Note: I've been downloading, playing, buying and reviewing XBLIG games (obPlug: http://www.xboxindiegames.co.uk/), ever since it was launched as Community Games. Sadly, the vast majority of XBLIG titles seem to have escaped the notice of the wider community: with the recent kerfluffle over the Dashboard changes and the just-announced Winter Uprising grassroots effort, this seems like a good time to point out that there are some genuinely good games on XBLIG - some may even be great and one or two could possibly be viewed as masterpieces...
To start with, I'm going to look at the first game I ever played on XBLIG - and it was also the first game I bought, a few nanoseconds after the 4-minute demo timeout (thankfully later extended to 8 minutes by Microsoft) kicked in.
Artoon is a relatively simple game at heart: the core gameplay involves bouncing a ball around a set of tiles, causing the tiles to change colour; the level is marked as completed once all of the tiles have been changed. This isn't particularly novel or new: I played similar games back on the Amiga and Q-bert offered a more action-orientated take on the theme way back in 1982. However, Artoon implements the "travelling salesman" concept in an amazingly stylish way, thanks to a cel-shaded 3D graphics engine and some sharp graphic design - it feels like a cross between Jet Set Radio and Kula World.
But wait: there's more! Some levels are rendered in a black-and-gold Virtual Reality style, while other levels feature a challenge which also doubles as a humorous homage to the days of manually tuning in your television: the further you turn the camera, the more the display distorts: the picture rolls vertically while static fills the screen and speakers.
Better yet, there's also a set of Achievement-like[*] awards, a good soundtrack and a nicely pitched difficulty curve, thanks to a set of levels which often take advantage of the 3D space to produce maps far more intricate than could have been managed back in the 16-bit days.
Admittedly, the game isn't quite perfect, as there's a couple of issues with the controls. First is the way that you generate a "high" bounce: this is achieved by holding down the A button while descending, rather than the more conventional mechanism of holding down the button as you ascend. Getting used to this can take a while, not least because it means the player has to plan for their next jump while focusing on their current bounce.
The second issue lies in the fact that the camera is manually controlled via the right analog stick: unless you're prepared to hold the Xbox 360 control pad in a uncomfortably unnatural position, this means that you can't control the camera at the same time as jumping - and on some levels, combining the two levels is essentially mandatory if you want to try and get a perfect score (by only touching each tile once).
Thankfully, this is only an issue on a few of the later, more complex levels, and it's more of a hinderance than an outright obstacle, as you can just bounce in place while changing the camera angle. Still, it'd be nice to see this little issue resolved: putting the jump control onto one of the triggers (or at least giving the player the choice of redefining the mappings) would have made the controller layout far more ergonomic.
In any case, while these niggles might frustrate the more obsessive-compulsive gamer, they're far from show-stoppers. Overall, Artoon is stylishly presented and a pleasure to play.
Sadly, there isn't too many people who've had a chance to find this out, as Artoon was removed from the platform shortly after release, due to a copyright issue with the name. The developers have indicated that they were going to rename and re-release it, but (as of December 2010), this hasn't happened yet. Fortunately, the review at msxbox-world.com has a copy of the screenshots from the XNA website (which are freely reusable, as per Section 8), and I've linked to these for this article. Hopefully it will reappear at some point and give people a chance to enjoy a good bounce!
[*] Microsoft doesn't allow XBLIG games to use Achievements or use the word "achievement" in any reward structure the developer chooses to put together.