Windows Phone 7 devices - aka the Xbox phones - begin arriving in stores today and Microsoft is hoping that gamers will be among the first to snatch up these new smartphones.
Microsoft's newest mobile operating system and the phones that use it certainly have much to offer gamers. After all, Windows Phone 7 comes with Xbox Live built in - that's Microsoft's popular online community gaming service.
Xbox Live integration not only enables WP7 owners to create gamer profiles so they can share and compare their game experiences with other players, but gamers who own an Xbox 360 can access and contribute to their gamer profile from both their home console and their Windows Phone.
Meanwhile, as of right now, the Windows Phone 7 app Marketplace features more than 400 games - a number that will, no doubt, quickly grow... though it certainly lags behind Apple's App Store, which has a significant head start in the app department. (By the way, Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but this post doesn't reflect anyone's opinion but my own.)
I've spent the last few days exploring the Game Marketplace, Xbox Live and the Games Hub on a Windows Phone 7 device - the HTC Surround to be specific. And here are a few things you need to know ...
For starters, in the Marketplace, you'll find apps you have to pay for and apps that are free. But most of the games that cost money come with a free demo so you can try before you buy. Thumbs up to that. Additionally, the WP7 free demo system is more streamlined than the Apple system in which you have to download a separate app if you want a free sample.
Meanwhile, it's important to note that although Xbox Live integration is a big selling point, not all of the WP7 games include special Xbox Live features. So far only 26 games are Xbox Live enabled. You'll find these games in their own section in the Marketplace. With these games, you can rack up achievements for your Xbox Live profile and add to your gamer score (all of which is great for bragging rights). You can also check how you rank on Xbox Live leaderboards and compare your progress to your friends' progress.
I do like the integration with Xbox Live so far but I look forward to some of the additional game functionality that's supposed to be coming down the road - the ability to play games on your phone against friends who are playing on the web for example. You can't do that yet, but according to Microsoft it won't be long.
Meanwhile, I've hit a few hitches here at launch. I can't seem to get the Guitar Hero 5 demo to install, for example, and I've had trouble getting an Xbox Live friend invitation to go through to the intended party – msnbc.com phone guru Wilson Rothman.
But this is only Day One and I expect kinks like these will be ironed out in short order.
With some 400-plus games to greet you in the Marketplace, what you need to know right now is: Which games should you own and which games should you pass over? With that in mind, what follows is a guide to some of the best, worst and strangest games you'll find in the WP7 Marketplace.
(For a look at the best non-game WP7 apps check out Wilson's list here.)
Xbox Live Extras – Free This isn't a game, but if you're a gamer who owns an Xbox 360 and has an Xbox Live account, you'll want to download this application which brings extra Xbox Live functionality to your phone. Fire up this app and you'll be able to see all of your achievements earned not only from playing games on the phone but from playing games on your Xbox 360 as well. You'll also be able to see your Xbox Live friends, be able to send them messages and you'll be able to compare your game achievements to theirs. Perhaps most importantly of all, you'll be able to customise your avatar right there on your phone. And who doesn't love playing around with avatars?
"Max and the Magic Marker" – $US6.99 This award-winning indie game (previously available on PC and as a downloadable title for the Wii) is my favourite app available in the WP7 Marketplace so far. "Max and the Magic Marker" combines whimsical platforming gameplay with the drawing mechanic that delighted so many of us in "Crayon Physics Deluxe." Max, the boy with the magic marker, needs to stop the monster that he accidentally created. It's your job to help him. When he comes up against obstacles and enemies, you'll have to draw on your phone's touch-screen to create solutions to his problems. If he needs to cross a ravine, for example, draw a line to create a bridge for him. At $US6.99, this game is pricey but worth every penny.
"The Harvest" – $6.99 While many of the games you can play on Windows Phone 7 devices have previously appeared on other platforms (usually the iPhone), "The Harvest" was made exclusively for Windows Phone 7 and can't be found anywhere else. In this top-down action/role-playing game, you fight off hordes evil Harvesters on a future Earth. The battle action is well paced, the graphics look great and the game offers plenty of a RPG depth. Clearly a lot of care and effort went into the making of this game. It's certainly the kind of high-quality exclusive app Windows Phones could use more of.
"CarneyVale: Showtime" – $US2.99 Of course you should spend $US2.99 on this circus-themed physics game. I mean, you're firing a clown out of cannon and then – using these bizarre robot-like arms – you're grabbing and flinging him through an airborne maze of electricity- and fire-laden hazards. What could be more fun than that? This game got its start as part of Microsoft's Community/Indie Games initiative. The ragdoll physics at work here are a sight to behold and the absurd, madcap gaming is hard to peel yourself away from.
"Flowerz" – Free I wouldn't have thought I could tolerate yet another match-three puzzle game. And yet, I decided to try out "Flowerz" for a few minutes … and before I knew it an hour had gone by. Yes, you'll be tasked with matching flowers of the same colour in rows and columns of three. But this game puts its own twist or two on the match-three thing – twists that will force you to think strategically and plan for the long term.
"Flight Control" – $US2.99 This sleek and gorgeously designed game of aeroplane guidance has been a hit on the iPhone and the iPad and is equally enjoyable on Windows Phone 7 devices. Touch the screen and draw a path to bring airplanes safely to their appropriate runway. It's harder than it sounds and utterly absorbing. If you don't already own this unique game, now is the time.
"Star Wars: Battle For Hoth" – $US2.99 I enjoyed this "Empire Strikes Back"-themed tower-defence game when it arrived in Apple's App Store and it has translated nicely to the new Windows phones. Here's another chance to take down Snowtroopers, Viper Probe Droids, TIE Fighters and even AT-ATs as you defend Echo Base from the Dark Side. The graphics may not be the most inspired you'll find, but the game's ability to scratch that "Empire Strikes Back" itch will make up for it.
"The Sims 3" – $US6.99 The epic life-simulation gaming found in your typical "Sims" game has been smartly streamlined for the mobile phone with this application (a version of which has also appeared in Apple's App Store). "The Sims 3" for WP7 is easy to jump into and yet retains plenty of depth. Create your own little digital human complete with some seriously quirky personality traits. Tend to their needs and help them achieve their wishes both big and small. The game is, as always, delightfully engaging.
"The Revenants" – $US2.99 This good-looking little action-puzzle game finds you playing a newly formed spirit struggling to survive and struggling to grow into a more powerful spirit. To survive you'll need to absorb the enemy ghosts that are after you. To do this, you'll use the touch screen to draw loops around your enemies. These loops create vortexes that suck them right up. The gameplay is unique and well worth checking out.
"de Blob: Revolution" – $US2.99 de Blob – a cheerful character who brings colour to a colourless world – first appeared on the Wii as the hero in a clever platforming puzzle game. But don't expect any platforming this time around. "de Blob: Revolution" has you helping de Blob trace trails of colour through a grey world, saving its inhabitants as he goes. Trouble is, the trails he paints can't cross each other or go through obstacles. This is a maze puzzler with great graphics and a cool concept that will keep you coming back for more.
"Text Text Revolution" – Free This is an absurdly simple and an absurdly addictive little game and one sure to suck in anyone who prides themselves on their tiny keyboard typing skills. Here you're given a series of words that you must type into your phone's keyboard as quickly and as accurately as possible. You'll be given a score based on your speed and accuracy and you can then compare that score to other players' scores. Yep, that's all there is to it. But don't be surprised if you wind up spending a whole lot of time trying to get your flying fingers to land a top score.
"AlphaJax" – $US3.99 The WP7 Marketplace does not yet offer the popular iPhone game "Words with Friends" – a superbly put together Scrabble game that you can play with your pals or with random strangers from the comfort of your own phone. Until it does, there is "AlphaJax." It may not bowl you over, but it's a solid enough replacement and one that will satisfy your need to put your wordsmithing skills to the test.
"My Make Up" – $US1.99 This is the kind of insipid game that's marketed to little girls because, apparently, little girls like nothing more than to slather makeup on other girls' faces. This game is shallow in more ways than one. The goal here is to tart up four faces using various makeup options – lipstick, blush, eyeshadow, etc. I'm sure that the many smart little girls out there who do love makeup will agree that the game's interface stinks – not only do the touch controls work only intermittently but the options are limited and the challenge is nonexistent.
"Shoot Shag Marry" – $US1.29 I'm torn as to whether I should put this game in "The Bad" category or "The Weird" category because it fits so well in both categories. This title presents you with the names of three famous people (Russell Crowe, Sylvester Stallone and Tiger Woods for example) and you must decide which one you'd like to shoot, which one you'd like to have sex with and which one you'd like to marry. But once you've made a selection absolutely nothing happens. I'm not opposed to goofy games that offer a chuckle or two for a buck or two … but this one is totally chuckle free. Let me say this again: Absolutely nothing happens. I'm not even sure why it's considered a game. So, I guess if pressed, I'd shoot this game.
"Frogger" – $US2.99 I hate to say it but … meh. I mean, I loved "Frogger" when I was a kid just like everyone else. But the swipe controls here feel a little slow to respond and the game, in general, feels outdated. You can do better than this with that $US2.99 of yours.
"The Hand of Bob" – 99 US cents I don't quite know what to make of this game, which has you marching your fingers around a city destroying everything in your path. On the one hand, I want to recommend it purely for its name – "The Hand of Bob" – which I find deeply amusing in itself. And I like the quirky concept – you are Bob's giant hand walking through the city on the tips of your fingers. You are an angry hand and you will destroy whatever you can by crushing it beneath your mighty digits (tap on things to make them go boom). But the game, ultimately, is rather shallow and the laughs only last so long. Then again ... what do you expect for 99 cents?
"DroppyPop" – 99 US cents This game is weird in a really eerie and not particularly enjoyable sort of way. A ragdoll figure drops through the sky, bouncing and ricocheting off balloons, arms and legs flailing limply about. You're supposed to tap on the screen to make the figure grab a balloon string so it can swing across the screen and score points by popping more balloons. Hit the ground and the figure screams. These figures that you can drop through the sky – a jester, a bikini-clad woman, a Mrs. Santa Claus – are truly bizarre looking. In fact, they look like corpses. In a way, I suppose "DroppyPop" is not so different from "CarneyVale: Showtime" – ragdoll physics are the selling point. It's just that "DroppyPop" forgot the fun.