Xbox Live Arcade: The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread, Fire

The Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) is, without a doubt, a big selling point for the Xbox 360. Some people might not look at it this way, but it has been one of the best reasons to own the system.

Far be it from Microsoft to turn "hard-core" games into "casual' gamers, but that is exactly what they have done. Xbox Live Arcade appeals to both hard-code and casual crowds, and is also a big reason for its success.

Let's first step back to the original Xbox, just for a moment. If you purchased the Xbox Live Starter Kit, you also received a disc to install the XBLA. Classic arcade games were priced at $4.99, but most games were $9.99 a few topped out at $14.99.

The problem was that not many people knew about the service, it was also late out of the gate, debuting in late 2004. It almost felt like a beta release in this regard, since one year later came XBLA on the 360.

Xbox 360 Launch
Now, not only is XBLA prominently displayed on the "Games" blade, but there is also a free (by free I of course mean free with the hard drive) game included. Scratch that, a good free game. The original XBLA might have come with Ms. Pac-Man, but now we get Hexic HD.

Hexic HD is a puzzle game designed by Alexey Pazhitnov, the creator of Tetris. Pazhitnov works for Microsoft now, and has crafted yet another infinitely addictive, infinitely playable game in Hexic HD.

Hexic was there to wet our appetites, and wet them it did. At the launch of the Xbox 360 there were 14 other arcade games for purchase. The launch lineup was packed with all types of great games.

Better still was the price. These were cheaper, sometimes $10 cheaper, than what they cost on the original Xbox.

On the XBLA you have two kinds of games: coin-op classics, and modern casual games. A lot of the modern casual games are updated versions of classics, or they borrow concepts from games that have grown near and dear to our hearts.

So far, coin-op classics cost 400 MP (Microsoft Points) which is about $5. All other games have been 800 MP or $10. Bankshot Billiards 2 has been the lone title at $15, but this was also free with a one-year subscription to Xbox Live.

The prices are better, and the games are better. Geometry Wars Retro Evolved would be the poster child of the lot, boasting a 40% purchase rate -- forty-percent of people who downloaded the demo (each XBLA game is available as a demo) bout it. And at $5, who can blame them. Who needs Halo 3 at launch, we have Geometry Wars!

As of this writing, there are 21 games available for purchase over Xbox Live. The last two released, Astropop and UNO, are among my most played games.

What Comes Next?
UNO was released the week of E3 this year, but there was much bigger news for the XBLA than UNO. Lumines Live! was announced. This was a bombshell announcement, and a big blow to Sony, as Lumines is no longer a PSP/PS2 exclusive title.

Lumines is a puzzle game, a genre perfectly suited for the Xbox Live Arcade. Lumines Live! will integrate music videos from Warner Music into this Tetris-like game. Anyone who has played the standout PSP launch title knows this will be a big hit on the Arcade.

During the Microsoft press event at E3, Peter Moore announced a bevy of other games too. These games include, Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Defender, Pac-Man, Galaga, Sonic the Hedgehog, Contra, Super Contra, Frogger, Time Pilot, and Scramble.

Street Fighter II, originally set to be a spring release, is looking more like a June-July release. At least that is the hope, as gamers are chomping at the bit to get this classic on the XBLA.

Indie Developer Heaven
Not to be overshadowed by the classic games of our youth, more and more developers have signed on to create new games. Independent developers have a great place to publish amazing software.

Marble Blast Ultra, developed by GarageGames, is a prime example of what an indie developer can do on XBLA in a relatively short period of time. Using their own technology, the Torque engine, they created a game that redefines what is possible, both in look and feel, in an Xbox Live Arcade game.

And it shows, Marble Blast Ultra is second only to Geometry Wars in sales, through March 2006.

The future for indie developed games looks spectacular, with titles such as RoboBlitz, HoopWorld, Novadrome, Cloning Clyde, Heavy Weapon, Totem Balls, Small Arms, and Mutant Storm Empire.

Some of these games even make use of the Unreal Engine, technology used in many big budget games.

More Exposure, Respect
With the current set of games on XBLA, and the 30 or so announced games set for launch in 2006, you would think more people would take notice. It saddens me that that these releases do not see the attention that the (much) more expensive retail games get.

The simple fact is that these games give us as much, if not more, enjoyment than games from EA or Activision, for example.

Xbox Live Arcade games cost less to produce, cost less to purchase, and are being enjoyed by both casual and hard-core gamers alike. It is no wonder we are seeing such great games on the Arcade. My only wish right now is to see another Ricochet.

Microsoft is also coming around to the fact that they have a "killer app" on their hands. They need to do a better job on the public relations side however, because they are obviously doing amazing things on the development side.

They showed us at E3 that XBLA is front-and-center when it comes to gaming on the 360. Many gamers, myself included, are just as excited about the release of Arcade games as we are about retail ones.

I would not be enjoying my Xbox 360 half as much if it were not for the Xbox Live Arcade.

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