The current console generation has brought many additions to the gaming experience — high definition visuals, motion sensing controls, downloadable expansion packs, widespread online gaming — but by far my favorite addition to the console arena this generation has been the addition of cheap downloadable games. All of the major systems have their own version: Wii has the Virtual Console where for $5-$10, you can download great games from the NES, Genesis, SNES, N64, TurboGraphx-16, Neo Geo, and more. Early next year, the Wii will also have a channel from which original games can be downloaded. The PS3 has the PlayStation Store, where there are a few good original games (I hear Super Stardust HD and Everyday Shooter are especially good) for around $10, and some original PS1 games for $6-$10. The especially nice thing is that the PS1 game downloads work on the PSP: I can think of quite a fun old PS1 games that I'd love to have on a portable system at $10 or less a pop. Finally, the Xbox 360 has the Xbox Live Arcade where original games and ports (often upgraded) generally come out at $5-$10 a piece and the recently added Xbox Originals — older Xbox games for $15 a piece.
I've noticed that these download services have had a drastic impact on the games I play and favor. Back in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, I gravitated toward console RPGs almost out of necessity. As a young child without a lot of disposable income, it just made more sense to spend $60 on a massive epic like Dragon Warrior II or Final Fantasy that would take me weeks to finish, rather than spend it on an action game that I might beat in a couple days. However, now I'm faced with dozens of high quality games from a variety of genres that only cost $5-$10 to download. Sure, I might not have gotten as many hours out of, say, Mutant Storm Reloaded (a fast paced shmup played in the Robotron fashion) as I would out of the latest and greatest RPG, but I've definitely gotten my $10 worth.
All of the console download services have good games on them, but the online store that gives me the most fun is Xbox Live Arcade. Although the first year of the service was a little bumpy with frequently delayed releases and many weeks with nothing new, now it's really gotten going. Good XBLA games come out faster than I can play them, and I really can't offer better praise than that. The breadth of the service is really remarkable: you have old Arcade classics (often with update visuals) for $5, high quality ports from the PSP like Lumines, EXIT, Puzzle Quest, and Gripshift (one of today's releases, a weird yet awesome mix of racing, platforming, and puzzles), ports from other systems like the PS1 classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, various PC casual games, and of course, original games. Just recently, Microsoft implemented a new XBLA Greatest Hits line where older XBLA games have their download prices reduced. Now, besides Geometry Wars (great Robotron-esque game), Space Giraffe (Tempest on acid) and all the old arcade classics, $5 will buy you Zuma (a really fun puzzle game somewhat similar to Bust-A-Move) or Marble Blast Ultra (think Marble Madness in 3D). And hey, everything on the service has a free demo version so that you can see if you like the game before you buy the full version.
I could talk about many of my favorite XBLA games (and I probably will over time), but first I'll talk about what is probably my favorite: Pac-Man: Championship Edition. Watch for a full review soon!