Xbox Game Pass features a truly mind-boggling amount of content. If you’ve ever scrolled through the service you’ve probably experienced the same delirium I have. The idea that anyone can ping-pong between Gears of War 5, The Master Chief Collection, and Rainbow Six: Siege in a single sitting is hard to conceptualize. It makes me think of the first time I sifted through an iPod. After years of dealing with CD jewel cases and unreliable Walkmen, suddenly I had…all the albums I’d ever need? In the palm of my hand? How did we even live before?
But honestly, the thing that’s drawn me deepest into Game Pass isn’t access to the supergames like Destiny 2. While it’s truly revelatory that the subscription will host Halo Infinite on day one — a remarkable gambit that signals a broader shift in the industry — my favourite thing to do is delve into the obscure underbelly of the cloud to trawl up the most interesting also-ran Xbox detritus I can find.
Image: Microsoft, Other
Ryse: Son of Rome
Screenshot: Microsoft, Other
Case in point: Ryse: Son of Rome is on Game Pass. Remember Ryse? It ended up with like a 60 on Metacritic but looked really pretty at E3 when they unveiled the Xbox One. Elsewhere there’s Fuzion Frenzy, an absurd, ersatz Mario Party clone with a bizarre Jet Set Radio art style, which is best known for being one of the most ancillary launch titles of all time. If you opened up an Xbox on Christmas morning with a copy of Fuzion Frenzy instead of Halo you probably still carry trauma to this day. That’s the sort of thing I’d love in a potential all-in-one catalogue: It would let me play the hits, but also let me explore the stuff that immediately evaporated a month after release.
Which brings me to my larger point: Phil Spencer, if you’re reading this, put all the old, middling Xbox platformers on Game Pass. Don’t keep the streets waiting any longer.
You know what I’m talking about if you were gaming at the turn of the millennium. Microsoft entered the market with a desire to compete with Sony and Nintendo, two companies that’d made their reputation, in part, on 3D platformers. That’s hilarious in retrospect — imagine a market built on the back of Crash Bandicoot rather than an endless suite of loot-shooters designed to keep you playing for 10 years straight — but those were the marching orders at the time.
As such, Microsoft ordered a ton of studios to crank out their own incarnations of Mario, hoping that’d help its brand-new system fly off of Walmart shelves. The results are like a rogues’ gallery of terrible mascots. Who could forget Blinx The Time Sweeper? Or Voodoo Vince? Or the sad, diminished 3D incarnation of ToeJam & Earl? Or Tork: Prehistoric Punk? (Not to be confused with Tak and the Power of Juju, a different 2000s-arse platformer set in the stone age.) Long before Marcus Fenix and the Horizon Festival, this was the face of Xbox.
None of these games were particularly good. I’m pretty sure I played Voodoo Vince and have no tangible recollection of doing so. (You could light yourself on fire and make enemies do the same, if I remember correctly.) Instead they represented the ultimate flotsam at mulled-over Blockbuster rental aisles and GameStop bargain bins everywhere. Nobody played Blinx on purpose; you ended up with that disc after an otherwise fruitless trip to the mall. “What? They don’t have any copies of Burnout 3? I guess Metal Arms it is.” The last decade has completely gutted the gaming middle class. There aren’t any publishers like Sierra left, churning out budget middlebrow detritus to bridge the gap between triple-A statements, and I can’t be the only one who’s grown a little nostalgic for that bygone era.
History is best understood by the forgotten chaff on the margins, which is why modern archaeologists dig through the ancient trash heaps of the proletariat rather than chart royal bloodlines. I subscribe to the WWE Network, another all-encompassing database of a wildly inconsistent company, and while it’s fun to revisit the classics, it’s way more entertaining to cue up a random Raw from 1995 to see what awful mess Vince McMahon was currently pursuing. The video game industry ought to give us that same opportunity.
I emailed Xbox HQ for this story, to see if it could offer any hope that someday soon we would all be able to play ToeJam & Earl with the oomph of 16 gigabytes of RAM. It essentially told me to kick rocks with a “nothing further to share at this time.” I understand where it’s coming from. Game Pass is a fledgling service and also Microsoft’s best hope to take a lead in the console wars, so naturally it’s probably focusing on more important features, like, say, optimising Skyrim for its debut.
That said, I do hope that as publishers lurch closer toward our inevitable subscription-based gaming future, they understand how much good they could do by preserving the glorious scattershot entirety of their back catalogues. There’s actually a market for this! Yes, most people jump on Game Pass so they don’t have to pay for the next Gears or whatever. But I can’t help but think of a YouTuber like Nitro Rad who’s dedicated his career to documenting the middling platformers of the 2000s. If his video critique analysing the precise handling of a latter-day Konami-developed Frogger game can garner over 150,000 views, then clearly, I am not alone.
We’re already starting to see some movement here. EA Play is offering up like six different random Maddens, and I dream of a timeline where I’m able to cue up, like, the 2003 edition whenever I want to run around as Michael Vick. And Kameo: Elements of Power, a game with one of the most tortured origin stories in living memory, can take up residence on the Series X hard drive at any time. With luck, publishers will double down and everything old shall be made new again; I will log on to Game Pass and spend an afternoon playing Blood Wake, or Greg Hastings’ Tournament Paintball, with my idiot friends — just as we used to, all those years ago. No publisher should be afraid of all these hilarious, outmoded failures, has beens, and never-weres. Trust me, they’re far more charming than the IP holders seem to give them credit for, and would find plenty of curious, even appreciative players today.