It's hard to imagine you've kept up with video games this long without becoming at least passingly familiar with the Minecraft phenomenon. But if you're like me, so far you've managed to avoid actually diving pickaxe-first into that blocky landscape and wasting dozens of hours building... whatever it is a person builds when they have access to a wide range of tools and no specific directives as to their use. For you and me, the new Xbox 360 Edition of Minecraft is a fine introduction to the world of tunneling to the center of the Earth in a desperate search for precious minerals, and constructing castles that take you weeks to build. Veterans of the far more robust PC version, however, more than likely won't find anything worthwhile in this scaled-down port.
If you don't actually know anything about what Minecraft is at this point, there are untold thousands of hours of YouTube videos out there to educate you. Let it suffice that it's a retro-lookin' open-ended sandbox where you harvest raw materials like dirt, wood, and stone, refine them into slightly less raw materials like glass, and then... well, you figure it out. As this was my first experience in any sort of Minecraft world whatsoever, I was terrified by the game's lack of direction for a couple of hours, until I finally decided that I was going to build myself a gigantic castle, which ended up presenting a series of small architectural and process-oriented challenges that I found pretty satisfying. This version does include a nicely paced (if poorly written) tutorial that smoothly introduces you to the steps required to make basic tools, build structures, and so on. It's also a rare case where the included Xbox achievements actually provide you some specific structure and guidance above and beyond the goals the game itself gives you, which are few.
That said, this "Xbox 360 Edition" is a strange beast that comes with what seems like an equal number of pros and cons when compared to the PC original. In the negative column: individual worlds are quite limited in size, considering the PC version will generate endless terrain for as long as you want to explore it. There's also no option for a persistent world that anyone can join at will; instead, the host has to be running their game and have it set to "online" for anyone else to join it, and all other players are dropped when the host quits. Naturally, you won't have access to any of the legion of mods that have been produced for the game. And most damningly, the 360 game is based on a year-old PC version that lacks a huge list of features like a hunger meter, new biomes, and randomly generated towns. The developers of this version hope to expedite Microsoft's typically onerous update process and bring it closer to parity with the PC game on a bimonthly basis, but whether or not that will happen--and whether they'll charge extra if it does--remains to be seen. The short version of all this is that if you've already spent a ton of time with the "real" Minecraft, or you want to delve straight into the most mature and feature-rich version of the game on the market, this isn't the one you want.
The 360 game isn't without its own improvements, though. Chiefly, the crafting interface is fast and largely automated, presenting you with an easy-to-browse list of recipes and allowing you to pop out axes and shovels, stairs, workbenches, and so on at the touch of a button, rather than forcing you to memorize ingredient lists and manually drag those ingredients into slots to make stuff. And while the persistence of your worlds is limited, the game offers an elegant way to view and join all of your friends' games while they're in progress. Most importantly, the game offers local splitscreen co-op that makes it an ideal casual experience for multiple people hanging around the house on a lazy Saturday afternoon. For me, the local co-op rapidly went from a mere bullet-point feature to the most valuable aspect of this whole game in the space of one of those afternoons. The game works really well on the 360 controller in general, and if you use the lowest difficulty, which disables monsters (like the infernal creepers who are constantly blowing up all your carefully constructed stuff), the game can be an awfully pleasant, lean-back sort of way to pass a few hours. Or more than a few.
In the multitude of hours I've put into this version of Minecraft so far, I had no trouble editing multiple worlds across multiple Xboxes, and playing any combination of local and online co-op with various friends. Though, there was one maddening experience where the game crashed when I used the save-and-quit option, failing to save in the process and obliterating all my work since the last save. Based on anecdotal evidence, I'm hardly the only one who's had that specific problem, so you're advised to use the regular manual save option frequently to make sure you don't lose any hard work until the game is patched.
In the future, this version of the game will live and die by the frequency and robustness of those promised updates and the extent to which they catch the game up to the progress of the PC original. The 360 Edition is a bit steep by Xbox standards at $20, though the PC version now costs a bit more (and some outlets seem to be selling this one for less, anyway). If you're reading this review at all, you probably own at least one platform, ranging from PC to Mac to the iPhone or Android, that Minecraft already runs on, but here and now, the 360 game offers enough value for block-building neophytes to justify its existence in a world where Minecraft has already seemingly been wallpapered everywhere you look for the last couple of years.