Back when Microsoft announced that it would be joining the fray against Sony and Nintendo in the console wars, no one was skeptical of the company’s ability to make a compelling machine, but we were definitely more than a bit pessimistic about the Redmond company’s ability to stick around in the industry.
After all, this was on the heels of the failure of Sega’s vaunted Dreamcast console (arguably one of Sega’s most competent efforts ever) and, as the thinking goes, if Sega could not survive, what does the maker of Windows know about games? It turns out that they know quite a bit and the Xbox brand has not only stuck around for years, but also has become a pillar of the modern console arrangement.
As the first console in the lineup, the initial Xbox is legendary for its technology and its games. This is the console that brought PC classics like Morrowind no less. In crafting a top 10 games list, I decided to leave out ports and I also tried to limit each series to one per game.
That is why you will not see Shenmue II (and you know how much I love it) on this list or multiple Halo games. Crafting this list was hard enough, without the added burden of ranking individual games within a broader spectrum.
As Halo is well-known and Shenmue II is available on other venues, I decided it was best to keep this an Xbox show and I am sticking with originals. Without further ado, here are the 10 best original Xbox games:
(Affiliate Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that – at no additional cost to you – if you click through and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. For more info, please check my affiliate disclosure page.)
10. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (developed and published by Ubisoft in 2004)
The Tom Clancy novels are known for their high-stakes geopolitics and penchant for action as well as a bit of adventure and romance. Splinter Cell is the spec ops sub-brand of the wider Tom Clancy universe and, as such, deals with espionage and shadow gamesmanship between the nations of the world.
As Sam Fisher, you are tasked with unraveling a gigantic global conspiracy that stretches from East Timor to the Caucasian republic of Georgia as this stealth action game delivers hours of compelling gameplay as well as a gripping yarn worthy of the Tom Clancy name. Naturally, the graphics, controls, and sound are all top-notch and this game really shows you just how powerful the Xbox was in comparison to the PlayStation 2.
9. Spider-Man 2 (developed by Treyarch, published by Activision in 2004)
Games based on movies do not really have a good rep among most of us that have played games for a while now. There is a lot of hard evidence to back up that sentiment, too, as most ports of films to games just do not work out for one reason or another. Spider-Man 2, however, is not that kind of game and is a masterpiece based upon the film of the same name.
Released in 2004 and developed by the legendary Treyarch, this was the era before Spider-Man became a Sony property. Interestingly, the quality of then is mirrored in the most recent title on the PlayStation 4 and you can expect a lot of the same gameplay and action in this title – albeit, shrunk down to the graphical capabilities of the Xbox.
If you are looking for a great superhero game or even proof that movies do turn into good games every once in a while, look no further than Activision’s take on the Spider-Man 2 film for Xbox.
8. Ninja Gaiden (developed by Team Ninja, published by Tecmo in 2004)
This is not your grandfather’s Ninja Gaiden and I would know. It is not like the NES titles were not hard as heck or that the original trilogy does not still hold up today as a testament to great game design and frustrating, but rewarding difficulty. Tecmo’s 2004 game for the Xbox, a reboot according to the company, is not only a worthy heir to the original’s name but, in many ways, is way harder than the original titles could have ever imagined themselves.
Like the original, this game is beautiful. The graphics are lush and detailed and all of this is underpinned by a control scheme that is familiar, accessible, and on point. Nonetheless, this game will own you and you will have to sink hours upon hours into it in order to finish.
Even then, you will still face some challenge from its unforgiving but oh-so-sweet gameplay. That is probably why this title keeps reappearing in some form or the other over the years because it is just that good.
7. Forza Motorsport (developed by Turn 10 Studios, published by Microsoft Game Studios in 2005)
Arcade-inspired racers made a serious comeback during the Xbox/PS2 era and the reason for that is Forza Motorsport and games like it. Do not get me wrong: Titles like Gran Turismo are great but they are overwhelming for those who are not hardcore racing fans.
Some of us do not need the endless simulation aspects that game offers and, for that audience, there is Forza Motorsport. Rocking some of the most gorgeous graphics on the Xbox, Forza Motorsport looks right at home in today’s game lineup and has aged incredibly well.
Put this together with some solid mechanics that are as tight and pinpoint accurate now as then and you can easily see why this is a winning formula for the Xbox.
6. Project Gotham Racing 2 (developed by Bizarre creations, published by Microsoft Game Studios in 2003)
Another awesome arcade-style racer, Project Gotham Racing 2 not only featured a really awesome single-player mode but also had a fun, though rudimentary, online multiplayer mode.
Not necessarily a rarity for its day, PGR2’s ease of access and relative barrierless online gaming made it a new experience for many gamers who had either never played a game online before or who had not played a racing game online.
In this way, PGR2 did more than most series to recreate the feel of the arcades – especially with the kudos system. This was a ranking system online where you could online go up in rank, not down, which made PGR2 that much more of a joyride instead of a permanent commitment.
5. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (developed by Rockstar North, published by Rockstar Games in 2004)
The GTA series might be known for being a PlayStation 2 powerhouse but the San Andreas installment made a powerful showing on the Xbox and, in many ways, is the definitive version of the game. From the hot coffee controversy to the endless antics you can engage in as a resident of this twisted version of southern California, San Andreas is like GTA III and Vice City but offers a lot more of everything.
Whether you envision yourself a criminal mastermind, just want to see the sights, there is more stuff to do in San Andreas than most games even today. Put all of this together with an awesome soundtrack and a sandbox style of gameplay mechanics that lets you do what you will and you have got an instant classic.
Why it was special on the Xbox was because the Xbox did not shudder at delivering GTA: San Andreas’ sometimes taxing graphics and, unlike the PS2, the Xbox was more than equipped to handle the game without a struggle. A true titan on the PS2, San Andreas on the Xbox was just another massive, triple-A title and it shows in the gameplay’s smooth execution and timeless feel.
4. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (developed and published by Ubisoft in 2003)
A classic side-scrolling game for the PC back in the day, The Sands of Time is a reboot of that concept (of sorts) but relies upon unique mechanics that would later become overdone in video games. Namely, I am talking about the titular “Sands of Time’ which have the ability to slow down time and reverse an action you just took.
Remember those pit deaths you would suffer in the original PC game? Now you can rewind that action and try again. But do not worry: The Prince of Persia still lives up to his title as the action accommodates and changes around this central mechanic.
What do I mean by that? Mainly you will have to use it to solve puzzles, but there are also some combat scenarios that will require you to make use of the time element in order to succeed. Basically, nothing is a gimmick in this game and you will be forced to master its elements in order to proceed. Just like every other good game on this list.
3. Halo 2 (developed by Bungie, published by Microsoft Game Studios in 2004)
The sequel to the game that introduced Microsoft’s console to the world, Halo 2 is perhaps the perfect single-player FPS as well as the ideal multiplayer game. It is hard to decide which aspect to focus on for this review, but trust me when I say that both are equally legendary. The single player is as epic as a Star Wars film and as addictive as a DOOM title. Graphically a gem, Halo 2 really pushes the Xbox hardware and it shows. Standing out as the most beautiful FPS of that console generation, Halo 2 does not slouch in any other department, not least of which is the soundtrack. Of all of the games on this list, however, it is Halo 2’s multiplayer that solidified the series’ reputation as the go-to FPS game back in the day. From its compelling game modes to its lovingly crafted, iconic arenas, Halo 2 is a legend and a template for modern developers looking to emulate what is the best about the gaming industry. The title that made non-Xbox fans believers, Halo 2 is a title for the ages and one that showed the world, without the shadow of a doubt, that Microsoft’s foray into video games was no idle diversion.
2. Burnout 3: Takedown (developed by Criterion Games, published by EA Games in 2004)
The series that rewards you for risky driving, Burnout 3 continues the Xbox’s drive (pun intended) to deliver the best arcade racing games of its era. Rewarded for risky driving through the boost mechanic, Burnout 3 comes from Criterion Games, and introduces a new “Road Rage” mode, which incentivizes the player taking out as many other players as possible, in a limited amount of time.
Releasing to absolute praise, when it came out in 2004, Burnout 3 was considered by many gamers then and now to be the best arcade racing game of all time. What makes it so much more compelling than some other titles is that it strips away all excess and simulation and leaves you with nothing more than pure racing madness. The perfect pick-up-and-play title – or ideal for long gaming sessions – Burnout 3 will not burn you out with its gameplay.
OddWorld: Stranger’s Wrath (developed by Oddworld Inhabitants, published by EA Games in 2005)
A change of pace for the OddWorld franchise, Stranger’s Wrath hones in on the title’s character, the Stranger, who goes around arresting outlaws and which uses first and third-person perspectives to offer up gameplay that varies between action-adventure, platforming, and a shooting title.
Jade Empire (developed by Bioware, published by Microsoft Game Studios in 2005)
If you want to know why Bioware is legendary among RPG gamers, Jade Empire will help clue you in to that sentiment. A massive epic that takes the atmosphere of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and grand sagas, Jade Empire offers a unique, martial arts-based combat system and a lush world, filled to the brim with colorful characters, vistas, and an engrossing tale worthy of the best.
Beyond Good and Evil (developed and published by Ubisoft in 2003)
Envisioned as a first in a trilogy, Beyond Good and Evil is at times an action-adventure title and at others a stealth game with deep puzzle-solving elements. Presented in a cinematic style that is underscored by the Ubisoft Pictures development team attached to it, BGAE’s tale of a young photo journalist and a resistance movement in a sci-fi setting makes it a game that needs a sequel but is unlikely to ever see one.
Ready for number one? And the winner is… An old acquaintance:
1. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (developed by Bioware, published by LucasArts in 2003)
Another Bioware masterpiece, Knights of the Old Republic takes us to a time “before” the original film trilogy and opens us up to a world that is both familiar – Jedi and the like – and vastly different (a Sith empire, among others). We get to see where the conventions we take for granted come to be, and we are allowed to explore a universe markedly different, from that we know.
Nonetheless, everything is illuminating, everything is as we expect, and it is all absolutely glorious. Few eras of the Star Wars mythos have as much of a rich history as the Old Republic, and this game takes full advantage of the liberties provided by that in terms of gameplay mechanics and roleplaying options. It is like a good book, a compelling movie, and an addictive video game – all in one package.
So retro folks, what do you think? Are there any games that are not on this list that you would add? Any games you would switch out? Please Tell me why and let me know what you think in general in the comments section below.
Till next retro list!