The story of Minecraft's rise to popularity is well known to enthusiasts who follow the indie gaming scene. Heavily inspired by games like Dwarf Fortress and Infiniminer, the game was programmed in Java by Markus Perrson and released to the public in alpha status. Almost immediately, gamers were hooked by its simple premise and bought it in its unfinished state, spreading the word to others about the game's inventiveness. These initial sales were enough for Perrson to start up a company and continue development on the game, adding new features while retaining the core. During that time, people kept buying the game, making it a huge hit before a gold candidate was released late last year. The success in the PC realm helped the game make the leap to the Android platform before landing on iOS a month later. Finally, after last year's announcement at E3, the huge indie hit heads over to XBLA. Interestingly, it already has competition in the form of Xbox Live Indie Games that had spawned from its success.
Minecraft may not have much of a plot, but it has some structure. By day, you spend your time gathering basic elements like metal, rock, sand, wood, etc. Using these elements, you can craft even more things, such as glass and wood planks, or you can create tools to make your collection go a little faster. Crafting better items leads to the discovery of even more items, like doors and beds, but it also gives way to things like furnaces and workbenches, which lets you craft even more things. Crafting isn't just limited to tools and furniture, though, as you can use animals and the things they produce to make armor, food and weapons for yourself. Creatures come out at night; some mind their own business until they are attacked while others make it a point to destroy anything you've spent time creating. Thus begins your cycle of trying to accomplish as much as possible while the sun is out and hiding or going on monster hunts when night falls.
To that end, the game has no real end goal. There's no big bad boss to defeat. There's no physical goal that has to be reached or relic to be discovered. There isn't even a quest to discover every possible combination using the game's robust system. You do what you want to do, make what you want to make or harvest, and hope you planned everything well enough so that your work doesn't get destroyed in the blink of an eye.
The sandbox nature of the title is what makes it so endearing to players. From impromptu monster hunts to trying to raise farms to re-creating famous lands and making statues of famous characters, the sky is the limit. No doubt many have seen the things that can be done when one puts his/her mind to a task, and the fact that a built-in screenshot tool is in place further encourages players to document their activities, creating a very active gaming community almost organically.
The appeal of Minecraft is also helped out by the title's lack of restrictions and the improvements set forth by the development team. While specific tools are great for harvesting materials faster, your bare hands do a decent job of harvesting as long as you don't mind spending the time. You can still die in the game, but lives are unlimited and you'll get most, if not all, of your lost items by visiting the spot where you'd died and picking up everything. For newcomers, there's a pretty helpful tutorial system, and the world is populated with a few things to help you get started. One big improvement is in the crafting system, which lets you know what materials you need to make an item but automatically uses the materials when you want to craft things. Some may argue that it takes away from the self-discovery aspect, but newcomers will be happy that they don't have to pore over online documents to make a simple pickax.
The core is still intact, but since this version is based on some old PC code, there are some things that current Minecraft PC players will miss if they try to play this version. As expected, this version has no mod support, so those who want to use something like new graphics packs are out of luck. The land has a size limit enforced, and while it takes some time before you reach said limit, it doesn't seem as endless as the PC version. Also, hunger isn't integrated yet, so food is only needed when you are hurt by enemies. According to the developers, there is a plan to get the XBLA iteration up to speed with the vanilla PC version fairly soon, but exactly how soon remains to be seen.
The other big difference comes in the form of multiplayer, though the advantages don't all belong to the PC in this category. Unlike the PC version, you can't create a server of your own world where people can jump in and out. You can make your games public, but unless you plan on leaving your system on all of the time, everyone visiting your world will get kicked out once you leave the game. However, the game offers split-screen play for four players, so those who want to experience multiplayer offline can.
Having Minecraft available on a console is exciting news for fans who, for one reason or another, couldn't play it before, but one has to wonder how it stands up to the clones/homages that have been available on XBLIG. As mentioned earlier, the advantage for Minecraft is that it is the complete original experience that, minus the mods and some improvements, PC players have experienced for some time. There's the familiarity of the process and name recognition, not to mention the various tutorials for creations. However, that doesn't mean that the games available on XBLIG don't have their own merits. Both FortressCraft: Episode 1 and CastleMiner let you play as your Avatars instead of the default blocky character model. The obvious advantage to the XBLIG games is their price. Despite their gameplay limits, there's no denying that a $3 price tag is more palatable than $20 if you just want to build stuff.
One advantage the official game has over the XBLIG entries is Kinect support, but that support isn't built into the downloaded game. Until the patch is rolled out, you can rest easy knowing that the standard controller does its job. This is especially true of the inventory menus, which, despite using a free-moving cursor instead of a fixed one, still handles navigation well.
From a technical standpoint, Minecraft handles things as well as can be expected Everything is still constructed using simple blocks with intentionally pixelated textures, including the animals, monsters and yourself. The frame rate is silky smooth with no drops anywhere, though the user experiences pop-up as s/he tries to travel through the land. As for sound, the realistic animal noises and hiss of the creepers does a good job of offsetting the blocky creatures and creating a nice ambiance. The real highlight is the soundtrack, which brings out some calm emotions and becomes a relaxing background melody.
As I said before, Minecraft is what you make of it. The game has no real end goal and a minimal set of instructions, so you decide what you want to do. It is a sandbox in the truest sense of the word, so it'll please those who like making things up as they go along. It still needs updates to unlock the true vision and potential, but what you have here is a very enjoyable and versatile experience that should be played at least once.
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