In 1949, a man from Denmark named Ole Kirk Christiansen invented a toy that would change the global perception of toys forever – Lego. 60 years later, a Swedish man named Markus “Notch” Persson would use similar tactics to create what would become the biggest independent game in PC history. Minecraft has now since come a long way from the alpha days of 2009, with ports to mobile phone formats shortly following the full PC release. The next logical location for the global phenomenon is of course the console market. With the release of Minecraft on Xbox Live Arcade come some rather intriguing questions. How does it stack against the PC version and does it offer anything unique?
First things first, it is widely known that this build of Minecraft is based on a Beta version. This means that a lot of what made the PC retail versions so endearing are not present in this port. The silver lining however is that one day the Xbox 360 version will be in line with the PC version in terms of features. Having said this though, it is still distinctively Minecraft with most of the trimmings. You will still mine for materials, explore dungeons and build a shelter to protect yourself from the various critters that go boom in the night. You can build various tools to help with the spelunking in the large sandbox worlds. With no real goals, the world is truly what you make it.
Perhaps the biggest strength to the Xbox 360 version is that it is easier to link up with up to eight players online. Through a simple interface online, it is possible just to type someone’s name into your current game without worrying about other details and they will appear in-game. People with HDTVs can also hook up with up to four players via split-screen which works remarkably well. What is unclear is whether we will see the host of features, such as the Kinect or Cross-Platform functionality promised at the Microsoft E3 2011 press conference, at a later date. If both PC and Xbox 360 version are eventually fully synchronised, then the latter would most certainly be a huge deal and worth purchasing both versions for.
The unfortunate truth however is that this is not the same Minecraft that PC owners have been playing for years. While the various difficulty settings include a “peaceful” mode, at the time of review there was no true “sandbox” mode. You have to work for the creations you build. Arguably this makes the gameplay feel more like a “game”, but it is still baffling to see that the PC owners get to make immense skyscrapers and fortresses, while Xbox 360 owners are limited to building shacks in the middle of caverns. It is also odd that you can’t customise your avatar. While I understand that various mods would never be implemented (despite pony skins being awesome), an avatar customisation facility on par with the PC version would allow for that real sense of freedom.
Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed in the slightest is that everything is cubed and calm. Landscapes are vibrant enough to show off the unique style. Music is soothing, though a lack of variety is puzzling. As for the characters themselves, there is the odd effect of everything having a Mona Lisa stare. The pigs gawp, the cows gaze and Creepers leer with murderous intent. Every living is unsettling to look at, yet for some reason so distinctive. Like the Lego people who came across the Öresund bridge, the imagery is iconic enough.
It was inevitable that the various cuts make Minecraft for the Xbox 360 feel more like “Minecraft Lite”. What is remarkable is how the game still retains the majority of its identity while including some fantastic new features. Local split-screen co-op play and a simpler online connection interface are probably this version’s biggest selling points, and work very well in what they set out to achieve. But fans of the series know this isn’t the same thing at all at this stage – especially at the hefty price point as a result. While 4J Studios have done a creditable job in porting Mojang’s indie behemoth to the console masses, there is as clear a divide between PC and Xbox 360 versions as the border between Denmark and Sweden. Let’s hope that they build as magnificent a bridge as the Öresund to bring the two together one day.