“So, is that all you do? Just build stuff?” That was my brother’s first reaction when I told him to give the Xbox 360 version of the popular Minecraft game a try. About 40 minutes later I get a text from him saying, “I love this game! I’m buying it.” It’s an interesting phenomenon, Minecraft. My wife, who’s used to seeing me play games like Battlefield 3, Forza 4, Mass Effect 3 and so forth was shocked that I was playing something that looked so ugly and like “it’s from eighties.” It’s certainly different from today’s modern shooters and hi-res, graphically impressive next-gen games, but like my brother discovered, after you try it you’ll eventually “get it”, and that’s when the true appeal of the simple concept of Minecraft shines through. Then you’ll understand how it’s one of the fastest selling Xbox Live Arcade games of all time.
I was trying to put my finger on what it was about this blocky world that was so compelling, and eventually it came to me. A few years ago, my siblings and I were staying at my parent’s house for Christmas. There was a lot of snow up in Colorado that year, and in the field behind my parent’s house it piled up in particularly deep drifts. Well, my brothers and I, despite the fact we were all “grown-up” and had kids of our own, just knew with snow drifts that deep there was only one thing to do; tunnel underneath them and build a cool fort. That’s what Minecraft is; a chance to tunnel and build forts, something all boys instinctively enjoy. That’s the appeal of the game. I can build any type of fort I can imagine, and I can tunnel down into the earth and discover rare elements that will let me build even more elaborate forts. My brother built a Batcave. I have a castle with an elaborate system of secret passages running underneath it. Cool, right?
Going back to answer my brother’s question of “is that all you do, build stuff?” Well, no.There’s some exploration to do, which is fun because occasionally you’ll stumble across a cavern that has some hidden chests inside with some rare items guarded by some monsters. Oh yeah, there are monsters in the game. They mostly come out at night, mostly. Blocky zombies and skeletons and spiders and squids and creepers will all hassle you during the night, hence the need to build a safe home. You also mine. The deeper you go, the more rare the ores you find; stuff like gold, diamond, obsidian and so forth. These elements can then be used to craft other items to help make your home a more elaborate fortress. Oh yeah, then there’s the whole crafting element. The stuff you mine and collect can be used to build doors and switches and boats and carts and so on and so forth. So there’s more to do than “just build stuff.”
The Xbox 360 version handily explains what elements can be used to craft which items, and even tells you the ingredients needed and which one’s you’re lacking. It’s a simplified version from the PC edition, and I find the hand-holding is helpful without ever being too much. There’s plenty to figure out on your own from a little trial and error. And for noobs like me, this version also has a handy tutorial that will walk you through the basic elements of the game. You’ll get some basic instructions on crafting, building and mining, and then you’re set free in an open, sand-box world to build and create as you see fit.
It’s generally pretty tough to port a PC title to a console, but Minecraft feels like a natural fit on the Xbox 360. The controller works just fine, and despite the fact there are plenty of menu screens to navigate through when crafting items, the layout is streamlined and simple, so I never felt like the lack of a keyboard and mouse were limiting my ability to navigate where I needed to get to. Xbox Live allows you to visit the world of your friends and help them with their various projects, and they of course can come visit you. It’s easy to pop in and out of games, and if you happen to have a friend in your living room, you can even play split-screen (although you’ll need an HDTV to be able to do this). Minecraft is fun, but like building a snow fort, it’s more fun with friends helping out and sharing their ideas.
As for the blockly look of the game (which prompted my kids to call it the Legoland game at first; because it had blocks and you build stuff with them), it’s actually a genius way to appeal to everyone. I generally ignore level builders on games because they’re often so complex and I just don’t have the patience for them. But Legos I understand, and let’s face it, everyone knows how to build with blocks. So sure, the blocks may look primitive in our hi-def world, but it’s an easy concept for anyone to grasp and build with. Plus, once you get used to the idea that your fancy HDTV and your high-powered, next-gen console are being used to display something that would have looked fancy on a Commodore 64, there’s a certain charm to the simple, blocky look of the game that grows on you.
It’s also a good reminder to consider what the building blocks of our lives are. Just as one is compelled to look for those rarer element blocks in Minecraft to help make something truly special, so we need to consider what blocks we’re using in the construction of our lives. In 1 Corinthians we’re told “Bu each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-13) The point simply being that in order to build something that lasts in life, we need Jesus as the foundation and then we need to build with quality materials upon that foundation. True, we can pretty much build whatever we want without following those instructions, but construction always goes smoother following the blueprint and the directions of the foreman. God loves you and wants to build something great out of your life, but it’s up to you to let him.He won’t build without your permission.
That’s all a lot like Minecarft, in the sense that typically once you give it a try, you’ll “get it” and then you won’t want to quit. I’ve heard a lot about this game while it was on the PC, and I saw some of the amazing things people built using it, but it never really caught my attention in the sense that I had to try it. Once it hit the 360, however, which is where I do most of my gaming (I use my PC mostly for work, so to relax, I need to get away from it), I figured I’d give it a try. I’m both glad and sorry that I did. It’s a simplistic idea that appeals to the basic compulsions of fun within me; build tunnels, build forts, and explore. Unfortunately, all of that can be a major time-sink, which kind of makes my wife wish I would just stick to playing with regular Lego blocks instead of the virtual blocks of Minecraft. Sorry sweetie, my secret passage isn’t quite done yet. I’ll quit when it’s finished…and I’m done with my Batcave…complete with T-Rex and giant penny…maybe.
Score out of 7:
Graphics: 3 - Let’s be honest, for a hi-def system, this doesn’t look great; but then, it’s not supposed to. There’s also some clipping issues, and once I had a friend playing with me on Xbox Live who fell through the map. But then, this game isn’t about looks.
Sound: 4 - About as basic as the graphics, but it has a really soothing soundtrack. So soothing, it could almost put you to sleep. It just adds to the peaceful, relaxed atmosphere of the game. I like it.
Controls: 6 - Considering it’s a PC port, the controls are pretty fantastic. It’s easy to navigate menus, place blocks in the precise spots you want, and just generally get around. I never really felt I was lacking anything without a mouse or keyboard.
Gameplay: 7 - I know there are elements missing from the PC version, but I’ve never played that version, so I don’t really know the difference. What’s here is a whole lot of fun. The crafting system is simple and it’s helpful hints makes it easy to use, the regular tips help keep me from feeling lost without being too intrusive, and it’s just a lot of fun to mine, craft and build stuff. It’s surprising how such a simple concept can be so addictively fun, but there’s always “one more” task you want to do, and the thrill of finding rare elements is always rewarding.
Story: N/A - make it up as you go.
Content: 6 - The zombies, skeletons and other monsters are blocky and not at all gory, but they make scary sounds which can be creepy for kids.
Final: 6 - Minecraft surprised me. I started off just like my brother, thinking “This is it?” But then I built my little castle, and decided it needed a wall, and then a secret passage, and then I found to cool new ores to help add some fun additions to my castle which I would connect to another structure in a different part of the world thanks to my secret passages which once I finish will all connect to a cool Batcave and, well, there’s a lot to do and it’s a lot of fun doing it. Be warned, Minecraft looks simple and basic, but it’s surprisingly addictive fun.