Adam had a relatively easy job compiling a collection of the best games on the PlayStation Network – the service has only been around for a year and new releases have been sporadic at best. Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade though has been around for nearly twice as long with new releases appearing every Wednesday like clockwork. The newest update includes a small selection of original Xbox games to download as well, so we’re going to start this rundown with a round-up of the first original Xbox titles available.
The price is a little bit of an issue – 1200 Points (Â£10.20) – which is steep considering that most of the games can be picked up second hand for around half that. Nevertheless, there are a few gems. Halo is the big one, and we stand by our reckoning that it’s better than the sequel. If you fancy some platforming goodness then go for Psychonauts – one of the most criminally ignored games of all time. The hero has to visit people’s minds and help them with their mental traumas, while unveiling a sinister plot at summer camp. There’s a twisted sense of humour throughout and each level offers something new. Another ignored game that has been given a second chance is Fahrenheit – a story driven adventure game, with puzzles requiring gentle manipulation of the analogue stick. It’s very atmospheric and cinematic, so give it a go. Also worth a mention is Fable, Peter Molyneux’s adventure game where your character grows older as the story unfolds. It didn’t quite reach its potential, mostly because Lionhead promised the moon on a stick, but it’s a solid romp and surprisingly funny too.
Now, the highlights of the recent Xbox Live releases.
It uses the Unreal engine, but rather than being a first person shooter it’s more like an underwater Geometry Wars. The control system is the same at least – move with one stick and aim shots with the other – but here there are control points to fight for and you’re joined by other scuba guys that fight alongside. There are underwater caves to explore, most of which house power-ups, and the backdrops are quite nice – underwater London, complete with rusty London buses, for example. It isn’t as frantic as Geometry Wars though and when the camera zooms out it can be hard to see what’s going on, but as Xbox Live games go this is one of the more polished ones.
Microsoft recently gave this away for free to celebrate five years of Xbox Live, so unsurprisingly it has found its way onto a lot of hard drives. It’s quite a simple game at heart and oddly addictive. The idea is to build a medieval city by placing tiles on a map. You take turns with the CPU placing randomly chosen titles – some have brown areas which will turn into buildings, others have roads that can be linked up. At the end of a game the points are added up as to who owns the most buildings, with the winner being the one with the most. The clever bit is trying to stop your opponent from making huge cities by placing useless tiles in his path to ruin his plans. But obviously he can do the same to you.
Alien Hominid HD (Â£6.80)
It’s a love it or hate it one, this. Some see it as a visionless clone of Metal Slug, others love its bright colours, explosive weaponry and cute hand-drawn looks. The level design is pretty standard and lacks the surprises and variation found in SNK’s shooters, but there are some nice ideas such as being able to hide in the ground and pull in enemies as they walk past. On a HD TV it looks really special, like a sketch book brought to life. The bosses are suitably wacky too, including a monster made out of butterscotch. Mmm!
Assault Heroes (Â£6.80)
Distinctly retro, but so good – simply scroll up the screen in a weapon-packed ATV taking out everything in sight. Weapons can be upgraded and there’s a handy throwing arc for grenades. You can get out of your vehicle too and run around on foot, which is essential for collecting power-ups stashed away in places the ATV can’t get to. The downside is that your little chap can’t take much damage and moves slower. There are some really nice things such as the way trees can be set on fire and pushed to the ground and a friend can join you online. The very definition of a nice tidy little game.
Space Giraffe (Â£3.40)
So many words have been said about this game already, and not just by us. Eurogamer published two reviews of it (one reviewer gave it a 6, the other an 8) just to show how much of a Marmite game it is. It’s basically a stupidly trippy version of Tempest, only the tactics you used there will end up getting you killed here. Probably. It’s a real head fuck at first but once you start realising why you died and for what reason it starts making more sense. To start getting decent scores you need to pay attention to the sound effects too, as each enemy makes their own re-spawning noise. That way you can always tell what’s on the grid and will soon be gunning for your precious giraffe. We’ve spent more time playing this than any other Xbox Live Arcade game, but you might see it as a steaming pile of psychedelic llama poo. Download the free demo and make your own mind up.
Jetpac Refueled (Â£3.40)
Rare’s first Xbox Live game came out of nowhere, and that’s where it has seemingly vanished – trying to find somebody to play online with can be a struggle. It’s a revamp of one of their first Spectrum games from back in the day when they were known as â€˜Ultimate Play the Game’. It’s a single screen shooter where you collect the odd rocket part and fuel pods. The crudely drawn enemies look a bit out of place but there are lots of fancy special effects and it’s definitely a game you can get into the zone with. The 1983 original has been included too, which makes this package good value for money.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Â£6.80)
When this was released on the PSone back in 1997 many ignored it because of its 2D graphics. They were wrong to do so – it was easily the best 2D adventure game since Super Metroid, and because of a limited print run copies exchanged hands on eBay for silly money. Even though all and sundry can download it copies still sell for a decent amount. Backbone handled this Xbox Live conversion, which became the first XBLA game to break the previous 50Mb filesize limit. The FMV sequences have been cut, but the sprites have been smoothed over and the slowdown that appears in the original has been fixed.
Bomberman Live (Â£6.80)
The 16-bit Bomberman games were great, and the 10-player Saturn Bomberman was often referred to as one of the system’s best games. But as soon as Hudson’s hero sprouted polygons things went wrong, especially with Bomberman Act Zero – a complete gaming travesty and reportedly one the worst selling 360 games to date. This colourful romp sees the fella go back to his roots, with the focus purely on multiplayer – four can play local or up to eight online. Characters can be customised using body parts unlocked as rewards while matches can be completely customised. As well as laying bombs you can now hide mines in the ground and while the usual power-ups are present – including the ability to shove bombs out of the way – there are now items to avoid which hinder progress. Much like Worms – which also received an excellent XBLA outing – this is one game that’s best kept simple.
Sonic the Hedgehog (Â£3.40)
The sequel is available too, but we’ve gone for the original. We loved Sonic 2 back in the day but it wasn’t until replaying it on Sonic Mega Collect a few years ago that it became apparent that it was a rushed out mess, full of glitches and slowdown, and a tacked-on two-player mode. The music though is still awesome. The achievements are a bit disappointing – if you can’t unlock all of them on your first play then you’ve clearly never played Sonic before. Collect 100 rings? Clear Green Hill Zone? Where’s the creativity in that? If you’ve got a thing for the Mega Drive, then you might want to splash out on Streets of Rage 2 as well. Our Jake swears by it.
E4: Every Extend Extra Extreme (Â£6.80)
If Space Giraffe made your head hurt, then this will turn it to goo. It’s best described as a shooter in reverse, with the idea being to detonate a yellow cursor amidst as many ‘enemies’ as you can in order to create a huge chain reaction. Do well and you’ll get an extra life and some more time on the clock so you can continue committing virtual suicide and boost your score. That’s about it, really. Coming from the team behind Lumines – also available on XBLA, but a bit of a swizz as you need to download loads of extras to get the full package – it’s no surprise to find that the music and presentation are suitably funky. And Vernon Kay is nowhere in sight.
Next year should see Xbox Live Arcade hit full stride with Sega’s Rez HD, Ubisoft’s War World, ex-Dreamcast shooter Triggerheart Exelica and Treasure’s Ikaruga all due. Harvest Moon creators Natume are also joining the fray with another shooter named Omega Five. Well, five of the team are working on it, hence the name. Fact!