Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Xbox at X

Microsoft's Xbox is ten years old today. This makes my brain feel a bit fuzzy round the edges, like that time I realised there are likely married couples in Britain that weren't born when Grant Morrison started on JLA. I was an early adopter of the console, with an early-version motherboard and a crap DVD drive that I eventually had to replace by taking a better one out of a second-hand "crystal" Xbox with a transparent shell (remember them?) before selling the spare bits on eBay. The Xbox was, in fact, the first DVD player I ever owned, with a DVD remote that had to be bought separately (of course) to unlock the function.

I'm not one for getting sentimental about multinational technology brands. That particular train sailed back when Commodore went bust when I was a kid. If Microsoft announced tomorrow that they were shutting down the whole operation and moving into bespoke bathroom fittings, it wouldn't have that big an impact on me beyond being annoyed I'd just paid my Live account's annual fee. But Xbox The Brand isn't going anywhere, and the reason why not is pretty interesting.

Xbox One happened along at the right time, not just in market terms but in me, personally, terms. I'd been out of touch with PC gaming for a while, and was just finding my way back in after discovering the first Half-Life, and playing it to death. My previous console of choice was a Master System.

Doom had been the big game of my teenage years, but I'd stop playing first-person shooters after Quake. The laptop I'd taken to Uni was underpowered for then-contemporary gaming (probably for the best), and for a couple of years about the only thing I played was Mechwarrior 3: Mercenaries (and what a game it was!). Half-Life Game of the Year edition was the first game I got after upgrading, and I was hooked again.

I wasn't really a console gamer in the 16 to 64 bit era, so I don't have the nostalgia of the hardcore Nintendo/Sega/Sony crowd of the 90s. I've got some good memories of playing through Resi 1 and 2 with my buds, and a fondness for, of all things, Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi. But Goldeneye, Mario 64, Tomb Raider and the like didn't make an impact.

So why the Xbox? Probably because at the time it was in essence a high-spec gaming PC at a ridiculously low price, relatively speaking. Computer, as opposed to console, gaming was my home, so there's no surprise I'd gravitate to the console most familiar to me. And it was undoubtably aimed at folk like me.

I'd been weighing up the options on all the sixth generation consoles. The Dreamcast was a non-starter. The Gamecube couldn't play movie DVDs. The Playstation 2 hardware wasn't as impressive, and as daft as it sounds, I'd always hated the controller. To this day, I'm not keen on the positioning of the Dual Shock's analogue sticks.

The two aesthetic problems that always came up about Xbox One were the controllers, and the casing. The controllers were huge, ungainly things, but they suited me- the Xbox 360s controllers are the only ones I've found more intuitive. I know I am largely alone in this. But the issue with the casing is, I think, representative of how the Xbox ended up finding its niche.

Because the machine itself was a monster. It needed fan-cooling, and was alone in the sixth generation for having a hard drive. It was a huge black brick that sat under your telly, humming. It was the console version of the last of the V-8 Interceptors, a petrol-guzzling Ford Mustang to the Gamecube's Mini Cooper and the Playstation's Audi-TT.

I like films with cowboys in them. I like films where robots blow things up. I am always going to choose the Mustang.

The Guardian article linked above makes two very good points. Firstly, in terms of games, I owned the majority of those mentioned- classics, every one. And it's on games that a console lives and dies. But the second point made, and it really can't be overemphasised, is about the colour pallete of games like Halo.

If you missed out on the Japanese consoles of the 90s, and came from more of a PC background, then the Japanese aesthetic wasn't necessarily what you were after. Bright colours, overblown characters, insane Power Rangers gameplay. Plenty of folks like it, but it's not my thing. I remember playing Super Smash Bros on the Gamecube and being utterly baffled. But Halo was something I understood. Straight off the bat, it was informed by (i.e. ripped off) genre tropes and gameplay I recognised. And it looked gorgeous. All the Xbox games did. It's the only time that I've played an in-store demo of anything and knew instantly a game was for me.

At the time, mind, the Xbox looked like a loser. It was never going to catch up with the PS2, and Microsoft never made any money off of it. But the games kept being good, and it was the first console to capitalise on online gaming, which proved to be its killer app. All three Halos remain the best multiplayer games I've ever played.

For the most part, Xbox 360 could play Xbox One games. That plus Halo 3 meant the 360 was the seventh gen console I got. What Microsoft got completely right here was Xbox Live. Not just for gaming, but for access to TV, movies, and most importantly, streaming videos from PC. I've probably used the Xbox to watch more TV than the Sky box. I've certainly spent more hours watching TV on it than I have gaming, which was Microsoft's plan all along.

Would I get an Xbox 720? Short answer is, I don't know. Halo 3 was a great way to finish the series, and I never got round to buying the Halo spin-offs, so it'll take more than Master Chief's return to tempt me. And thanks to Valve's Steam service, the cycle's come back around and I'm getting back into PC gaming. But who knows. I've spent ten years with an Xbox, which is way more than I would've predicted in the first year of ownership.

I used to work with a guy who, about nine years ago, would take the occasional pop at my preferred gaming options. He got the boot from the job about six months later (completely unrelated) so I never found out how long he kept playing his Gamecube.