Armagideon Time

Being a retrogaming enthusiast, misbirth I was thrilled when Microsoft revealed that its “Game Room” service would hit the Xbox 360 in the early spring of 2010. Thrown together by Aussie developer Krome Studios, mind the app was a slick front end by which users could purchase, prescription sample, and play a regularly updated roster of vintage arcade and console titles.

It was an intriguing concept, backed by no small amount of marketing hype and vague promises of great things to come. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that it went tits up withing a matter of months.

The launch itself began on a sour note, with server crashes and boot-up freezes. Things did improve after a couple of days, though the selection of titles — Atari, Intellivision, and Konami material long since available elsewhere — and a shifting release date for the next wave of offerings signaled some ominous portents. Despite promises that “no classic games were off the table,” little was said about which license holders had signed on and when we’d see a wider variety of offerings.

As far as the utility of the front-end went, Game Room was a mixed bag. The central conceit — a customizable multilevel arcade open to folks on your XBL friends list — was aesthetically cute but unwieldy in practice. Retrogaming completists ran out of space after a few weeks and dabblers were stuck with a shitload of empty space (or rooms full of identical machines). Once the glitz of the gimmick wore off, it was far easier to pull up favorite titles from the menus instead of slowly scrolling through a succession of otherwise functionless virtual spaces.

Game Room’s challenge system was an interesting touch, awarding medals and points for meeting in-game survival, score, and playtime goals. I’ve got mixed feelings about current-gen gaming’s “cheevo culture,” but the reward system works well in the retrocade context by adding concrete goals to offset the abstract simplicity of those old games. It actually gave me a reason to stick with and appreciate the intricacies of Juno First, Konami’s long-forgotten spin on the Galaxian formula, after I’d written it off after fifteen seconds via MAME.

The social aspects of Game Room were functional in a trend-mandated fashion, offering players the opportunity to issue challenges and taunts to pals as well as check out their arcade libraries. The pay-to-play virtual token system for titles you didn’t want to own was fairly pointless, given that the economics (three bucks to buy, one to try after a free demo) favored purchasing (or avoiding) iffy titles outright.

Yet for all the ballyhoo about social functionality, Game Room dropped the ball where it mattered most by leaving out online multiplayer. It’s an especially egregious omission in light of the number of 2600 and Intellivision titles which require two players. Couch co-op is fine and all but it’s a bit of a stretch to assume that if two guys (or gals!) get together in front of a 360, they’re going to dive into a rousing session of Utopia or Armor Battle.

(It also doesn’t help that the hardware controls for the console offerings are interfaced via an on-screen display, rather than mapped to the 360 controller. It’s not a huge issue for the 2600 stuff — apart from Starmaster — but renders any modestly keypad-heavy Intellivision title nigh unplayable.)

The original wave of enthusiasm which accompanied Games Room’s release faded fast. The developer’s exuberant outreach — “TELL US WHAT GAMES YOU’D LIKE TO SEE” — turned to utter silence and troubling news about Krome’s financial health. The anticipated flood of new licenses never materialzed, while the quality offerings entered the sub-parody realm. (Really, who wouldn’t want to spend three bucks on this?)

A few hopelessly optimistic souls on the official message board clung to the conviction that Microsoft would never follow big hype with rapid abandonment, but their faith was evaporated when the firm did that very thing for their XBL version of the 1 Vs. 100 game show. Krome went belly up in the fall of 2010 and the flow of new Game Room titles quietly ceased.

It’s a shame, even if I suspect the venture was doomed from the start. I get the impression that Krome’s model for attracting licenses amounted to “build it and they will come,” which was an excessively rosy outlook when it came to the contenious world of IP and royalty streams. Companies like SNK, Tatio, Sega, and Capcom already had their own classics compilations available, so why deal with the additional hassle of a new layer of go-betweens and potential for self-cannibalizing sales? (Not to mention the concurrent revitalization of interest in “casual play” classics due to the rise of tablets and smartphones.) Marquee titles like Final Fight or Space Invaders are (and were) solid enough to stand alone as full price purchases, while D-list dregs would be lucky to net sales in the low thousands.

But, hey, at least I was able to nab mostly perfect versions of Food Fight, Jackal, and Pitfall II to enjoy on the HDTV between sessions of Super Polygon Count Military Massacre 3. That’s one silver lining to the debacle — a buggy, prone to inexplicable freezes and slowdown, space-intensive silver lining.

One Response to “The Long Game: That and two bits”

  1. kidnicky

    Have you ever seen that customizable frontend for MAME that’s like this? It’s awesome,allthough of course it’s dubious legality means it’s going to be better than any official offering since you can have -any-title you want,and authentic cabinets (like say,Midway’s Pac-Man-you’ll never see that in an official release)!

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