I bought an Xbox One at launch. However, allow me to admit this upfront: for the last few years, I have been an Xbox skeptic. The PlayStation platform just had so many exclusives (and the PSVR) to keep me busy that I barely found time for my first love. Then the Nintendo Switch came out with its murderers' row of titles. It seemed like the Xbox One was destined to be just another console in my collection gathering dust. Perhaps it will be. But today I stand before you, a newly reinstated Xbox fan.
It is well known that I love old video games and I love handheld video games. To that end, I purchased a Razer Kishi to use with my Android phone as a makeshift emulation device. Is this an expensive way to play Sega Saturn games? Yes, but do not judge lest I take a peek at your finances. I figured I'd opt for the Xbox themed controller, if only for the novelty of it, and give Microsoft's xCloud beta another spin.
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Before I get into the bulk of my experience, let me just wholeheartedly recommend the Razer Kishi. Despite a mushy D-pad, it's by far the best phone controller on the market. The analog sticks feel fantastic, it fits perfectly on multiple devices, it's USB-C connection banishes even the idea of lag (essential for already laggy game streams), and, as if that weren't enough, it's L2 and R2 triggers are pressure sensitive. Are you understanding what that means? That means you can get the complete Mario Sunshine experience via the Dolphin emulator. Heaven.
But what really makes it a must buy is playing it in combination with xCloud. Microsoft's service makes Stadia look like one of Google's April Fools' Day jokes. xCloud works exactly the way you imagine game streaming to work and, in combination with Microsoft's robust Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, is functionally the "Netflix of gaming" that we have long fantasized about. It changes everything about the experience of picking up and playing a game — and it's why Xbox is going to win.
“Xbox is going to win.”
How did we get here? Well, even from its inception, the Xbox has always been about the long game. The product line itself only exists because Bill Gates was scared that Sony's PlayStation 2 would herald the company's dominance of consumer's living rooms. Looking back at how the PS2 moved billions of DVDs, he was right to be scared. The Xbox went on to sell its sequel, the Xbox 360, at a loss — just to lock up market share. This paid off when the Xbox 360 became a multimedia powerhouse at the dawn of Netflix and HBO's streaming offerings, which led Microsoft to triple down on the console's media features with the Xbox One. However, that particular venture ended in disaster since, though they may be happy to use them, it ends up consumers didn't buy an Xbox for the media features. People just want to play good games.
Lesson learned. After a painful console generation rebuilding the Xbox brand (rather successfully, if we're honest), Microsoft is going into its war with the PlayStation 5 older, wiser, and with a completely new strategy for the long term. Rather than compete head-on in a match it's already losing, the Xbox brand is flipping the board and playing a new game entirely.
Yes, the Series X is a box you can purchase this fall and place next to your PlayStation 5. But that's not what Microsoft is selling. No, this time the company has its eyes on where gaming is going, not where it is. This time, Microsoft is selling Game Pass.
Game Pass will win for all the reasons Netflix has won. Game Pass means that you no longer need to commit to a $60 (or $90!) purchase in order to play the newest and best games the platform has to offer. For only $15 a month, players get unlimited access to any game in Microsoft's massive Game Pass library available on any screen they'd like — streaming or local, Xbox, PC, or Android streaming.
At first blush, it's easy to see the drawbacks: What if you have a weak internet connection? What if you wanna keep your games on a shelf for the rest of your life? What if Game Pass doesn't have that one game you just have to play?
These problems are also true of Netflix. And, once you play with Game Pass, you'll forget about these drawbacks the same way for you forgot them with Netflix. Game Pass doesn't need to have every single game you want (though it just might), it only needs to have to offer a game you want. Netflix might not have Game of Thrones or The Real Housewives but it does have something for anyone of any taste to flip on any night of the week and that something is almost always good enough. Oftentimes, it's fantastic! For $15 a month, you can't ask for a better value than that.
Here's a perfect example: Battletoads. I, like anyone else my age, have enormous nostalgia for Battletoads on the NES. Rare's 1991 game may have just been a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knock-off, but it will always be legendary for its blister-making difficulty. That game was, and remains, fucking infuriating. Which is why my cousins and I lost many, many hours to trying to beat it. (Have I spoken at length about level 11 in therapy? Perhaps!) So when I heard the series was being granted a rebirth for the Xbox and PC, I plotzed.
Now it's finally here. Rash, Zitz, and Pimple are back for a new adventure, this time sans blisters. The game itself is a funny, wacky little distraction packed with minigames and beat 'em up sections that may not win it any Game of the Year awards but will certainly keep you laughing and entertained for two or three hours. And you know what? That's exactly what it needed to be.
Every single game on the market does not need to be 60-120 hours long. A Battletoads reboot does not need to be the grimmest, darkest version of itself simply for marketability. Nobody is going to spend $120 for a Collector's Edition package of 2020's Battletoads and if they are they should see my therapist and donate to Black Lives Matter.
Battletoads may not sell you on Game Pass Ultimate, but that's not its job – that's Halo Infinite's. Battletoads is the perfect game to keep you subscribed to Game Pass Ultimate. It is proof that there is fertile ground for creativity with different incentives than just AAA sales and microtransactions. Battletoads, as part of a streaming service I already had, played on a phone connected to my Xbox using the Razer Kishi, while watching Netflix's Glow Up, was a goddamn delight. At no point did I feel some sense of guilt that I had to play it just because I'd already paid for it, as I so often do about the backlog I have for my PS4 and Switch. I just got to enjoy it for what it was: A little slice of nostalgia slapped together with a Cartoon Network aesthetic and some wacky zingers.
I'm not trying to undersell or oversell this. I'm just trying to tell you that, from my vantage point at the bleeding edge of what consumers can play, Xbox is going to win. I'll take a few hundred more experiences like Battletoads over whatever $15 can buy me at GameStop any day of the week — and I will.
There will still be a place for PlayStation's massive, story-driven masterpieces. Hell, I'm sure the Xbox will also have a few of its own! And there will forever be a place for Nintendo's off-beat hardware ideas and god-tier intellectual property. I don't think that Xbox's looming success will be at the expense of its so-called competition; I think it will be the perfect complement to it.
Sony will offer you the big-budget action movies and Oscar-bait films you want a few times a year. Nintendo will offer you a digital trip to Disneyland. But Microsoft will be Netflix.
I don't know about you but, even before the pandemic left me cash-strapped and housebound, I spend a hell of a lot more time on Netflix.
A copy of Battletoads was provided by Microsoft to Input for review.