For the third year in a row, Microsoft has featured select games for its Summer of Arcade promotion on Xbox Live Arcade. The idea was that if you bought a certain number of the games, Microsoft would give you a bit of cash (or points, as it were) back as a "thank you." This year's games were good enough that you might end up buying several of them anyway, so the rebate was just gravy, but not everyone is going to want - or have the ready cash to pay for - all five. Here's a quick recap of the five games in question to help you figure out which, if any, you need to have on your hard drive.
The first game released was Limbo, a hauntingly beautiful 2-D puzzle platformer with stark graphics and a menacing atmosphere. Limbo is as smart as it is stunning, with clever puzzles that will definitely test your brain, and an ending that will stay with you long after you've put the controller away. It's not a very long game and doesn't have nearly the replay that the other Summer of Arcade titles have, but Limbo is a unique experience.
The second game, Hydro Thunder Hurricane, is about as different from Limbo as it can possibly be. If you've played any of the Hydro Thunder games, then you already know what to expect: over the top arcade racing with ridiculous tracks and insane boats. Hurricane is all about finding shortcuts, hitting boosts, unlocking boats, and collecting trophies. It's a goofy good time, especially when you're competing against your friends, but if arcade-style racing isn't your thing, this probably won't change your mind.
For a different kind of co-op experience, consider Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, in which you and up to five other would-be slayers team up to crawl through enormous mansions and kill stuff. Castlevania fans will find a lot to enjoy in Harmony of Despair, which is an interesting and enjoyable twist on the franchise's formula. Newcomers might be put off by the game's time limits or by Harmony of Despair's near unplayability as a single player experience. Under the right circumstances, this Castlevania can be an offbeat crowd-pleaser, but it's a very acquired taste.
If you're still hankering for some co-op play, but swinging a whip isn't exactly what you had in mind, there's Monday Night Combat, which is sort of what you'd get if you crossed the cartoony aesthetic and classes of Team Fortress 2 with the game show violence of Smash TV. The basic concept is pretty simple - kill all the enemy bots for valuable cash prizes - but Monday Night Combat shakes it up a bit by letting you use your winnings to buy helpful in-arena items like jump pads or turrets or mix and match abilities to create your own custom class. I admit, I didn't get to play very much of Monday Night Combat, but the little I sampled was lighthearted but satisfying boomstickery.
The last game in the Summer of Arcade was the surprisingly fantastic Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. The new take on everyone's favorite Tomb Raider works incredibly well, blending frenetic combat with intricate puzzle solving and wonderfully enormous environments. The single-player game is well worth the price of admission all by itself, but the co-op is also excellent, making player two into a genuine partner as opposed to just some weak tag-along.
Of the five, Limbo and Lara Croft are easily my favorites, because they provide extremely polished experiences that are just that little bit different than the usual XBLA fare. I also, admittedly, have a fondness for puzzle solving, which both games have in spades, but all five have something to offer, especially if you're looking for some new ways to game with your pals.
Susan Arendt used to travel to New Hampshire every summer just to visit the arcades.