Game Room is the new retro service due to be launched by Microsoft this March as part of their “Block Party” promotion. Ostensibly it’s a front-end for the delivery of large numbers of classic – and inevitably some not so classic – arcade titles, emulated without flaw and playable in all their pixelated glory.
The service is set to go live with around thirty games but the plan is add seven games each week, filling up the back-catalogue quickly and eventually ending up with the most comprehensive collection of classics anywhere. With this volume of content being added it’s easy to see that, before long, any title you can remember – however niche – will end up on there.
I saw Breakout and Tempest, amongst others and they were precisely faithful to the originals. The screen of the arcade cabinet is displayed, upright, in the centre of the TV and they fill out the sides with the surrounding area of your Game Room. For the old arcade games this means a vertical game-screen but the same method is used for the old consoles (Atari 2600 seemed to feature heavily for the people I saw playing) with a 4:3 screen ratio.
There are a couple of new features added over the top of the faithful representations which will make life a lot easier for modern gamers. The ability to pause (showing a control layout) is new to many games here and the right trigger will rewind the games a little so you have the chance to smooth out your inevitable mistakes (this invalidates online ranking games).
The ability to save and load games is also new and will give players much more chance of progressing. This is a great way of making these unforgiving classics a little more accessible to a modern audience.
As with the local arcades in the ‘70s and ‘80s, leaderboards are set to be a compelling feature which will keep you returning. Your high scores are displayed on a banner in your Game Room and you can set specific challenges in each game for other players who visit.
Microsoft representatives told me that they were keen to support the service into the future and that there was a chance of new machines being introduced in addition to the Atari, Intellivision and arcade content. I asked about the possibility of Spectrum and C64 games appearing in the future and, whilst nothing was confirmed, I was told that they thought it was a logical step.
Pricing seems to be one possible bone of contention for classics fans. Any game can be trialled once with further goes priced at fifty cents. For $3 you can buy the game to put in your own Game Room (which can be themed with skins to vary the surroundings a bit). For $5 you can have the game to play on both Xbox 360 and on PC. Microsoft have stated that they will consider bundle deals on packages of games to spike sales but there are no details of those yet.
Bear in mind that many of these games are available on PC emulators with a bit of tinkering and can be obtained, legally or otherwise, for free.
All in all, it seems like a flawless service for anyone interested in retro gaming and even the pricing structure shouldn’t be enough to put people off with a demo of each game being free so you have a chance to evaluate before you lay down any coins. I will admit to being sceptical of the service before I used it but my mind has been changed after seeing how well it works in practice.
Definitely something to look out for during the Block Party promotion in March.