Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hell froze over, Chris Cookson got an Xbox 360

Last generation, Microsoft's Xbox left a bad taste in my mouth. Between the thing's massive child killing bulk and hideous industrial design, it looked like something that was trying to hard to appeal to immature 13 year old boys and little else. The console had some of the best games of the last generation with the Halo franchise generating critical acclaim and record breaking sales and Knights of the Old Republic putting Bioware on the map as a Western RPG powerhouse. Ultimately, the console lost Microsoft $4 billion but they wound up in a secure 2nd place position worldwide, pulling ahead of Nintendo's Gamecube despite the Xbox's weak Japanese sales but nowhere near touching the dominance of the Playstation 2 last generation.

Fast forward to this generation, the Wii flew under most analyst and developer's radars and is now the #1 selling console even beating out the Xbox 360 which was out a year longer than the Wii. Sony's Playstation 3 was a sales disaster and the Microsoft Xbox
360 firmly sits in second place. While the Wii's hardware is flying off the shelves the software sales are actually lower than the 360 implying that many might just purchase the Wii system as a tech toy with the packed in Wii Sports demo as opposed to a full-fledged multimedia console. Most of the best selling games are either first party tiles (much like the Gamecube) or the most casual poorly reviewed shovelware titles like Carnival Games and High School Musical: Sing It becoming million sellers. While I could ignore the onslaught of low-budget cash-in titles with Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy being close to perfection but after seeing Nintendo at E3 touting the embarrassing Wii Music as their holiday killer-app and an all too similar looking sequel to Animal Crossing as their "hardcore" title, I felt as though Microsoft's Xbox 360 had more titles coming for Nintendo fanboys than the Wii did.

Over the years Microsoft has been slowly going after my heart between buying out Rare, getting an exclusive karaoke title from the creators of Elite Beat Agents and a three game exclusive trilogy Silicon Knights, the guys who did the cult classic Gamecube title Eternal Darknes
s: Sanity's Requiem. Now that Rare's finally back up on its feet with Kameo and Viva Pinata getting rave reviews and a third entry in the Nintendo 64's popular Banjo-Kazooie franchise. With my summer job and all, I actually had enough money to pounce on the Xbox 360 as soon as I saw the 20 GB model for $270 at Circuit City and a copy of Viva Pinata to supplement that Forza Motorspot 2 game that Microsoft kindly handed out at their job recruiting presentation at Pratt Institute. I also picked up The Darkness and the Ratatouille video game off of bargain bin shelves. You can keep track of my various Xbox 360 related antics on the right nav of this blog.

My first surprise with the Xbox 360 came with just how feature rich it
was. Even if you took out the entire next-gen game functionality you'd have a product that would rival the Apple TV. The console could play all Quicktime, Windows Media, Xvid and DivX encoded videos off of a burnt DVD/CD, your wireless network or any USB device plugged into one of the systems three USB ports. You can also charge your iPod and stream your songs and playlists to the Xbox and play it instead of the normal background music for any given game. Factor in its easy connectivity to the TiVo-esque Windows Media Center and the fact that its a functional upscaling DVD player and you have a system that rivals whatever you can find on cable TV at any given moment. I mean, if you know how to use BitTorrent and search Veoh properly, there's an endless amount of entertainment you can potentially get on this time. It was a fantastic feeling to tell my family about the Helvetica movie caught a screening of and listened to a Q and A with the respective director at Pratt and be able to watch it within three hours of telling them.

As a Nintendo fanboy I was kind of afraid that the Xbox 360 would mostly o
nly have American first person shooters and action games, not to mention a slew of bratty foul-mouthed 12 year olds on Xbox Live. While both of the statements are still kind of true in my mind, the console is still pretty solid if you just avoid Xbox Live altogether. I remembered how devastated I was when Microsoft bought Rare back in 2002 and I viewed their final Nintendo published game, Star Fox Adventures as the last swan song for the company I also felt that after a number of key members left the studio for Free Radical and Zoonami I didn't think the company could ever return to its former greatness. After playing around four or five hours of Viva Pinata, that couldn't be further from the truth. I remembered laughing when I heard that Microsoft was trying to market the title as the next Pokemon with merchandise and a television series, while those ambitions never really caught on, the game has a deceptively simple concept but it contains a lot of depth. Like its more complicated than Animal Crossing but more linear than Harvest Moon, I'm not exactly sure how well the game could really appeal to kids but its a lot of fun and I feel like it could have been a real hit with the Nintendo audience. Likewise, Xbox Live Arcade has a wonderful selection of Nintendo fanboy friendly indie titles. I'm strongly tempted to pick up Braid, Bionic Commando Rearmed to that swanky downloadable version of the Dreamcast Soul Calibur.

Between playing through tons of demos and watching quite a few movie files I had on my harddrive, the Xbox 360 was totally worth it at $270 and if you factor in the price of component cables, its actually $15 cheaper than the Wii at the moment. While the Wii is a great choice for non-gamers, if you already have a nice HDTV and are fairly tech savvy I'd totally recommend taking a second look at the Xbox 360. As it currently stands, its a much better value than the Wii and it offers a much more sophisticated and polished experience for the price. While I still love my Wii quite a lot, in the meantime I'll stick to catching up on all the games I missed out on for the Xbox 360 and wait for the entire "casual" Wii game fad to pass and Nintendo to get back to making titles that require creativity and time to make and not just a marketing budget.
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