I bought a Zune because it came in brown. That’s what it boils down to. Plus, I was averse to getting an iPod because of the iTunes interface it forces you to use, but it turns out the Zune’s isn’t any better. If anything, its software is frustrating in entirely new and exciting ways — at least with an iPod you stand a better chance at finding accessories.
But the gap between the portable music players has grown a tiny bit smaller. While Steve Jobs was getting his black turtleneck pressed in preparation for the recent “Let’s Rock” press conference, Microsoft feebly attempted to give them the end run-around by announcing a new 120 GB Zune along with some updated firmware features. I was so excited by this that it took me over a week to calm down enough to give it a try…and another four days to write about it. And what did I find?
[[image:mn_080921_zunegames.jpg:they are not actually this blurry!:right:0]]The Zune has games! I had completely forgotten about this after it was announced at this year’s Game Developers Conference, but there it is, tucked right in with the new Zune player firmware update. Included are Hexic (sponsored by Lips!) and Texas Hold ‘Em. To be upfront, I have zero interest in poker; the very sight of playing cards makes my eyes glaze over. So the only insight I can offer about Texas Hold ‘Em is that it plays by holding the Zune vertically, which is much more comfortable to play than Hexic’s horizontally-orientated screen. As for Hexic, you may not have played it, but if you own an Xbox 360 you already own a copy. The hex-based puzzle game is a good fit for a music device. Match groups of three or more colors by rotating pieces around a fixed point. Earn more points by linking colors in a sunflower pattern and you get a star shaped piece that will rotate more pieces. The gameplay gets more complex from there, but it was too difficult for me to advance further. There is no game over, though, and you’re free to pick up where you left off. I liked that it lets you go at your own pace, but there’s no motivation to finish or even get better at it.
There doesn’t seem to be any plan in place to sell more games on Zune’s marketplace. I did find one more game on Microsoft’s XNA creator’s club website, a port of an XNA demo called Alien Game. It’s free, like most of XNA’s development tools, and it installs to a Zune using a beta version of XNA Game Studio 3.0. Alien Game is a simple Space Invaders clone. It’s colorful and controls well using the Zune’s D-pad. Unfortunately, it doesn’t let you browse music easily and I was only able to play one song at a time. The tradeoff for free games is you can only play stuff that people are putting together in their spare time. I like that, and it was the reason I joined the creator’s club in the first place, but I can see how people might be turned off by the selection. The Game Studio beta also promises that current Windows and 360 user-created games can be easily ported for Zune. I happen to be collaborating on such a game, and I anticipate trying it on the small screen.