In mid-July, Microsoft announced that it would finally begin adding Xbox 360-compatible classic arcade game titles to Xbox Live Arcade (see my review) on a regular basis. The program, dubbed Xbox Live Arcade Wednesdays, will see a new classic arcade game added every Wednesday. In this ongoing review, which will be updated as new games are released, I'll take a look at these inexpensive and simple games and let you know which are worth your hard-earned Microsoft Points.

Frogger

Release date: July 12, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 400 Microsoft Points

Released in 1981, Frogger is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and the Xbox 360 version is a decent if somewhat flawed tribute. Available now on Xbox Live Arcade for just 400 Microsoft Points, or about $5, Frogger is available in two single player versions: A graphically jazzed-up version that takes minor advantage of the 360's graphical prowess, and the original arcade classic, which after some time and effort, I'm prepared to say is actually easier to play.

The problem is the 360 controller. In Frogger, you basically have four things you can do, move up, move down, move left, and move right, and each of these actions can be controlled via the left control hat or D-pad, neither of which is any good at all. The control hat has a long throw, and you need to move suddenly in Frogger, lest you be nailed by a vehicle or other enemy. Meanwhile, the 360 d-pad is simply horrible: I'm not sure if it's just my fingers, but I've noticed in many games and in the Xbox Dashboard that the d-pad often registers the wrong direction. You push solidly down and it goes left. You push left and it goes down. And so on.

My guess is that a good arcade controller would work wonders for Frogger, but of course by that point, you're starting to spend serious cash, and the point of these games is that they're inexpensive. Besides, even a well-designed arcade controller can't overcome Frogger's biggest flaw: The collision detection is garbage. It's way too easy to hop into the back of a moving vehicle, miss the edge of a floating log, or clip some other onscreen item that you clearly did not hit, but the game registers as a hit, costing you a life. At first, this is annoying, but you think you can overcome it. After a while, it becomes obvious that the game is simply flawed.

To fix this issue, try the classic version of the game which is, as you'd expect, a dead-on copy of the arcade version from 25 years ago. Because the graphics are all blocky and rectangular, and not rounded and organic looking like the 360-ified version, it's far clearer when you've hit objects, and it seems like the actual collision is better. Maybe it's just me.

Problems notwithstanding, Frogger is considered a classic for a reason, and the 360 version is still quite fun, assuming you don't mind playing the old version. On the other hand, it's cutesy graphics, sounds, and music will be most appealing to kids, but kids will end up being frustrated by the game's sensitive controls.

Cloning Clyde

Release date: July 19, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 800 Microsoft Points

I have never heard of Cloning Clyde, and now that I've played it quite a bit, I'm reasonably sure it was never an arcade classic. No matter: Cloning Clyde is fun and addicting gaming for the entire family and is, hands down, the best game Microsoft has released yet on Xbox Live Arcade. A platform scroller that I first mistook to be a "Lemmings" rip-off, Cloning Clyde is instead a hugely entertaining game in which you complete levels, save Clydes, kill enemies, and collect Killer Ken action figures. And if that makes absolutely no sense to you, don't sweat it. This game is hugely playable, lots of fun, and even genuinely funny.

The idea here is to take the moronic Clyde and his clones and navigate through 24 levels full of killer security sentries, chickens, lambs, and other barnyard animals, ladders, clone replicator machines, explosive barrels, and the like. At times you will run, jump, swim, ride a lamb, throw chickens, operate machines and rockets, and perform a number of other tasks. Throughout each level, there are signs you can read for tips and how-to's, and the play starts off easy enough to entice even young children. It does get harder over time, but I get the feeling my 8 year old will have no issues finishing it.

Another kid-friendly bit: Unlike typical arcade games where you play with a set number of lives and then the game ends when the last life is extinguished, Clyde just keeps going. You can halt play at any time, and then return later and pick up right where you left off.

Cloning Clyde is goofy and addictive fun. At 800 Microsoft Points ($10), it's highly recommended.

Galaga

Release date: July 26, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 400 Microsoft Points

Like Frogger, Namco's arcade shooter Galaga, a sequel to Galaxian, is also 25 years old this year. Unlike Frogger, Galaga doesn't get much of a graphical makeover for its Xbox 360 version, and that's just fine with me. I fondly remember summers up at Weirs Beach in New Hampshire, setting the high score on Galaga at the boardwalk's arcade again and again. And this version of Galaga offers a nice combination of retrospective and strong-as-ever game play.

It couldn't be simpler. You control a ship that can move along the bottom of the screen and waves of dive bombing alien insects attack you in ways that make Space Invaders look quaint by comparison. You can shoot and dodge, and rack up bonus points on special interim levels where waves of aliens parade above you but don't fire back. It's the ultimate twitch game, in some ways, and unlike with Frogger, the 360 controller works just fine. I was able to rack up a number of Galaga achievements in a single play session, which proves that a) I've still got it, and b) that this game is still great fun.

Assuming you're not an anti-violence freak, Galaga is literally a blast, even with its 1980's graphics intact. Xbox 360 purists might complain that Galaga should have gotten more modern graphics on the 360, and they're probably right. Me? I'll just keep firing and dodging, firing and dodging. Galaga costs 400 Microsoft Points, or about $5.

Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting

Release date: August 2, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 400 Microsoft Points

Capcom's Street Fighter series wasn't the first to bring one-on-one martial arts combat to the arcades, but it was certainly responsible for popularizing the genre and, for a brief moment in the early 1990's, reinvigorating the entire arcade market. The apex of this craze was Street Fighter II, which drew record crowds of people eager to test their fighting skills against human opponents. Capcom subsequently milked its Street Fighter franchise with a series of SFII follow-ups, including Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Street Fighter Zero, and, eventually, Street Fighter III. Some were decent, some were utterly horrible, but none succeeded in capturing the same market frenzy as the original SFII.

The oddly named Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting (HF) first shipped to arcades in 1992, and it is representative of the series in all its graphical and auditory retro charm. The Xbox Live Arcade version is faithful to the original: You pick from one of 12 characters and then face off against a computer-controlled or human opponent. The latter can be sitting right next to you on the same Xbox 360 or you can compete over Xbox Live.

As one of the original twitch fighting games, SFII'HF requires you to remember complex button sequences in order to use a character's special moves. This is in addition to the standard set of punches, kicks, jumps, and other actions that every character can take. You're assigned a locale--not that any of them really factor into game play--and, well, that's about it. Matches are best 2 out of 3.

From a historical standpoint, SFII'HF was an early example of trends that would come later in fight gaming. It predated the insane violence of the Mortal Combat series, though you can sort of see now that MC was a logical progression. And it's one female character, Chun Li, is an obvious predecessor to the scantily clad women of Dead or Alive and similar games, though in this incarnation she's quite demure in her low-res outfit. She does kick high, however.

Frankly, I was never a huge fan of these sideways scrolling fighting games, though I've certainly played my share of them. The violence in this particular title is generally cartoonish, though the game isn't aimed at young children, certainly. The biggest audience, I'm sure, will be the aging gamers who remember playing this as kids and teenagers who, despite the low-rent graphical treatment, will probably latch right onto the required movements and button presses. It provides solid but repetitive action. Not the best Arcade game out there, in my opinion.

Pac-Man

Release date: August 9, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 400 Microsoft Points

In the annals of arcade classics, Pac-Man is perhaps the classic, a game on par with Space Invaders and Asteroids and one with which people all around the earth are familiar. In the off chance you've never heard of Pac-Man, the game is simplicity itself, and it's naturally been followed by a slew of copy-cats: You control a dot-eating yellow circle that's trapped in a maze. You are being chased by four ghosts. When you eat special power pills, you can temporarily turn the tables, so to speak, and eat the ghosts. When you eat all of the dots in a maze, you move on to the next level. Simple, eh?

Pac-Man's genius is that it's addictive in a way video game players wouldn't experience again until Tetris a decade later. And like that later game, Pac-Man features primitive, colorful graphics and goofty, retro music. But it's hard to put down. You always feel like you can do better than you just did. So you try again. And again.

As expected, the Xbox Arcade version of Pac-Man for Xbox 360 is faithful to the arcade original, and no attempt is made to jazz up the graphics or sound. Unfortunately, Pac-Man suffers from the same fate as Frogger, in that the Xbox 360's standard controller utterly fails the player by being too loose. When you move in one of the four possible directions, you need the movement to happen immediately. Unfortunately, the Xbox 360 controller is so loose, the movement often occurs in the wrong direction, or not at all. And again, as with Frogger, I suspect an arcade controller would help immensely.

Regardless, Pac-Man is still great fun. And in one nice touch, the game doles out small achievements on a regular basis, so even beginners should be able to rack up a good percentage of what's available in the game. You get 5-25 points for eating fruit, 10 points for eating all four ghosts at once, and 15 points for clearing Round 5. That's good stuff. And of course, more expert players can go for the remaining, more complicated goals, like Perfect, where you wipe out four waves of four ghosts in one level. It sounds impossible to me. But I will keep trying.

Texas Hold 'Em

Release date: August 23, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 800 Microsoft Points (Free August 23-24, 2006)

I've played a lot of poker, though I can't claim to be particularly good at it. And unlike a lot of people, I just can't get excited about Texas Hold 'Em, either the game itself or the TV phenomenon. Before this plague ruined poker forever, poker was about getting together with your buddies, drinking beer, and eating pizza or Chinese food (pick your poison). Now, poker is about overly-long games, massive stacks of chips, and--God help us--player personalities lifted straight out of professional wrestling, sans the muscles.

On the Xbox 360, Texas Hold 'Em offers both single player and, as you'd expect, multiplayer options. True poker aficionados will want to head straight online to experience Texas Hold 'Em the way its meant to be played, but the less fanatical should start off with the single player version and the admittedly nice help and tutorial sections.

In either version of the game, you start off with a revolving bankroll (no, not real money, but it does move up and down as you play, and you'll be punished for losing money by being forced to play in less sophisticated games). You play against 7 opponents, either computer-controlled or human, depending on the game type, each of which is represented by a gamer picture. If you're familiar with Texas Hold 'Em, the flow and style of the game will be immediately familiar.

Sound effects are nicely done, but the music is absolutely, mind-boggingly horrible. You'll want to turn them off immediately. Starting in late September, you'll be able to play with the Xbox Live Vision camera, which should add an interesting and arguably necessary element to the game, as you'll be able to watch opponents' facial expressions to see if they're bluffing.

For me, I'm as unimpressed with this game as I am with Texas Hold 'Em in general, and I suspect many card players would be more interested in a wider variety of poker game types, as am I. That said, Texas Hold 'Em fans will lap this one right up, thus the lofty rating. And for those who have never experienced the most popular card game in history, this is a painless and fun way to start.

Texas Hold 'Em for the Xbox 360 is free until Friday, August 25, so grab it quickly. Starting on August 25, the game can be had for 800 Microsoft Points ($10), an extravagant sum for this kind of game.

Time Pilot

Release date: August 30, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 400 Microsoft Points

Originally released in 1982, Time Pilot is a shooter that's vaguely reminiscent of games like Xevious, but with a much wider range of motion: Where Xevious simply scrolled upwards, you're free to fly in any of eight directions. In the game, you're piloting a fighter jet, trying to rescue other pilots who, naturally, are trapped in different time periods, including 1910 (World War I), 1940 (World War II), 1970, 1982, and 2001. In each time period, the enemies change to match the time, so you fight biplanes in 1910, WWII-era planes in 1940, helicopters in 1970, and jets in 1982; in 2001, humorously, you battle UFOs.

While the game has been dressed up a bit for the Xbox 360, it retains its overall simplicity: You're always flying over a sky littered with clouds, and all of the ship models are very small. Indeed, the game play screen itself is teeny: While many Xbox Live Arcade games leave the left and right sides of the screens unused in order to maintain the aspect ratio of the original arcade game, Time Pilot is curious in that it also leaves huge swathes of unused screen real estate at the top and bottom of the screen. This is how the original game was, however, so it's at least faithful. One shudders at the notion that the original Time Pilot may have actually stressed the pathetic hardware resources of the day, necessitating the picture-in-picture effect we see today.

Anyway, the game is quite playable and enjoyable. One thing I really appreciate it how easy it is to rack up Achievements. After downloading the game, I just tooled around with it to see how it played, and I quickly got an Achievement for finishing the 1910 level. In the next game, I managed to quickly garner 4 more Achievements, which was pleasantly surprising. I then looked over the Achievements list and realized this might be one of the few Xbox Live Arcade games I might actually come close to completing, from an Achievements perspective. I wish games like Frogger and Pac-Mac were so forgiving: Some of the Achievements in those titles are near impossible. Since these aren't full retail games, the Achievements they dole out should be easier. Kudos to developer Digital Eclipse for getting it right this time.

As with many other Xbox Live Arcade games, you can choose between enhanced and original graphics and sound, which is nice, but the newer versions are obvious better (though still very simplistic). You can even try your hand vs. a human opponent via Xbox Live if you're so inclined.

Overall, Time Pilot is a very good arcade conversion. It's unclear what long-term re-playability will be like, but heck, the price is right ($5) and the Achievements come fast and furious. That will be good news to those frustrated by the stingy nature of other Xbox Live Arcade titles.

Scramble

Release date: September 6, 2006

Lumines Live!

Release date: September 13, 2006

Final Thoughts

Before the launch of the Xbox Live Arcade Wednesdays program, Xbox Live Arcade had been languishing with few classic arcade titles. This is especially egregious when you consider that Microsoft supported the original Xbox with a wide variety of Xbox Live Arcade titles, including such classics as Pac-Mac and Ms. Pac-Man. Well, complain no more. Microsoft is making up for lost time with some truly excellent games, and while some of them don't appear to take much advantage of the advanced hardware the 360 offers, most of them are at least quite enjoyable and inexpensive. By taking gaming to the masses, Microsoft is opening up the Xbox 360 to a market that might otherwise have never been interested in this new platform. Job well done.