Stuff I bought instead of Perfect Dark, No.3
After the soul-destroying horror of Perfect Dark XBLA, I didn't think it was possible to see something on the 360 this month that was even shoddier. Man, I was all sorts of wrong.
All us gamers of a certain age want our own arcade, right? They probably don't hold the same appeal for under-25s, but if you were around any time near the dawn of the videogame, arcades have a glamour – in both the modern and Celtic senses of the word – that transcends their contents.
The experience of walking around a dark room lit only by the phosphorescent glow of screens and neon signs, amid a continuous cacophony of bleeps and zaps and lasers and explosions, surrounded by people out in public yet simultaneously locked away in their own virtual world, is part of the DNA of most gamers, and it's that experience that Microsoft have attempted to recreate with the Game Room.
Game Room is basically just a front end. It provides a cutesy graphical representation of a big multi-storey arcade (about the size of something like Funland at the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus), set out in an unusual "gallery" format comprising lots of individual units around a central atrium. (Sadly you can't actually walk around it, you just flick between the galleries.)
You can choose the decor style of each unit, and fill it with a combination of arcade cabinets and bits of furniture. You get a few decorative items thrown in with the Game Room download, and everything else is purchased individually.
After grabbing the main Game Room component (free), you're also invited to download a couple of additional "Game Packs", each containing a mixture of arcade games and – weirdly – Atari VCS and Intellivision console titles, totalling about 30 games between them. Don't get too excited, though – these are just demos, and you can't actually put any of them in your arcade.
To populate your virtual funland, you'll have to buy the games individually, at a cost of 240 MS Points each – about £2.04 in cash monies unless you've snagged some cheap points somewhere. (In an INCREDIBLE BARGAIN OFFER you can pay 400 points instead, and be allowed to play them on both your 360 and your PC.) Games which were previously available on XBLA (eg Centipede and Tempest) have to be bought again if you want to play them in the Game Room. There's no price distinction between arcade, VCS or INTV formats, which is slightly odd as the gulf in quality is obvious – even two quid is a lot of money to ask for Sub Hunt these days.
So far, all the arcade games are by either Atari or Konami, in a fairly random selection of early-80s titles which nevertheless includes some excellent stuff, like perennial WoSblog favourites Road Fighter and Shao-Lin's Road. While the Atari games all come in their original and iconic cabinet designs, disappointingly the Konami titles appear as generic cabs with ugly text-only marquees, like some sort of cheap Taiwanese knockoff.
(VCS and INTV games, incidentally, are presented as generic arcade cabinets with the console and a controller crudely glued onto the control panel instead of the normal sticks and buttons.)
Such laziness a real pity, as proper cabinet art does exist for most of them, and not bothering to include the real sideart, control panels, bezels or marquees seems to be defeating the object of the whole Game Room exercise. But we're nowhere near the worst of it yet.
It's when you get to the games themselves that the wheels really come off Game Room's wagon. I started off with Road Fighter, which runs at an abysmal framerate – noticeably worse than the real thing – and with nasty, grating sound. The aspect ratio also seemed to be off (too tall and narrow), making the graphics look crap. Shao-Lin's Road fared no better – in fact, all the Konami games ran like a toilet, which is curious as the XBLA version of Scramble is nice and smooth, whereas the Game Room version isn't.
All the games can be viewed in three main ways. You get Basic (just the game on a black background with a fussy little white pencil-line border, but with the X and Y axes adjustable to fit your TV screen), Arcade (some arcadey artwork as a backdrop, set against the loss of the size-adjustment facility for some reason), and Cabinet (which shows the coin-op's bezel surround artwork – if it's been included – and again has the size adjustment options disabled).
In the Basic and Arcade modes, you can also apply some graphical filters to add smoothing or a scanlines effect, to try to make the games look more like they did in the arcades. Embarrassingly, on portrait-mode games like Scramble and Road Fighter, the scanlines have been applied vertically, while on landscape games they're the right way round.
You can also alter the controls a bit, but not customise them fully, and the default options have often been selected by a dribbling fucking imbecile. For example, on Scramble you have two fire buttons – Laser, which fires bullets to the right of your jet fighter, and Bomb, which drops bombs below you.
You might imagine, then, that anyone who didn't have a pile of dogshit where their brain ought to be would map those to the B (east) and A (south) buttons on the Xbox pad respectively, wouldn't you? Guess again. Laser is on A and Bomb is on B, and there's no option to swap them over, just the idiotic and uncomfortable choice of putting Laser on the right trigger instead.
The Atari games don't escape a cack-handed mangling either. The demo download doesn't allow you to preview the Cabinet modes of the games for some reason (only Basic and Arcade), so when I decided to make Asteroids Deluxe my test purchase I was extremely dismayed to discover that it doesn't include the painted backdrop artwork, despite the backdrop being clearly depicted on the Game Room cabinet model.
What's more, the bare pale-blue vectors that remain are extremely weak, with no option to increase the brightness. Even in a darkened room they look dreadful. Games like Geometry Wars are written to simulate the bright glow of real-life vector games on a raster screen, because otherwise putting plain vectors onto a non-native display looks weedy and feeble.
A rewritten Asteroids Deluxe using those coding techniques could still have looked really good, even without the artwork. Rather than take that option, though (and let's face it, how much work would it have been?), the developers have just stuck the ROM code into a second-rate emulator (actually, that's generous), and the results are absolutely dismal.
Pretty much everything else about the game is equally dire. The sound of asteroids exploding (a deep, reverberating crumble in the XBLA version) sounds like someone banging a dustbin lid with a stick, and the movement is jerky beyond all reason. Look at the XBLA game and note the spaceship spinning smoothly on the spot, then recoil in horror at the spasming, lurching epileptic fit that is the Game Room version of the same manoeuvre.
Asteroids Deluxe is 240 points completely and utterly wasted. In fact, it's pretty close to robbery by misrepresentation.
Poor old Tempest, meanwhile, gets an even worse mauling. While at least it has nice bright vectors, in a feat of absolutely brain-numbing ineptitude the display has been inexplicably cropped at the sides. This means that on level 9, for example, if you move right over to the edges of the level your claw is almost completely offscreen. (And this in a portrait-mode game running on a console with a widescreen display, with two-thirds of the screen area going unused at the sides. It absolutely boggles the mind.)
It's almost impossible to see how any less effort could have been expended on Game Room, or how it could have been any more cynical a ripoff. It asks you to pay again for games you've already bought, in order to play them in a form that's not just markedly inferior to how they were in the arcades, but also inferior to the existing XBLA versions. (Scramble, for example, as well as running less smoothly, doesn't include the enhanced-graphics mode of the 400-point XBLA release.)
You get a desultory selection* of frequently mediocre titles – when you think of vintage Atari arcade games, is Red Baron one of the titles that springs to mind? Have you been waiting desperately for a chance to play the classic coin-op Finalizer on your Xbox 360? Come to that, have you ever even HEARD of Finalizer? What about the videogaming legend that is Mountain Madness on the Intellivision?
(The games don't even seem to have been chosen according to suitability for the Xbox controller – if I was picking Atari VCS games to play with a 360 joypad I'm pretty sure I wouldn't plump for Star Raiders, and all but one of the Atari coin-ops originally used dials or trackballs or handles or buttons, rather than the joysticks you have to employ here.)
This is doubtless a strategy aimed at parting early adopters from their money for rubbish in order to pad their virtual arcades out before the better stuff becomes available, because you'll need to buy every game available just to fill a fraction of the 96 cabinet positions.
(To be fair, once you've bought a particular machine you can fill your arcade up with 96 of them if you like. Amazingly, Microsoft have somehow missed the opportunity to charge you again for each additional one you place.)
(I haven't mentioned any of the numerous "social networking"-type features, incidentally, because the implementation of the games here is so bad that you wouldn't wish them on your enemies or Chris Moyles, let alone people you like and might actually want to undertake some gaming fun with.)
Game Room was a really nice idea, one which could have turned The New Arcade into an infinitely beautiful (virtual) reality. In execution, it's somehow managed to end up as something less exciting, less enjoyable to use, and even more of a greedy, grasping cash gouge than Playstation Home.
And the stupefyingly tragic thing is, that's not even an exaggeration. At least in Home you can play pool for free.
*FULL LIST OF GAME ROOM TITLES AT TIME OF WRITING
Crystal Castles (Atari)
Lunar Lander (Atari)
Red Baron (Atari)
Road Fighter (Konami)
Super Cobra (Konami)
Shao-Lin's Road (Konami)