the Robotron arcade game of a million years ago not only demonstrates how to make a retro concept look amazing, but the gameplay is fast-paced relentless shooting brilliance.
This seven-level demo takes you on a whistle-stop tour of the 89 available in the full product, and is easily the best value for money offering. If you want one reason to visit the Xbox Live Arcade, this is most definitely it. You can see why Microsoft has just signed the game up for the 360's forthcoming Live Arcade service.
Ricochet Lost Worlds
And it's back down to Earth we go with this tiresome remake of Arkanoid, which in itself has a tiresome late '80s remake of Breakout. Simply pilot your ship along the bottom of the screen and try not to zzzzz... fall... aszzzzeeeelp.
But seriously, we really don't care that there are 160 levels across 16 stages. It's really very, very dull. 10 minutes of this demo was more than enough to remind us how much things have moved on for the better.
Super Collapse 2
Oh looky here, another block-shifter, or, as Microsoft points out, another "web favourite". Like most of the variations on this theme, the idea is to group together and destroy coloured blocks before they reach the top of the screen.
Play up to eight levels in the demo over three modes, but as much as we love these types of games, £7.49/9.99 Euros, again, seems too steep to us.
It's Bust-A-Move with a rotating frog! Again, a well-worn favourite concept is pillaged, given a little tweak and offered to us re-heated.
In Zuma, Taito's bubble-popping premise is retained, except this time the bubbles are working their way around a spiralling tunnel that leads to YOU! Essentially it's a case of popping like mad or be popped.
Despite the horribly derivative nature of Zuma, it's one of the more endearing efforts currently available, but still not worth £11.50/14.99 Euros. it's bordering on a rip-off. That's an insane asking price, Microsoft.
The post-launch games
Since the service launched back in late May, there have been a handful of new titles added to the line-up...
Dinos and Aliens
Aaaaand now let's do a Bomberman clone. This ultra-cutesy 3D take on Hudson's perennially addictive concept has been zoomed in and given an isometric perspective, but in all other respects is essentially a Bomberman 'adventure' for the young 'uns.
It's dumbed-down, slightly prettified and perfectly serviceable but we'd rather just see the original offered for download at substantially less than the £7.49/9.99 Euros Microsoft is asking for it. Next.
An appallingly limited multiplayer online deathmatch game with floaty tanks and some of the worst 3D graphics we've ever seen on an Xbox. At no stage in the history of gaming has this sort of sub-par drivel been acceptable. Neeeeeext.
Oh my god, can it get any worse? This is quite possibly the most insultingly pointless attempt at remaking Space Invaders we've ever seen. Quite honestly, just paying Taito for the licence to the original would have been a better idea. £7.49/9.99 Euros for this? Have they completely lost the plot?
Actually, this one's a charming little number. This side-on 2D affair sees you guiding a little fishy around the sea trying to eat anything smaller than you, kind of like Katamari Damacy in the sea. Eventually your gluttony allows you to eat progressively bigger fish, and so on until you presumably eat the planet or something.
This cute diversion is a fine addition to the Xbox Live Arcade - one of the best, in fact, although we have lingering concerns over its longevity.
Monkey Ball without the monkeys and gems instead of bananas - so, it's basically Marble Madness then? Hmmm, not quite, but the basic 'collect everything and get to the goal as quick as you can' premise applies here.
Like most of the Xbox Live Arcade offerings to date, it lacks inspiration, charm, and seems overpriced. At least in this case the graphics aren't bad, but there's something oddly soulless about the whole thing. Get the real thing - it'll be going cheap soon enough anyway.
The "where are they?" section.
For (presumably) boring licence-related issues, Microsoft has yet to begin offering the 'real' retro stuff that the North American audience are currently enjoying. Right now, Xbox Live Arcade users can pick up the Namco Vintage pack for $14.99, which contains Pole Position, Dig Dug, and Galaga. We're a little uncomfortable with that price-point, as ever (particularly as it's likely to cost more here, relatively, than it does there), but the principle of offering the real deal, rather than crap remakes is something we're heartily in favour of.
In addition, North American users get the added bonus of Ms. Pac-Man free of charge with the freebie disk. How come this isn't available over here, Microsoft? No fair!
On the surface, the Xbox Live Arcade is a fine addition to the service. It's simple, easy to use, and like everything to do with Xbox Live, completely fool-proof. The line-up of title is packed with the sort of simple, pick-up-and-play games that practically anyone can get to grips with without so much as reading the instructions. It's just like the old days, but without the load delays.
But that doesn't make them worth buying.
With so much sub-par dross clogging up the service to date, it's a case of so far, so-so. For every Mutant Storm there are a half a dozen titles that, frankly, we wouldn't want on our hard drive if they were free. It doesn't matter how many levels they contain or that they're Live Aware or allow voice chat. At the current prices Microsoft is asking, it's not chancing its arm that people will be willing to make these kinds of impulse purchases; it's simply having a laugh. With the average high street store selling some outstanding, all-time classic budget games at three for £20, you'd be better off shopping around for a your gaming thrills than taking the plunge with some well-meaning but ultimately below-par titles. Asking punters to shell out good money for the sort of amateurish stuff available here is actually quite amusing. Nice try.
What would make Xbox Live Arcade better?
In terms of its usability, absolutely nothing. It slots in seamlessly into the Live service, and with the various high-score tables and multiplayer facilities on some of the titles, you can see Microsoft has lain the groundwork for something that could end up being quite exciting. Eventually.
But right now, it's painfully evident that the quality of the games simply has to improve on a fundamental level. And in tandem with that complaint, the idea that anyone would really want to buy these games with this pricing structure needs to be looked at urgently. We'd suggest slashing the price in half, or at least offering special discounts for buying more than one at a time; Microsoft won't get much interest from European punters, especially with the subscriber numbers being about 10 per cent of the Stateside numbers.
With the pricing structure re-evaluated, the most obvious thing to do is call in the retro classics; the two Namco packages (Namco Vintage and Ms Pac Man) currently only available in North America are exactly the sort of releases Microsoft should be going all out to target. And given that they're so easy to emulate on the Xbox, require virtually zero development costs and take up so little space on the hard disk space it's a no-brainer for all concerned. The myriad of arcade classics should be hauled in from far and wide: Konami, Midway, Sega, Atari, Namco, the lot. Leave no stone unturned.
And then, once the arcade line-ups have been plundered, look at licensing some of the games released on home computer and console systems of the past 30 years. Get publishers interested in making the most of their bulging back catalogues and watch the cash roll in. It really can't be that hard to do; certainly no harder than what it has already pulled off. Just look at how excited everyone seems to be about the Revolution's downloadable back catalogue possibilities.
If Microsoft could, for example, license the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore C64/Amiga and Atari ST tech for use in Xbox Live Arcade, the response would be incredible. Sniff around Sega's old systems and vast library of classic titles, and, again, the possibilities are endless (Nintendo notwithstanding). Sure, modders can emulate all this stuff already, but not everyone's willing to go to such lengths to enjoy a blast from the past - and it's not particularly legal to do so, either.
Even if Microsoft completely ruled retrogaming out of the equation (which it isn't doing, judging by the Namco deal), the Live Arcade is the perfect testing ground for off-the-wall ideas that gamers aren't generally exposed to. Clearly the 360's Live Arcade - with the greater storage capacity of the hard disk - will be able to go further in terms of ambitious new content, but even the current set-up is being utterly under-utilised.
Imagine some of the more left-field designers from the 8 and 16 bit eras making a sort of underground comeback, with their games finding a viable commercial home on the Xbox Live Arcade scene. If it puts them back in the limelight and original, absorbing gaming ideas are thrust back into the mainstream then Microsoft can have our money right now.
Our advice, for now, is to try out the Live Arcade demos and see what you think, but to be very cautious about parting with hard cash. Like almost everything connected with Microsoft, this is a bit of a borked version 1.0, but keep an eye on it. It could well be the best idea it ever came up with.
For further information on the Xbox Live Arcade, head to the official website. It should also be noted that you can play many of the demos for the games listed in this article on the official Xbox Live Arcade website.