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Published on March 26th, 2010 | by Will

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Microsoft Game Room, stepping away from the Xbox

Microsoft released their Game Room yesterday as part of their “House Party” (or “Block Party” if you live in the USA) event. Apart from some intriguing teething problems its been an interesting experiment. Essentially Game Room is a MAME type emulator of arcade games (currently limited to Atari and Konami cabinets from the late 70s and early 80s) as well as the Atari 2600 and Intellivision consoles. And these seem to be the original ROMs based on the ROM boot sequence some of the games show. The emulation is wrapped up in a customisable virtual arcade for your avatar and friends avatars to roam through. The games are OK, but the brilliance is in the execution.

When you first start (provided it can connect to the game room server, that’s where the teething problems lay), you can demo the games, usually for about 10 minutes (or less if you leave the game before the time runs out) after which you have to pay 40 Microsoft points (the Xbox Live currency which is bought using actual cash) or you can buy the game to add either to just your Xbox or buy for all formats. Note the wording; all formats. Currently you can also play Game Room using the both Xbox 360 and Windows PC. But more on that later. While the Game Room environment is free, you have to pay to unlock the games theme#selves to add them to your arcade. Games usually cost about 240 points for just the Xbox 360 and 400 points for the “all formats” version. You can upgrade an Xbox only version later on. Essentially Game Room is the sample to make gamers part with their cash. And maybe even get “pay for play” working in the same way it did for arcade owners.

The reason you can get multiple versions is that while a copy of the games exist on your local machine, another copy exists on a server in Microsoft. This allows you to visit the arcade a friend has set-up, as you can connect to the server with their creation. However if the server isn’t available, sometimes you have to jump through hoops to get things started, once you have an arcade created, you can still play without being able to connect. The more you play, you can win medals (based on high score, how long you survived in a game and total played time) which allow you to “level up” and unlock room styles and decorations for the rooms. There are also achievements to drive up your gamer score. If you didn’t understand that last sentence, don’t worry about it. Its an Xbox Live thing.

So why make it? Well for programmers or hackers, an emulator is sort of cool, and creating a MAME type emulator for the Xbox is an interesting challenge. The thing probably got the go-ahead when someone realised that you could get gamers pay for the old ROMS. Based on the games on launch day, there is another possible thing.

What is interesting is the odd assortment of games contained in the first two Game Packs. The full list is; Adventure, Armor Battle, Asteroids Deluxe, Astrosmash, Centipede, Battlantis, Crystal Castles, Gravitar, Lunar Lander, Red Baron, Combat, Finalizer, Football, Tempest, Jungler, Millipede, Mountain Madness/Super Pro, Outlaw, Road Fighter, Realsports Tennis, Sea Battle, Scramble, Space Armada, Space Hawk, Shao-lin’s Road (a.k.a. “Kicker”), Star Raiders, Super Cobra, Sub Hunt, Tutankham,Yar’s Revenge. Some of these are classic arcade games (e.g. Centipede)  but some of these are poor knock-offs for the Atari 2600 (e.g Millipede). Some of these are two player games, as there wasn’t enough power to give the computer enough smarts to play against the player (e.g Outlaw). And some of them require the Intellivision numeric keypad =, which makes them practically unplayable on the Xbox. So why include them? Firstly a PC has easily accessible numbers, if not an actual numeric keypad. And secondly… what else has a numeric keypad, or at least can reproduce a touch pad version complete with an overlay in place?

Windows 7 mobile, Microsoft’s forthcoming mobile phone operating system, features a way to link to a number of social networking sites, including the Xbox live system. Its possible to synch your  Xbox Live and Games for Windows Live accounts together and earn more achievements etc. directly from your mobile phone. Smartphones are powerful enough to run an emulation engine on the phone. Very old games don’t take up much resources. That and that old school arcade titles are perfect for casual gaming in your pocket, as well as costing your pocket. Expect to hear that “all formats” are now three different formats and not two.

Overall, you enjoyment of Game Room will depend on a mix of nostalgia and actual gems in there. New games are expected to be added to the (cross) platform on a weekly basis, so things, while expensive, are expected to change. Provided they get the intermittent server problems fixed.

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About the Author

Will likes to dance around the interfaces of technology, people and culture. Unfortunately that dance floor is freshly waxed. He usually remembers to write (and photograph) at WillKnott.ie



3 Responses to Microsoft Game Room, stepping away from the Xbox

  1. Peter Balfe says:

    Gotta ask – why would you bother when you can get a MAME emulater and roms for free on the net?

  2. Will says:

    Curiosity makes me do odd things. Besides, I use my Xbox a lot more than my mame setup.

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