Feature: Microsoft Game Room

As a retro gamer, the Microsoft Game Room piqued my interest. This is partly because I like retro games, and partly because they had an interesting way of getting people to play on each other’s “arcades,” lending something to the community attachment that older arcades had. If “community” involved a bunch of kids playing hooky, local gang members, and enough fag smoke to kill Smokey the Bear, of course. Thankfully, in between having to step outside for oxygen, people did play video games, and often try to get their scores on the leaderboard, unaware of the fact that most arcades shut down their machines at night and their scores would be wiped the next day. Still, it makes for nostalgic thought these days.

Last Wednesday, Microsoft finally released the Game Room, to… loading screens. Lots of loading screens. People downloading the games couldn’t download the necessary game packs to play the games because it would lock up. This was true for both the 360 and PC versions. To their credit, Microsoft fixed that issue quickly, and we were able to play – and pay for – our games of choice.

To test out how the service works, I gave myself a $25 budget and a few days with it. For the sake of responsible journalism, I’m forced to compare the Game Room to two established norms: the original systems or arcades that they appeared in, and in the case of the arcade games, MAME, the arcade emulator that’s been around for thirteen years. Though the use of arcade ROMs is illegal, it can’t be argued that arcade gamers have been playing on MAME, either in homemade cabinets or on their computers, for as long as the technology has allowed them to, so while we here at Diehard GameFAN do NOT condone emulation of commercial ROMs on emulators, we can’t stick our heads in the sand about it, either. With that stated, let’s look at how the Game Room stands up.

Starting Out

The first thing you do on either the PC or the 360 is download and install the Game Room software itself. For sizeaphobes, the download is 279MB on the 360, and 411MB on the PC. Just downloading the software isn’t enough, though. Much like the Hasbro Family Pack, you have to download games within the game. Here, you have to download two game packs to start off with, with each subsequent update likely being another game pack. For the first two, you’ll be adding on about another 70MB each. I’m honestly a little confused initially as to why Microsoft decided to take this step. It would seem to make more sense to just make each game available within the service, downloadable one at a time. As it stands, space-conscious gamers could get stuck with a lot of waste.

Once you’re up and running, you can choose to furnish your arcade. The arcade itself is three floors, with multiple rooms per floor, and each room can have a theme attached to it. The themes are all free, and range from 80s themes or graveyard themes to themes that are based around a developer like Atari or for the Intellivision. Once you have a theme, you can fill that section of the arcade with either decorations or arcade cabinets. The decorations and themes are plentiful, but a lot of them won’t be unlocked until you reach a certain level, based on gaining medals from playing the purchased versions of the games (I’ll go into that in detail later). Some of them aren’t unlocked until obscene levels are reached, like the 40s. It will take months to get enough medals to get that far, as even for someone to buy all thirty games today and get all the medals, it’s not enough to get that high. Still, it adds some incentive to advance, especially considering the fact that achievement points are tied to filling out arcade rooms. For an example of what the arcade could look like once everything’s complete, there’s a “showcase” arcade run by Microsoft.

Everyone that downloads the Game Room is given twenty arcade “bonus” tokens. These can be used to play arcade cabinets in your friends arcades, and are given out whenever someone visits your arcade or plays a game of yours. Bonus plays are five tokens per play, but this in itself is a sham. All it does is let players buy another ten minute demo, and it doesn’t count towards any rewards or medals. To do that, you have to pay real world money. I don’t even know why Microsoft bothered with the token system, as the whole reason I used tokens was to see if I could beat our own DJ Tatsujin’s score at a game. In the end, I didn’t, but that was irrelevant.

For those who are splitting up their gaming over the PC and 360, know that the PC version doesn’t port over your XBox Live avatar that you have on the 360. While it does port over your arcade, you have to choose a generic avatar to play on the PC, and you’ll see other generic avatars running around your arcade. On the 360, you’ll see your friends’ avatars playing your arcade machines.

Buying and Playing Games

To fill out your arcade with cabinets, you have to purchase the full versions. This is where things get interesting. You’re first able to play a ten minute long demo, which ends if you back out of it at any time after you’ve activated it. After that, you have three purchase options: a one-time play for 80 MS Points ($.50), 240 points ($3) to buy the game on the system you’re playing on at that time, and either $5 to be able to play it anywhere, or a $2 upgrade fee, which both allow you to play your game on both the 360 and PC version. I’m honestly a little bit confused as to how Microsoft can justify this other than outright greed. These are games that are, in every case, over twenty years old, and they’re forcing us to pay extra money to play our purchased games on the PC. Really, unless someone doesn’t own a 360, playing the PC version is such a pain in the ass that I can’t even recommend people worry about that version unless they have a 360 controller into their PC.

Once you purchase a cabinet, it can be placed inside one of your arcades, and played by either yourself or a friend that visits your arcade. This enables rewards to be collected, high scores to be posted, and achievements to be earned (Game Zone has the full 1,000 achievement points, but some of them are really hard to achieve and are going to require a tonne of buy-in to get to that level. Be warned, achievement whores.). There are three types of play modes for the majority of games: Classic mode, Ranked mode and Multiplayer mode.

Classic is just like owning either the original arcade cabinet or the original game and the system it came on. You can simulate putting in “quarters” with the LB button for arcade games, and you have the option, before you begin playing, of messing with the game’s dip switches. For those who came after the arcade era, older arcade games literally had switches, usually in the back, locked part of the cabinet, that allowed operators to determine how many lives people got per quarter, how hard the game was, and how many points it took to get a bonus life. For anyone playing a 2600 or Intellivision game, the start button brings up the Atari 2600’s control panel or the Intellivision’s number pad, complete with an emulation of the laminated overlay that came with the original game, a very nice touch.

Multiplayer mode is simply a mode that allows multiple players. Unbelievably, they don’t support online play for these games. I’m dumbfounded. I realize that the stand-alone titles weren’t exactly the most populated games on the Live service, but if you’re going to play up interactivity with your friends on this service, wouldn’t you allow them to actually play you over the internet? It’s especially boggling because some 2600 games – most noticeably Combat – REQUIRE two players. Some Intellivision games that will undoubtedly go on this service require multiple players as well.

Ranked mode is necessary to show up on leaderboards, and to achieve most medals. This is a game on the game’s default settings, with your best score being your score that goes online (ie, if you would technically have the first, third and fifth place on a leaderboard, only the first one counts). After your game is done, you’re awarded any medals you’ve won, and if applicable, a replay of your game goes online if you made the top 20 leaderboards. I’ll go more into detail on those in the extras section.

Emulation Quality

Most of the games I bought and played were either arcade or home system perfect. However, there are some sound issues, primarily with some of the arcade games. Also, for at least one game, Astro Smash, I noticed that the gameplay wasn’t quite as smooth as it should be. I’m using the Intellivision Lives! XBox version as a guide, but if your “arcade perfect” game is not as smooth as the version you have on THAT turd of a disc, you have problems. Then again, my words could be taken with some salt as I wasn’t an Intellivision guy growing up.

One minor gripe is that buttons aren’t mappable. Yes, all games I played were able to be changed to a different pre-defined scheme, but anyone who’s used to a different mapping scheme, either from MAME, a compilation pack or another service such as Gametap is going to have an adjustment period.

With that said, only the most anal-retentive are going to notice any gameplay issues. I had no problems with the majority of the games I played except for the ones that had sound issues.

Extras & Aesthetics

When companies release retro games, I feel they have to do two things: 1) give enough of a nostalgic feel to cause someone who might have bought the game when it was new to buy it again, and 2) offer more than the free alternative. In short, you need to offer something better than MAME. Microsoft certainly tried that.

Leaderboards have become commonplace with every game we see nowadays that keeps score, and the Game Room is no exception. In addition to keeping active leaderboards among friends, it keeps the top twenty scores of all time. This, I feel, is a letdown. The top twenty on the entire internet is unattainable for all but the most dedicated gamer. So far there have already been, as of this writing, three perfect scores in Yars’ Revenge, and perfect scores for other popular games as well. The top twenty is filled in almost every game with unattainable scores that would take months of practise, and making this worse is the fact that 1) so many people are playing these games, meaning there’s always movement on the leaderboards, and 2) if you’re not top-twenty, you’re off the radar. One of the things that I find cool about some of the retro XBLA offerings is that all scores are kept. For example, I know, by looking at my score on the XBLA version of Time Pilot, that I am the 23,721st ranked player among all XBLA players of the game (and… 2nd on my friends list!? Impossible! You’re mine, baikitball!). With this service, I stand no prayer of ever staying on the list, and in games where you can roll over the numbers, it’s going to be a race to see who the first twenty people are that get perfect scores.

However, not having anything beyond a top twenty is somewhat justified by the fact that everyone in the top twenty has a replay uploaded of their game. This is a tremendous addition for two reasons One, it gives that much more recognition to those that are good enough to make the list, and secondly, it allows people that want to improve their games watch how better players are playing, so that they can pick up tips. I can freely admit that I became a better Yars’ Revenge player by watching the leaderboard videos. Replays aren’t solely limited to the leaders. You’re allowed to record replays of your games so you can watch them and improve on what you did wrong. For the studious gamer, it doesn’t get better than this, and despite the limited amount of save slots, blows MAME’s horrid movie recorder out of the water and into pieces.

Also helping people trying to get better at their game is something available in Classic mode, the Time Warp. This is literally a rewind button, mapped to the left trigger, that backs you up to the point where you want to be backed up to. Therefore, if you want to back up to a point about ten seconds before you died on a map, you have that power. This is amazing, and to me, is the #1 selling point of the entire game room. For those who want more old-school cheating methods, the Game Room also supports save games, which work like savestates on any conventional emulator.

For the arcade games, you get the original cabinet art and bezels, to go along with the games themselves. At least, for *some* of them. The Atari games are the only ones that seem to do this for now. The Konami games all have a generic marquee with no bezel and a cabinet that just has Konami’s newer logo on it. I find this to be a copout. It’s not like they don’t own the rights to their old logos and cabinets, so this reeks of a decision made by a bean counter in the name of “branding.” If you’re going to release your arcade games, then do it right. Atari did it right. If you look at Asteroids Deluxe with the graphics set up in Cabinet mode, you see the graphics that were actually on the side of the screen (called a bezel). Also, when viewing the cabinet, you can see the overlay that was on the arcade screen, but thankfully, it doesn’t reflect in gameplay, If one were to apply the artwork on MAME, it’s too pure to be useful. Atari did an outstanding job in allowing their games to come across in the purest way possible, though I don’t know what Konami’s problem is.

Other than that, all the aesthetics range from irrelevant to annoying. There are “mascots” that can populate the arcade, and just roll around each of the arcade rooms in 2.5D goodness, but these mascots cost money ($.50 each). Yes, they’re free for a limited time with the purchase of a game, but I’m almost thankful I bought so many games on Wednesday, because I can max out my mascots and never worry about buying the damn things. In terms of playing the games, I recommend cabinet mode for all games, even Intellivision and 2600 games, because otherwise, you’ve got your arcade happening on the sides of the screen, which is a big distraction with all of the “avatars” moving in and out of your peripheral vision. Sound-wise, there are a few 80s-sounding soundtracks that play in most of the rooms, as well as the sounds of surrounding arcade machines. I would have liked it more if they could have taken a cue from the Activision Anthology and some other collections and gotten a few licensed songs. There’s an option to add in arcade “ambiance” while you play, but in reality, it just sounds like a bunch of robots having a painful orgy. Needless to say, it’s best left alone.

Teething Issues

Almost a week after the service was released, both the PC and 360 versions are still having problems. I stand about a 50% chance, whenever I either log in or go to look at a leaderboard, of being told that the servers are unavailable and to come back later. I’ve had shorter queues trying to contact Hewlett-Packard’s support lines. The good news about the current console generation is that bugs can be patched around, and assuming the Game Room is going to be perpetually supported, a myriad of patches will come out for stability and extra goodies. The bad news is that they had enough time to get these kinks worked out before release, and this doesn’t give me a lot of confidence going forward. I’m not the only one. Rookie writer Branden Chowen finally had enough of the service, going so far as to uninstall it because it froze his 360 too many times.

Is It Worth The Hassle?

Ultimately, the Game Room does what it’s supposed to do: bring full retro gaming to a platform that supports it. It also has some great options such as game replays, a nice ranked mode structure, and enough ways to tinker with each game to make people that have been playing MAME for over a decade to give the software a look.

However, it’s also extremely tough to look past Microsoft’s shoddy record with it so far with all the bugs, as well as the fact that the service literally sucks up money. Asking for extra money to play the same thirty year old game on the same software on another system is extortionate, and the bonus token scheme is an insult to our intelligence in the way it’s executed. In short, Microsoft’s intention with this is to bleed as much money out of us as quickly as they possibly can. They’re doing a good job of it so far, but with as quickly as retro support died on the XBox Live Arcade, I wouldn’t get too attached to the Game Room yet, at least until Microsoft and its third party partners stop half-assing things.

If you’re a serious retro gamer, like DJ Tatsujin serious, you’ll get a lot out of the Game Room regardless of it’s faults. If you’re more casual, then wait and make sure this has some legs to it before you spend real-world money.

POSTSCRIPT: If you don’t like these games, you’re stuck with them for at least a few weeks, as Microsoft has confirmed that there won’t be new releases for at least a few more weeks. In terms of keeping momentum, if Microsoft was the last leg of a 4X100 relay race, they would take the baton, shove it up their ass, and then stare at butterflies for a few hours.

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