Ranking Microsoft's first run
The original Xbox was Microsoft's flagship console for less than half as long as Xbox 360, but it made the most of those precious years. The new contender for a spot under your TV quickly established itself as serious competition to well-established gaming brands with quirky cult classics and blockbuster series that are still yielding new games to this day.
With all that in mind, we've put together our top 25 Xbox games, encompassing undisputed champs and oddball sleeper hits alike. As you click through, remember that Microsoft had next to no experience in the console games market before assembling this lineup. Not bad for a rookie attempt!
25. Steel Battalion
Before plastic guitars and drums were the norm in every living room, Capcom's Steel Battalion asked you to fork over $200 for a gigantic controller sporting two control sticks and 40 buttons. Such was the price for one of the most immersive games of the generation. While it's admittedly overkill, the added physical controls make the game feel remarkable, helping to replicate the experience of actually controlling a mech. Theoretically, anyway.
Even beyond that, however, the game is simply fantastic. Doing maneuvers with your mech squad is authentic-ish fun, and the visuals were great for their time. It even has a sequel, Line of Contact, which also used the controller, as well as adding in multiplayer. Then it had another sequel, but we don't talk about that one anymore. It's the mad idealism of the original that keeps this series close to our hearts.
24. Spider-Man 2
Everyone secretly wants to be Spider-Man, but no game really got close to fulfilling those dreams until Spider-Man 2 came along. Although it's a (really loose) movie adaptation, it was the first game to throw a superhero into a big, open world and just let you mess around with their powers. And until Batman: Arkham Asylum arrived in 2009, it was arguably the best.
That's mostly thanks to developer Treyarch absolutely nailing the feeling of web-swinging, enabling you to latch onto absolutely any surface for free-form Tarzan antics. There's a careful rhythm to doing it right, but once you get the hang of it, you can rocket across Manhattan's skyline with the speed and grace of an Olympic gymnast. The whole experience is a seamless, unbridled rush, coupled with plenty of randomly fun side quests, from pursuing non-movie plotlines to chasing down some kid's lost balloons.
23. Burnout 3: Takedown
There are three kinds of racing fans: Those who like Gran Turismo, those who like Mario Kart, and those who like Burnout. And for the Burnout crowd, Burnout 3 is the cream of the crop. Criterion's racer places action-packed racing and over-the-top crashes over realism for fantastic results, and Takedown perfected the formula that it tinkered with for the previous two games.
The best addition is the new "Takedown" mode, which turns a traditional race into a gauntlet where you need to beat your opponents by smashing them off the road; think of a standard race but add in some demolition-derby elements. Burnout 3 managed to take the unrealistic racer to the next level, packing more competitive action than the last two games combined.
22. Star Wars Battlefront II
Intensity and authenticity: Those two qualities stand out in this first- and third-person shooter from a galaxy far, far away. Developer Pandemic expertly realized battlegrounds near and dear to Star Wars fans, stuffed them full of heavily armed vehicles (mostly well-known), then kitted out nicely sized opposing armies complete with a detailed class system so that the various unit classes all feel slightly different...
... but that was all in the first game. Battlefront 2 adds compelling new game modes, titanic space battles to complement the planetside platoon action, and playable Jedi who were capable of single-handedly turning the tide of a battle, but which somehow didn't rupture the game's balance. This was the titanic Star Wars war game we'd been looking for. Even with a new Battlefront out there, many still argue that this is the definitive experience.
21. Oddworld: Strangers Wrath
Who would have guessed that Oddworld Inhabitants, creators of quirky and environmentally conscious puzzle-adventures, could pull off a full-blown shooter? Or that it would end up being one of the very best shooters the original Xbox had to offer? Yet the most unbelievable thing about Stranger's Wrath is that the slow-paced, lever-pulling Oddworld universe has been transformed into a fast and frenzied action affair without losing a single ounce of its lovably weird personality. Despite the macho Western setting, the story's theme still concerns nature vs. industry. And despite the hero's tough-guy aura, you're still fighting to protect dewy-eyed innocents from greed-obsessed monsters that look straight out of a demented Jim Henson film.
Even the gun itself isn't what you'd expect. Forget bullets - this baby shoots actual live ammo. As in, living creatures that you snatch off the ground, load into your crossbow and launch, screaming and writhing, at the enemy. It's fun, innovative and totally out of left field, just like the entire game.
20. Forza Motorsport
Please, whatever you do, don't call Forza Motorsport a Gran Turismo clone. When the developers at Microsoft saw what the folks at Sony had accomplished with their realism-obsessed racing simulator, they didn't copy it... they thought, "We can do that better".
Luckily for Xbox owners, they were right. On its very first try, Forza matched the GT series car for car, track for track, and customization option for customization option. Then it made two immeasurably huge improvements: accurate damage physics and online play. The former was long overdue in a genre that prides itself on realism. The latter gathered lonely, closeted car enthusiasts around the world and united them into an elite and knowledgeable culture club.
19. Beyond Good and Evil
Feeling for all the world like some strange combination of Dark Crystal, X-Files, and Independence Day as directed by Tim Burton - and starring a cast of Muppets - Beyond Good & Evil is a game that refuses to be pigeonholed. It's funny, with its cutesy animal characters (one of whom wields fart-fueled jet boots) and chubby, rounded spaceships.
But beneath that cute surface is real depth, with a plot that delves into themes of government conspiracy, revolution, love, and trust. Its gameplay is all over the place, from Metal Gear-style sneaking to space dogfights, hovercraft races, nature photography, and one particularly brutal game of space air hockey. And when the final credits pan across a series of photographs of the characters, you'll feel like you're looking at pictures of your actual friends.
Originally pitched as the ultimate open-ended experience, Fable was released as an unfinished, fairly linear action-RPG and an object lesson in not believing the hype. But somehow we love it anyway; for all its hacky-slashy gameplay and deep flaws, it's still a rush to watch your character age, marry the girl and/or guy of his dreams and be loved or feared by mobs of villagers.
Fable's main quest is short, and all the side diversions packed into the world get old after a few hours. But it delivers a lot of special, memorable moments while it lasts, and watching your hero grow up and develop gives you a connection to him that most games just don't offer. Fable wasn't what we were promised, but it was still groundbreaking in its own way - after all, how many games let you just hang out in taverns and turn into a fat boozehound?
17. Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30
God only knows how many times we've single-handedly won the Second World War by cutting through wave after wave of the Nazi plague, marching relentlessly on through the bloody wastelands like a possessed, bloodthirsty super soldier, never stopping to think, just focused on kill, kill, KILL!
And then Brothers in Arms rolled into town, teaching us to do things differently and that, actually, war is a team game where unilateral thinking gung-ho heroes tend to get their guts shot out. Road to Hill 30 has plenty of intense Hun-in-the-crosshair action, but it's also focused on smartly paced, squad-oriented tactical masterminding, effectively ambushing us with a refreshing approach to Nazi hunting.
16. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
At times, hiking across - or flying over - Mercenaries' huge battle-scorched landscape is a strangely bleak and depressing experience. Pandemic successfully captured the deathly joyless atmosphere that must, we imagine, suffocate the air in times of war.
Thankfully, the developer also captured the magical, chimney-stack wonder of blowing buildings up and watching them fall down, providing you with a Richter scale-shattering array of heavy weapons and air strikes to play with. Laser-guided death has never been so devastatingly fun.
15. Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
Crimson Skies sucks you in with its cool steampunk setting full of gigantic zeppelins and weird-looking Howard Hughes fighter planes, but it's the arcade-style dogfights that keep you playing. With the dramatic sweep of an adventure serial, Crimson Skies has you effortlessly swooping through lush, craggy landscapes as you take on air-pirate missions and blast bogeys out of the sky.
While there was plenty of charm in Crimson Skies' mission-based, pulp-fiction storyline, it was really just a training ground for the high-flying Xbox Live deathmatches. Pre-Halo 2, this was unquestionably one of the best online games on Microsoft's black box, and shoving magnet-guided rockets into 15 other opponents still has an undeniable charm today.
Unlike seemingly every other giant-robot game on the market, MechAssault wasn't a slow, methodical, walking-tank-battle that stressed customization and weapon management over fun. Instead it was fast, relatively simple, and packed to the gills with explosive carnage, which made it a perfect candidate to be one of the first - and therefore most important - Xbox Live games. That it's still one of the most fun doesn't hurt that standing, either.
Whether playing online or by yourself, though, MechAssault's real draw is the feeling of piloting a big, fast, armed-to-the-teeth battlemech through open landscapes dotted with fully destructible cities. It looks a little fuzzy by today's standards, but there's still nothing quite like fighting lightning-fast rocket duels as huge futuristic buildings get pounded to rubble all around you.
13. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Sands of Time is a truly classic adventure that teeters tantalizingly close to perfection. While the ability to "rewind time" is the game's party piece, it's the Prince who steals the show with his repertoire of athletically impressive moves. Warm, hazy lighting lends an ethereal glow to the brilliantly designed levels, and navigating the Persian hero perfectly from an elaborately plotted A to B is a satisfying thrill.
The best part of the whole thing? It's a love story! A well-written, heartwarming love story! In a game! A video game! No princesses in other castles! No contrived hero/damsel claptrap! Best of all, no anthropomorphic animal/human affection (we're looking at you, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006)! Just good ol' movie-style romance that gets us right in the feels. How many games can truly do that?
12. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Take the go-anywhere, do-anything philosophy of Grand Theft Auto and stick it into a fully realized fantasy world and you've got the best first-person RPG ever made (at least until the next-gen sequels, Oblivion and Skyrim, came along). Will you follow the epic main quest to become a prophesied hero and free the land from demonic oppression? Or will you wander from town to town, stealing wooden spoons and murdering elves for their hats? It's up to you.
Morrowind features countless plotlines and battles that you could tackle any way you se fit. Whether through intense first-person sword-fighting, magic, sneaking or - in rare cases - actually talking your way through a bad situation, there's often a perfect solution for your current mood.
11. Jade Empire
BioWare's first few hits were based on established franchises, with Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons holding up its fantastic games. Jade Empire was one of the developer's first attempts at creating an entire universe of its own, and while the world isn't as interesting or involved as Mass Effect's would one day be, it's still incredibly interesting. There's little wonder why fans clamor for sequels to this day.
You make plenty of choices on your way to the end of the game, choosing to follow either the Way of the Open Palm or the Way of the Closed Fist as your protagonist fights to find their master. Early seeds of future BioWare game mechanics - including player romance and choice-driven gameplay - were present in the game, making Jade Empire a true spiritual predecessor to games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
10. Panzer Dragoon Orta
Xbox's then-superior power was put to spectacular use in Panzer Dragoon Orta, creating one of the most breathtakingly cinematic shooters ever seen. Even back in the days of the Sega Saturn, Team Andromeda were pushing their hardware further than anyone thought possible, and while Orta may not have been quite as revolutionary, it was still a magnificent spectacle.
Add in a strategic dragon-placement system similar to that found in obscure RPG classic Panzer Dragoon Saga and you soon find yourself cunningly avoiding enemy fire and moving around to exploit weak spots for massive damage. Although it's essentially an on-rails shooter, such words can't do justice to the game's majesty. You'll suspend your disbelief until you really are riding a terrifying dragon beast through fiery skies... what better recommendation can we give?
9. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay
It's a pity that Escape from Butcher Bay was tied to such a crap movie as The Chronicles of Riddick. The characters in this prison-break drama are more compelling, the action is far more brutal, and it is a far, far better vehicle for a charismatic antihero like Riddick than any lame summer blockbuster could be.
More than that, Butcher Bay is a seriously awesome adventure; the first-person perspective is really just there to rub your nose in the beautiful horror of its grimy sci-fi prison. It also puts an especially personal touch on all the fistfights and knife fights you got into, and makes it just that much cooler when you pull off stunts like making a guard blast himself in the face. Add some immersive, cinematic action sequences that'd put Half-Life 2 to shame, and you have an ahead-of-its-time inmate sim that still stands as one of the Xbox's best games.
8. Project Gotham Racing 2
The original Project Gotham Racing hit when the Xbox launched, bringing fantastic control, beautiful representations of real-world cities... and a lot of little problems. PGR2 erases their memory with one of the most engrossing single-player racing epics seen last generation. As you gradually improve, progress further, and unlock new cars and tracks, you begin to get a feel for the game's subtly-tuned racing system and the global cities that make up its tracks.
The smooth and steady gameplay progression is completely addictive, and attempting to wow the computer and earn Kudos - points awarded for daring and stylish driving - is an added incentive to bring your A-game. Once you think you have it all down pat, you can take the fight to Xbox Live. When the game originally launched, Xbox Live was just coming into its own, and this game was a landmark driving title that showcased just what Microsoft's online service was truly capable of.
7. Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow
We saw no shortage of Splinter Cell games on Xbox, but the standout of the group is definitely this second entry. Pandora Tomorrow's single-player campaign is yet another masterpiece in stealth and tension, with exotically detailed locales, top-notch celebrity voice acting, and fluidly animated new moves like army spins and upside-down shooting. What distinguishes Pandora is its completely unique and utterly addictive multiplayer.
The two-on-two versus mode enables you to sneak and shimmy through matches as a Sam Fisher-like spy, with agility and shadow as your most powerful weapons. Or, be a mercenary and rely on more traditional weaponry like assault rifles, grenades, and trip mines to blast holes in those pesky black ninja suits. Mercenaries even played in first-person mode, making the asymmetrical competition even keener.
6. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Before it veered off into a more serious direction, Grand Theft Auto was all about over-the-top, ultraviolent, rags-to-riches excess. No game embodied that ideal better than San Andreas. While it's not that pretty to look at now (and wasn't back in 2004, really), San Andreas doesn't just offer up a city in which to go nuts - it gives you an entire fictitious state, with three distinct cities and miles of open countryside and small towns in between.
It also features a compelling story that starts small, with gangs fighting over neighborhoods in Los Santos, but soon ramps up to become a ridiculous crime epic with jetpacks, VTOL jets, and multimillion-dollar real estate. It's still one of the best games imaginable for creating insane stunts and just going completely berserk, and was an ideal way to get that out of our collective system before moving on to the more restrained GTA 4.
Psychonauts is clever. It's also laugh-out-loud funny. Talking to a game's supporting cast normally consists of button-mashing through conversations as quickly as possible, but shooting the breeze with Psychonauts' adorably, impishly quirky bunch of misfits is an absolute joy, thanks to the comic brilliance of the dialogue.
Besides the entertaining psychobabble, the disturbed mindscapes that make up the levels are utterly original and blindingly fun to outsmart. Psychonauts is food for your brain as well as lubrication for your laugh valve. If you like sampling great games that failed to make any kind of impact in the charts, make sure you check out Psychonauts.
4. Ninja Gaiden
One of the most hotly anticipated games in the history of the Xbox, Ninja Gaiden lived up to the lofty expectations that developer Team Ninja's Dead or Alive fighting-and-cheesecake series could never quite match. From the first second you slipped the disc into the Xbox the game was brutally intense, with punishing difficulty; your only option was to get good at it, and fast. The reward was being able to play one of the most engrossing action-adventure games ever.
While the main focus is the speedy ninja combat, clever level design with light Zelda-like touches and still-gorgeous graphics bolster the action. The developers' heritage with fighting games allowed them to offer the most complex yet smooth character control in an action game yet, and mastering ninja Ryu's moves remains an addictive odyssey for hardcore players.
3. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Set 1,000 years before the Star Wars films, Knights of the Old Republic gives you the chance to explore a galaxy torn between the Republic and the Empire-like Sith. As an amnesiac Jedi with a terrible secret, you travel from planet to planet, righting wrongs (or wronging them even further), gathering followers, and busting out the crazy Force powers in all-or-nothing lightsaber battles.
KOTOR is awesome on every level: an engaging storyline, characters you actually care about, and turn-based battles that move so fast they feel more like real-time hack-and-slash. Even the branching conversations are fascinating, which is great, because you'll spend a lot of time just navigating your way through them. Add a ton of side quests, cool outfits, upgradeable Dark and Light Force powers, and a smattering of never-before-revealed Star Wars trivia, and you have an RPG masterpiece that put to shame anything else bearing the Star Wars logo.
2. Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo overwhelmed us all when it first arrived... and not just because of the massive Microsoft marketing push. The sci-fi shooter simply excels in so many categories that it's hard to know where to begin the praise. There are, of course, the big things. The action is spectacular, constant, and a breeze to master. At the time, Halo's control scheme was the most intuitive a console FPS had ever seen. More impressively, the deep and engrossing story feels like an organic part of the gameplay experience, never overshadowing or taking a back seat to the battles. The visuals proved what the Xbox was capable of technically in 2001 and the music proved what it was capable of artistically.
Then there are the little things, seemingly insignificant at first but actually crucial elements of what make Halo so special. Hearing the surrounding Marines react to your heroics as they fight and seeing miniature space vessels make their way across the atmosphere above you all contribute to a fully realized, living universe that still captivates players to this day.
1. Halo 2
The original Halo may have single-handedly sold the majority of Xbox consoles, but its sequel was the game that truly defined the big black box. Yes, the action is improved. New features like dual weapon wielding, vehicle jacking, and access to the all-powerful, all-badass energy sword twist the gameplay in just the right places. Yes, the plot is better. The revelation that you got to play as a Covenant soldier takes the story in an unexpectedly complex and morally ambiguous direction. And yes, the graphics are enhanced.
But Halo 2's multiplayer is what will forever be remembered. Taking the already wildly popular 16-player matches out of the system-linked college frat houses and unleashing them upon the entire world over Xbox Live is what made the Halo franchise the phenomenon it is today... and that it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Xbox was the first video game console to define online multiplayer and Halo 2 was its iconic masterpiece.