Oh dear. The Microsoft Game Room. A great idea in theory- make the arcade of your dreams for just 240 Microsoft Points per game!- but in practice, not so much. Can we find five games worth trying on it, though? 'Course we can!
For those unfamiliar with it, the Game Room is a 'free' downloadable title for both the Xbox 360 and Games for Windows Live, developed by Australia-based Krome Studios that lets you 'build' (read: pay for) your own 'arcade'. 1000 individually downloable retro titles were initially promised, ranging from the arcade to, uh, the Intellivision, with various bells and whistles such as sending challenges to friends and arcade customisation. Unfortunately, while it's a great idea- get perfectly legal versions of the arcade games you want, with online leaderboards and replay saving- it's dogged by absolutely awful execution. Sloppy emulation on many games, awkward distribution method (download one massive update just to play Twinbee), glitches all over the place (it really likes to crash on the main menu), completely silly achievements (you literally have to pay for them) and most damaging of all, almost no decent games.
The only four companies who offered their wares were Atari, Activision, Konami and the Intellivision company, and over half of the available games (mostly the Atari 2600/Intellivision stuff) can be found for much cheaper on the relevant compilation titles for the PS2 and Xbox. In fact, some of them, such as Battlezone, Time Pilot and Tempest, are already available- in superior forms, no less- on Xbox Live itself, and for just 160 additional Microsoft Points, you get online multiplayer, achievements, and other perks missing from the Game Room versions. The lack of support means you won't find any true arcade classics like Dig Dug or Bubble Bobble, or even any cult titles like The Pit [Oh come on, no-one has ever played The Pit except me - The Editor]. In other words, very few games that you'd willingly plonk 240 Microsoft Points on.
To put this lack of games into perspective, one of the available games is Venetian Blinds for the Atari 2600- a game designed as a joke with nothing but a venetian blind on screen that you can move up and down. No, really. (Well, to tell the truth, I thought it was pretty funny that they had the gall to make it available, although the joke wasn't funny enough to get me to buy it.)
However. Like I said, it's a great idea in theory, and despite its problems, there are a few games worth looking into on the service, mostly Konami's 80s back-catalogue which never received ports until now, and the online leaderboards and high-score saving features really give some of them a new lease of life. What follows are five games that are really worth a second look on the service, with two of them being from Atari and the remainder coming from the Konami camp. Atari 2600 and Intellivison fans will no doubt be enraged that their consoles aren't represented in this little list, but seriously, just get the compilations instead. In particular, you can grab Activision Anthology and enjoy the likes of Megamania, H.E.R.O. and both Pitfall titles, complete with rucks of unlockable content, for the price of one Game Room game. Do that instead. Do not pay 240 Microsoft Points to play River Raid. That's an order.
Anyway, here's RetroCollect's list of Top Five Games to Try on the Game Room, presented in order of original release. Enjoy.
Although Black Widow has been ported a couple of times- most notably, it can be found in Atari Anthology (PS2/Xbox/PC)- I picked this one because it's a good title to showcase some of the positive points of the Game Room, in spite of all its other problems. One of the lesser-known Atari vector titles, Black Widow was released in 1982 and is a good ol' fashioned Robotron: 2084 clone. As the black widow spider of the title, you must destroy all the other bugs wandering into your web and grab the dollar signs they leave behind for points before their value decreases or they disappear entirely. Just like Robotron, there's several different enemy types, including ones that leave eggs behind (push them off the web for extra points) and others that explode when killed (stay out of the blast radius) but the most interesting is the Bug Slayer. Completely invincibile, the Bug Slayer will target other bugs and kill them, robbing you of precious points! However, it'll also kill bugs like the Spoiler that, by yourself, you can't kill, so you'll have to rely on it... Until it stabs you in the back and steals another kill from you.
Despite nicking the whole control scheme from Robotron: 2084, Black Widow does enough differently to warrant a look. It starts off considerably less difficult than its inspiration, that's for sure- there's never as many threats on screen at once- but once you're a few waves in, the speed starts getting cranked up, and as the different enemy types are gradually introduced, things get very crowded and very intense. By the time you reach Wave 15, Black Widow really starts to get nasty towards the player- just how we like it. Another plus is that almost all the additions to the formula, like the rival bug, having to use certain bugs against others to survive, and constantly risking life and limb for the dollar signs before they perish, help give the game a unique feel, so this is a must for fans of the genre. This Game Room version also has one advantage over other ports- as well as having a decent stab at simulating the distinctive vector graphics glow (far better than Asteroids in GR) it has online leaderboards and replay saving, so if your scores are a bit dire, you can check out another player's run to get some tips on how to play better. After all, knowing your enemy is the first step towards victory, eh?
Despite bearing the Atari name, Food Fight (released in 1983) was actually the work of General Computer Corporation, developers of Ms. Pac-Man. After being sued by Atari for making bootleg Missile Command upgrade kits, the company were contracted to make a few games for Atari, Food Fight being one of them. Convoluted development history aside, it's easily one of the best games available on Game Room, and also the only Atari arcade game to not appear on any of their retro collections (with the only port being for the Atari 7800). Essentially Stern's single-screen shooter Berzerk mixed in with Animal House, as the eternally hungry Charley Chuck you must reach the constantly melting ice-cream before the four nefarious chefs- Oscar, Angelo, Jaques and Zorba- either run into you or pelt you with food. As the title suggets, your only defence is grabbing bits of food from the piles on each screen- including tomatoes, pies and bananas, all with their own strengths and weaknesses- and flinging them at the enemy to throw them off-screen for a moment. However, while the chefs never stop spawning, the food is finite (with the exception of the watermelon, which doesn't appear that often) so you'd better make those shots count. Get hit, and poor Charley gets pelted with food from every side of the screen!
The strange thing about Food Fight is that if you play it for survival, it's a little dull. It's all too easy to make a beeline for the ice cream, especially if you hold on to a scrap of food when finishing a wave to start the next one armed. It really comes alive when you learn how to exploit each stage for points, for at its core it's about risking it all for a sick score. Every chef you hit scores you more points, and after the 10th successful hit you'll be earning 1000 points each time! Compared to the measly 3000 point bonus you get for eating the ice-cream as soon as possible, this is a lot more profitable, but carries many risks- you've got to successfully hit your targets while avoiding their fire and avoid the pits and make sure you reach the ice-cream before it melts. Because of all these problems you have to deal with, playing the game this way evokes the same frantic do-or-die urgency as Robotron: 2084, especially since every few stages it'll speed things up. So, don't play like a punk- that ice-cream can wait until you're good and ready. This Game Room version again benefits from having online leaderboards and also has a decent stab at replicating the unique joystick the Food Fight cabinet used- much like the controls for Sinistar, it offers far more control than just eight directions, which is essential for nailing that chef just lurking above you.
With Atari's output done and dusted (unless you want me to wax philosophical on Lunar Lander, and no-one wants that) let's look at some of the stuff Konami released for the Game Room. Selecting just three Konami titles from the service is a difficult task indeed, because they're basically the main reason to download the ruddy thing, since there's so many of them. Unfortunately, since many of their big-hitters (Frogger, Track & Field, Time Pilot) are already available as separate Xbox Live Arcade titles, we're going to have to settle for some more obscure offerings, none more obscure than Juno First, released in 1983. A strange amalgam of Space Invaders (kill the aliens!), Defender (the graphics and laser weapon) and Asteroids (ship inertia), you're given free reign of the vertical play-field- including going back down- as you gun down alien invaders with your laser beam- kill all the invaders and move on to the next wave. The invaders usually start so far up the screen you can't even shoot them, but they slowly make their way down (getting bigger as they do, showing off some rudimantary sprite-scaling) and, if you like, you can run right past them or reverse away like a coward. The only other wrinkle is the Warp button, which teleports your ship off-screen for a few prcious seconds... But just hope you don't reappear in the thick of battle again.
Needless to say, there's not much to Juno First, but it's one of the better early Konami games because it's very easy to pick up and play. The biggest draw is the freedom of movement you have (and the nippy speed of your ship), whether you use it to escape from the invaders or to get up-close and personal to gun them down as this gives it more variety than other gallery shooters of the time. Of course, this also means that they can get you from behind, but the way movement works in the game makes out-manouvring enemy shots very satisfying, and the same goes for giving chase. The addition of the human capsule item makes going for a high score more challenging too, requiring a bit of thinking ahead (any invaders you shoot while the capsule is in effect is worth incrementally more points) and, while it's not the kind of game you'll play for hours on end, Juno First has the same basic appeal as Defender- it's just something to play when you feel the need for a quick game that'll test your skills, however little time it may take.
Probably the most interesting Konami games on the Game Room are the ones released from 1986 onwards- many of them (including Flak Attack and Missing in Action) never made it to home consoles, and Devastators, from 1988, is one of them. Surprisingly, it's a fairly ambitious third-person shooter of sorts, where as a shirtless, bandana-toting mercenary (no relation to Bill or Lance, we assume) you have to walk into the screen, fighting off dozens of soldiers, tanks and airplanes along the way to reach your objective and fight the boss at the end of the stage. It's almost like a gallery shooter except you have to move forward as well, which like Juno First, allows you to move around enemies and their projectiles. As for weapons, your machine gun does the job well enough even if the range is a little weak (bullets eventually just fall to the ground, so you need to keep enemies in-range) but you can also pick up hand grenades (for hitting far-away enemies) and a rocket launcher which can only be used against enemy vehicles and towers- hit the button when you've got them in your sights, and watch the smoke trail from your rocket as it blows 'em sky high! That's it, really- trudge forward, gun down anything in your way, and as the hilarious hurry-up message states, MOVE ON! MOVE ON!
Oh, there's just one more thing... The timer. Before each mission, you are loudly reminded that 'IF YOU FAIL TO COMPLETE, YOU WILL PERISH!' and they mean it- you've got two minutes to get to the end of each of the game's seven stages. Failure to reach the boss before time's up sees the whole area apparently get nuked and it's an instant Game Over. While Devastators could've been a fairly slow-paced shooter with fairly novel (at the time) use of sprite scaling, the addition of the time limit makes it feel a lot tenser. You might think it's wise to stop for a second just to gun down a few annoying enemies, but with that time constantly breathing down your neck (and that wailing klaxon noise it makes when you've only got thirty seconds left!) it becomes a game of being as aggressive as possible, always moving forward no matter what, which makes it worth playing. It's particularly interesting to compare it with Konami's 1992 G.I. Joe arcade game, as while the basic formula is the same- both are sprite-based third-person shooters- the execution is very different, with G.I. Joe giving the player plenty of concessions such as auto-scrolling, three hits per life and no time limit. Devastators is far meaner, and all the more challenging for it.. Just don't bother with two-player mode, as it really doesn't work very well (Player 2 controls when the screen moves forward!)
Also, just as a warning, once you reach the final boss, you can't continue. Good luck, soldier.
Also from 1988, the final game on our list is Kitten Kaboodle, Konami's take on Sega/Coreland's penguin-em-up, Pengo. Running on the same arcade hardware used for Gradius and Salamander, Kitten Kaboodle is an almost offensively colourful game, in which you have to find four keys on each stage while avoiding the constantly-respawning enemies. Just like in Pengo, your cat's main defence is pushing blocks around- push a block into an enemy and it'll blow them off screen, and the more enemies you kill with one block, the more point items you'll receive. Unlike Pengo, you've got far more options when it comes to avoiding and killing enemies- as well as a jump (which can be used to evade enemies or break blocks) each stage has a smattering of special blocks that have different effects when three are lined together, (ranging from killing everything on screen to making your cat invincible) and there's also the well-hiddden shop which lets you trade in your score for various upgrades, like enemy-killing bombs and speed shoes. If you're a gambling man, there's also the slot machine, but the odds are kind-of against you. So, basically it's Pengo with a few bells and whistles, some really, really bright colours, and more varied enemy types (the steamroller enemy in particular is vicious, as it can push blocks at you!).
Kitten Kaboodle is a weird little game. Not just because it involves a cat in dungarees throwing brightly-coloured blocks at giant tomatoes, crocodiles and what looks like the Brundlefly. The basic mechanics themselves are solid, and the jump function makes avoiding the enemies a smidgen less frustrating than in other games like this, but some of its ideas- in particular the use of your points as money, and the fact that finding the slot machine and shop areas feels like it's down to luck- are fairly bizarre in the sense that it feels like they were just put in because... Well, just for the hell of it. It still works, mind you- much like Food Fight, you have to be pretty gung-ho to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of each stage (don't stop once you've got four keys- keep going, just watch out for the time-out enemy!) and, as long as you're playing with an arcade stick instead of the 360 controller's wretched d-pad, it's a neat variation on Pengo that, due to the lack of a home port, never really got enough attention when it first came out. I'm not going to lie, Kitten Kaboodle was the very reason I tried the Game Room in the first place, because I was blown away by the fact that something so obscure was available to download.
... And the Rest
Truthfully, I probably would've replaced Devastators with City Bomber on this list, as I enjoyed the hell out of that game. It's basically Spy Hunter except you're a criminal on the run- it refines some of that game's ideas and also has some kickin' rad tunes. However, I took it out simply because the Game Room version has some very ropey emulation- the music is absolutely butchered (it sounds like it's coming from a busted speaker, or that Krome weren't able to emulate some of the sound channels) and the game is prone to far more slowdown than you'd find normally (even though the game was patched to fix this, it will still slow down a tad). I couldn't recommend it in this state, which is a bloody shame as it's an ace little game.
The rest of the games on the service are a mixed bag. Probably the most acclaimed title missing from our list is Jackal, Konami's classic hostage-rescuing top-down shooter. I didn't include it because it's so well-known (relatively speaking, at least- I mean, it did have a NES port), and wanted to focus on the games that you might've overlooked on the service. Of the remaining titles, some are definitely worth a try (Detana!! Twinbee and Super Cobra), others are an acquired taste (Missing in Action and Trick Trap) and others still are nowhere near worth 240 Microsoft Points (Konami's Ping Pong and Battlantis- that last one, shockingly, was a launch title!). You also have to watch out for shoddy emulation on some of the games- Road Fighter is apparently very poorly emulated, several games like Pooyan, Scooter Shooter and Iron Horse have no music, and the sound in Twinbee tends to cut out after the second stage. Fortunately, the games on our list are, as far as we can tell, glitch free (with only minor sound issues on Kitten Kaboodle, we think, and possibly different sound effects in Juno First).
The Game Room is Dead
Around October 2010, rumours were flying around that Krome Studios had shut down, taking the future of the Game Room with it. For a few weeks, there wasn't a clear answer, but by November it had all gone to pot. There's an article on the collapse of the company here on IGN which makes for some interesting reading- essentially, by November they were down to a skeleton staff (compared to the number they employed in the past). In any case, the final update for the Game Room was on the 22nd of December 2010. Among other things, this was the update that added Venetian Blinds, which perhaps showed that Krome knew time was up. There was a rumour that a different developer would pick up the slack and continue Krome's work, but that obviously hasn't happened, and the Game Room has been left to become a zombie, eternally clogging up the Speciality Shop section of the Xbox Live Arcade marketplace. Well, there's also that Windows Phone 7 version, but... Watching the Video Wall for long enough shows you what could've been- a preview for Konami's classic Sunset Riders will often appear, which is sadly locked away in Game Pack 12, probably forever...
The sad fact is it could've worked. I like having legal versions of classic arcade games, you know, especially if they've had no home ports otherwise! I even like that fact that the Game Room encourages one-credit plays as opposed to credit-feeding (although not enough games are on here to really show that feature off)! If they'd got some more developers to offer their games for the service (surely the guys who own the Jaleco back catalogue would be easy to get on board, they'll port those games to anything), dropped the prices for a few games (240 MSP for an Atari 2600 game? Get lost!) and, ahem, had more time to iron out all the emulation and front-end problems, this could've been something great, a service where you could have the games you wanted rather than the same old games that show up in every retro collection (Pac-Man, that means you!). Alas, 'twas not to be, and while our little list is hardly going to correct that (the only thing that could save the Game Room now, personally, would be the Data East back catalogue- Night Slashers and Super Burger Time, anyone?) perhaps one of the games highlighted here will grab your attention... And if you ask me, 240 Microsoft Points for Food Fight is a price worth paying to own a legal copy.
It's certainly a better deal than 400 MSP for bloody Altered Beast on Xbox Live Arcade. Cripes!
Please note: Although these game reviews are based on playing the Game Room versions, the screenshots have been taken from MAME.
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