Review: Microsoft Excel

Released in 1985 as a direct competitor to rival Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel was Microsoft’s attempt to one-up their previous attempt at the spreadsheet genre, Multiplan. It was released before the company had a dedicated gaming department, and it really shows: the developers who created the early games in the franchise are very much approaching the project from a business background.

Though Excel predates Microsoft’s dedicated forays into the world of gaming, it still feels distinctly ‘Microsoft’, having many familiarities with their output almost twenty years later. A core part of its gameplay is the use of tedious repetition of an inspipid and crushingly dull task, much like Fable (and more so, Fable II), yet with a touch of that ‘just seeing a screenshot makes me more dead inside’ vibe most associated with the Halo series.

A part of you died.

It possesses the sense of ego and arrogance that we associate with Microsoft as a company. The most recent entries into the Excel family exhibit the same featureless clutter of shite and bollocks that anyone familiar with the Xbox dashboard would look at and instantly say “that’s Microsoft” – their trademark quirks as developers really shine though here.

Excel has firmly established itself over the years as a consistent franchise firmly planted in the gaming scene. Now on its (arguably) seventh major entry, it has spawned countless spin-offs, side-projects and updates and has been ported to Mac OSX alongside numerous portable gaming devices, such as various Android smartphones and possibly the iPad.

Consistency of gameplay across the series has caused debate among fans, with some disliking certain core functionality changes that others have argued for, yet ultimately Excel never really changes. Instead it just gets slightly worse all the time, whilst also staying exactly the same – much like other long-term franchises such as Dynasty Warriors or the Final Fantasy series.

However, as with these other games, for all its flaws, glaring inconsistencies and endless streams annoyance, Excel is actually quite good.

Core gameplay is similar to a world-building game in a sense; however, it’s presented in a very retro design, where gameplay is predominantly conducted entirely via text or numbers/characters. There are occasional uses of still images, video or audio (although the latter two are often an annoyance and normally considered crass).

Another typical Excel screen.

Numerous tools of increasing complexity are available to the player. However the game uses an emergent skill-based form of progression – there’s no EXP to gain here, and all weapons are available from the start if you can find them, but it’s up to the player themselves whether they are experienced enough in the game’s nuances to make use of them.

At higher levels Excel organically begins to take the form of a puzzle for the player for figure out, often requiring deep thought and research (using The Internet‘s excellent information-gathering based features). The feeling of successfully overcoming a big challenge can be very satisfying – indeed there is enough depth and complexity here that single games to stretch on for hours, days, weeks, months or even years.

Despite its genre dominance over the years, Excel has become notorious for its use in lazy journalism or games debate, with anything from JPRGs, football management, strategy or simulation games being frequently derided as “like playing a game of Excel“. Whilst in some cases these accusations may be accurate, once a player has unwrapped Excel enough to uncover the great game lurking underneath, it’s hard not to feel that the intended insult has fallen flat.

This is what you see when you fall asleep at night.

Despite brief forays into various mini-games such as racing or spaceship piloting, the principle genre is more in tune with self-improvement games like Wii Fit or Brain Training. However, unlike other lifestyle improvement games, the gimmick here is that instead of bettering the player’s body or intellect, it aims to make them more organised. For example, helping the player collate information in their workplace, or making it easier to keep track of their personal finances.

It’s certainly superior in almost every way to Microsoft’s other big current gaming franchises, Word and Outlook. Outlook is a sodden piece of crap with no redeemable features (despite its ambitious but buggy attempts to introduce an element of social networking into its online features) and Word is simply an embarrassment to every person involved in its creation. Cult sleeper-hit Access appears interesting, but I confess I’ve never given it the time due its high-difficulty entry barrier.

Ultimately, Excel is worth your time as long as you are willing to make an investment – just be prepared to hate it that little bit more than you love it.