Last week I made a list of my top 10 Gamecube games to commemorate the 10th anniversary of that system’s launch (P.S. haters – I didn’t like Pikmin. Deal with it.) but the Gamecube wasn’t the only system to launch in November of 2001: the original Xbox is also about to turn ten. While the original Xbox was always a distant second to the PS2, it’s still a very important system for a number of reasons: it laid the groundwork for the eventual success of the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, popularized traditionally PC-only genres such as FPS’s and Western RPG’s with console gamers, and arguably single-handedly legitimized and popularized Western game development and game design philosophy in the traditionally Japanese dominated console market.
While the word “Xbox” is arguably now as synonymous with gaming as “Playstation” or “Nintendo” are, the brand wasn’t always regarded as one of the “Big 3” of the console industry; the system, which began it’s life as a pet-project of several members of Microsoft’s PC-gaming focused Direct X team (the original codename of the console was the “Direct X Box,” later shortened to just “Xbox,) seemed to garner as much attention for it’s mammoth size as it’s hardware power when it was first unveiled. Both press and gamers were understandably skeptical of an American corporation trying to break into the traditionally Japan-centric console market: Atari, 3DO, Philips, and even Apple tried to compete with Nintendo and Sony and the previous generation and only ended up embarrassing themselves.
The original Xbox controller is notable for being the first controller capable of generating a gravitational field strong enough to rival most planets.
It certainly didn’t help the system’s original controller was, well, honestly kind of terrible. While it’s gained a sort of ironic, mocking appreciation in the last few years, there’s no denying that the original Xbox controller (better known as the “Fatty” or “The Duke,”) wasn’t very practical or comfortable, due its massive size, terrible d-pad, and weird, slanted button placement. “The Duke” eventually became one of the primary complaints lodged by detractors of the system, and while it was eventually remedied with the release of the far better, much smaller Controller S (which was originally only intended for release in Japan,) the original Xbox controller is still regarded as one of the bigger gaffes to occur in gaming history. When compared to the sleekness and comfort of the 360 controller (which, despite its terrible d-pad, is probably one of my favorite controllers ever,) the monstrous design of the original Xbox controller becomes even bizarre.
But despite the terrible controller and less than glowing press coverage before the system’s launch, Microsoft had an ace up it’s sleeve: Halo. While the system itself was well-designed and substantially more powerful than its direct competitors, killer exclusives are what sell systems, and it’s not unfair to say that the original Xbox sold primarily on the strength of Bungie’s pioneering shooter. While Goldeneye certainly helped, Halo is the game that’s rightfully credited with popularizing FPS’s on consoles. But the original Xbox did more than just introduce FPS’s to a new audience; it also served to legitimize Western developed games with console gamers, who, outside of sports and licensed games, had been raised on Japanese games. Developers that had previously made PC-only titles like Bioware and Bethesda made the jump over to consoles thanks to the PC-like ease of developing for the Xbox, while cutting edge PC games like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 were eventually successfully ported over to the system with only relatively minor compromises in visual quality, expanding the audience of these games beyond those who could afford (at the time) expensive gaming PC’s.
Then there was Xbox Live. While the original iteration of Live available on the Xbox pales in comparison to the modern XBL on 360, it was still a solid service that laid the groundwork for the online services that would eventually come to define the 360 and the PS3 (and hopefully, someday, a Nintendo system [zing]). While Sega, of course, deserves credit for pioneering online play with SegaNet on the Dreamcast, it was Xbox Live that once again popularized the concept with console gamers and set the standard for all other online services to follow.
But for all the changes that the Xbox spurred in the games industry, like any truly worthwhile console, it will always be remembered for its games first and foremost. While it never received the third party support or run-away popularity of the PS2, nor did it have the imaginative exclusives of Nintendo’s offerings on the Gamecube, the Xbox cultivated it’s own unique market of excellent mature and Western games that would serve as a preview of the generation to come. For better or worse,the Xbox undeniably set the “core” focused games industry on the path its on now.
Now, I’m sure you all want me to stop rambling incoherently about the history and influence of the system and get on with the list, so here it is: The top 10 original Xbox games (in no particular order):
Halo: Combat Evolved
I’ll start with Halo, since, like I stated earlier, its probably the reason why most people bought the Xbox in the first place. It’s hard to say anything about the game that hasn’t already been said, as I’m sure every major gaming website and publication has already given this game every award, every recommendation, and every positive adjective that can be given, and the only thing I can add to that is this: the original Halo: Combat Evolved deserves every single one word of praise it’s garnered in the last ten years, and with the upcoming release of Halo Anniversary, an HD remake of this very game, it’ll probably get even more praise and adoration, and you know what? It’ll still deserve it all.
…And of course, you can’t put Halo:Combat Evolved on a list like this without also reserving a spot for it’s sequel. Now, I have a confession to make: I think Halo 2 is the worst entry in the series. The multiplayer rewarded those who found the best weapons first instead of the best players, the graphics were pretty when they worked, but a lot of the time the textures would just fail to load properly and the game would look like an overly shiny, smeary mess, and it’s obvious that the campaign was cut short in order to have the game ship on time.
But y’know what? Even if I think it’s the worst entry in the series, that still makes it better than 95% of the other shooters out there. Despite how unbalanced certain weapons were, multiplayer was still an accessible, fast-paced experience that compensated for any balance issues it had by simply being fun, and the truncated campaign was still filled with memorable moments and tense firefights. Sure, Halo 2 never quite achieves the same highs as other games in the series, but despite that, even the low points in this game are better than most of the other crap that’s out there.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Well, if those last two paragraphs didn’t piss off any nerds, than this one will: The Star Wars “Expanded Universe” is crap. I love the original trilogy, but the “Expanded Universe” franchise of novels, sidestories, and comics that were supposed to fill in the rest of the Star Wars galaxy inspire more nerd rage in me than even the most egregious of unnecessary Blu-Ray edits. The Expanded Universe has done nothing but give us the backstories to minor characters that nobody asked for, and turned the lives of Luke, Leia, and Han into an increasingly embarrassing, contrived, and convoluted mess of fan-fiction quality writing.
But while the Expanded Universe has yielded a galaxy’s worth of daytime soap-quality story lines, it also gave us Bioware’s epic RPG, Knights of the Old Republic. KoTOR was notable for a lot of reasons: it had a deep combat system that rewarded players who tactically planned their moves and made full use of their allies’ abilities, and it was one of the first RPG’s on consoles to give players legitimate choices that affected the game’s outcome. But most of all, KoTOR is memorable because of it’s excellent story: with a cast of characters that’s just as memorable as any of the characters in the classic trilogy, and a plot twist that is genuinely surprising but also properly foreshadowed, KoTOR’s story had a level of quality that most people weren’t expecting from a game, much less one based in the vomit-inducing Star Wars Expanded Universe continuity. While I think Bioware’s later games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age have better gameplay, the story and characters in KoTOR remain the best that the company has ever produced.
Project Gotham Racing 2
The Xbox was home to a lot of great racing games, including the best versions of EA’s Need for Speed Underground series, as well as the first game in Microsoft’s ultra realistic Forza Motorsport series of racing sims (which, by the way, are better than Gran Turismo. Don’t argue, you know I’m right.) But while I liked both of those games, I absolutely loved Project Gotham Racing.
While having distinctly more arcade-like physics than Forza, PGR was still far from a casual game; while the ultimate goal most of the time was still to cross the finish line in first, PGR rewarded skill thanks to it’s “Kudo” system: by driving skillfully and using techniques like power-sliding around corners, drafting behind opponents, or overtaking them, players would earn “Kudos” that were needed to acquire new cars or advance through the game’s career mode. While racing games always reward the player who sticks to the most efficient line or drives the fastest, it was refreshing to see a game that rewarded players for driving with style instead of just speed.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
While Splinter Cell would eventually become a multiplatform title that would appear on every console, I will always think of it as an Xbox franchise; while the first round of Xbox 1 games were good looking at the time, the original Splinter Cell, with it’s at-the-time astounding lighting and physics effects, was the first game on the system that truly demonstrated the gulf in horsepower between the Xbox and it’s competition.
While all of the Splinter Cell games are hard, I feel that Chaos Theory was the best in the series at maintaining a healthy challenge while at the same time minimizing frustration; the level design in Sam Fisher’s third outing is arguably the most thoughtful and polished of the series, with the fewest instances of cheap deaths and unavoidable detections that plagued earlier entries in the series (especially the second game, Pandora Tomorrow).
But the best part of Chaos Theory wasn’t its excellent single player campaign, but its Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer mode. Spies vs. Mercs was unique in that each team of players had a completely different skillset: the spies played like Sam Fisher did in the single player campaign, with a third person viewpoint and a wide selection of gadgets and weapons to use. The Mercs, meanwhile, were limited to first person perspective but had more than enough firepower to compensate. Despite how different the two sides were, the game was surprisingly balanced, leading to tense matches that rewarded teamwork and genuine skill over twitch reflexes. It was a unique and brilliant multiplayer experience that’s never been recreated, and it’s absence in later Splinter Cell games still continues to perplex series fans.
When I was a kid, me and my older brother would rent NES games from the shady Asian video store in town and try to beat them before the rental’s due date came up. We played through a good deal of the NES’s library, but I don’t think we ever beat Ninja Gaiden. While I possessed the skill to beat Ninja Gaiden’s supposedly hard contemporaries like Mega Man 2 or Castlevania, I could never get to the end of any of Ryu Hayabusa’s 2D adventures. It was a very humbling experience.
It was a feeling that I would again relive upon playing Team Ninja’s 2004 reboot of the franchise. While the new game was obviously prettier (and still very good looking, even by today’s standards,) the new Ninja Gaiden retained all the elements that made the original game so memorable: tight controls, a completely nonsensical storyline, and most of all, a completely masochistic and cruel difficulty curve. Ninja Gaiden is a game so hard that the developers openly acknowledge that most people won’t be able to play it, and y’know what? They don’t care. You can (and probably will) die in the game’s tutorial level, and the only thing faster than Ryu’s ninjitsu is the rate at which you’ll rack up Game Overs. If you’re enough of a gaming savant to handle it (or simply just a masochist,) Ninja Gaiden will reward your dedication and patience with some of the deepest and most rewarding fights you’ll ever experience in a video game.
Dead or Alive Ultimate
While Team Ninja’s action game usually gets all the accolades, their fighting game series, Dead or Alive, is just as deserving of your time. While the game has an admittedly deserved reputation for being a fanservice game filled with cheesecake shots of imaginary women, there’s actually a pretty deep fighting system buried beneath the game’s double-D veneer, and the series has actually spawned a pretty active, if small, tournament community who’ve proven that the game is a legitimate, competitive fighter that takes actual reflexes and strategy to play properly.
While DoA is already in it’s fourth iteration on the 360, the second game is widely regarded as the series’ peak, and DoA Ultimate is a remake of that fan-favorite game. This version of the game adds in Xbox-quality visuals to modernize the game beyond it’s original Dreamcast roots, as well as adding a slew of extra features, such as new costumes (sure to please the game’s male [read:pervert] audience) and also adds in DoA 3’s Hitomi as a playable character.
Early on in the Xbox’s lifespan, Microsoft tried to push the character of Blinx onto gaming audiences. Nintendo had succeeded thanks to the popularity of Mario, and Sega sold the Genesis on the strength of Sonic, and even Sony once positioned Crash Bandicoot as the direct competitor to Nintendo and Sega’s icons, so Microsoft had hoped to use their time-altering cat character as a similar trojan horse in order to get their new system into the hands of kids across the country. Unfortunately, Blinx wasn’t a very good game, and nobody cared about Microsoft’s new “mascot.” Fortunately, the market had moved beyond the point of the need for “mascots” and the system managed to succeed without one.
But while the Xbox (and the gaming industry at large,) managed to move on beyond character based platformers, there were some (including me) who still loved playing through a traditional run and jump game, and thankfully, DoubleFine Studios thought so too, so they created Psychonauts, which is easily one of the best platformers to not have “Mario” in the title ever made.
Psychonauts is noteworthy because of how simply creative and imaginative it is; set in a summer camp for psychic kids, the levels in Psychonauts are manifestations of the psyches of the camp’s inhabitants. The inside of a man with a Napoleonic Complex’s mind looks like a literal Napoleonic-era battleground, while the mind of a paranoid delusional is filled with G-Men and cow abducting UFO’s. The cleverness also extends to the game’s story and dialogue, which makes Psychonauts one of the rare examples of a game being funny intentionally. You’ll enjoy Psychonauts for its solid, creative platforming, but you’ll remember it always for its hilarious story.
Doom 3 is a game that shouldn’t exist on the Xbox. When the game was initially released on the PC it had such steep minimum system requirements that only people with the newest graphic cards and fastest processors could play it, and when developer id announced that they were porting the game to Xbox, people thought that it wouldn’t be possible without a massive visual downgrade.
They were wrong. While the Xbox version of Doom 3 obviously suffers some concessions in order to get it to run on the aging Xbox hardware, the downgrades are mostly minor and negligible. For the most part, the game still had all the intense lighting, the detailed, normal-mapped textures, and all the other fancy graphical effects that made the PC version such a technical showcase, and it made absolutely no sacrifices in regards to the game’s simple but tense gameplay. Making your way through Mars was just as atmospheric and terrifying on Xbox as it was on PC, and while the game wasn’t as revolutionary or influential as some of its contemporaries like Half-Life 2 (also available on Xbox 1, but not listed on here since you’re better off buying The Orange Box on 360,) Doom 3 is still a completely worthwhile and fun experience in its own right.
Panzer Dragoon Orta
The original Panzer Dragoon was the game that made me want want a Sega Saturn back in 1995. It was beautiful, a showcase of both technical and artistic skill, and while at it’s heart it wasn’t much deeper than Star Fox or Sega’s own classic Space Harrier, the ability to shoot in 360 degrees around your character added an extra layer of depth that made the game feel new and innovative.
When Panzer Dragoon Orta was announced for the original Xbox, I once again felt many of those same sentiments. While Halo was the game that motivated everybody else to buy Microsoft’s new console, Panzer Dragoon Orta was the game that sold me on the system. While the game was obviously using hardware that allowed for far more realistic and detailed graphics than its Sega Saturn predecessor, it still retained the same abstract style and distinct personality of the original game, while managing to deliver a more polished and challenging game play experience. The game remains one of the best post-Dreamcast games that Sega has ever produced, and even today can be looked to as an example of how to create an artistic, emotionally inspiring game without being preachy or pretentious.