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 offering the simplistic joy of the coin-op arcade.
If you have broadband, you can access Arcade through the regular Xbox Live service. It features an ever-growing selection of more than 20 titles, each selling for around $6-$12. They include 20-plus-year-old arcade classics such as Gauntlet, puzzle games such as Bejeweled 2, and classic board games, including 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 leader boards, browsing the trophies and high scores of every gamer in the system. Its 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 isnt retro so much as postmodern -- the backdrop warps, waves and ripples as your enemies explode with retina-scarring intensity.
Reflexive Entertainments 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, youll become absorbed in the fast-paced problem solving.
NinjaBees 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 pawnshop? 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 a simple but addictive experience.
As for the classics section, anyone who blew his allowance on Midway games such as 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 youll laugh the first time you hear Gauntlets elf whimper ouch! in 5.1 surround sound, but gamers young and old are eating it up.
Thats sending a message that Microsoft might not want to hear: Graphics arent everything. After all, a game maker can spend millions to develop a title with high-def visuals, Hollywood voice talent and startlingly lifelike violence -- but whats the point, if it isnt as much fun as Joust?