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Invading The Game Room

We bum rush the Xbox 360 Game Room and see what it's all about.

   If you don't want to roam around the avatar space, you can opt for menus instead.
 If you don't want to roam around the avatar space, you can opt for menus instead.
In case you missed out on the announcement back in January, Game Room is Microsoft's new platform for emulated games of yesteryear. It'll be able to handle old arcade games as well as classic consoles, and the Game Room shell will be a free download when it hits this March as a part of Microsoft's "Block Party" promotion for Xbox Live Arcade.

Of course, you won't be able to do very much with that free shell. The whole point is that the Game Room is a place for you to purchase and download old arcade, Intellivision, and Atari 2600 games. Or, at least, that's the plan so far based on the companies that have currently signed on and allowed their catalogs to appear in Game Room. In the future, it's possible that more older games could appear, and without prompting, the spokesman I interviewed mentioned the Dreamcast. That's obviously not a confirmation, but I was left with the impression that Game Room could have a pretty wide scope, once the really old stuff is out of the way.

So far, Intellivision, Atari, Konami, and Activision are on-board, which translates into a lot of Atari 2600 and Intellivison games, as well as some arcade games from Atari and Konami. I went through and played a few games, like Pitfall!, Super Cobra, Astrosmash, and Shao-Lin's Road. The emulation seems fine and it's complete, right down to the games' boot-up sequences and the need to insert fake coins to play. You can view the action in different ways, to, like an arcade-like view that shows the artwork that surrounded the monitor on some arcade games. In this view, you can also see a slight curve to the monitor, and Centipede had vertical scanlines, matching the original. If you want a clearer view, you can get a zoomed-up view with no scanlines, which maintains the proper aspect ratio for the original games.

Game Room utilizes save states, letting you pause a game and pick it up again later. But you can also use this to rewind time in your games. If you're not playing a ranked match, which is the only way to put your score up on the online leaderboards, you can hold down the left trigger at any point to start rewinding your mistakes. In these unranked games, you're also given full access to the arcade machine's original DIP switches, the Atari 2600's difficulty switches, and the full options of an Intellivison game. Playing Intellivision games also lets you call up the full gamepad, complete with overlay.

You can also view save states from the leaderboard, letting you see how the top players play. The save state system also plays into Game Room's challenge system, which allows you send specific challenges to up to seven of your friends. These can be simple high-score battles, but you can also force the challengers to start at a specific point in the game and configure a host of other options, like the number of times a player can attempt a challenge or how many days the challenge will last. This means that you don't need to actually get everyone together at the same time to start up a challenge, which is a necessary touch.

Microsoft is claiming that it will add seven new games per week, and players that purchase games on the first day will get a little bonus mascot that can be placed inside the Game Room's virtual arcade. Mascots include things like a vector-based tank from Battlezone, or Pitfall Harry. If you don't show up on the first day to make your purchase, Microsoft plans to make the mascots available separately for a small fee. Let me just state here that I think that paying for mascots for your virtual arcade is crazy talk... but it was kind of cool to see all of the little things running around on their own while cruising from room to room.

  Finally... a front-end that will let you play Jungler.
  Finally... a front-end that will let you play Jungler.
Game Room will have 60 achievements worth 1,000 points. But those points aren't tied to any specific game. Instead, they're tied to medals that you can earn by playing your purchased games. There are nine medals per game, and they're broken up into three tiers of three medals each. This means each game will have a high score challenge, each will have a "time spent" medal for simply playing the game, and so on. I glanced over the achievement list, and it looks like those are also broken up into tiers, with at least a few devoted to your overall time spent in Game Room. So if/when you reach the 36-hour mark, you'll get points for doing so.

While I didn't stare at it long enough to know for sure, the emulation in Game Room appears to be competent and accurate to the original games. All of the emulation work is being handled by Krome Studios, who is also developing the front-end and avatar environment.

Commercialized emulation has always been a tricky business, since the rampant availability of old games online means that everyone else is competing with the low, low cost of "free." The Game Room wrapper has some interesting ideas in it that shine up the experience and might just make this stuff worth paying for. The fixed cost of three dollars per game (with an additional two dollars if you want to play your games on both a 360 and a PC) seems reasonable, too. That said, the lack of proper online play in two-player games like Outlaw is an already-visible omission that means the Game Room still has plenty of room to grow.
Jeff Gerstmann on Google+