Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the original Xbox, a game system that birthed many game systems, a brand that rivals PlayStation while mostly letting Nintendo do their own thing. In reality, all three major console developers have their own marketing and development strategies, and pros and cons for consumers, but today we’re just here to talk about one of them: Xbox.
The original Xbox had a unique look and feel about it. It was thick, heavy, borderline unwieldy, because it featured standard desktop components, like a DVD-ROM and hard drive, giving it the most powerful processing power, which led to some of the best and most photorealistic graphics of that era, as well as the most built-in storage space while competitors Nintendo and Sony were relying on memory cards for the GameCube and the PlayStation 2.
The original Xbox introduced me to RPG games, to shooters, to racing games, to redefined stealth action, and to party games. To commemorate its anniversary, here’s Paste’s list of the greatest games from the Xbox’s peak period, in no particular order.
Halo: Combat Evolved is the game most people think of when they think of the original Xbox. Originally designed to work with Apple computers, it was the “killer app” for the console—the first-person shooter that became infamous for LAN parties, that spawned the machinima web series, Red vs. Blue, and that introduced a generation of videogame enthusiasts to first-person shooters. Set on a ring world weapon in a universe where humanity is losing a galaxy-spanning battle to a theocratic union of alien species known as The Covenant, players control a super soldier called “The Master Chief” with his AI partner/passenger Cortana. With Cortana’s help, Master Chief fights across a linear story designed to feel and look open, uncovering the mysteries of this incredible weapon and fighting a plethora of alien nemeses. The campaign included co-op, even in cutscenes, and the System Link feature using Local Area Networks popularized multiplayer shooting for Xbox players. This game was a marvel, and can still be played on new Xboxes through Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
Halo introduced me to shooting games and it’s legacy is about to be expanded once again with the release of Halo Infinite on Dec. 8, 2021. It’s a massive multimedia franchise with a TV show coming next year. But this is about GAMES and Halo 2 improved on the gameplay design, UI, graphics, story, and multiplayer experience of the original Halo in every way but one: Bungie removed the assault rifle. Be that as it may, the carbine and the dual-wieldable SMGs were two kinds of substitute, and the ability to use the Covenant Elite’s signature plasma sword in campaign and multiplayer was awesome. That’s not even to mention the campaign inclusion of Keith David as a Covenant Elite who had been dishonored and then raised up into a new super-commando position as “The Arbiter.” When are we getting our Arbiter solo series, 343 Industries? While the original release is not compatible on new Xbox systems, it is available in Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Game Pass and the Microsoft Store.
Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a genre-defining game that helped BioWare on their path to making the beloved Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises. This was a Star Wars story with a major twist that left jaws dropped on the floor on the first playthrough. Some people say the twist ruins replays; and some people, like myself, beat it three times or more. Players control a Republic agent—a soldier, scout, or contracted smuggler—that becomes a Jedi and learns of a Force bond with the popular, young Jedi hero Bastilla Shan. The player collects a crew of Jedi, droids, soldiers, mercenaries, and scoundrels from across the galaxy to help take down the leader of the Sith Empire, former Jedi Darth Malek. The game came about because BioWare had the option to make either a Star Wars game related to the prequels or set so far away that it wouldn’t affect canon. So, they brought their role-playing game based on D20 systems into a turn-based system that looked like real-time action into a setting just short of 4000 years before the original trilogy. The Dark Side/Light Side alignment system, while simplistic by today’s standards, was a revelation for how it impacted the story. And each planet—the bigoted city-planet of Taris, the Jedi Enclave and pastures of Dantooine, the familiar desert of Tattooine, the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, and the ocean-planet of Manaan—brought adventure and surprises. The cast of characters included voicing by Jennifer Hale, Raphael Sbarge, Kevin Michael Richardson, and Ed Asner among them. It was a remarkable experience to behold, and the game is currently available for digital download on modern Xbox consoles and the disc can be played with the Series X.
Knights of the Old Republic II
BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Obsidian’s sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords are far too often discussed to be sleepers or cult classics. The critically-acclaimed RPGs are being ported to the Switch and remade for the PS5, but they were originally Xbox-PC exclusives. Knights of the Old Republic was good, but Knights of the Old Republic II, even shipping in a clearly-unfinished state, was incredible. Set in a darker world with a bleaker version of a Galaxy Far, Far Away, with a less conventional Star Wars story, KotOR 2 introduced more complex morality, an influence system that allowed the player character to train multiple party members as Jedi, new feats and lightsaber fighting styles, and a dark abiding feeling of struggle against despair. Even without The Restored Content mod, The Old Republic MMO, or the coming remake, Knights of the Old Republic II stands on its own as one of the best Xbox games, and you can still fire it up on an Xbox Series X today.
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
Released Oct. 21, 2003, Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is also a sequel, but it’s a legitimate cult classic, not backed by a massive multimedia franchise. The Crimson Skies IP started as a board game in 1998, before the PC arcade flying game Crimson Skies came out in 2000. High Road to Revenge is set in an alternate 1937 where the U.S. has split into more than 20 distinct sovereignties, some combined with or disputed by parts of Mexico and Canada; this game focuses on Sea Haven off the west coast Nation of Hollywood, Arixo in what used to be Arizona and New Mexico, The Navajo Nation slightly north of there, Chicago, and a “Lost City” of ancient ruins in South America. This is a world where airplanes and zeppelins have become the primary means of transportation, and you play as sky pirate captain Nathan Zachary on his adventures across these regions. You use tight-controlled planes with different speeds, agilities, and weapon systems, fighting enemies, settling scores, and exploring what feels like an open world. This unique experience also includes familiar multiplayer modes like deathmatch (“Dogfight” and capture the flag (“Flag Heist”). Like KotOR 2, you can still play this on a brand new Xbox Series X.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind generates quite a bit of nostalgia. While every iteration of The Elder Scrolls franchise can be seen as a pivot point or a watershed moment because it’s less niche than its predecessor, Morrowind remains dear in the hearts and minds of the fanbase in part because of the things that made it less easy to penetrate than The Elder Scrolls that came after it. It was a harder place to explore, with less railing and less training wheels. While a huge step-up graphically from The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, this three-dimensional design was set in a place more alien than the Cyrodill and Skryim that fans would later explore. With that sense of adventure and the freedom to join several guilds, it felt like a living world, with houses and factions and tons of internal and intersectional conflict. It’s too broad and deep to generalize, while still feeling coherent and cohesive, even while making the players feel like strangers in the space. And as mentioned Tuesday, you can still play it on the newest Xbox consoles—discs work on the Series X and it’s available on Game Pass.
Burnout 3: Takedown
Burnout 3: Takedown was the third of Criterion’s arcade racers published by EA. While the sequel Burnout: Revenge was similarly well-acclaimed, it was a 360 as well as original Xbox release. Takedown, which introduced vehicular combat to this rush hour traffic racing franchise, helped shape the franchise’s direction before its eventual turn toward the open world. Boost is fueled in the game by propelling opponents into crashes and narrowly avoiding them yourself; players can even cause other cars to crash as the camera goes into slow motion after their own crash. While the game didn’t use license cars—likely having to do with the fact that its central focus is destroying vehicles—it still made for an incredibly fun entry into the racing genre with 67 custom vehicles.
ESPN NFL 2K5
ESPN NFL 2K5 was the last football game released by 2K until All Pro Football: 2K8 came out for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation3. It preceded EA getting the exclusive NFL license and had a lot of things over EA’s version. There was a pregame show, halftime show, and just generally a better presentation throughout. There was a game mode to play classic NFL moments. In franchise mode, players could set up their team’s weekly training schedule, leading to guides with that exact aim. There was “The Crib” where you could design your own football-themed apartment hangout, customizing the walls with memorabilia, and could play against profiles based on real celebrities. The game also allowed you to play not just against a generic CPU, but also a CPU that took its playstyle from any profiles set up in the game. You could even play in first person! And none of this would matter if the gameplay wasn’t great. ESPN NFL 2K5 had an excellent momentum and physics engine controlling its gameplay, and each team and its players had individual personality, and that’s why the online game community still keeps the game alive seventeen years later.
Fable was another “western RPG” on the Xbox that helped establish the system’s pedigree and possibilities. Fable was a critically-acclaimed open world fantasy roleplaying game from Peter Molyneux and Lionhead Studios where you play a traveling adventurer through their life from childhood fighting, training with the Hero’s Guild after his village is raided by bandits. The titular hero can glow like an angel or shine like a devil based on their alignment and good or bad deeds. The player faces down common and fantastic enemies, gaining renown, solving puzzles, saving villages, fighting in tournaments, defeating golems, and even getting married. It was originally released Sep 14. 2004, before an extended re-release called Fable: The Lost Chapters in 2005 and a high-definition remake as Fable: Anniversary for Xbox 360 in 2014. Fable has also had two sequels and is being reimagined, though a release date has not yet been pronounced. Fable and its sequels are available for the newest Xbox consoles.
Half-Life 2 is a first-person shooter with physics puzzles set in the near future—twenty years after 1998’s Half-Life, where scientists have accidentally opened a portal to a hostile dimension. The multidimensional empire known as the Combine conquers the earth in less than half a day, assimilates some people into slaves or soldiers, and rules brutally and repressively. The game centers on Seattle-native MIT PhD graduate Gordon Freeman (returning protagonist from Half-Life) as he fights in the resistance to free the Earth from the Combine’s clutches. Half-Life 2 was revolutionary for the way it experimented with physics in games, leading to the Portal games set in the same universe in the next generation, and for keeping the action going. The narrative was delivered through gameplay, rather than separating the action with cutscenes.
Jet Set Radio Future
The SmileBit-developed, Sega-produced sequel to 2000’s Dreamcast-exclusive cult classic Jet Grind Radio, 2002’s Jet Set Radio Future is centered on roller-blading and graffiti. It’s set in a hip-hop influenced dystopian future Tokyo where the youth rebel against corporate control of the state through the one true form of expression: roller blading. Players control a variety of inline skaters in a street gang called the GG’s, directed by their own ambition and the guidance of a local DJ to take down their rivals across the city, beating them in challenges, tagging up the city and avoiding or making murals out of police. Along the way, you fly through the air, grind up telephone poles and on rails, nailing sick tricks, using spray paint like a NOS boost. Everyone is always dancing, because the incredibly funky soundtrack—distinct in each district your characters explore—is always playing. The cell-shaded graphics and unique art style still pop nineteen years later and it’s a one-of-a-kind game. It’s mostly a breeze to play, but sometimes games can just be great because they’re fun.
Team Ninja’s 3D Ninja Gaiden reboot was re-released as Ninja Gaiden Black, but I’m putting the two of them here together. This was the most difficult game I played on the original Xbox, an acrobatic action adventure with puzzle platform elements and beautifully-choreographed combat. Players control Ryu Hayabusa, who becomes shortly after the game starts the last remaining member of the Hayabusa clan and village, and keeper of its heirloom Dragon Sword. His revenge mission sets him on the path to fight the demonic Greater Fiends of the Vigoor Empire, led by Lord Doku. Ninja Gaiden had beautiful graphics for its time, and was a difficult hack-and-slash game that combined familiar tropes with fantasy. Ninja Gaiden Sigma added some playable sections for tragic heroine Rachel, whose sister Alma is another Great Fiend leader. Ninja Gaiden Sigma is available on the Xbox Series X through the Ninja Gaiden Master Collection.
Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath
In OddWorld: Stranger’s Wrath, the fourth of the Oddworld series, players control an inhabitant of the titular fictional universe known only as the Stranger, a bounty hunter that travels through three towns run by the bird-like Clakkerz species before the reveals and twists set in. The Stranger is taking in bounties to pay for a surgery he needs, and uses as his primary weapon a crossbow that can be used with various types of “live ammunition,” which here doesn’t mean lead bullets, but rather small living animals. But, don’t worry, it’s a fantasy world; we can’t actually prove that any small magical animals were hurt in the creation of this videogame. The game is quirky and witty while still allowing players to take the character and his wild world seriously. Truly the mark of a great game.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was the last Splinter Cell game that was not released for the seventh generation of consoles, though not the last Splinter Cell game released for the sixth. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was the first Splinter Cell game where you could change full loadouts before missions, based on if you wanted to go in quiet or loud. Like Halo 2, its graphics were so great it seemed like it ought to be native to the Xbox 360. With a plot worthy of the military techno-thriller author whose name it bears, Chaos Theory was Xbox Magazine’s Game of the Year for 2005 for its lifelike graphics and strong gameplay. Among that gameplay was an expansion of the multiplayer introduced in Pandora Tomorrow; in addition to the Spy vs Mercenary third person-vs-first person mode, there was also a new co-op campaign with a team of Splinter Cell agents that communicate with each other throughout the game, and occasionally unknowingly cross paths with Splinter Cell protagonist Sam Fisher.
Deus Ex: Invisible War
Widely regarded as a disappointing sequel to the original Deus Ex by modern players of the prequels, Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, and poorly well-received by critics in its time, Deus Ex: Invisible War is an underappreciated great. Alongside fellow Ion Storm-Eidos release Thief: Deadly Shadows, it was a standout immersive sim for Xbox. Players control Alex D, a clone from the same program as Deus Ex protagonist JC Denton, who can be either male or female. The player moves through the morally-gray cyberpunk world of 2072, starting in Seattle before moving to Cairo, Trier, and Antarctica. Deus Ex: Invisible War was a standout on a console full of them, a hidden gem and underrated sequel that builds off the original game within the transhumanist themes, expansive choice-based world, and altered modification and skill systems. It was the last Deus Ex game made by the original team, and stands on its own merits as a great game with a labyrinthine world divided among competing factions in interconnected conflict, with distinct ideologies and paths through the overall story and the individual missions and quests. While fans of the original Deus Ex might have winced at some of the changes done to bring it in line with Xbox hardware, it was an eye-opener for some of us whose first major encounters with narrative design were on the Xbox.