It has been over two months since Game Room, Microsoft's highly hyped classic game platform, was released on Xbox Live. As a fan of vintage video games, both in arcades and on old school consoles like the Atari 2600, I was very excited on release day. Game Room looked to be a perfect fusion of retro charm, high def visuals, and the social element that is so important to modern gaming. But as with many such overhyped products, Game Room has turned out to be a disappointment. While not a total failure, by any means, Game Room's focus on single player games and inadequate multiplayer options, particularly co-op, is disheartening for even the staunchest classic gaming fan.
Let's begin by discussing what Game Room does right. First and foremost is the virtual arcade environment itself. With a variety of props and themes, each room in the spacious arcade space can be customized and tweaked to your liking. It's quite enjoyable to get your cabinets and consoles placed just right and search for the perfect accessories to go with them. On launch day, I eagerly plopped down my Centipede and Tempest cabinets, found a nice change machine and a stool or two, and in a flash, I had a reasonable facsimile of a small arcade you might have found at a mall or grocery store in 1984. Moving around my new arcade was very immersive, especially with the ambient arcade blips, bleeps, and music tickling my ears in the background. Friends pop in from time to time, adding to the authentic feel. Simply put, the environment of your own Game Room arcade adds to the enjoyment of playing the games themselves.
Another virtue of the Game Room service is easy access to classic games of the past. Certainly, there are several all-stars of the Golden Age of the Arcade that have been rereleased repeatedly through the years; in fact, Xbox Live Arcade has already been home to quite a few, including Pac-Man, Frogger, and Joust. But for more obscure titles, especially those on the vintage home consoles, options have historically been quite limited. Either you use an emulator of questionable legality, or you hunt down an old copy of the game and a console to play it on. Both of these options are more trouble than the average fan is going to bother with. Game Room brings these hard to find, old-school experiences right into your living room, and you can even try them out before you buy. As time goes on, and the Game Room library increases in size, this access will become even more significant.
But a fancy environment and easy content delivery are not enough for modern gamers. Social networking is the order of the day, and nowhere is this more obvious than in video gaming. Friends lists, multiplayer modes, leaderboards, and achievements are expected to be a big part of any game, even more so for a downloadable game on Xbox Live. While Game Room does address these expectations, it does so only halfheartedly. Progression in Game Room is extremely simple; players "level up" by earning medals, yet they earn medals in only a few ways, like surviving a set period of time, or reaching a high score point threshold. This scheme is too straightforward and simplistic. Why not change up the formula a bit, as the best achivements for other games do? Include game altering medals that add to the replay value of the games. An example might be surviving a certain number of waves without using the superzapper in Tempest, or shooting the spider within a brief time limit each time it pops up in Centipede. This type of "game within a game" medal system would go a long way to increasing the perceived value of the games themselves, which is sorely needed at $3 a pop. As it stands, the best way to earn medals and unlock cool stuff is to buy more games for your collection, trading money for advancement, and this can leave a bad taste in players' mouths.
While the progression issue is a concern, the single greatest flaw in Game Room is the complete failure of the multiplayer component. Very little player interaction is provided. Yes, you can challenge your friends to top your high score, and you can visit their arcade space, but that's not true interaction. Back in the arcade heyday, we players would huddle over glowing screens, watching as a friend took his turn, hoping we could top his score; we'd talk trash as Dragon Punches flew in Street Fighter. Best of all, we would exchanged high fives as we beat Shredder, Magneto, or any of the other countless bosses at the end of all manner of co-op games. You can' t really do any of these things online in Game Room, and the service suffers greatly because of it. As I understand it, what few multiplayer games are available in Game Room support only local multiplayer, which is flat out ludicrous in this day and age. The fact that you cannot play a game as simple as, say, Outlaw online against a friend is an obvious, mind-numbing flaw.
Incredibly disappointing to fans of this site, there are no co-op games available in Game Room at the time of this writing. Five game packs have been released so far, and yet no title featuring cooperative gameplay is included in any of them. Literally hundreds of classic co-op games were available in the arcades, and yet none can be found in Game Room. It appears that the early to mid 80s time frame is the one Microsoft is aiming for, and there were, arguably, very few co-op games available then. But starting in the late 80s, co-op became a major trend, and seeing this entire style of gameplay ignored in Game Room is inexplicable. Licensing could be a factor here, as many of the earliest co-op games like Joust and Gauntlet are in legal limbo at the moment. Other co-op greats like X-Men and Dungeons and Dragons might face similar difficulties. Still, there are plenty of other solid co-op gems, ready and waiting for a day in the sun. Co-Op was a defining force in arcades for years, and it should not be ignored in what is arguably the premiere classic gaming service available to fans right now.
What games would we recommend for inclusion in Game Room? Let's keep the focus on games from the early to mid 1980s, as that seems to be Microsoft's intent, and we'll try to avoid obvious inclusions like Double Dragon that are long shots due to legal issues. Here's a short list of co-op titles that meet these criteria: Rampage, Twin Cobra, Exed Exes, Bubble Bobble, Legendary Wings, Life Force, Xenophobe, and Heavy Barrel. There are plenty more, I am certain, especially if one goes a bit later into the early 1990s. Microsoft seems to use the better side scrolling co-op brawlers of that era for full XBLA releases, like those of Contra and Altered Beast. But now that there is a platform for classic arcade titles, why not release these awesome brawlers as Game Room downloads? It seems counterproductive to add in a few filters, a fancy HD frame, and a few achievements, and call it a full Arcade title, but that's what has been done in the past. If Microsoft is serious about Game Room (and given the hype machine behind it, it would appear they are) then some blockbuster, AAA arcade classics must be released soon. Co-op titles would be among the most fiscally shrewd to release, especially if online multiplayer is added to Game Room, since all players would need a copy of the game in their arcade.
As we look to the future of Game Room, it is clear that the service has many advantages. It is impressive, visually, and it's an easy, legal way to enjoy classic games of old. But gamers expect more these days, even for a product that relies so heavily on nostalgia. Social features, online play, and an improved slection of multiplayer titles, especially those with co-op gameplay, would add greatly to the Game Room experience. Unless these things are added soon, I fear Xbox gamers will abandon Game Room entirely. That would be most unfortunate, since the concept has the potential to revolutionize how we enjoy classic games.