Feature: Microsofts Game Room Retroactive Retrospective

Now that Microsofts Game Room has been out for a little over three months and been given time to bed in, Console Arcades John Henderson and Keith Murray take a look at just how its shaped up to date.

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With real arcades being a thing of the past for most people nowadays, Game Room is Microsofts latest attempt to fill the void and tug at the heartstrings of older gamers who fondly remember the halcyon days when arcade cabinets were everywhere, and names like Nintendo and SEGA were virtually unheard of.

Of course Microsoft has been offering trips down memory lane since day one of its Xbox Live Arcade service, with numerous vintage coin-ops having been made available over the years. But with Game Room, the goal is to take things a step further and try and recreate the actual arcade experience along with the games. There’s no doubt that it also aims to remove the dubious element of emulation and provide a legitimate way to play old arcade / home releases from the late 70s early 80s.

You cant deny that all this certainly sounds like an attractive proposition.

First impressions are excellent as you navigate in and around the various themed areas of the showcase arcade, bearing witness to rows and rows of arcade cabinets from Atari & Konami that are seemingly being played by the Avatars of people from your friends list. All the while, your ears are being assaulted by unforgettable jingles and sound effects from a bygone age. In the case of the Atari machines, they are lovingly recreated with authentic-looking cabinet designs and theres even display pods housing woody Atari 2600 and Intellivision consoles. Its the touches like this which go a long way.

The layout has a user-friendly, almost Shopping Mall feel to its multi-tiered layout. The set-up can be customised to your taste with a set of free ornaments to place in the spaces as you see fit and, once satisfied with the décor, it’s time to start arranging the Arcade cabinets themselves.

Each new set of releases comes in a pack which you download in full. From there you can opt to trial each of the releases contained within and once the allotted number of tries expires, you can either pay 40 Microsoft Points for the privilege of playing again, or buy the title outright for 240 points. This is a pretty flexible system, meaning you only buy what you want, and aren’t lumbered with titles that you have no intention of playing.

Depending on the title, you can either play in Classic or Ranked modes. The former will provide the warts n all experience as you remember, with the bonus of a rather nifty Time Warp feature. Here the action can be rewound, VCR-style, to an earlier point to avoid losing a life or making a mistake. While purists will scoff at this idea, its only of any use in casual play the feature is disabled from Ranked play and friend challenges to ensure theyre still representative of legit player skill.

The Ranked matches themselves allow you to compete with people via Xbox Live, whether on your friends list or the wider community. Add into the mix the aforementioned Challenges which can be anything from surviving for a set time, or reaching a certain score within in a set time. Setting these up and passing them along to friends is actually great fun, and can be as serious or light hearted as required. Also, depending on conditions met, you will earn medals for time spent playing, score, etc. Earn enough medals and new items are unlocked to fit into your arcade.

So far so good, but things start to hit a snag when you get to the very reason why people will try Game Room in the first place; the games. Centipede, Crystal Castles et al are stone cold classics, but even the most ardent fan will have played them to death and surely tire of them in a short period of time. Even in the context of setting up friend challenges and leaderboards, they no longer hold your attention for long, even for amongst die-hard fans. And the niggles don`t stop there, with the pricing just feelingwell, wrong.

Asking 240 Microsoft points once the trial period has finished feels a bit much considering the age and over-familiarity, even to those who dont avidly follow games and gaming culture. While £2 might not seem a lot in the grand scheme of things, if you buy a few cabinets for your shiny new Arcade, that soon starts to adds up.

While Game Room is aiming to replicate those titles which people are well aware of, the service seems almost as if its starting too far back. Only a handful of titles can really stand up to the scrutiny of even the most ardent retrogamer and in particular the Atari VCS and Intellivision games feel positively Prehistoric. There’s a sense that it needs to fast forward a bit and deliver something that really does capture that Arcade flavour properly. The service is crying out for the unmitigated joy of a Capcom classic like Aliens Vs. Predator, but with the company currently delivering updated titles in this vein for Xbox Live Arcade at a handsome price, there is little or no hope of seeing these kinds of titles in Game Room any time soon.

Another bugbear, is that previously-purchased XBLA games are not compatible. If you bought Scramble way back when, youll be annoyed to discover that it will need to be purchased again if you want it to feature in your Game Room.

Then theres the actual performance of the games. For whatever reason, this isnt perfect with noticeable input lag and stuttering being pretty common. This is possibly due to the stat-tracking and Xbox Live stuff running in the background, but whatever the cause its no excuse. It shouldnt be too much to ask for games of this vintage to be perfectly emulated on hardware two generations old, never mind an Xbox 360.

So were left with the huge question; just who is Game Room aimed at? The hipster Indie Kids won`t be interested since its not the “pure” experience (i.e. not playing on the original Arcade cabinet /console of origin). So, is it for those who never experienced the genesis of modern gaming? Thats doubtful as, at the absolute worst case scenario, children who might have grown up not knowing about these titles would have been exposed to chip tune sounds and, being inquisitive, would no doubt have investigated their origin by now. Which leads to yet another question; would they even be interested in something so simplistic?

Could it even be aimed at Achievement whores, perhaps? Call us cynical, but the fact you cant even trial Game Room without unlocking an achievement (there is one simply for pressing Start on the title screen) seems a bit sinister and, possibly, a predetermined way to coerce those of an obsessive nature into spending money on games they normally wouldnt be interested in. Lord knows, theres enough people out there who obsess about completion percentages and earning 1000G in every single title, to make it a lucrative move to give away some Gamerscore for free.

Nostalgia should be something you look back on with fondness, not something to seek refuge in. Games Room almost wallows in this sense of times gone by with the selection of titles on offer. There really is only so often you can play certain games and when reacquainted with some of the shrill sound effects and (if they had it) music of the time, if the headache don`t kick in first, sheer boredom might do for you.

As part of those people who were introduced to videogames in the 2600 era, its also worth bearing in mind that the 1980s were a far from idyllic experience. If you remove the rose tinted glasses its worth remembering that games cost a fortune, deciding what to buy was an utter nightmare, and to provide any kind of variety you would either rent cartridges from local video stores or do blind swapsies with friends at school. That in itself was a potential minefield and swapping a pristine copy of Defender for the lame duck of E.T. was a fate that befell many growing up at the time.

But every now and then you would happen across a golden moment, an epiphany that made the torn manual and grubby cartridge transcend the outer experience and make you realise the joy of games. The soul of it, if you will. This is something Game Room can never hope to even come close to, or even (and excuse the vernacular here) emulate.

Is Games Room worth it? In its current guise, were sad to say `absolutely not`. It falls between two stools; neither replicating the unpredictability of blind buying a title in the 1980s, or offering a selection that properly represents that generation either. Wheres Defender? Wheres the proper version of Space Invaders? Of course, licensing issues come to bear here, but there were none of those in our childhoods to prevent us from experiencing moments as intended.