Game Room had the potential to recreate the arcades of our childhoods. With a bit more effort, it could have succeeded.
Now boot up Game Room. I've never seen an arcade this flamboyant or spread out. It's not a game by itself, but a flashy pseudo-3D interface for the latest batch of classic XBLA games. There are titles never before seen on XBLA, including Atari 2600 and Intellivision carts. The flat-rate pricing scheme feels imbalanced. Why is Combat, the pack-in game for the 30+ year-old Atari console, priced the same as an arcade title?
Microsoft has taken a different approach to game demos here. Before, you could play a demo to your heart's (albeit limited) content. Now, you are allowed a single trial of each new game of up to ten minutes. Wanna come back later and show your brother? No can do! If you exit the demo, you automatically forfeit any remaining demo time for that title. Play out the demo time, and it rudely dumps you back at the menu without a word.
Games you've already tried but haven't purchased are still in the "Showcase" Arcade. You just can't play them anymore. Okay you can. You are given 20 "tokens" when downloading Game Room, 5 of which can be exchanged for another 10-minute go at an already-played game. Why the needless multiple? You get 4 extra demos, period. For 5 tokens, you can play a game in a friend's arcade too. Where do these tokens go? How does one get more?
You can also buy a single session of a game for 40 microsoft points. Now this is an old school session: a one-credit, don't-blow-it attempt for double what it cost back in the day. Too bad the "price to purchase" doesn't reduce proportionally to how much you've already shelled out on a game! Don't worry: this pay-to-play scheme is entirely optional. Blew 40 points in less than three minutes. Guess I'm not that good after all.
Apart from the old console games, you can't reset a game and abandon a bad run. In its place is a handy and addictive rewind-time feature that will have you backing up and trying alternative choices to keep your game going. During ranked play this feature is naturally disabled. Replays of the top 20 players in each leaderboard can be viewed. It's a great way to learn from the best.
To get the full 1000 achievement points for Game Room, you'll need to play games and earn medals. Those games will need to be paid for. Currently there are 30 games available at 240 microsoft points each. While filling your virtual arcade can easily cost more than a new release title, the actual cost is ultimately up to you. A few achievements can be earned without spending a dime. A cheap tactic (to prevent deleting the game from my history) was to award me 5 gamerpoints for simply LOOKING at the Showcase Arcade.
Will the new arcade games available for Game Room be available seperately? I liked working towards a perfect 200/200 on XBLA games, but it shouldn't take long to get used to Game Room's single achievement point tally. GR's medal system feels rewarding and encourages play. Will new achievements be added as the library expands? Will we be able to integrate older XBLA purchases into our virtual arcades? Time will tell.
The teaser video of Game Room had me excited. A place for my avatar to play! How I wanted to fill this giant arcade with old favorites, darkness and retro tunes. I didn't quite get what I expected. A multi-level, multi-roomed 3D game interface? Select a small room with a button press, choose a game, and there's a menu. My avatar's job is to stand there and "play" at the cabinet of the current game, with the occasional humerous gesture. Avatar actions do not match game activity. If I choose to view the action "at the cabinet" it feels like I'm playing inside a cardboard box.
The ambient sound of this arcade is highly annoying. It can be disabled in your arcade, but perhaps not for the main menu. Oddly, this ruckus was also present in my brand new, empty arcade. It included sounds from games not even available for Game Room! I can accept this sort of thing on the PSP. Not here. Having relevant ambient noise from existing, nearby games (like a real arcade) makes so much more sense!
Emulation is great. The games look and play like their originals, with a variety of ways to show the action onscreen. Some games lack the unique controller needed to truly excel at them, like Crystal Castles, which can limit enjoyment and playability. (Even Marble Madness on the NES did a better job for trackball support because they assigned a button to mean "roll fast".) An effort was made to simulate the Intellivision controller's numeric pad. When the virtual Atari 2600 switches are used, they obstruct most of the screen. A listing of "game select" options for each 2600 title is sadly lacking.
The simplistic layout of Game Room leaves me yearning for more flexibility. There are eight static locations for video game cabinets in each themed room. You can tilt the right analog stick to get a slightly different view, but I want the freedom to explore on foot. If capturing the feel of the old arcade was the intent, why have Atari and Intellivision consoles attached to game cabinets? Those were played on the bedroom floor!
I had high hopes for this game and, despite seeing a few forgotten classics, am left disappointed. But I still want to play it. Even so, there are cheaper ways to get your retro fix. Like this CD-Rom of classic Atari games I got from a cereal box. Hey, it's got Combat too!
UPDATE: April 2010
Thanks to a glitch with the rewind-time and save replay feature, I have lowered my previous rating. By rewinding death moments, I thought I was creating this amazing replay of unbelieveable luck and skill. However, upon playback, certain "close calls" in my original playthrough (which were rewinded out of) became actual deaths in the replay. The replay then derails as my character continues to act out the recorded inputs, which no longer correspond to onscreen activity. (Jumping ahead in the replay gets things back on track.) I'm very disappointed by this tragic flaw.