Microsoft Finally Launches a Portable Xbox—Inside Windows Phone 7

Microsoft may be late to the new world of smartphones begun by the Apple iPhone back in 2007, but the company has some interesting advantages over competitors like Apple and Google. Chief among those is that Microsoft is, lest we forget, a gaming powerhouse.

Far from the half-hearted (albeit underrated) efforts of Zune, Microsoft's Xbox experiment is innovative, critically acclaimed, and, most importantly, incredibly successful. Xbox Live, when it launched way back in 2002, was a ballsy move from a novice console maker, and it paid off better than Microsoft could have imagined. Tens of millions of users later, Microsoft has a key advantage that none of the other smartphone makers can boast--but Xbox integration on the upcoming Windows Phone 7 was unknown until now.

I sat down with Kevin Unangst, Senior Director of PC and Mobile Gaming at Microsoft, to check out Microsoft's plan for Windows Phone 7 gaming. He showed off some very impressive and frankly lust-worthy games and features, even for casual gamers like myself who aren't really interested in Leaderboards or hardcore online competition. Xbox on Windows Phone 7 is quite simply on a different level than any other mobile gaming platform, including Apple's iOS.

The integration of Xbox Live is detailed and a little bit complex, with all kinds of bonuses for hardcore Xbox Live users--the avatar in particular is given lots of special treatment. I think it's a little overly cutesy, but others may love the "gadgets" you can give your avatar, including a flashlight that turns the whole phone into an LED flashlight, or a level that, when turned, causes the avatar to wobble and then fall over.

For those obsessed with keeping their Gamerscore up, Windows Phone 7 games are given the same number of points as an Xbox Live Arcade game. If that doesn't mean anything to you, don't worry about it--the Xbox Live integration is intense, but if you want to (and I suspect many people will), you can absolutely ignore it. And that's just fine, because the games look amazing.

Remember the first time you saw Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart on the iPhone, and couldn't believe how good it looked? I had that same feeling, watching and playing Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 games. They weren't finished, but were very, very impressive, in graphics, inventiveness, variety, and pure fun.

The games included what I would consider more hardcore games (meaning, if you don't know what RTF, MMORPG, and FPS stand for, these are not for you), like a tower defense game, a combat-based RPG, and a Castlevania title, that neither iPhone nor Android could really match. But there were also some games better suited to quick, pick-up-and-play fun using the touchscreen and accelerometer, as well as an array of more casual titles like an exclusive 10th anniversary version of Bejeweled and a box set of card and board games.

The graphics are on a totally different level than iPhone or Android games--or, for that matter, Nintendo DS games. These are "wow" titles--I'm not a huge gamer, but I couldn't resist snatching the phone away from Microsoft's rep a few times to have a go at some of these games. Those games, by the way, will be available in a tiered pricing scheme. Kevin wouldn't go into specifics, but I assume there will be free games, cheap games (think a couple bucks), and pricey games (around $10, I'd guess).

Microsoft is treating the Xbox integration in Windows Phone 7 more as the launch of a new console than merely a group of apps. It really is the Xbox Portable, with all of Microsoft's muscle behind it. The launch list of titles, some 60-odd long, is impressive, with familiar franchises like Assassin's Creed, Crackdown 2, Castlevania, Earthworm Jim, Guitar Hero, and Splinter Cell, from a wide range of Microsoft's best friends in game development.

That could work both for and against Microsoft, I think. The split between casual and hardcore gaming has never been more prominent, and though Microsoft is offering lots of casual, approachable games, it's still treating Xbox in Windows Phone 7 in a hardcore gamery kind of way. I'm not sure that that approach is necessarily the smartest--it could well needlessly turn off those with a casual interest in gaming. This is Gaming with a capital G: Big games, big developers, all in a very traditional way. You'll see no Angry Birds or Doodle Jump in this lineup, at least not yet, but you will see Castlevania. How will the public at large respond to that?

For gamers, Windows Phone 7 should be celebrated. The games look fantastic, and Microsoft is really taking advantage of its pedigree in online gaming. I'm personally really excited about it. But I think the avatars, Gamerscores, Leadership Boards, and Xbox 360 integration might be threatening to the novice gamer.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in Brooklyn (no link for that one--you'll have to do the legwork yourself).