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Monday, December 05, 2005

Xbox 360 brings back memories of halcyon game-arcade days

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Xbox 360 brings back memories of halcyon game-arcade days

"More powerful PCs and home-game consoles changed the gaming landscape into a solitary experience -- but the Xbox 360 has revived the arcade-like sense of community

More than once, playing Microsoft's new Xbox 360 has made me remember what it's like trying to bicycle down a steep road slick with water and maybe even an ice patch or two.

It is a fond memory and perhaps one to keep in mind as Sony and Nintendo try to respond to the success of the 360.

When I was in elementary school in Woodstock, New York, in the early 1980s, the convenience store at the bottom of the hill had a single Gyruss game machine right by the door. There were a lot more games available at the Pinball Palace arcade down the street, but the high-school kids hung out there smoking cigarettes (and other things), so my mother forbade me to go.

I went to the Pinball Palace anyway, once in a while, but most often I played the machine at the convenience store. And I got very good at Gyruss (a cross between Tempest and Galaga). I didn't know I was any good, however, until I started approaching and then beating the high scores posted on the machine by my friends.

And once that happened, getting the high score became awfully important. During my sixth-grade year I tried to hit that machine at least four times a week, even if it meant riding my bike to school instead of the bus in the late fall and early spring. That way, I could ride down the hill after school, dodge the ice and make sure that my rightful place atop Woodstock's Gyruss hierarchy had not been usurped.

I didn't know all the other people who were playing that Gyruss machine when I wasn't there, but I sure knew if they beat my score. I'd ask the store clerk who the other big Gyruss players were, and he'd mention a late-night truck driver who would come in once in a while and a couple of kids from the other elementary school in town. I never met those other players, my rivals. We never played face to face. Nonetheless, we formed a tight, dedicated gaming community bound together by a simple device: the high-score list.

That was 1984. Soon after, my Gyruss machine was removed from the store. The Pinball Palace shut down. In the late 1980s, as home-game consoles and PCs became more powerful, arcades across the country disappeared. Gaming stopped being something that people did in public and became something that most people do at home.

And as part of that shift, gamers lost the powerful sense of competitive community that had thrived in the arcade, sustained by the high-score list.

Instead, for two decades video games have been categorized as either single-player or multiplayer. Multiplayer has meant only one thing: competing with or against other people in real time, either over the Internet or in your living room.

By contrast, single-player has generally meant that no matter how cool the gameplay, there is no good way to share or compare accomplishments. For example, I may have beat God of War for the PlayStation 2 or Baldur's Gate for the PC, but because those are single-player games I have no easy way to compare my achievement with another player's. I can't easily show off my characters or prove that I got more gold and killed more monsters than my buddy. Katamari Damacy, for example, is a fantastic game, but there is no way for me to compare myself to the best Katamari players in the world. Ever since the death of the arcade, "single player" has largely meant "in a vacuum."

The Xbox 360 has shown that it doesn't have to be that way. The 360's easy, seamless integration of the Internet with the Xbox Live service has revived the arcade-like sense of community that largely disappeared at the time Ronald Reagan was president.

With the Xbox 360, you create a persistent gamer nickname that tracks your accomplishments in all games. In a racing game like Project Gotham Racing 3, you don't actually have to be online at the same time as your friends in order to race against them. You can race against a re-creation of their best performances on a certain track. Or you can "tune in" live and watch the best racers in the world compete." [more]

Related Link: Halcyon Interactive Laser Disc System

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