Goodnight Sweet Prince – The Xbox 360 Bows Out

Xbox 360 LogoToday marks a pretty significant milestone for console gaming. Earlier today, Microsoft boss Phil Specter announced that Xbox will stop manufacturing new Xbox 360 consoles. The console marked its ten year anniversary in the fall of last year, which is an insane lifespan for technology. It’s a little sad to see it enter the final chapter, but it’s a good excuse to talk about some of the consoles highlights.

Before we talk games, there’s the console itself. Microsoft was in an interesting spot going into the console generation – despite being a company since the late 70’s, it was the new kid on the block with consoles. The original Xbox had shown that they could create a console that could appeal to the adult gaming audience as well as the overall crossover audience. But compared with the huge success of the PlayStation 2, it was definitely the little brother of the group. The 360 showed a tremendous amount of growth, even with a somewhat rocky launch. It showed that Microsoft was dedicated to creating a home console that belonged, not just a quick grab for money. From relatively consistent system upgrades – some that completely overhauled the dashboard we saw every day – to providing the best online service for consoles, the Xbox 360 gave the Xbox brand the identity it needed. Plus Achievements and Gamerscore started on the 360, and I’m a pretty damn big fan of them.

Skyrim

One of the complaints I really remember from the early days is one that would end up being the total opposite of how the 360 was. It’s one that I myself made in the early days – the launch window games were somewhat crap. A Call of Duty – the last Infinity Ward World War Two game in fact – and Kameo are really the only two that I can even remember. Which is a far cry from the last five or so years – Halo, Call of Duty, Fallout/Elder Scrolls, BioShock, Gears of War, Minecraft, the list just goes on and on. The Xbox One may be struggling to grab those third party exclusives – I’m looking at you Destiny and Call of Duty – but on the 360, it was the exact opposite case. DLC came out first for those big third party games on the 360, pretty much across the board. Combine that with the Xbox Live upgrades that really solidified it as an integral part of the Xbox brand, and it was pretty easy to see why that was the case. It’s hard to imagine, not just Xbox gaming, but console gaming in general without the rise of Xbox Live and Halo and Call of Duty during the 360.

Now that the console is entering the final phase of its life, it’s the perfect time to go back and revisit some truly classic games. With backwards compatible games coming to the Xbox One more and more frequently, there are plenty of ways to play them too. If you got rid of your console, but still have the discs, that’s totally fine. If you have a full collection of digital games, the Xbox One has you covered there too. While we’re starting to see a few games coming out now – Dark Souls, Battleborn, Overwatch, DOOM – it’s not quite as crazy as the fall, so while it’s a little slow maybe go back and play a favorite. It’s always a good idea.

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Xbox One Backwards Compatibility Spotlight: Gunstar Heroes

A couple games got added to the list of titles that are backwards compatible on the Xbox One: Outland and Gunstar Heroes. I’m going to tell you why you have to pick up Gunstar Heroes today, because it’s far and away one of my favorite games of all time. Let’s begin shall we.

Gunstar Heroes

Gunstar Heroes isn’t a recent title being added to the backwards compatible list – it’s actually a game that first appeared on the Sega Genesis way back in 1993, developed by Treasure. It’s since shown up on the Wii’s Virtual Console, as well as the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade and the 3DS eShop over the last handful of years. That Xbox Live Arcade version is the one that, obviously, was just brought forward to the Xbox One. It was a game that I used to rent all the time when I was growing up for my Genesis, and have since bought the Wii version and Xbox one; as well as the Game Boy Advance pseudo-sequel/remake. So in that way, it’s a game that I have a pretty strong emotional connection with – it’s really hard for me to separate out the nostalgia on this game. It’s a lot like the NES Mega Man games in that way.

It’s also similar to the Mega Man games in that it’s a 2D shoot-em-up. You can also look at games like Contra for other comparisons. It’s hard, but not unfair. It demands you to have some precision in your platforming and shooting, while throwing huge numbers of enemies at you. Treasure knows that with those old school games like that, good boss fights are at the top of the list in terms of important factors in a game. And as such, Gunstar Heroes has some imaginative, challenging and fun boss fights – and lots of them. The four main bosses at the end of the first stages vary from a giant robot, a muscle bound grappler, a mech who uses dice to move and determine its attacks, and a rogue Gunstar using a mech with multiple different forms. Each fight has you using different tactics to beat them – Black and Pink are beatable just with standard run-and-gun moves, Green and Orange definitely require a bit more precision in how you handle them. Once those first stages are done, the game kicks up a couple notches, throwing everything you’ve seen so far all in one stage before you head to space for the final few stages. It all feels very much like an arcade game – it’s not a long game by any stretch. It almost feels like it’s trying to kill you to steal some quarters. That feeling really sets in during the last couple stages – boss rush screens, no weapon fights, a multi-stage penultimate boss followed right up by an incredibly tough final boss. Playing this game on hard is a legitimate challenge and beating it on hard is a real accomplishment.

Luckily, just because it’s a hard game, it isn’t unforgiving. You’ve got difficulty select, and while easy is easy for sure; the normal difficulty is just right. There’s co-op as well, which is seriously fun to play with a friend; especially in the same room on one console, how we used to do it. Where other hard games lose me usually is with the gameplay. Games like Dark Souls or Lords of the Fallen always have felt clunky or overly punishing to the player. I totally get that’s a subjective thing, and I get that it’s definitely just my personal preference with that. But that’s why I really have always liked Gunstar Heroes – it’s hard, and the gameplay feels just about perfect. The controls all feel super responsive, your mobility isn’t clunky, the gunplay is incredible and varied and repeat playthroughs just help you learn everything better and better. The action is exactly what this game needs to keep players coming back. Add in one of the best soundtracks on the Genesis, and I don’t think it’s hard to see why this is one of those classic old games people keep talking about.

Gunstar Heroes Green Battle

That action and gunplay I mentioned is a big part of why I really love this game. It takes the classic Contra/Mega Man sidescrolling gunplay, and adds a little twist to it. Instead of just having single weapon pickups to switch your gun out, you have two slots to fill. You pick one as you start the game, the other you fill pretty early on in the first mission. What makes it unique is that there are four options – Force, Laser, Fire, and Chaser – and each behaves quite differently. Then, when you fill that second slot, you combine the two into a new weapon. Double Force is a massive machine gun style weapon, while Force and Fire shoots out fireballs that explode on contact; take Laser and Fire and you’ve got a lightsaber, and Chaser and Laser is the “press shoot to kill everything” weapon. Add in to that the two different player choices – Free and Fixed Shot – and you see why the combat is surprisingly deep for a 23 year old game, as well as why I compared it to Mega Man.

I’m a big proponent of playing old classics, no matter how long ago they came out. We talk about old movies, music and TV with a sense of reverence and still consume that media. Why can’t we do the same with games? Part of that is technology that is obsolete or hard to find, the other part is that gaming has just changed so much in such a short time. So when these classic, touchstone games pop up on modern, current consoles, I think it’s important to point them out – especially to younger or new game players. Gunstar Heroes is a 23 year old game, but I think it absolutely still holds up to this day. If you’ve never played it, and you’ve got an Xbox One, go pick it up from the marketplace. You absolutely won’t be disappointed.

Xbox 360 Games That Need to be Backwards Compatible

Xbox 360 LogoMicrosoft announced this week that in the next update coming to the Xbox One, Xbox 360 titles that are part of the backwards compatibility feature will be able to be purchased from the Xbox Live Store right on the Xbox One. They’ve been good about making the Games with Gold games be backwards compatible, but there’s always been that one little barrier that might be keeping people from picking them up – you needed to either still log on the 360 to “buy” them, or go on to the Marketplace on Xbox.com to do the same. Hopefully bringing the 360’s marketplace to the Xbox One will open up a whole bunch of classics from the last generation to make the backwards compatible leap. So with that in mind, I thought I’d pick out a couple 360 games that really need to be brought into the backwards compatible program – if for no reason other than new gamers really should play them.

BioShock CoverWe’ll start with the BioShock series. I’ve seen a couple rumors floating around that there are plans to bring them forward in an HD/Definitive Edition Collection, similar to what 2K did with Borderlands. Assuming that doesn’t come to fruition, the three games should at least come forward as backwards compatibility titles. The first game is arguably one of the best story driven shooters of all time, and is in my personal top five for the entire 360’s library. There’s a lot of depth in the combat with the Plasmid system, bringing in a little RPG flavor to a shooter with a ton of character, and one of the most intriguing settings in modern gaming with Rapture. The sequel was a little bit of a stumble – I wouldn’t call it a step back, but it wasn’t the step forward that maybe it should have been. There are some really cool innovations – playing as a prototype Big Daddy was awesome, and being able to wield a Plasmid and weapon at the same time made combat a little more fluid. Where I think the biggest misstep was with BioShock 2 was the addition of multiplayer, which felt a little forced to me. Luckily, BioShock Infinite brought the series back to really solid ground, even when the game wasn’t set on particularly solid ground. It took the ideas that the first game presented, married it with the updated action from the second, and then ran with them. I’d love to see that HD collection happen, but if not, these games really need to be available through backwards compatibility.

Another game on my personal top 1o list is Dead Space – the first game is still one of the best examples of survival horror, using a pretty standard sci-fi setting and cranking the terror up through immersive storytelling and unique enemy interaction. When we think survival horror, we think zombies – that’s just the nature of the beast thanks mainly to Resident Evil. With Dead Space, the tried and true zombie killing approach was turned on its head – the game punishes you for shooting the Necromorphs in the head. The most base instinct of any gun-based combat actually is the wrong answer – beheading them makes them much more dangerous; instead the game, using in-world assets (messages sprawled on the walls in blood) to tell you to shoot their limbs. The sequels got a little away from the real sensation of claustrophobia that the Ishimora had in the first game, opting for an increasing focus on combat. As much as I prefer to see full series available on backwards compatibility, the first Dead Space really needs to come forward.

Dragon Age OriginsI have three more groups of games that I want to talk about today. Each is relevant to the current gaming market in different ways, and each is cemented in that conversation of “best of the generation.” We’ll start with the Dragon Age games. I actually just reinstalled Dragon Age: Inquisition to my Xbox One, since it was cleared when my box died back in October. BioWare is one of my favorite developers – their characters and stories are consistently some of the best in gaming across the board. They’ve proven that they can craft engaging stories, with characters that feel real, in worlds that feel lived in; and still have the gameplay to keep players invested in RPGs that can easily creep up into that 60 hour range. Dragon Age takes that idea and brings in the classic Dungeons and Dragons mechanics to the combat. BioWare used that same d20 system in their first third-person RPG, Knights of the Old Republic. Dragon Age just brought that d20 system back to high fantasy, and makes sure to have a story in place that makes sense and is engaging. Since the third game did so well on the current-gen consoles, it really just makes sense to bring the first two games to backward compatibility. There’s not a huge amount of connection, outside of certain characters and story/world elements linking the third game to the first two, so new players might not have the same background with the Lore.

Sticking with BioWare, their other main franchise is another that’s in my top five: Mass Effect. I’ve talked in the past about how much I want an HD collection of the Shepard trilogy on the current-gen consoles, if for no reason other than to tide me over until Mass Effect Andromeda. Baring that, those three games really should be available to play through the backwards compatibility on Xbox One. They’re a more balanced blend of RPG and shooter mechanics, mainly because of the realtime combat, and use of a third-person cover system. With these kind of genre blended games becoming much more common, I think bringing an example of not only one of the earliest blended shooter/RPGs, but still one of the best of those games. Shepard’s story is both grand and intimate, the themes that lie underneath this huge space sci-fi epic are decidedly human. It is one of the first modern games I can remember to put a big emphasis on player choices and decisions. The idea of Paragon and Renegade playthroughs, character interactions that put actual value on your responses, and an ending that, in theory, is driven by player choice all were super innovative nine years ago. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who either missed the series because they were too young, or because they weren’t into RPGs or whatever other reasons you can think of – bringing them to backwards compatibility means that a new generation of players could sit down and play through one of the best trilogies of games ever. Since the first game is on the list, I don’t know why the other two haven’t been added yet.

SkyrimFinally, one last set of games – Bethesda’s RPGs. Fallout 3 is already available – it came with Fallout 4 – but their other three RPGs: Fallout New VegasElder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim all haven’t made the leap yet. With Fallout 4 starting its DLC season shortly, the time might be a little crunched, but I definitely think that they really belong on the list. New Vegas added in a lot more RPG depth to the characters, and Hardcore mode is a totally unique way of playing Bethesda RPGs. The Elder Scrolls games were the RPGs, especially Oblivion that started me getting into more traditional and deeper RPGs as opposed to Pokemon and Final Fantasy. With Elder Scrolls Online on the current-gen consoles, I think it makes sense to try and put at least Skyrim on that backwards list, if it isn’t already. I know that studios are starting to really pull away from the last generation – and that’s been something I’ve wanted to see from developers for about a year now – but there are still games from last-gen that I think can exist with the backwards compatibility. I don’t know how much effort it takes to put them on that list of games that is backwards compatible, but if I were Microsoft, I know that I would really be trying to get Skyrim on there.