Microsoft's original Xbox Live Arcade Wednesdays program (see my review) was so effective, the company decided to extend it for at least another five games. This time around, the game selection varies between classic card games like Texas Hold 'Em and UNO and, yes, classic arcade titles like Scramble and Time Pilot. It's all good fun, and as with the first review, I'll be updating this as new games are released, each and every week.

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.

UNO (with PGR3 Card Deck)

Release date: September 6, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 400 Microsoft Points (+ 100 MP for the PGR3 Card Deck)

Note: UNO for Xbox 360 actually shipped back in May 2006, but because of delays in Scramble, Microsoft changed this week's "Wednesdays" release to a Project Gotham Racing 3-themed UNO card deck. Since I have never reviewed UNO, however, this seemed like the obvious time to do so.

So here's a weird admission: Until earlier this week, I'd never played UNO, which is the subject of this week's Xbox Live Arcade Wednesdays Round 2 release. I felt even sillier about this when I asked my family about the game: They'd all played it, even my (nearly) five-year-old daughter, and my son (8 years old now) was actually trying to give me some pointers.

Hm.

Well, UNO is great fun. It's not an arcade game at all, but is rather a card game played by four people (or one person and three computer-controlled adversaries) using a specially made UNO card deck. UNO is amazingly fun and addictive, and this is coming from someone that's really not that into card games at all. There are 108 cards, divided into four colors (blue, green red, and yellow). Many of the cards are of the typical numbered variety (0 to 9), while others have symbols that indicate special actions when played (such as Draw Two, Reverse, Skip, Wild, and Wild Draw). In the Xbox 360 version, at least, the first person to 250 point wins the game. The game consists of one or more rounds, during which the winner is the one who is able to get rid of all of their cards first. Points are scored based on the cards remaining in play.

Essentially a highly stylized version of Crazy 8's, in UNO, each player starts off with seven cards. A card is placed in the center of play, and the next player must put down a card that matches the number or color of the facing card. If the player has no such card, they must take one card from the deck and play resumes with the next player. Round and round we go.

There are a lot of fun aspects to the game, especially with regards to the special cards. If you play a Draw Two card, for example, the next player must take two cards from the deck. Reverse causes the play order to move in the reverse direction. And the best card, naturally, is the Wild Draw card: When you play this card, you can change the play color and the next player must draw four cards.

The Xbox 360 version of UNO is well done, especially when you play against other people on Xbox Live (though beware of the clowns that jet into games hoping to pick up a good hand, and then leave just as quickly when there's nothing available). There are lots of nice prompts, so even a newbie such as myself can get up and running quickly. And the Achievements system is dead-on perfect: Despite my newness, I was able to rack up nine of the twelve available achievements within just a few days. It's pretty addicting.

As with any online game, however, the quality of your experience will depend on who you're playing with. Some people who begin playing badly simply exit games, at which point a computer controlled player picks up the slack. Others babble endlessly into their microphones, and there's no obvious way to mute people, which is desperately necessary. UNO is, however, also compatible with the Xbox Live Vision camera, which officially debuts next week. I've already seen a number of people using the camera in the game, which adds a fun new dimension to game play.

Overall, this is one of the strongest Xbox Live Arcade games I've played so far. Highly recommended.

Scramble

Release date: September 13, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 400 Microsoft Points

The latest Xbox Live Arcade Wednesdays release, Scramble, is indeed an arcade classic, but it's also a fairly bland game with little in the way of replayability to keep things interesting. A sideways-scrolling shooter, Scramble is cursorily similar to Defender, but really we're talking about two different games here. In Defender, you're free to move left or right across a scrolling landscape, while in Scramble, you're heading right whether you want to or not down a tunnel toward an enemy base. Come to think of it, the game is more like Xevious than Defender in that you keep moving in a single direction regardless.

In any event, Scramble takes you through five "levels" (really just sections of a single level), during which you battle baddies on the uneven ground and in the air, all while trying to remember to bomb fuel tanks which, illogically, replenishes your ship's ever-diminishing fuel supply. You have two weapons at your disposal, a forward firing gun and a set of bombs, the latter of which can only be fired two at a time.

Game play is repetitive and pretty unexciting. One nice touch is that you can play online in cooperative mode, but when you do so, the screen is split vertically and each player plays on their own shortened playfield, simultaneously, as your scores are combined.

Like many arcade classics on Xbox Live, Scramble is available in updated and classic graphics. Neither are very inspiring, however. One area in which Scramble does get it right is the Achievements board: Achievements are quick in coming and many are easily obtained, making this a beginner-friendly game. But overall, Scramble isn't a must-have title, especially when you compare it to timeless classics like Frogger and Pac-Man, both of which are far more addictive. Unless you're a die-hard, save your money.

DOOM

Release date: September 27, 2006
My rating:
Cost: 800 Microsoft Points

At the risk of sounding dramatic, the 1993 release of DOOM was a watershed moment in my life. Sure, the earlier release of id's "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" was equally impressive from a technical standpoint--it proved that a sad little 286-based IBM PS/1 could outperform a powerful Amiga when programmed correctly, among other things--but DOOM will always have a special place in my memory. Maybe it's the heart-pounding scares. Maybe it's the incredible multiplayer deathmatch capabilities, coming as they did years before the Internet. Or maybe it's the intuitive game play. It almost doesn't matter. DOOM is an absolute classic. And it's made a wonderful transition to the Xbox 360.

First things first. While the graphics and sound are hardly up-to-speed with modern first person shooters, DOOM is still plenty violent and even scary in places, especially if you're not familiar with the game. It's not a game for kids, obviously. It's not real 3D, either: You can't look up or down, truly move in three dimensions, or aim in any appreciable way: If an enemy is up and to the right, you have to aim right and hope the game is smart enough to fire in an upwards direction. If you're used to more modern games, this can be a bit disconcerting.

None of that matters. Even now, thirteen years after its inception, DOOM is still a rock-solid game and gobs of fun, assuming you're into first-person shooters. The version released this week for the Xbox 360 includes all three of the original DOOM episodes--the original version of which I mail-ordered directly from Id on floppy disks, by the way--as well as a fourth episode, Thy Flesh Consumed, which first appeared in a special DOOM re-release called Ultimate DOOM, in 1995. You get the entire single player game as well as a multiplayer version that can be played against others on Xbox Live. I laugh now just thinking about how hard it was to set up the original DOOM for multiplayer on Netware-based networks back in the mid-1990's.

Given its early PC heritage, DOOM looks and plays just like the version I grew up with. If you?ve got a widescreen or HDTV display, well, DOOM won't take advantage of it and will instead center itself in 4:3 glory. The controls are logical and easily adopted, and since the range of motion is limited, you'll be up and running in no time. Microsoft says the music and graphics have been beefed up slightly, but I've played DOOM repeatedly since 1993, and I've seen no evidence of that whatsoever. I don't care. It's still a great game.

If you're a first person shooter fan at all, you need to get this, if only to remember the visceral fun of a game that's all-action, with no silly plotlines, cut-scenes, or character development to get in the way. 800 Microsoft Points--about $10--is a bit steep for a game this hold, but what the heck. You can rack up some easy Achievements Points and have a great time doing it. See you online.

And Microsoft, if you're listening, let's get some other early first-person shooters online: I'm talking Heretic, Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3D and DOOM II here. The mind just boggles at the possibilities.

Final Thoughts

While the majority of the games in round two of Microsoft's well-conceived Xbox Live Arcade Wednesdays program can hardly be called arcade classics, all of them---so far at least--are of exceptionally high quality and are great fun to play. Even though I'm an avid, even hard-core gamer, I find myself being drawn to many of these games again and again. I suspect that virtually anyone will find something here to like.