I was recently asked to explain Minecraft to a non-gaming friend. It was one of those curious Friday afternoons, where my brain had already started to ease itself into the weekend. The best I could muster was likening it to being blindfolded and dropped off in the middle of a strange city. It wasn't the worst explanation I've ever given, but as the conversation wandered off into a different direction, I mentally kicked myself for not saying that it's like being nine years old again, sitting on the beach and making sand castles.
I've tried to make sense of what has made Minecraft so interesting and successful. In fact, in a world of high-polygon counts and near-photo realistic graphics, Minecraft unashamedly flaunts its retro and blocky graphics (while presumably stroking its equally blocky moustache). It's a game where appearances can be deceiving and if you've been ignoring Minecraft purely because of its art style - or love for mid-1990s 3D aesthetics - you'll be missing out on a ridiculously addictive sandbox game. In fact, if there was ever a game that epitomises the term "sandbox" it would be Minecraft.
There are no goals or objectives to complete. You're thrown into a randomly generated world and left to your own devices. You set your own goals. This may involve tunnelling as far as you can go (i.e. to create an underground labyrinth for your stockpiled diamonds and iron & gold ingots), building an elaborate castle on the hills, or even simply surviving the night - and all the horrors that come with the setting sun. It's all about letting the creative juices flow and following your own path. In mine, I imagined myself stranded on a desert island. I built enormous pyramids and oddly-shaped structures (that towered over the landscape). My crowning achievement was turning an underground river into a canal and meticulously guiding it until it cascaded into a chamber filled with magma. It was a time-consuming undertaking, but it netted me a treasure trove of mineable obsidian. If it all sounds too unstructured for your own liking, you could use the achievement list that comes with the Xbox LIVE Arcade version of Minecraft to guide you in your adventure, but quite frankly, this would be running contrary to what Minecraft is all about.
There is no question that 4J Studios has managed to seamlessly port Mojang's classic to the Xbox 360. However, the XBLA version resembles a much earlier build of the PC version. It lacks some of the recent additions to the game. For instance, there is no declining hunger meter, the ability to sprint is curiously absent, and those scary long-limbed creatures, the Endermen, are nowhere to be found. The XBLA version also lacks the free-form Creative Mode, and its ability to quickly and easily create strange and wonderful structures or buildings. However, the Xbox version's survival mode is easier to get a handle on and the game ships with a very helpful tutorial that'll have you fishing, farming, mining and exploring in no time. Other changes include the crafting menu's interface, which has been streamlined into a more intuitive form. While I generally frown at the practice of "streamlining" or "simplifying" game features, in this case, uncluttering the crafting menu was definitely a step in the right direction. It doesn't change the core game at all, since you can still create tools or objects from raw materials, and the game still allows for experimentation (and the joys of exploration and discovery).
The biggest change between the PC version and the Xbox LIVE Arcade version is the inclusion of multiplayer. While it's possible to get the PC version online, there hasn't been a push to include an organised multiplayer mode. In this regard, the XBLA version has a clear advantage. You can effortlessly pop into a friend's game through Xbox LIVE and stroll around their world, or even give them a hand. You can marvel at their creations or giggle at their lack of creative spark. For those of us who sometimes host a real-life "game-themed" party (or braai), the XBLA version ships with a local split-screen co-op function. This allows for three other players to help you tame the wilderness. The only problem is that local split-screen multiplayer is only available for those with high-definition (HD) TVs or monitors. It's a strange omission, which will annoy gamers who still rely on their standard-definition (SD) TV sets.
While the price is a little steep at 1600 MS Points, you are assured of a gaming experience that's addictive and unique. Not to mention, there's also something strangely therapeutic and meditative about tunnelling through the earth, spotting a coal seam and filling your bags with ore and dirt. And if you're worried that the Xbox LIVE Arcade version of the game will remain "limited", a recent tweet from 4J Studios stated that they're aiming to update the Xbox 360 version to be almost on par with the major PC releases. This is great news for a great XBLA title, and even better news for the fans. Minecraft is one of those games that you have to experience at least once in your life, and why not through your Xbox 360.
- Intuitive crafting menu
- Allows experimentation
- Freeform/sandbox gameplay
- Retro charm
- Very limited (basic) version
- No SD TV local co-op