There are a lot of great, epic games this holiday season. But rather than looking at the biggest games of the year, what about the small ones? Here's some of the best games on XBLA.
Every Extend Extra Extreme: Get past the stupid name - the game's spectacular. It's an adaptation of Every Extend Extra for the PSP, which itself was an adaptation of Every Extend, for the PC. The basic mechanic is that you control a small cursor onscreen that you can self-destruct. Anything the explosion touches also explodes. The goal is to create crazy chain reactions, and then collect the resulting powerups during the "safe" time you have after your cursor respawns.
E4, for short, does the "Q? Entertainment" thing of having a strong tie between the music and the visuals. It's also a huge improvement over E3, due to a much stronger connection between the music and the gameplay. Blowing up the cursor on the beat increases a multiplier, which in turn creates a nice bit of tension between your "safe time" running out, the on-screen enemies being in the right place, and hitting the beat. It's one of those games that's incomprehensible at first, which is a shame, because once you get it, it's the kind of game you'll sink hours into.
Carcassonne: A spectacular translation of a great board game, Carcassonne for XBLA's actually an improvement over the game it's based on. All the scoring is automated, all the available moves are clear, and the focus shifts entirely to the strategy. The graphics are pleasant without being overwhelming, and the game is deep enough to sustain hours of interest. One of the best things about it is that you can play multiplayer either online or off, since there are no "secrets" you have to protect from the other players.
The one problem with Carcassonne is that, as far as I can tell, you need multiple controllers to play with multiple people. This is a real shame, because there's no reason you couldn't just pass the controller from one player to the next. I wonder if you could play with the Rock Band controllers?
Catan: Unlike Carcassonne, Catan can only be played multiplayer online, since it's based on a game where you need to keep some cards secret from the other players. It's a shame the Dreamcast VMU died a horrible death, because Catan would be the perfect game for those little screens. That aside, Catan was one of the first boardgames to really be successfully translated to the console, and it's a huge success.
The trading interface is intuitive and easy to use, the opponent AI is challenging and fun, and the graphics are either a very literal interpretation of the board game, or a slightly less usable but nicer looking adaptation of the game's tiles. Even if you've never played Settlers of Catan, I'd recommend checking this game out, and playing the trial until you win a match. The mechanics are relatively simple (trade resources until you can build stuff), but the strategy can get rather complex. Both Catan and Carcassonne are tremendous values on XBLA, cheaper and in many ways better than their boardgame originals.
Pac-Man: Championship Edition: Pac-Man's original creator, Toru Iwatani, apparently retired after PM:CE's release. It's fitting that Iwatani ended his career with the only game to have really improved Pac-Man at its core. PM:CE is in many ways a familiar game - your little yellow chomping circle runs through mazes, avoiding ghosts, eating pellets. The difference is that now, the mazes are dynamic. Each screen is split in two - the left side and the right side. When you eat all the pellets on one side, a fruit appears on the other. When you eat the fruit, the empty side of the maze changes.
Because every game is now done under a timer (the standard game only lasts five minutes), this forces players to find the best strategy for their situation to maximize their score. Do they clear as many maps as possible, to get the most valuable fruit? Do they eat as many ghosts as possible, trying to chain many together to get a huge multiplier? The game's pace keeps the frenetic craziness of the original, and running through a junction, avoiding ghosts by mere pixels is commonplace. It's crazy fun, and a genius reimagining of a familiar and accessible classic.
Puzzle Quest: If you never played Puzzle Quest on the DS or the PSP, it's on XBLA (as well as Wii and PC). XBLA is a faithful, high-res translation of the wildly original combination of RPG and Bejeweled, except now you can play against others online. It's a strange combination of games, and I'm not sure that the casual gamers who are into Bejeweled will actually find Puzzle Quest particularly accessible, but regardless, it's hugely addictive, and the RPG elements add an additional layer of strategy to the mix.
The one weird thing about Puzzle Quest is that if you're used to Bejeweled, you'll try to set up the "next" move. If you do that in Puzzle Quest, you'll set the enemy up for success! You have to try to sabotage the next move while setting up for the move after that. It's an odd change, and takes a little getting used to. But that said, if you're anything more than a super-casual gamer, Puzzle Quest is well worth playing.
Undertow: I haven't played this yet, but will be shortly. It's an odd mix of dual-stick shooter and control-point based multiplayer. I've heard lots of good things, but haven't yet given it a shot. Anyone given this a go, yet?
Anyway - that's my pick of the relatively recent XBLA bunch. There've been a lot of stinkers recently - Word Puzzle comes to mind, and I really didn't like Space Giraffe (though it does have a passionate fanbase). Looking forward to Rez HD.