The best of the Arcade
Credit crunch or no credit crunch, most of us find money a bit tight in the first month of the year. You have probably played through most of the games that Santa left you, it's far too cold to head down to the shops for a new one, and there are still a few weeks before this year's new heavyweight titles are available. How to tide yourself over? Perhaps it is a good opportunity to re-examine some of the titles available from the comfort of your own home - let's see some of the best that the Xbox Live Arcade has had to offer, all for a price of 8-12 GBP per game.
One of the first titles on XBLA was Alien Hominid HD, which was a souped-up version of an online Flash game. Well, Castle Crashers is developed by the same team, and is even more souped-up. Not least because of the four-player co-op mode. The medieval fantasy setting mixed with the cartoon violence of seeing your character slice up soldiers and zombie-teddies alike doesn't get old quickly. Throw in a decent RPG-style character development system, along with collectible weapons and power-ups, and you have yourself a very nice party game, easy to pass the controller around, or a game to be blitzed through with your chums. And there are princesses at the end. What more could a cartoon Knight want?
Short for Championship Edition, the new version of Pac-Man has a number of updated modes. Of course, there is the classic bog-standard one - clear the maze of pellets while avoiding ghosts. But new variations on the theme include timed versions, where you need to survive for 10 minutes and get a top score, and versions where clearing one side of the maze reveals a completely new maze on the other side. Of course, there are leaderboards for top scores on each of these modes, if you think you got game - and overall the game is graphically very pretty. Also worth a mention is the fact that, if you want to go truly retro, you can download the original Ms. Pacman too. But I was personally an easy convert.
Let's take one of the most addictive online games of all time (Bejewelled), add a fantasy story, some RPG elements, and a few mini-games to help improve on said RPG elements. If that sounds good, Puzzle Quest would definitely be worth a shot for you. The aim is to swap tiles on a board and line up three or more of a kind to defeat your opponent. Certain tiles cause damage and other tiles give you mana allowing you to unleash spells. It's more addictive than Bejewelled simply because the story draws you in so well and keeps you playing way longer than you should. There's even additional downloadable content in the form of extra quests.
Carcassonne is one of a few board game adaptations that have made their way onto the Arcade, but is probably the most interesting. The aim is to lay tiles in a way that completes features shown on them like roads or towns - think a jigsaw puzzle with points given for the most interesting pictures created. You only get points if you place one of your pieces on the feature, and when playing against others there are some dastardly ways to hijack the features that they are working on by clever tile-placement. Again, there are downloadable items available, including extra terrain and extra ways to score points. It may even convince you to pick up the boardgame.
Seriously, what discussion of Arcade games would be complete without one of the best games of last year - and I'm not just referring to the Arcade. Much has been made about the fact that the game was made by one independent chap almost entirely on his own, but don't forget that hidden behind the hype is one of the most original games to come along in quite a while. Its Super Mario with the ability to manipulate time and a very strange and intriguing plot. Any self-respecting gamer should at least give this title and its frustrating but beautiful puzzles a go.
A Kingdom for Keflings
This game was clearly released to show off the new Xbox Live Avatars, but the actual game is quite fun - seeing yourself as a giant, bossing little medieval villagers around has its perks. A mish-mash of SimCity, Viva Pinata and the old Populous series, you have to help your townsfolk collect resources and build things. The game limits the number of townsfolk you can have, meaning that it will take some time to reach the highest buildings. Unusually, nothing 'bad' can happen to you in the game, meaning that you can just jump in and play for five minutes if that's all you have spare. Casual gaming at its finest.
Another updated classic, Bomberman Live! allows you to play online in an eight-player death match, blowing up your enemies to your heart's content, or four-player in a local match with your pals. There are also plenty of different modes and options to try out, such as painting as much of the map your colour (using bombs) as you can. It sounds slightly bizarre but it actually works, and the more you play the more costumes you can collect to dress your Bomberman in (although my personal favourite is still the cowboy one that you can choose from the start).
So there's a rundown of a few to give you some ideas. Why not download the free trial versions, as this is usually a good way of testing the water. You might even uncover a few hidden gems of your own.