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Xbox Live Arcade’s Early History - E3 2004 Announcement, Story & Let’s Play
Xbox Live Arcade was one of the defining features of the Xbox 360, with over 700 titles being released over its near 10 year lifespan. But did you know that XBLA actually first appeared on the OG Xbox in 2004 - but was overshadowed by that year’s huge AAA game launches and barely got a mention?
Here’s the intriguing story of how OG Xbox Live Arcade was originally pitched to execs by Microsoft’s Greg Canessa and very nearly didn’t happen, how the project was saved by J Allard, then subsequently announced onstage at E3 2004, and how it came to be distributed (on disc!)
I also play and review all 27 of the original Xbox Live Arcade games, with some real lost gems that would never be seen again. Finally, I track down an original 2004 Xbox Live Arcade disc and preserve it for posterity on the Internet Archive.
Mid-2004 was peak OG Xbox. Microsoft’s huge marketing push and multimillion dollar investment in the first 3 years of the console’s life was paying off big time - and with the star-studded 20 minute MTV exclusive Xbox 360 announcement still a whole year away, Microsoft and its third party developers were giving it their all to really get the most out of the system.
And there’s no better example of that than that year’s E3 - back then an industry only event but streamed live online from the Los Angeles Convention Center using the latest and greatest potato-vision for the rest of us to enjoy. Actually, to be fair it was pretty damn impressive - this was a year before YouTube even existed, after all.
Anyway, between the then-obligatory awkward early 2000s gamer bro misogyny…
“Yeah these are guns baby I’ll show you later”
“Alright Peter, I’m gonna see you on stage, Jenny I wanna see you backstage baby, alright?”
“Luckily I’ve got the ultimate anti-son-of-a-b-stick right here”
…yeah, whatever that was, we were treated to a big preview of the massively anticipated Halo 2 - which included perhaps the weirdest release date announcement I’ve ever seen:
“I got your release date right here…”
“…and yes, that is 2004.”
It certainly is, Peter Moore, Vice President of worldwide whatever-it-is.
Moving swiftly on, we also got the technical masterpiece that was Doom 3 - and to this day it’s still impressive how they squeezed it onto such a limited system - a brand new racing series called Forza Motorsport - whatever happened to that? - everyone’s favourite jiggly physics simulator disguised as a fighting game, Dead or Alive Ultimate, and BioWare’s action role playing game Jade Empire, which to this day - along with the others here - is still regularly touted as one of the best games that the system has to offer.
As a recent convert from the expensive ongoing cat and mouse upgrade cycle of PC gaming who’d not long taken possession of their very own Crystal Xbox - I remember watching all this with great interest and anticipation - probably in a University computer lab as we only had dialup at home.
But there was one announcement fairly early on in proceedings by Xbox Vice President J Allard - no, Wikipedia, that’s not Bill Gates - where he talked about the future of Xbox Live, including a new dashboard called Xbox Live Now which elevated it from a simple online multiplayer service to the beginnings of a truly social thing - although unfortunately it seems the video chat feature was a bit too ahead of its time and would have to wait a few years for the hardware to catch up.
This whole announcement was actually pretty overlooked at the time due to all the huge game previews that would follow, but it’s in this presentation that J set out Microsoft’s vision for a new service called Xbox Live Arcade, which would launch in the following November.
That’s right, one of the killer features of the Xbox 360 actually predated the existence of that console by a whole year. In fact, it very nearly didn’t happen at all.
Xbox Live Operations Director Greg Canessa initially pitched the idea of a download service for small arcade and indie releases to executives in 2003 - inspired by the recent success of Apple’s digital music distribution service iTunes - but they initially turned him down. It was only after getting J Allard himself onboard - yep, the guy in the flashy trainers - that XBLA finally managed to get the green light.
So, it was decided to release Xbox Live Arcade - one of the online service’s crowning achievements - on disc. These could be ordered for the cost of shipping from Microsoft’s website, and were also included free with the Official Xbox Magazine and bundled with games including Forza Motorsport.
The disc included the full version of arcade favourite Ms. Pac-Man, with a further 5 trial versions of other games available to download at launch. These were limited in various ways - although the demos were actually pretty generous offerings, which was often the case back in the day. As far as the Xbox Live element was concerned, all of the games had online leaderboards and a few of them even offered online multiplayer.
They also leveraged Xbox Live to add the ability to pay by credit card right on the console itself and download license keys - again, a pretty common way of distributing software at the time. Soon after launch they made additional games available to download, with 27 in total being released in the service’s lifetime.
Downloaded games and license keys were stored on the Xbox’s internal hard drive, taking up “blocks” as per savegames and the like, and could be managed just like savegames via the Xbox dashboard - but, with no way to launch them from the dashboard, the physical disc needed to be booted up to play any of them.
So, without further ado, let’s have a look at those 6 Xbox Live Arcade launch titles.
I think it’s only fair to start with Ms. Pac-Man, by Namco of course, as that was the game included on the disc. I have to say they’ve done a nice job of this with the side art there, and it plays about as well as you’d expect, using either the thumbstick or the d-pad. This slightly improved version of Pac-Man is a classic for a reason. What more can I say?
“What is the difference between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man really?”
“Well she has a bow on her head.”
Ah yes, Bejeweled, from PopCap. One of those Facebook games that your granny liked to play back in the day, but of course this version actually predates Facebook and doesn’t constantly beg you to annoy all of your friends. It offers normal and time trial modes, and if you’re not familiar with the gameplay, Bejeweled is your basic get things into rows of 3 and make them disappear type puzzle. It’s alright - if you’re into that kind of thing.
Dangerous Mines, by Silver Creek Entertainment. Minesweeper. It’s Minesweeper. And sadly not a tie in with the 2005 Michelle Pfeiffer movie with a very similar name, as - well - that didn’t exist yet. I never really bothered learning to play Minesweeper, and I think that shows. I’m sure more than a few of you will enlighten me down in the comments, but I still don’t think it’s worth the effort. Still, if you want to play Minesweeper on your Xbox, here it is.
Hardwood Solitaire - another offering by Silver Creek Entertainment, and another classic Windows game. But wait a second - this actually has quite a lot to offer with a lot of different solitaire games. I mean, there’s hundreds of them. There’s a pretty comprehensive help system as well if you’re looking to learn. I must admit I didn’t have high expectations going into this one but it’s OK, and the controls aren’t too bad either once you get used to them.
Ricochet Lost Worlds by Reflexive Entertainment is your standard cheesy Breakout clone. It looks like someone’s student project - or maybe an Atari Jaguar game - and it’s certainly not the only game we’ll be looking at today that fits that description. All that said, it controls quite nicely and it’s actually quite fun once you get into it, so I guess we’ll let it off.
Super Collapse II by Gamehouse Incorporated. I really wasn’t sure what to make of this going in, it’s kind of like a reverse Tetris, in that the blocks appear from the bottom rather than the top. That’s pretty much where the comparison with Tetris ends, however. You can’t move anything around, and the aim of the game is to select groups of 3 to eliminate to try to clear the screen. I must mention the puzzle mode, as I found that quite a bit more fun than the main game itself. Not a bad little distraction for 5 minutes if that’s all you’re looking for.
Now, you’re probably asking yourself whether it’s still possible to download the additional demos and even unlock them 13 years after the original service went offline - or whether they’re now lost forever.
I had exactly the same thought, and I saw that Xbox Live Arcade was supported by Insignia which is a modern community effort to replicate the original Xbox Live servers and get these original boxes back online.
I’ve been meaning to check it out and already had a key ready to sign up. So I ran their official app which makes the needed changes to the Xbox’s DNS entries and whatnot, and went through the Xbox Live signup process on the MS dashboard. I should probably talk about Insignia in a lot more detail in a future video as it’s a really cool project and I can’t really do it justice here. It already supports online multiplayer and indeed leaderboards for various games including this collection. But, to answer the question - no, they don’t support Xbox Live Arcade game activation and downloads. Not really a big surprise as it’s basically piracy - some of these games are still available to buy in various forms - and I know it probably falls under the umbrella of abandonware but I can see why they wouldn’t want to risk the future of the service by getting involved in that. Thankfully there is a version of Xbox Live Arcade that can be downloaded for modded consoles like mine which has all of the games unlocked. I don’t want to risk it by telling you where you can find it and sadly there are no clues in this screenshot either. Definitely not.
So, with everything installed - I definitely bought all of these games back in the day so don’t worry about that - let’s have a quick run through of the additional 21 games that could be downloaded from the original Xbox Live Arcade.
First up, Alien Sky, which is one of the games we got a brief glimpse of in that original announcement. This one’s by Kraisoft - Kraisoft? And it’s another one of those student project type games, this time based on the old Galaga / Galaxian / Space Invaders formula. It has campaign and arcade modes and 10 missions to play through. It’s repetitive but it is what it is and the graphics aren’t too bad either.
Ah, AstroPop, by puzzle game kings PopCap. I remember playing this more than I’d like to admit on the Xbox 360 when it came to that console. A fun and addictive little puzzler that’s well put together and keeps throwing in new stuff to keep the player engaged. Loads of fun and well worth checking out.
Atomaders, again from Kraisoft or Kraisoft. These guys really specialise in stuff that’s hard to say. And uninspired Space Invaders clones, as it happens. The twist here is that the enemies drop coloured tokens, and when you collect 4 of them you get a corresponding powerup. I mean, it’s not a bad game, but there are plenty here that are far more worthy of our time.
Bankshot Billiards. It’s a billiards / pool game made by PixelStorm. I’m not sure what a bankshot is and I don’t really know a lot about billiards either, but there’s a lot on offer here with loads of different variations to choose from, the controls are nice and the physics are nice too, which could be a real dealbreaker for a game like this if they got it wrong. It supports local and online multiplayer via Xbox Live. It’s alright!
Bookworm, another one from those puzzle masters at PopCap. Kind of an interesting wordsearch game, where the aim is to link together strings of tiles to spell out words. It’s kind of a novel concept, but ultimately I can’t see myself spending much time with this one. I’ll let the game speak for itself.
Dino and Aliens from Nevosoft actually completely froze on me the first time I started it, treating me to this delightful intro music. After a hard reboot, thankfully it revealed its secrets and we could finally find out where that music was coming from. It’s Croc! Wait - no - Dino. That totally original character that we all know and love.
Joking aside, I really loved the graphics in this game - along with the aforementioned delightful music - and the concept is quite nice too. A 3D puzzly thing with elements of Bomberman. I was a bit concerned about violating the Geneva convention during the tutorial here, and particularly by Dino’s victory dance which we’re encouraged to do afterwards. Actually a surprisingly good game this one and one I’ll definitely be checking out again when I have the time to do it justice.
Now here’s another one you may be familiar with - Feeding Frenzy was a launch title on the Xbox 360’s version of Xbox Live Arcade and was pretty popular at the time. Made by Sprout Games, it offers normal and time attack modes, with the goal being to eat anyone smaller than you until you get bigger. Then you can eat bigger fish. But avoid the ones that are bigger than you because they’ll eat you. Got it? Fun little distraction this and a pretty simple concept, but one I enjoyed back in the day and it’s aged pretty well.
Sprout / Gastronaut’s Fuzzee Fever hooked me in with its intro. It’s a party game that wouldn’t look out of place on the Wii, and offers local 4 player multiplayer - which I won’t be testing here because that would require friends - and online too. The single player experience consists of a series of puzzles, wherein we have to get blocks into groups of 4 to make them vanish. I’m not sure why the main character is wearing a gas mask - but at least they’re having fun even in the face of what would appear to be their imminent and gruesome death. Joking aside, not a bad game this but probably not one I’ll go out of my way to play again.
Ah, Gauntlet. The first of a series of excellently done arcade ports from Digital Eclipse. It offers local multiplayer for 1-4 players and online multiplayer via Xbox Live too. It has mildly updated graphics and those lovely sampled sounds that really made it stand out in the arcade. I was never particularly good at Gauntlet, but I appreciate a classic when I see one and this is a great way to enjoy it. Top work, and we’ll be seeing more like this shortly.
Superliminal’s Guardian - apparently a Tony Zurovec game - is a Defender clone. Because of course it is. The graphics are quite nice actually, and I particularly enjoyed the 3D rendered asteroids in the background. The gameplay from level 2 onwards is absolute madness and I can appreciate that. I was tempted to tar this one with the student project brush but actually, there’s a bit more to it.
Hamsterball from Raptisoft is your typical Marble Madness / Super Monkey Ball type game, and believe it or not, it’s not the only one on this list. But it is the first. Hamsterball offers party games for 1-4 players which again I won’t be testing for aforementioned reasons, and a 2 player race mode. The single player game is loads of fun, the controls are tight and the physics are spot on. Great game this and one I’ll be coming back to. Just don’t try this with your real hamster.
I told you there would be some more of those excellent Digital Eclipse arcade ports on this list and here’s one of ‘em - Joust. It offers the same menu system and functionality as Gauntlet, which we looked at a minute ago, including those online Xbox Live features and updated graphics. What can I say? It’s Joust. A very competent port of a well loved arcade classic.
I also promised more Marble Madness and here it is in the form of Marble Blast. Another one of those games that made its way to the Xbox 360 in the form of Marble Blast Ultra. Loads to sink your teeth into here and a lot of fun, although this one’s strictly a single player experience. Unfortunately the copy I have seems to have some kind of bug that causes it to lock up at the end of every level, requiring a hard reboot. I can just quit and use the level select to make my way through the puzzles, but it’s a bit of a pain and doesn’t save my scores. So I’m off to find a working copy, but in the meantime I guess I’ll stick to Hamsterball.
Mutant Storm by PomPom Games was a new one on me, I’ve never come across this one before. This game looks absolutely stunning, all things considered - I think it’s actually running natively in 720P and looking fantastic with my HDMI mod. The sound design in this one is minimal but very effective. It’s the classic twin stick shooter formula with some really pretty arenas and a nice difficulty curve. A lot of fun to play and, again, one that I’ll be revisiting.
The slightly oddly named Namco Vintage is - you guessed it - a collection of vintage Namco arcade games. I’m not sure why Ms. Pac-Man was deemed worthy of a separate release and these weren’t, but there you go. Incidentally, thinking back to that original E3 announcement, Atari and Tecmo were supposed to be releasing similar collections, but it seems they never materialised. How mysterious.
Anyway, Dig Dug is a game I’ve played a fair bit of over the years, but I really struggled with this version. It supports the analog stick but it’s pretty much unplayable that way, and it’s not much better with the d-pad. The controls feel imprecise and laggy. It’s a shame as it’s a great game and I feel this really doesn’t do it justice.
Thankfully Galaga fares much better. Hardcore fans of the game should love this, and it’s come across to the Xbox very well. I’m not sure why they included that weird half-arsed attempt at replicating the arcade sideart, particularly as the other 2 games here don’t have any. But it plays well and ultimately that’s what matters.
The third and final game in this collection is Pole Position. I love Pole Position and this version plays very well, thankfully, even with the analog stick. It’s twitchy but you do get used to it. So a bit of an inconsistent collection, but a couple of good games here at least.
Garage Games’ Orbz seems like it may have been predominantly designed as a competitive multiplayer and party game. It’s a golf-like concept that involves shooting balls at targets in some pretty basic 3D environments. I feel it’s one of the weaker games on offer here, especially as a single player offering which consists of a series of challenges. It’s not a bad game per se, it’s just very repetitive.
Pipeline is another Tony Zurovec game - remember him? He did that Defender clone we looked at a minute ago. This time he’s had a crack at Pipe Mania / Pipe Dream. It’s a strictly single player offering and while it’s a competent take on the formula, there are far better games here that I’d rather spend my time with. I think I’ll stick to playing the original.
Remember all the nice things I had to say about Digital Eclipse and their ports of Gauntlet and Joust? Well, they’ve done it again, this time with much loved arcade classic Robotron 2084. It’s everyone’s favourite twin stick shooter and I had high hopes for this, and wasn’t disappointed. It works great with the Xbox controller and is definitely highly recommended. The updated graphics are perhaps a bit cheesy and unnecessary but hey, if that’s the price we pay for a decent port then it could be far worse.
…and here they are again, like the DJ Khaled of the Xbox arcade port world, back with another banger in the form of Smash TV. A second ago I described Robotron as everyone’s favourite twin stick shooter, but this one is actually more my era. Definitely a great way to enjoy this absolute classic, and as an interesting side note, these ports and many more were released as part of the Midway Arcade Treasures collection at retail, with 3 collections in total being released over the Xbox’s lifetime.
So from something old to something new, and actually kind of novel. ThinkTanks from Garage Games and Bravetree, is an arena shooter which was definitely designed with Xbox Live in mind. The concept is some kind of Robocop-inspired dystopian nightmare where somehow you’ve ended up as a brain - not in a badass shiny robot body - but in a tank. Which to be fair is still pretty badass. It has some fun powerups and would be loads of fun against a bunch of likeminded people online, especially as it supports voice chat. There was nobody online when I was testing it, but fortunately there is an offline mode with bots that’s still a lot of fun. A bit of a hidden gem, this.
Finally we come to one of my favourites. I’ve always said that one of my biggest claims to fame was that I was number 4 in the world on the Zuma leaderboards for longer than I like to admit back in the Xbox 360 days, when I was a student with nothing better to do. Made by PopCap - who else - it looks like the kind of game that old people would enjoy on Facebook but lets face it - it’s been 20 years, we are the old people now. The concept is pretty simple with an endless string of balls, get 3 of the same colour together and they disappear. Hit a particular score and the balls stop coming, leaving you to finish off any stragglers. It’s nice to see that I haven’t lost my touch and after an epic 2 hour game last night, there I am in the number 3 spot on Insignia’s leaderboard. And I’m not done yet…
So, you’ve seen the quality of the games, but how much did it cost to unlock one of these back in the day? Well, historic pricing data is hard to come by, and indeed the only reference I can find online is this ancient and somewhat broken page from CNN, a month before the service launched, which claims that the games will be between $10 and $20. Make of that what you will.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, the strategy & sims section is empty. You’d think they would have designed it so they could update these lists but they’re hardcoded - I guess due to those pesky and mysterious technical limitations once more.
I also wanted to investigate a bit of a mystery - I’ve talked about the missing Atari and Tecmo Classics collections from that original E3 announcement - but it seems there were 3 others. Hexic, which ended up being a launch game on the 360 and bundled with every console sold - so I’m not sure why the plug was pulled on that - and Polar Bowler and Tradewinds, which were casual Windows games by a company called WildTangent who went on to release them on the Nintendo DS and mobile and still sell them today. Did some kind of deal fall through? I guess we’ll never know. I mean, I suppose I could ask them but this video has been a huge amount of work as it is, so I’ll leave that for someone else.
So - what became of Xbox Live Arcade itself?
Well, as you may know, it went on to become something of a killer app for the Xbox’s successor, the 360, with Microsoft even releasing a lower cost version of the console specifically targeted at XBLA gamers. In addition to being fully integrated into the dashboard and coming with puzzle game Hexic HD preinstalled, some of the games from the original incarnation - Feeding Frenzy, Zuma, AstroPop, Bejeweled, also made the jump to Microsoft’s new console.
Oh, and speaking of AstroPop, Bejeweled and Zuma, Greg Canessa - whose great idea all of this was in the first place - left Microsoft to work for the developer of those games - PopCap - in 2007, basically stating that there was no more he could contribute to the service and that he was looking for a new challenge.
Of course, the story of the Xbox 360 and that iteration of Xbox Live Arcade is a whole video in and of itself and one that I’m sure I’ll one day get around to. The Live Arcade brand eventually fizzled out with very little fanfare with the release of the Xbox One in 2013, with Microsoft moving to the unified online offering that they have today. Something of a sad end for a service that gave us over 700 titles during its nearly 10 year lifespan.
If you want to check out the original release, it wasn’t available on archive.org so I’ve preserved it there - I actually imported this one from Canada - not that there’s a lot to it but I think it’s important to make these things available in their original unmodified form for preservation. The link to that is down in the description.
The video all about how I modded my Xbox with an SSD, HDMI, and a load more is up on screen now, but all that’s left for this one is to say a big thanks to my patrons, Ko-Fi supporters and YouTube channel members and a big thanks to you for watching, and I’ll hopefully see you again next time.
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