Microsoft's recently released Xbox 360 video game console is big news for a number of reasons. It plays amazing-looking next-generation video games at HDTV resolutions with multichannel sound. It features pervasive digital hub features, such as digital media integration with Windows XP and Media Center-based PCs, iPods, digital cameras, and other devices, and it plays audio CDs and DVD movies. And it integrates seamlessly with a free online service, Xbox Live, from which you can connect with your friends and competitors. All in all, Xbox 360 is exactly what Microsoft says it is: An amazing entertainment experience that puts you, the user, at the center of all the action.

One aspect of Xbox 360 that hasn't gotten a lot of press, however, is Xbox Live Arcade, a part of the Xbox Live service that Microsoft first debuted a year ago. Unlike most of the core Xbox/Xbox 360 video game experience, Xbox Live Arcade doesn't cater to the hard core gamer, but rather to more mainstream users who might be interested in retro arcade game titles like "Joust" or Tetris-like puzzle games. The Xbox 360 version of Xbox Live Arcade is accessible directly from the Xbox Dashboard, as you might expect, and while the product offering is a little slim at this early date, it's still worth investigating for two main reasons. First, like the original version of Xbox Live Arcade, the Xbox 360 offering is aimed at a far larger audience than the hard core shut-ins (such as myself) who hunker over their consoles at 3 a.m., blasting enemies in first person shooters. Second, the games offered on Xbox Live Arcade are good--often very, very good, in fact--and surprisingly addictive.

"Xbox Live Arcades gives us a way to distribute a lot of small, really good games that don't really have a distribution channel at retail," Aaron Greenberg, the Group Product Marketing Manager for Xbox Live Global Marketing told me during a recent briefing. "Being able to buy Joust as a standalone game, and then go online and play it with your buddies is just cool. Before Xbox Live Arcade, there was just no way to do that."

Many of the Xbox Live Arcade titles take only a minute or slightly longer to download, especially the free trial versions. That's another cool thing about Arcade: All of the titles can be sampled for free first. But if you want to partake in the full titles, or get exclusive features like Achievements, you must purchase the full versions. These games, predictably, are pretty cheap. A game like Robotron: 2084, another retro arcade classic, costs 400 Microsoft Points, or about $5. That's just about the right price for these kinds of games.

OK, let's take a look.

Introducing Xbox Live Arcade

Xbox Live Arcade is available as an option from the Games blade of the Xbox Dashboard. When you select that option, you're presented with the Xbox Live Arcade screen, which displays an ad for the current featured game title and three choices: My Arcade Games (links to the games you've already downloaded), Download Games (games that are available for download), and Last Played Game (your most recently played game).

Xbox Live Arcade currently offers six types of games for download: Action, Card and Board (added since the launch), Coin-op classics, Puzzle and Word, Social Sports, and Strategy and Sims. Right now, the pickings are slim, but each game is available in two versions: A free trial version that features a subset of the full game, and a paid version that includes the entire game plus some additional features. Most of the games offered thus far come in HD resolutions, but all play fine in standard definition as well.

The following titles were available at the time of this writing:

Action

In the Action category, we have Geometry Wars Evolved, Mutant Storm Reloaded, Wik: Fable of Souls. Geometry Wars Evolved is an update to an arcade title that first appeared in Project Gotham Racing 2. It includes the original version of the game plus a new Evolved mode that offers updated graphics, and is available in SD and HD versions. Mutant Storm Reloaded is an HD title only, with a trial version that includes 7 of the 89 levels available in the paid version. The paid version also includes 8 difficulty levels. Wik, which has been added since the Xbox 360 launch, is a sideway scroller of sorts, with cute graphics.

Card and Board

There are three games in Card and Board at this time, Hardwood Backgammon, Hardwood Hearts, and Hardwood Spades. As the names suggest, each is in the same series of games and is thus visually similar to the others; Hardwood Backgammon is a nicely-rendered version of the classic board game, while the other two are card games. None of these games were available when Xbox 360 launched in November 2005. They were added about a month later.

Coin-op Classics

This category currently boasts four games: Gauntlet, Joust, Robotron: 2084 (which has been added since the Xbox 360 launch), and Smash TV. The first three are, of course, actual arcade classics. Gauntlet can be played in cooperative (co-op) mode via Xbox Live with other users from around the world, which is pretty cool. Joust duplicates the frenetic action of the arcade original and can also be played online in co-op or versus mode. Robotron, in some ways, is the coolest. In a nod toward the dual-joystick action offerd by the original arcade game, Robotron lets two people play simultaneously, with one moving the player character and the other shooting. Sweet! And Smash TV, which I had never heard of previously, offers co-op game play via Xbox Live.

Puzzle and Word

The Puzzle and Word category has two highly addictive and well-regarded games, Bejeweled 2 and Zuma. Bejeweled 2 is a Tetris-like classic. Zuma comes from similar stock, and I'd be lying if I said I haven't already wasted hours on this amazingly playable game. Even my wife, who's no video game player, is hooked on Zuma, and she actually asks to play it on a regular basis. Either of these games is a find choice for virtually any type of gamer.

Social Sports

Social Sports currently offers only a single title, Bankshot Billiards 2, which features nine different game styles, including 8-ball, and a practice mode. You can compete against other players on Xbox Live with the full version.

Strategy and Sims

Like Social Sports, Strategy and Sims has only one lonely entry at this time, Outpost Kaloki X, a cartoonish "space station tycoon game". It's kind of a curious strategy title where you run a space station that serves the needs of various intergalactic citizens. If you're familiar with the underrated Star Trek Deep Space 9 series, you get the basic gist of it.

What buying a game gets you

While each Xbox Live Arcade game includes both trial (free) and full (paid) versions, upgrading to the full versions provides a few benefits. You get more levels, where applicable, online play, and the ability to rack up Achievements, which will materially affect your overall Xbox 360 player rating. Since each game does have a trial version, however, it makes sense to try before you buy, and then just focus on the full versions of games you know you're going to spend a lot of time with. What a wonderful concept, and one that harkens back to the golden age of PC shareware games from companies such as Apogee and 3D Realms.

What you don't get

While the Xbox 360 version of Xbox Live Arcade makes Xbox Live a truly valuable service for any Xbox 360 user, it's actually missing a number of game titles that were available in the original Xbox version of Xbox Live Arcade. For example, as of this writing, missing arcade titles include Dig Dug, Pole Position, Pac-Man, Galaga, and many others, as well as classic casual games like Solitaire and Checkers. Fear not, however: Microsoft tells me that these games will all be added over time. Indeed, since first starting this review, several new titles have already appeared.

"Every single month we'll be releasing new Arcade titles," Greenberg told me, noting that Robotron: 2084 was on the slate for December 2005 (and has since been released). "There will be a lot more puzzle and card games, and more retro (arcade) stuff. People's absolute favorite retro games ... we're working on them. We've got people sending us lists of games we have to add. And they're all coming. I think people will be pretty excited about what's coming out over the next several months."

It's also worth noting that Microsoft is purposefully limiting the sheer number of games it releases via Xbox Live Arcade for a good reason: The company is taking a quality over quantity approach, and not spamming users with a massive list of games, most of which could potentially stink. "We're targeting these games correctly for the audience," Greenberg told me. "We have a process of approving content, and making sure that it is of the highest possible quality before it goes up on Arcade. We'd rather have 15 really high quality games--with something that appeals to everybody--rather than just dumping 50 games up there and let consumers try to find the best 5."

Another feature that's missing in action is the Xbox Live Camera, a hardware device Microsoft touted last Spring that is designed to facilitate video chats and in-game video features. That product, which will offer 640 x 480 video resolution and the ability to take 1.3 megapixel still pictures (so you can easily use your own picture as your Gamertag picture) will be released sometime in 2006, probably in the first half, and will enable a new generation of games, most of which will ship via Xbox Live Arcade.

"There will be a bunch of games that support the Xbox Live Camera," Greenberg said. "Most of the early content will be Arcade stuff, such as board games where you can [perform] video chat during games. There will be some gesture-based stuff. But everything will be online. So if there's a gesture-based game, you'll be playing it online with a friend [only]. If there's a board game, you're playing that board game online with video chat." There will be full retail games that take advantage of the Xbox Live Camera as well.

Conclusions

Overall, Xbox Live Arcade is a fun addition to Xbox 360, and though one might argue that it's cheaper to purchase retro game hardware like the Atari Flashback 2, the convenience of having them all available from a single location (your Xbox 360 hard drive) and the ability to download free trials of each title softens that blow a bit. Also, I think it's valuable to have more mainstream game titles that will appeal to normal people, and get them involved with the new Achievements system that Microsoft has built into Xbox 360. Even hard core gamers will want to take a break from Call of Duty 2 or Quake 4 occasionally and pass some time with addictive puzzle games like Zuma or blasts from the past like Joust. One complaint that is valid, however, is that the games selection could have been a lot better from the start. Microsoft is however bolstering the Xbox Live Arcade lineup over time, however, and even today's meager selection is chock full of high-quality titles. If you're an Xbox 360 owner, definitely check out these games. You won't be disappointed.