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E3 2015: Xbox dreams backward

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You can play Xbox 360 games on your Xbox One. Now imagine saying that sentence out loud, and then imagine the thunderous cheers of multitudes—riotous cheers, orgasmic cheers, the kind of cheers you usually only hear when Daenerys Targaryen sets a city-state free from indentured servitude. There is always cheering at an E3 press conference—this is the place where people will give a standing ovation when a PowerPoint Presentation shows a screenshot from Banjo-Kazooie—but the cheering at the Microsoft media event had a different tone. Consumer and creator alike, it felt like everyone was rejoicing: Here, at last, was the Golden Age, returned to us come Holiday 2015 (available today for Xbox One Preview Members!)

Xbox kicked off their presentation with a look at Halo 5: Guardians. They trumpeted the impending exclusive arrival of Rise of the Tomb Raider. They ended their presentation with a check-in on the Gears of War franchise. Nine years ago, the first Gears game helped to define the Xbox 360 the same way Halo defined the first Xbox. “This year,” said Gears steersman Rod Ferguson, “We’re taking you back to where it all began.” They’re releasing the original Gear of War—remastered into an Ultimate Edition! One Week Public Beta Starts Today!

Of course, the original Gears of War will presumably also be playable on the Xbox One via the new upcoming 360 compatiblity—which means that, technically, Microsoft announced the arrival of a nine-year-old game on their new console twice. There was also a first look at the next Gears of War game, disappointingly referred to as Gears 4 and not Gears of 4War(d.)

Do you like what Microsoft used to do? Then you’ll love what Microsoft is doing next! This was the subtext of the whole event. Microsoft is usually the jock-iest and most adrenalized of the Big Console Companies, so it was weird to feel all the nostalgia drifting off the stage. Henry Ford got an extended shout-out. And at one point, they proudly advertised the impending arrival of Rare Replay—30 hit games from Rare Studios in “One Epic Collection!” The games onscreen included Perfect DarkConker’s Bad Fur DayBattletoads, and Banjo-Kazooie: All masterpieces, besides Battletoads, which was the bad dream of a ’90s boardroom desperate to find their own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and bummed out that somebody already registered a trademark on Street Sharks.

Notably, all of those good games were made by Rare before 2002—the year Microsoft purchased Rare, which led to a decade of games like Grabbed By Ghoulies and Kameo, iterations of Perfect Dark and Banjo that more or less ended those respective franchises, and a bleak period when every Rare game had the word “Kinect” in the title.

There were a couple interesting-looking bigger games on display. The makers of Metroid Prime have produced Recore, a game where you play a woman carrying a special Spirit Orb that can turn any hunk of junk into an adorable robo-companion. They also made a big deal out of the Microsoft HoloLens, a cool-looking new interactive experience which could also definitely be the second coming of Virtual Boy. Microsoft always loves trumpeting new interactive technology—a few years ago the buzzword was “Kinect,” and then “Smartglass”—but what they showed of the HoloLens looked pretty interesting. And notably, the game they featured with HoloLens was Minecraft, a hugely popular game that defines a type of gameplay that feels miles removed from Microsoft’s Shooter-With-A-Heads-Up-Display sweet spot.

Actually, the most interesting looking games came from Microsoft’s new ID@Xbox initiative. Or anyhow, the smaller indie-ish games looked interesting. The makers of Gone Home have Tacoma, which looks to take Gone Home‘s Myst-esque gameplay into outer space. There’s Ashen, which involves exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization with random people you meet online. (I mean mainly as a compliment when I say Ashen looks like Journey for people who wish there was more violence in Journey.) A developer named Sherida Halatoe onstage at one point to pitch Beyond Eyes, which is about a young blind girl setting off on a journey of self-discovery. The visuals look intriguing: The lead girl “sees” the world using sight and smells, which means the game world appears onscreen like a series of unliked watercolor dioramas. “I wanted to share with the world a story of hope,” said Halatoe. “If we open ourselves up to new experiences, it can be a beautiful world.”

This is the kind of thing that gamers like me probably go too go crazy for. (I’m firmly in the camp that loves Journey and Gone Home and Braid and all the weirdo interactive art-installation games that drift off the lineage of games like Myst and Ico.) It’s interesting to see Microsoft dipping its toes so deeply into this world.

But the deeper problem here might be that whatever Microsoft was doing with the Xbox One hasn’t worked the way they hoped. There was a very minor mention at one point of Titanfall, the EA Xbox One Exclusive that was supposed to give Microsoft the next big future-shooter. Titanfall sold well, but nobody seems bullish about its prospects as the next big Halo/Gears console-defining software.

I played Titanfall for hours, and I remember enjoying it. But weirdly, I don’t think I could tell you a single thing about Titanfall: Not who was fighting who, or why, or which maps were my favorite maps. Maybe this is just because I’m getting older. But ask yourself: Who is the Master Chief of Titanfall? What is the chainsaw-gun of Titanfall? Big AAA games like to pride themselves as seamless experiences now—seamlessly cutting between campaign and multiplayer, seamlessly getting you into the game—and Titanfall felt so seamless that there was barely a game there at all.

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe there are kids who will feel as nostalgic for Titanfall in nine years as the audience this morning was for Gears of War. Price drops and an increased game catalogue make the Xbox One look more affordable. This year, Microsoft is officially on the nostalgia trip. At one point, Phil Spencer (head of Microsoft’s Xbox devision) proudly announced: “We won’t charge you for the games you already own.” Applause followed, loud and rapturous. But the Microsoft pitch is so backward-focused, you almost feel like they are charging you for those games. “If you’ve been waiting to move from your Xbox 360,” concluded Spencer, “Now is the time.” He hopes.

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