Thursday, March 25, 2010

X360 Game Room - Initial Thoughts

I'll get to the point here and now. In its current state The X360 Game Room isn't worth it. I expect improvements over time and maybe after awhile it'll turn out pretty decently but at the moment it's just not working out.

First of all I'll start out by saying I love the concept because I love arcade games. There's not enough services out there that focus on such a thing and a unified service where people can get together and play for highscores is a great thing. The first problem however is that The Game Room isn't just for arcade games. Right now gamers can access Atari 2600 and Intellivision games as well as arcade titles. This is just my opinion here but they should have focused entirely on arcade games. Instead it seems like we're expecting to see Genesis games, Turbografx-16 games, and other games from other systems, most of which don't have a place on this service. Still we'll see how it goes and maybe it'll all work out. Whatever the case I feel that they should have just stuck to one thing and ran with it.

All of the games are released in packs. I really hope this is only temporary because I can't imagine it working out for very long. Even if I only want one game I still have to download a 70 meg package to pick out what I want. Is it going to be like this every week? Can I expect that in a year or so I'll have to shell out for a bigger hard-drive? This isn't a good idea in the slightest. I have no interest in wasting my precious space on six games I dislike just so I can hold onto the one I actually purchased. I can see where they were going with this since I can demo the games I'm not interested and maybe consider a purchase. Still this won't last and Krome Studios/Microsoft would be crazy to attempt to keep it the way it is.

One of the biggest problems with this service lies with the emulation itself. I'm not terribly picky when it comes to this sort of thing. I realize that I can only expect as much as the price I'm willing to pay. If I'm throwing $3 out for an arcade game I can't expect something on the level of a console port by Cave or one of the Sega Ages releases by M2. However I can expect that my game will run flawlessly. This is not the case because in the time I've spent in The Game Room I've noticed constant pauses and hitches that are a serious detriment to my enjoyment. These pauses take less than a fraction of a second but they're enough to cause me to screw up. To add to this frustration there seems to be a slight bit of input lag. This is something I normally wouldn't notice but when deaths pile up because my command didn't register fast enough to save my life there's a problem.

The key reason for these problems most likely lies with the front-end. It's neat certainly as anyone can customize their very own arcade with machines and useless trinkets. Really it's just too much. I wouldn't mind if it was entirely optional and I could play my games through a simple menu. As it stands however I can only imagine how much in resources this front-end uses. If these constant pauses are due to loading some avatar animation it's absolutely inexcusable. Seriously if this keeps up maybe I'm just better off running MAME whenever I want to play some arcade games.

MAME is another key factor when dealing with this service. Granted it's only supposed to be used for educational purposes and my very mention of it puts me on sticky moral ground but it's not something that can be ignored. If you can read this blog you have a PC that's capable of running MAME. If your service is going to be competing against the biggest and most popular arcade game emulator around you gotta at least have your games working properly and some interesting features that MAME simply can't compete with.

One of the good ideas about this service is that not only does it provide leaderboards but it also offers replays for all of them so players can see just how the top-scorers got where they are. The downside to this is that the leaderboards only account for the top 20. To me this just seems absolutely silly. For one it frustrates people who rely on leaderboards to determine sales and for another there's just no reason at all for it. Take a game like Amped 3 for example. For a game that was launched at around the same time as the X360 it features full leaderboards for the near 200 events available. This is possibly just nitpicking but c'mon, it's ridiculous exclusion.

While MAME is lacking a unified setup it's not lacking in options. For the people willing to put forth even a little effort it can do replays, customize controls, cover an endless array of video options, and any number of other things that Game Room doesn't even make an effort to work towards. The lack of control customization is another big problem in Game Room. I can choose from a handful of controller options and that's it. If I prefer certain buttons or controllers I better hope that there's an option that gets at least close to what I want. There's simply no good reason for this. I also hope full online-play becomes available at one point or another. There are a handful of two-player only games on the service and I see no reason why friends can't enjoy a game of Outlaw online. Heck if we have reason to believe there'll be seven games a week we'll hit those four-player coop games before too long. It would be quite a shame if they were all local-play only.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here and I'm not even sure if the Game Room service is capable of running anything beyond early to mid-80s arcade games. If I can't get Asteroids Deluxe, Centipede, or even Yars Revenge running flawlessly I figure something more up to date like Konami's Vendetta having an abysmal performance. I've read complaints that a game like Tempest doesn't even properly emulate the full screen. This means something like stage 8 is unplayable because both sides of it are cut off. This is the kind of stuff that frustrates me to no end because it makes no sense at all.

The 240 point price for one game doesn't really bother me. To add to this I have little interest in having a copy available to me on the PC for another 160 points. I can imagine everyone sharing a similar sentiment. Simply put the premium pricing to have one game available on both the 360 and PC is an absolute sham. All this does is give PC-only gamers an easy reason to stick with MAME. Sure the ethics are questionable but for a massive percentage of gamers it absolutely doesn't matter. The $3 cost should have covered both the PC and 360 version.

All this said I still have a positive outlook on the service. The launch itself wasn't anything resembling good or even competent but if everyone involved is serious about it things can only go up from here. I'm glad Krome Studios can recognize the importance of the arcades it's just right now I wish they'd focus on the arcade games. The front-end stuff is charming but if I have to go back to MAME just to guarantee that the games will work properly the service is a bust.

In any case I feel like I'm stuck with supporting this service through the worst because it caters to arcade games. To me arcade games are precious and they're not something I would ever want to see become irrelevant let alone forgotten. To me any service that provides gamers the experience of arcade titles is welcome. Far too often everyone falls back on terms like "nostalgia" or phrases like "I wasn't around then" as an excuse to ignore older games. I also appreciate this service as it has the potential to shine a spotlight on more obscure titles that even hardcore arcade gamers never got around to before. I'm hopeful that this service will work out for the best but at the moment hope is all I've got.

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