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EGM Review:
Minecraft – XBLA Version

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Posted on May 9, 2012 AT 12:03pm

If you build it, Creepers will come

 

Minecraft is one of those games that it’s easy to hate, even if you’ve never played it.

There was a point in time where you couldn’t go anywhere on the internet without running into somebody gushing over the game. So wonderful! Utterly amazing! Best game of the year! Revolution in the gaming industry!

When a game gets built up that high, it isn’t hard to become a little jaded. The thing is, Minecraft actually is pretty damn amazing. Started as a project by Markus “Notch” Persson inspired by other releases such as Infiniminer and Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft was a very simple game that allowed players to destroy or build square blocks of material in order to create structures or mine into the ground.

In that form, Minecraft was more promise than practice—but its promise was what turned it into the phenomenon that it became. Many have called Minecraft the video game incarnation of LEGO, and that’s a good way to explain the game’s growth. At first, we were given a smattering of basic building blocks, and that was good enough. After a while, we wanted more—and suddenly, here came an update, which introduced two new pieces that expanded the scope of what could be built. Another update, another new selection of additional crafting parts, each of which let our imaginations run even wilder thinking about what we could now create.

With so many games, it doesn’t take long for us as gamers to come to understand what we can expect from the experience. Minecraft, however, has never stopped us from dreaming. A new update could bring us nearly anything, and that’s why it’s so exciting. Minecraft a year ago was nothing like it is today, and a year from now it’ll be far more than what we have offered up now. It’s hard to think of things that Minecraft couldn’t end up being. There could be a day when you could basically build your own RPG world—brick by brick—and then play out adventures in it just as fun as any other offering–and that’s just one of thousands of ways the game could go.

When it was announced that Minecraft would be coming to the Xbox 360, I had mixed feelings. Playing the game on my big HDTV while sitting on my comfy couch sounded like a great opportunity—but would the game actually work on the console? Microsoft’s rules for game updates are notoriously strict; for a game that is so based around constant free updates and expansions, those rules could cripple the project right from the start. And what about mods? Minecraft has grown to feature deep built-in support for expansions and modifications, which would be hard–or impossible—to bring to the Xbox 360.

Concerns or not, Minecraft has finally seen release as an Xbox Live Arcade title—and the result both calms fears and validates them at the exact same time.

Minecraft on the Xbox 360 feels weird at first. Initially, it was a hard feeling to explain—it was, well, just weird. Part of it are the controls. Even while I’m long used to playing first-person experiences via analog stick-sporting controllers, Minecraft was just so perfectly tailored to the mouse & keyboard set-up. It takes a little getting used to—but it works, and works very well. Another part of it is the framerate. Not that it’s bad; in fact, it’s extremely good. Coming from the PC version, I wasn’t used to that. Here was Minecraft; big, beautiful (in its own special way), fullscreen, and running smooth as butter framerate-wise. This was Minecraft, but it wasn’t Minecraft, and for that reason it was both strange yet satisfying.

As a game, Minecraft has always been centered around three things—survival, exploration, and creation—and the latter was where I found my first point of contention with the XBLA version. One of Minecraft’s trademarks has been that the game drops you into a world, and you’re told to survive—with no real explanation on how exactly you’re supposed to accomplish that. Bringing up your inventory, you see that you can craft items in some regard, but lord knows how that works. So, you run around until you start to wonder if that’s all the game is, and then—either purposefully or by accident—you punch something. Punching things rewards you with items you can pick up, either whatever the thing you punched enough to break was, or some new form of material. Back to your inventory you go, where you try mixing and matching combination of items in the simple crafting interface you’re given, where suddenly you’re finding entirely new items that can be made.

There’s a part in every Minecraft player’s lives when they decided to go online and cheat by hunting down a full list of everything that’s possible to be created in the game. Still, that initial excitement of uncertainty replaced by discovery is a huge step in creating an emotion bond with the game—and that step is gone here. For Minecraft’s XBLA debut, the crafting system has been entirely reworked. You’re presented an interface which outright spoils you not only as to what you can make in the game, but the exact combination of materials you’ll need to do so.

When I first saw this new interface, I was utterly baffled. How could you take one of Minecraft’s core learning experiences, and just completely destroy it like that? I understood some of the arguments that were made in defense of this method of handling crafting—switching from a mouse & keyboard set-up to using a controller means direct item manipulation could get tedious after a while—but I still find it borderline offensive to the Minecraft experience. If you’re going to put in such a system, then give the player options. For example: Why couldn’t this new interface obscure the presented items and their materials until you’ve made them at least once on your own? Had you gone that route, players could still have enjoyed the experience of discovering things on their own, and then the quick, easier new crafting system could have been appreciated for all of its finer points without ruining that sense of discovery.

Even as I cursed under my breath about how stupid of a decision the new crafting interface was, I admitted to myself that it wasn’t enough to kill the great experience that I was having. By this point, Minecraft XBLA had stopped feeling weird, and instead now felt awesome. For good or bad I had come to terms with the crafting situation, playing the game with a controller was now second nature, and I was starting to heed the true calling of the game: Gathering materials and making plans so that the little cave I had dug in the side of a hill to protect myself from the creatures of the night could be turned into a full-blown fortress. I had ended up finding a spot extremely close to my starting point in the world I had generated, so for now, I was sticking close to home and just doing my thing there.

With my mining efforts at that location not panning out as well as I had hoped, and my restlessness growing after being cooped up in my still-tiny home for so long, I decided to head out and do a little adventuring. I packed up some tools, my boat, my map (which, strangely, the XBLA version of Minecraft provides you from the very beginning), a bowl of delicious mushroom soup, and I headed off into the horizon. I wouldn’t be straying far from home—I hadn’t yet made a compass for finding my way back to home base—but I wanted to at least get a lay of the nearby land. Just to the east of my shelter was a bay, so I started there. Sitting snugly in my handmade boat, I pushed off from shore, eagerly awaiting the new and unexplored land that would soon stretch out before me.

It wasn’t long before something bizarre happened—the world ended. Not like in a Michael Bay-esque symphony of fiery explosions, or like as in the world suddenly cut off and was just darkness beyond that point. The game simply stopped letting me moving forward, as before me sat nothing but water for as far as my eyes could see. I was confused. Minecraft’s world doesn’t end like that—or, at least, the game starts processing so much that it comes to a screeching halt long before you reach the theoretical end of your map. Why had I found this point, and why was it so close to where I started?

The answer is simple: Minecraft XBLA’s maps are small. Really small. Really, really small. For anybody who has played the PC version of Minecraft, you will be in awe of has small the worlds generated here are. (I guess, unless you’ve played the mobile version of Minecraft—which I’ve heard also had tiny maps. I’ve personally never tried it.) After a bit more exploring, you come to realize that all of the worlds in this game will essentially be squared-off islands existing in the middle of an endless ocean. I decided to time how long it’d take for me to get from one shore of my world to the other. Without using any kind of pre-constructed path (for the benefit of speeding up travel), and with having to maneuver around one mountain and do a quick bit of swimming, it took me 4 minutes and 12 seconds to complete my trip.

My argument about the game’s new crafting interface seemed like nothing compared to this. Those three tenets of Minecraft—survival, exploration, and creation? All three have been compromised here. Even to this day, I sit in awe of the randomized worlds Minecraft can generation, and doing nothing but exploring them can still provide wonderment. That sense of being one insignificant being in a gigantic, living, breathing world is gone here. So too is that pressure for survival. With the small size of worlds, it’s literally impossible to get lost. You’ll never be able to have that feeling of fear after having wardered off too far while also having no clue how to get back home. You’ll never be able to put yourself into a position where you can’t recover your items after dying before it’s too late and they disappear. It won’t take long into a game to even lose the ability to go somewhere you’ve never been before—without, of course, starting an entirely new world.

Some will say that Minecraft XBLA can still provide the joys of Minecraft—and to some degree, they’re right. You can still have fun exploring the dark expanses of the caves that burrow their way through the ground under your feet. You can still find the joy of making a home, and then destroying it to make a bigger and better home, and then destroying that in order to construct something even grander. And, you can still have fun getting together with friends to design and build worlds together. In fact, this is the point at which Minecraft XBLA at times does an even better job than its PC counterpart. Online-wise, up to eight Xbox Live friends can join up when a world’s owner is online, but you can also have up to four people playing together in the same room (while also being online with others). Minecraft has never had that support for local multiplayer, and having that ability to sit down with family or friends and enjoy a gaming experience that’s about creation—instead of destruction—is quite wonderful.

This isn’t Minecraft though. As much as it does feel like a piece of Minecraft, it’s just that—a piece. Ambitions in Minecraft have always started small, but soon, you want more iron to construct that railway project, or more room to build out the fantastical city you’ve suddenly found yourself building, or more territory to explore when that call to adventure rises up again in your heart. Unfortunately, Minecraft XBLA doesn’t have that more to give. 4J Studios—developer of this version of Minecraft—has promised regular updates, and that the XBLA version will hopefully soon have content parity with the PC version (which it currently does not). They’ve also talked about hopefully expanding the size of maps that are available in the game. The problem is, for now, that’s nothing but hope—and even if that does occur, seeing how small the worlds currently are now makes me understand that there’s no hope for them to ever come anywhere close to what you get in the PC version.

Minecraft XBLA serves as a perfect introduction to the world of Minecraft, and for some players who aren’t looking to invest a great deal of time in the game, it may be all that’s ever needed. And, for those who just want something fun that they can do with their friends or family, this can also fit that role quite nicely. When compared to the “true” version of Minecraft that exists out there, however, this XBLA port is nothing but disappointment. This version of the game may serve as a fun companion piece to those who already own the PC version, but in absolutely no way, shape, or form could it ever serve as a replacement or substitute for that version.

Minecraft is indeed the LEGO for the video game era—and here, we’re told to build all of our dreams on one lone baseplate with only a small quantity of pieces. What a way to shatter our dreams.

SUMMARY:  If Minecraft on the PC is the video game equivelent of LEGO, then Minecraft on XBLA is Duplo. It’s a perfect introduction to the game and its experience—but it won’t take long for you to outgrow it and want the real thing.

  • THE GOOD: Superb framerate, control works great, and its exclusive multiplayer options are a wonderful touch.
  • THE BAD: Minecraft’s core gameplay tenets all suffer greatly due to various decisions or limitations.
  • THE UGLY: Steve, the game’s player character. Other character models exist—why not give players the ability to choose?

SCORE: 5.5

Minecraft is available on XBLA (Xbox 360), PC and iOS. The version reviewed is a special release of the game specifically for XBLA.

Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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