With the launch of Microsoft’s much-vaunted Xbox video game console on Thursday, gamers across Canada will be exposed to what Ryan Mugford called the “truest vision of games brought to life.”

Mugford, Microsoft Canada Co.’s Xbox marketing manager, said that Canada’s gamers comprise a significant portion of the buying public for the 1.5 million units the company is aiming to move across North America between now and Christmas.

“There’s definitely been an increase in the demand for gaming,” he said. “Analysts have been predicting a growth between 50 to 70 per cent for the gaming market in North America and we’re poised on the cusp of that.”

Retailing for about $460, Mugford said the Xbox console is defined by its ability to offer gamers broadband, online access to a series of forthcoming titles (in at least six months time), and the ability to challenge other gamers via cyberspace and more levels of play per game.

“The Xbox is the only gaming console that is broadband-enabled,” he continued. “By the first half of 2002, we’ll unveil our online gaming location which allows Xbox users the opportunity to play not only their friends, but other gamers from around the world.”

A wide array of games was also launched on Thursday, including Madden NFL 2002, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, AirForce Delta Storm, and NHL Hitz 2002, each retailing for approximately $79, although some resellers may offer the games for less.

An Electronics Boutique Canada (EB) outlet in Toronto’s Yorkdale mall was selected as one of the official sites for Xbox’s pre-launch party Wednesday night. Shreyash Thakrar, a buyer for EB’s 87 nation-wide stores, said he expects a significant increase in sales over the holidays thanks to the new console.

“We’re very pleased with the number of units allotted to us, Microsoft has been very good to us and I think our package bundle is very competitively priced,” he said. “What we’re offering (bundled) is the Xbox hardware itself, two software titles at launch. . . . It also includes an accessory which the customer can select either a DVD remote, a memory card, or a controller. This retail package is only $664.”

Thakrar acknowledged the value and quality of the competing Sony PlayStation2 and Nintendo’s GameCube, but cited Xbox’s graphics and surround sound capabilities as being the defining factor for mature gamers.

A lineup developed out front of the EB store as gamers counted down to midnight — their first opportunity to buy the console. An Xbox tent set up outside in the mall’s parking lot offered anyone the opportunity to play any of the launch games. It was a party atmosphere inside the tent, as kids of all ages played games and answered Xbox trivia for prizes, in addition to having the opportunity to be one of the first Canadian consumers to purchase the console.

Also joining in on the fun were David Wu, president and director of technology for Toronto-based games purveyor Pseudo Interactive Inc., and his art director Gary Snyder. The Canuck duo’s debut game Cel Damage — a frantic vehicular combat game — is licensed by EA Games for Xbox as well as GameCube. Wu described the Xbox as “incredible.”

“Compared to the PS2 or the GameCube…or any of the past consoles, it’s so much better (to develop games for) . . . it’s really the platform of choice,” he said. “I think every developer will tell you that.”

Snyder added that Pseudo Interactive had unlimited resources offered to them while developing Cel Damage.

“It was amazingly easy to work for and we had more time to focus on developing and perfecting the look of the game rather than worrying about the constraints of the system,” he said, while describing Cel Damage as, “Looney Tunes with an edge.”

“We’re going for a very immature crowd,” he joked. “We’re not going for South Park or anything (but) we like to think we’re very funny and we have a kick-ass game too.”

Like Thakrar, Mugford said the strength of Xbox doesn’t lie solely in its intricately developed graphics, but also in its sound capabilities.

Dolby Surround Sound and 256 digital audio channels are built into the Xbox, he said. “So if you’re playing against me in a game, not only will you see me, but you’ll hear me before you see me. Thus, audio cues now become as much of a gaming factor as do video cues,” he said. “It’s just another step towards (building) a (Star Trek) holodeck.”

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