It's hard not to have heard the name somewhere in the past year. Yet for those of us console-centric, the buzz across the wall from the PC crowd around Minecraft may have left you baffled, confused - and asking not only what the point of the game was, but why should you even bother with it.
There are going to be plenty new to it weighing up whether to take the plunge. As the recent success of Fez has proven though, unique ideas and retro graphics can form a special experience. Different from Fez it may be, Minecraft still offers the same enticing cocktail.
First, for the complete newcomer, here's a brief history of the game's creation and it's potential, to bring you up to speed:
The PC original seemingly came from nowhere, its humble origins traceable to this thread on TIGForums. The original idea: create anything, using just simple building blocks and a player's imagination.
Almost straight away curious gamers began to create and share; themes that would go on to epitomise the Minecraft experience for millions.
The PC version is the best indication of what's possible with the game's central building mechanics. The Creative mode, an option currently absent from the 360 port, allows PC owners to fly around and create massive structures with unlimited resources.
These elaborate constructions act as Minecraft's calling card, and so the Creative mode is unlikely to remain omitted from the console version for long, such is its popularity.
The XBLA Version: Built to Help
One occasional criticism of the PC original is the lack of help at the very start. Gamers found themselves left to discover the wonders around them at their own pace. Some would argue that this lack of initial guidance enhanced the experience of discovery, but for a sizeable number of gamers it was frustrating learning the very basics. Struggling to get to grips with the fundamentals, many turned to the internet for help.
Luckily the Xbox 360 Edition of Minecraft fixes this problem. You can either plunge headfirst into a randomly generated world, discovering at your own pace, or you can take the tutorial and learn a few handy tricks.
Introducing the World
When I took my first steps into Minecraft, I knew nothing about the world I was entering. I had stayed clear of the PC original; it just wasn't my cup of tea. Or so I thought. The tutorial walked me through the basics, but my own exploration has provided me with many more revelatory moments.
Step 1: The Minecraft Basics
Beyond the confines of the tutorial is a village and a castle; two examples of what can be easily built and achieved in Minecraft with planning and dedication. I explored the area around the village; there was plenty there to inspire my thoughts.
Once you've had enough of beholding the creations of others, a new world awaits. A randomly generated map is created, either by the game or by inputting a seed code. These codes influence the design of the world, and many will enjoy seeing what comes from inputting specific names or places.
And so a new world is born, too big to be explored in its entirety. You arrive in it empty handed save for the knowledge you acquired from the tutorial. The initial temptation is to abandon the advice given and go forth and explore. Rolling hills, islands, cliffs, beaches, trees, caverns and mountains; all there to be discovered, and if you so wish, mined.
Everything you see is potentially a resource. Smash an object with the right tool and it can be picked up and moved to a place of your choosing. A pickaxe lets you cut through stone as if it were butter, an axe makes short work of trees. You can break things with just your bare hands, but some materials vanish when this approach is taken. You've got to use the right tool for the job. It quickly becomes clear that what you use to mine is just as important as what you mine.
Step 2: The Right Material for the Job
There are different types of materials all over - and under - the place. Finding them takes a very deliberate focus of energy. Trees can be reduced to wood to create structures and tools; animals can be harvested for resources, whether it be wool or meat; sand and dirt can be moved as you reshape the landscape; stone can be mined and buildings created. Using these materials in conjunction with your imagination is the key to enjoying Minecraft.
Step 3: Getting Crafty
So you want to make something? The first thing you'll need is a Crafting Table. This allows you create a large variety of tools, materials, clothes and weapons; much more than is possible without. Wood is the first material needed, harvest lots to start off with, then use it to make a selection of tools.
Tools speed up the process of gathering resources, and many resources can't be gathered without using the appropriate tools.
The first thing you might put your mind to is building your own home. I wandered the map, looking for some kind of natural feature to take advantage of. In the end I decided to create a beach home, nestled into the cliffside, protected from the elements. Take your time picking the location of your new house, you'll be spending a lot of time there.
Crafting lets you create the basic blocks needed to build your own digs. Every house needs a front door, and this one is no different. They can be made using wood harvested from trees. Doors are essential, in that they protect you at night from the monsters that lurk in the dark. Creating a barrier between you and them is a priority.
Step 4: Let There Be Light
Another necessity is light. Candles can be made using coal and sticks. To create coal you will need a furnace, and some fuel. By combining objects in the furnace you can change the composition of materials, altering them as you would in real life. In this case we're creating a candle, but there is scope for great variety. After sorting out the lighting, I decided that what my new house needed was a glass ceiling, so using wood as fuel, I shoveled sand into the furnace and made sheets of glass.
There are so many ways your dwelling can be personalised, the limit really is your own imagination. Furniture can be made, stairs can be constructed and different materials can be utilised to make each room feel unique.
During the early stages, with just one furnace and a limited supply of resources, crafting and creating materials can be time consuming. Luckily, there is more to do here than just dig and craft.
Step 5: Combating Night Terrors
At night the world of Minecraft is overrun with nasty creatures. Zombies amble around, skeletal archers fire their bows and giant spiders search out prey in the moonlight. These monsters can be fought using weapons made on the crafting table, weapons made with resources gathered from the map.
Using better resources allows for sturdier weapons. This is life and death, and as such only a decent blade will do. A wooden sword is the first thing you can make, though it wont be long before you're thinking about upgrading to stone. The quality improves all the way up to diamond, the rarest of minerals.
Step 6: Fight, Protect or Flight
You can also craft armour to protect you. This is particularly helpful when fending off the advances of an over-amorous Creeper. These tall, shuffling green monsters explode when they get too close to you, and in doing so can happily eat up half a health bar. Protection from this threat is essential.
Alternatively, if you don't fancy fighting off exploding beasts with makeshift weapons you can always dig when it gets dark. Either that or the monsters can be turned off by setting the difficulty to Peaceful. Building for building's sake is fun, but the presence of a supernatural threat lingering in the dark outside gives the Minecraft experience a genuine edge.
This edge diminishes once the sun rises; zombies and skeletons burst into flames, whilst other creatures make themselves scarce, preferring to inhabit darker regions. Another day has arrived, and the world once is again ripe for exploration.
Step 7: Endergame
For those who prefer a slightly more linear journey, there's even a way of ‘completing' the game. Once you've reached a certain level of control, a portal can be created to the Nether. This can be made by mining Obsidian, a rare mineral. Passing through the Nether Portal progresses you towards your ultimate goal; finding and killing the Ender Dragon.
To be honest with you, I'm a long, long way from even attempting that. But it is nice to know that if I ever need closure, there is a way to achieve it.
Just Scratching The Surface
Minecraft has a little bit of everything buried deep within it, just waiting to be discovered. The only thing missing from the package is a story driven narrative, but there is so much scope for creating, living and telling your own stories, that the absence of a focused objective (other than confronting the Ender Dragon) isn't as noticeable as you might think.
There is so much to do and explore in Minecraft, the hardest decision might be where to start. I've barely scratched the surface here, the potential for creativity and invention is unbelievable. Whilst the Xbox 360 Edition might not come with all the features currently available for the PC version, it's still strikes me as a complete and balanced packaged and one that will undoubtedly prove popular with Xbox 360 owners (and you can read our review right here).