The sixth generation of consoles was one of the most pivotal generations of all when it comes to where gaming is today. It’s where a lot of today’s major franchises were established, where online console gaming gained prominence, and where digital game distribution spawned, to name a few. Perhaps its biggest addition to gaming, though, was Microsoft’s introduction to the console gaming market. This would be the first time in a long time that a major corporation would make a significant investment in the space, and, to this day, it has been one of the last.
Microsoft made bold, costly moves that grew the gaming space in a large way. The inclusion of a hard drive pushed console games technically further than they had been before and allowed for the first ever digital App Store with Xbox Live Arcade, predating even the iPhone App Store. The risky decision to include a broadband internet port, despite a small percentage of homes having broadband at the time, gave birth to Xbox Live, forever changing how we play games. They did face some tough competition, though. The sales king was the PlayStation 2, a console that would go on to be the best selling console of all time. With those insane sales came a lot of games. In fact, with a whopping 4489 games published, the PS2 is also the console, historically, with the most games ever (by a factor of nearly 2X!). So it goes without saying that, when most people look back at that generation’s games, the number one thing that comes to mind is just how great the PS2’s library was, and those records rightfully speak for themselves.
However, the Xbox was able to pack an incredible punch considering its short four year lifespan and how new Microsoft was to the gaming industry. In fact, there were more 90+ rated games on Metacrtic released for the original Xbox during its short four years than the first four years of the PS4 and Xbox One COMBINED (this is not counting re-releases of past gen games). This is a feat that is pretty outstanding on its own, but it is given even more gravitas given that this was Microsoft’s first ever console (these scores are included with each game’s header for reference). I would argue that the best exclusive games from the original Xbox could go toe to toe with the best exclusive games of any console in the 9th generation. A bold statement, I know, and so to back up that argument, allow me to present to you what I believe to be the Top Twenty Original Xbox Exclusives.
A quick note before jumping in, my only rules I had in making this list was to choose only one game from a franchise (with one very obvious and worthy exception) and I am also considering any game that launched on PC as well to be an exclusive, along with any game that came out first on Xbox. Although this is a personal list, it is heavily weighted on critical reception, which is why the Metacritic score is shared with each entry.
I know I said that everything in this list is heavily weighted by critical reception, yet here we begin with a big yellow square that stands out like a sore thumb. Because, when it comes to Breakdown, it is 100% my opinion. I love this game, but I recognize its greatness is not universal. Breakdown is a first person action adventure game from Namco. It was exclusive to the original Xbox and was actually one of the last games developed and published by them before their merger with Bandai.
In Breakdown, you play as Derrick Cole, an ex-soldier who wakes up in an experimental lab with no memory of his past. After a brief tutorial of the game’s cinematic first person controls, you are fed a poisoned cheeseburger and are nearly killed by soldiers who have begun to storm the facility. Just before they execute you, though, you are rescued by Alex Hendrickson, who says she is someone from your past. Throughout the game you come to find out that Japanese scientists have discovered an ancient alien race known as the T’Lan and that a substance gathered from them, called T’Langen, was injected into test subjects in order to grant them super human abilities…and you were one of those subjects. As with all mad science experiments in video games, everything goes horribly wrong, and now you have to fight your way to the truth while facing soldiers, T’lan warriors, and the mysterious Solus who seems to be the reason for all of this chaos.
The game’s story is a bit wonky in a Metal Gear sort of way, and it gets even crazier and weirder than the brief bit I just mentioned, but overall I really enjoyed it. Metal Gear was a clear influence on this title as shown by how it’s very much framed like a movie, with a preview sequence to start the game and a pre-game credit sequence, which at the time had been popularized by Metal Gear Solid; the main character, Derrick Cole, is clearly inspired by snake as well. However, what really makes Breakdown stand out is how committed the team at Namco was to having the entire game play out in first person. I’m not just talking about the first person shooting, which admittedly is not very good, or the first person fighting, which is VERY fun and the real reason this game is loved by so many. I’m instead talking about the little things, like when you pick up ammo in Breakdown, Cole will pick up a gun from the floor, take out the magazine, and chuck the empty gun back on the floor. To regain health in Breakdown, Cole will put a coin into a vending machine, choose a beverage, bend over to pick it up, pop open the can, and start chugging.
Does it get tedious after a while? Yes. Was Namco a tad overambitious resulting in a clunky experience? Yes. But the game has such a unique style that it’s forever burned into my memory as one of my favorite original Xbox exclusives, so there was no chance it was not going to make this list, regardless of its review score. It’s also backwards compatible on Xbox one and Series consoles, so give it a shot! I mean, come on, when is the last time you ate a cheeseburger in first person!
#19 Amped 2
Amped 2 is the sequel to Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding, an original Xbox launch title in 2001. It was developed by Indie Built, formally known as Access Software, who before Xbox was mostly known for being the curators of Microsoft’s successful PC golf game series, “Links.” Despite creating FIFTEEEN golf games before Microsoft’s jump into the console gaming market, Indie Built was able to release a standout snowboarding title for the Xbox, something that was easier said than done given the fact that the extreme sports genre in the early 2000s was extremely oversaturated. It was able to stand out by striking a nice balance between realism and arcade, including some lite RPG elements and an emphasis on progressing through the media circuit instead of just making it from the top of the mountain to the bottom. All of that and more was greatly expanded upon just two years later with the release of what some claim to be the best snowboarding game of all time, Amped 2.
The game itself plays a lot more like Tony Hawk Pro Skater than it does a standard snowboarding game where each mountain has a series of objectives to complete, and the more you can accomplish, the more your reputation will grow, which will in turn let you level up your boarder’s skill and unlock more mountains to shred. Progress far enough and you will unlock exciting Events, Ala Forza Horizon, which change up the game play by pitting you against other boarders in best-of-three runs. They game offers a lot of customization for your character and a bunch of different mountains to board on, with each mountain having several starting points to change how you will approach each slope. What helps stand the test of time is the innovative, for the time, control scheme, where all of your grabs are controlled by the thumb-sticks instead of the face buttons, which is a lot more intuitive in my opinion. The press also plays a big role as specific areas of each slope will have camera people waiting for you to perform your best moves for bonus points. This mechanic adds a sense of pressure to some tricks, making it really satisfying when you pull off big combos in front of the cameras, and it also doubles as a way to help easily find the most lucrative ways down the slope.
Amped 2, to this day, still ranks as one of the best snowboarding games to ever release. The graphics, as with all Xbox games during the generation, were excellent. The game play was tight, and it offered a real sense of progression that most extreme sports games lacked during that era. Seeing the real world videos you can unlock of snowboarders talking about what it felt like to hit the same career milestones as your created character was a really nice touch. The sound track is packed with angsty teenage millennial punk music, which I loved at the time (I still do). It’s a great early example of a development team being told to make the same type of game over and over and then finally being free to do something else.
#18 ODDWORLD: Strangers Wrath
Oddworld: Strangers Wrath is an action adventure game developed by Oddworld Inhabitants and directed by Lorne Lanning. Strangers Wrath is the 4th game in the Oddworld series and the second one to be exclusive to Xbox. This game is quite a departure from the puzzle platform nature of the previous games as this is much more action oriented. You play as “The Stranger,” a bounty hunter who resides in Oddworld’s take on a spaghetti western town, trying to collect bounties as a means to pay for a mysterious surgery that he desperately needs. As a bounty hunter, you take on contracts from the inhabitants of various towns. Armed with a crossbow, you will track and hunt down your targets to reap the rewards.
However, even though this is the ol’ west and everyone else is packing heat, the stranger doesn’t use no guns, instead opting for one of the coolest weapons in gaming: his crossbow. This is no ordinary crossbow; instead of firing arrows, you will use “Live Ammunition,” aka capturing various critters from the environment and shooting them at the bad guys. These critters all have unique properties, such as a chipmunk that acts as a distraction, a spider that shoots immobilizing webs, or a shock beetle that shoots electricity capable of blowing up barrels or interacting with various switches in the environment, among many, many more. Given that your enemies outnumber you AND are armed to the teeth, you will have to smartly use these unique crossbow bolts in various ways and combos to clear these encounters as running and gunning will get you killed. This leads to some very puzzle-like shooting encounters, where you are constantly trying to figure out the best way to tackle each situation. But be careful not to go too crazy with the live ammunition as each enemy is worth more if you bring them back alive.
During traversal, the game switches to third person, which, aside from offering some pretty fun platforming, gives you a good view at the games graphics that were definitely a showpiece at the time. What stands out the most, though, is just how unique and creative the world is, which is kind of a calling card for Oddworld games. From the different ammo types animating in the crossbow to the steampunk-spaghetti western aesthetic, there is just a lot to love about this game. The characters are also pretty well written and entertaining, and although it starts off slow, the story is quite good with a REALLY awesome twist that I wont spoil here.
Overall, this was a fantastic late release in the Xbox’s life with a ton of unique game play mechanics and an interesting world.
MechAssault is a spin-off of the Mech Warrior franchise of PC games built specifically for the Xbox by Day 1 Studios and FASA Studios. The game elegantly transferred the complex PC controls to the console and created a more arcade-y feeling experience vs its Mech Warrior brethren. People often forget that Microsoft Game studios actually pre-dates the Xbox console, and along with the popular Links golf series of games that spawned Amped, its Mech Warrior series of games was also extremely popular on the PC. With a built-in audience, MechAssault had a pretty successful launch on the Xbox, but It was not until it was added as a pack-in game to the brand new Xbox Live Starter Kit that it really took off.
MechAssault was one of the first killer apps for Xbox Live, and it’s not hard to see why. It had fun, fast-paced combat that had more in common with a third person shooter than it did a clunky Mech game of the past. It was the first game I got hooked on when I got Xbox Live, and I have vivid memories of maining the Belial Mech and hanging on the back-lines with the long range Gauss cannons and sniping the stronger but slower Prometheus and mad cat Mechs that were more commonly chosen by other players. The game was a graphical showpiece at the time with fairly large open maps that were often compared to some of the levels in Halo: Combat Evolved and were also nearly fully destructible, something that was very uncommon on console until the Xbox. The game has a serviceable story and challenging combat arenas which serve as a good way to test out the vast array of different Mechs before jumping into online multiplayer.
FASA studios and Day 1 shipped over a million copies of MechAssault, making it one of the top 100 bestselling games of the generation. It was a standout game in its time and, hopefully, like many titles on this list, that franchise can return to the limelight soon.
#16 JET SET RADIO FUTURE
Jet Set Radio Future is a pseudo-sequel to one of the better games on the Sega Dreamcast, Jet Grind Radio. Radio Future was Developed by Smilebit, a studio that was quite a prolific developer on the original Xbox, releasing 3 very good exclusive games. I call it a pseudo-sequel because it is more of a retelling or remix of the original game instead of a pure sequel. In the game you take control of a member of the GG’s, a pack of roller skating graffiti artists who are fighting for freedom of expression against a monolithic corporation known as the Rokkaku group.
The game released in February, 2002, but was perhaps obtained by most people when it came bundled with the Xbox along with Sega GT 2002 later that year. This was what came with my first Xbox, and, likewise, JSRF was the first game I played. As someone who was obsessed with Tony Hawk on the PS1 before getting an Xbox, I thought this game was just a Japanese version of that. It’s not; I would argue its gameplay is far superior, actually. In Jet Set, before you jump in, you do select a skater among several with different stats, similar to Tony Hawk. But that’s about where the comparison ends. Jet Set takes a totally different approach to skating. Where Tony Hawk puts an emphasis on performing tricks to accumulate points, the skating in Jet Set is more about navigation and platforming. The levels become more and more vertical as you progress, and the challenge really comes from finding the best way to reach your objective by finding rails to grind on or walls to wall ride.
Jet set is also an Action game, but instead of being armed with guns or swords, you are armed with spray paint. Tagging walls is how you increase your gang’s reputation, which unlocks new levels and skaters, but it’s also how you will fight enemies. Early on, you tag enemy gangs back to defeat them, but as you gain notoriety with the Rokkaku Group, you will soon end up fighting police forces and tanks, and even partake in boss battles. The game takes place in a fictional recreation of Tokyo, called “Tokyo-to,” that is beautifully realized with some of the best cel-shading ever seen at the time, and it still holds up today. Choosing to go with a cel-shaded graphical style really puts the emphasis on art style over polygon count, and the team at Smilebit was very creative with their level design, allowing each stage to be very distinguished from the rest. In fact, outside of the game’s resolution, Jet Set Radio Future would not graphically stand out like a sore thumb even today, which is quite an accomplishment.
If one thing in the game can stand up to the great visuals, it’s the soundtrack. DJ Professor K runs the underground pirate radio station, the titular Jet Set Radio, and is spinning an incredible mix of electronic music and J-Pop, the likes of which have literally been stuck in my head since 2002. This was my introduction into the world of Xbox, and I would not have traded it for any other game. I would love to see this game running at 4k 60 HDR on an OLED!
#15 Jade Empire
Jade Empire is an RPG by the critically acclaimed studio, BioWare. BioWare had been making critically acclaimed RPGs before the original Xbox, but once the Xbox arrived, it finally provided them with a console platform that had the power to match their ambition for world building and storytelling. The Xbox was commonly a jumping-in point for developers and franchises that had since been PC only; it’s part of what made the console so great. Jade Empire was not BioWare’s first exclusive RPG on the console, but it was the first RPG they had released that was set in their own original universe, as previous titles have all borrowed from both the Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars IPs. They clearly didn’t take this opportunity to build their own world lightly as they crafted a beautiful rendition of mythological China. Going as far as to reach out to the language department at the University of Alberta to contract a Linguist Master’s student to construct the game’s fictional language, Tho Fan. That student, Wolf Wlkeley, drafted an entire alphabet and over 2500 words which were used for translating the English script to Tho Fan. This insane level of detail added to the immersion for some and likely went completely unnoticed by others, but it is a perfect microcosm for how much passion went into creating this fantastic RPG.
In Jade Empire you choose a starting character that fits your play style, and you take the role of a promising young pupil at a martial arts academy in ancient China. After your small village is attacked by bandits led by an assassin with mythical powers, it is revealed to you that your past has been kept hidden from you since birth and that you are destined to save the world. Sure, when its summarized like that it sound quite generic, but what makes it unique is the setting, writing, and characters; I mean Nathan Fillion is among the voice cast, for crying out loud! There are also moral choices you get to make that have pretty drastic outcomes, with the “evil” ending to the game being one of the most evil endings in any game, but I’ll leave that for you to see for yourself.
What separates Jade Empire from BioWare RPGs of the past, outside of the setting, is the combat. Jade Empire is a precursor to Mass Effect, where BioWare switched from a turn-based, tactical combat system to a real-time action one. It’s not the smoothest 3D brawling combat in the world, but it is fun. Switching to different fighting styles on the fly adds an element of strategy, and the animations are quite satisfying. Jumping round house kicking an opponent’s shields to smithereens never gets old.
Jade Empire is backwards compatible on Xbox One and is enhanced for One X and Series X!
#14 Top Spin
Top Spin is a tennis simulation game that launched as part of Microsoft’s XSN sports platform in 2003, and it is developed by PAM Development and Indie Built, the makers of the Amped Series. This game received near universal praise for its graphics and presentation during its release as there was nothing like it at the time. This is somewhat of a common trend for all Xbox first party releases as it was just out of the ordinary for one console to be so far ahead of the competition in terms of its power and tools. The graphics were clearly the appetizer that got people to jump in, but what kept them glued to the clay was the games very acutely tuned AI. As you progress through the RPG-Lite Career mode, unlocking new gear and invites to bigger events, your pro rank increases, and with that the enemy AI skill increases as well, which is expected. However, you never feel that massive spike in difficulty that often comes out of nowhere in games with scaling difficulties; the matches always seem evenly paced.
That is until you jump into online multiplayer. Top Spin is such an unassuming game at face value, but anyone with a copy of Top Spin and an Xbox Live subscription from 2003-2005 knows that Top Spin was one of the most ruthlessly competitive games on the service. Fighting games at the time were still finding their footing in terms of online net code, but Top Spin was flawless in that department. The game gave you the options to use the face buttons to reliably hit the ball in various ways, or the triggers to do a very difficult mini-game to hit the ball with greater power, and this was essential in creating that skill gap that drove competition. There is also the the 1v1 or 2v2 nature of tennis which, similar to fighting games, did its part to bring out the most fierce competitors online. I never got to ascend to the top of the leaderboards myself, but I had the pleasure of watching my friends reach the top 100 in doubles in their mom’s basement, and it was glorious.
#13 Fable: The Lost Chapters
Fable is an action adventure game from Lionhead studios. It was somewhat an attempt to capture the magic of the Zelda games on the Nintendo GameCube, but, at the same time, it carved its own niche with its fairy tale setting and sense of humor. In addition to its original release, Lionhead also released The Lost Chapters as an expansion of the original game, which adds a ton of new quests and really fleshes out some of the characters; it is for sure the definitive way to experience this game on the original Xbox and was how I played it. Fable: The Lost Chapters was Microsoft’s swan song for the original Xbox generation, ending up as being one of the best games on the console while coming out just a month before the 360 would explode onto the scene.
You play as a character only referred to as “The Hero,” and, like most heroes, you come from small beginnings. At the start of the game, you play as the child version of yourself waking up to find out that you forgot your sister’s birthday and must do various tasks around town to get enough money to buy her a present. As you go about doing these odd jobs, you often have the opportunity to do them in various ways that all fall on opposite ends of the morality scale. Do you tell a woman you found her husband cheating? Or do you keep it a secret as he’s offering you some gold? There are all kinds of decisions like this you must make throughout the game, and they all have varying degrees of impact on how events will play out in both the present and in the future. Your decisions will also impact how people in the world will react to you. The morality system is so deep, in fact, that doing lots of good deeds or bad deeds could actually change your physical appearance: maybe you will sprout devil horns or dawn a halo over your head like an angel. This type of system may have existed before, but Fable really took it to the next level.
Eventually, after getting enough gold to buy your sister a present (aka completing the games tutorial), your village is attacked, and you are the soul survivor, rescued by a man in charge of the Guild of Heroes. He takes you under his wing, and you then train to become a hero yourself while learning about the game’s trinity approach to combat where you have 3 main skill lines that impact melee weapons, ranged weapons, and spells. You can lean into your favorite way to play, but you always have access to all three, which keeps the fights engaging. Soon after your time at the academy, you grow into adulthood, and you are off to journey into Albion where you will go on lots of quests, meet lots of hilarious NPCs, and find out exactly what happened back when you were a child.
Although it never did become the rival to Zelda it was envisioned to be, it is a game that warmed the hearts of many while birthing two sequels and soon getting a long awaited reboot on Xbox Series X.
#12 The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
Even movie tie-in games were great on the original Xbox! Developed by Starbeeze Studios, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is to this day one of, if not the, finest games based on a film franchise of all time. In the game you play as the titular Riddick, who is taken to the titular Butcher Bay prison facility by a bounty hunter. The warden clearly has a history with Riddick, and they are definitely not friends. Staying in Butcher Bay is a death sentence, so Riddick must use his cunning and supernatural prowess to find a way out.
The developers make the most out of having access to the film IP by creating one of the most cinematic experiences of the entire generation. You have Hollywood-esc cinematography in terms of how cut-scenes are shot and how dialogue is delivered, and you have a Hollywood-tier musical score with a star-studded cast featuring Vin Deisel, reprising his role from the Riddick films, along with Cole Houser, Ron Pearlman, Michael Rooker and even Xzibit of Pimp My Ride fame. The cast delivers excellent voice performances that are of among some of the best you will see across all games of that generation. On top of that, those performances are significantly amplified by the fact that the 3D character models were some of the most life-like in gaming up to that point. The cinematic presentation stands toe to toe with most of the games we would see throughout the generation that preceded it; it’s phenomenal work by Starbreeze.
As a new inmate at Butcher Bay, you are low on the totem pole and must work your way through the inmate hierarchy to gather the resources you need to plan your escape. A good deed here might lead to acquiring a shank there and a shanked prisoner might lead to an opportunity for escape. The situation at Butcher Bay continues to escalate as you make your way through the 8-hour campaign, which is delivered at such a good pace that I beat it in one sitting the first time I played.
The game-play plays out almost entirely in first person. Stealth sections, melee combat sections, and shooting sections are all done from Riddick’s perspective; you are only taken out of first person when having a conversation or doing some form of traversal, like climbing a ladder. The sound effects are very weighty and satisfying, and the encounters are really fun, especially some of the boss fights. Something else Starbreeze did to help increase the cinematic feel of the game was to have almost no HUD. Something that was one of the most praised aspects in Dead Space was actually done four years earlier in Riddick. Outside of a minimalist health bar at the top of the screen, all pertinent information is delivered to you in-universe. Ammo counters are on your gun, you can tell you are hidden by a blue hue on the screen, healing is done via injection stations that trigger a cut-scene, etc. It really feels like this is what Breakdown, the game ranked 20th overall on this list, was trying to achieve but fell short, as Riddick is just so immersive in its delivery.
#11 Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
Crimson Skies is an aerial combat game based on the table top role playing game of the same name, and it is a sequel of sorts to the original Crimson Skies game for PC. Built by FASA studios of MechAssault fame, the game differs greatly from its PC counterpart, offering less plane customization but significantly more open-ended mission structure similar almost to Grand Theft Auto. The world of Crimson Skies takes place in an alternate history version of 1930s America, where biplanes and zeppelins become the primary means of transportation, and outlaws rule the skies. You take control of Nathan Zachary, who in many ways is a progenitor to Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. He is the leader of the infamous “Fortune Hunters” pirate gang and is off to avenge the death of his old friend, “Doc” Fassenbiender. There are, of course, other characters you will meet in this world, and they all feel like they are plucked straight out of a pulp action flick, with music fitting the game like a glove as well.
The gameplay was the opposite of what many expected from Microsoft as they were the company that brought the world Flight Simulator, yet Crimson Skies landed far closer to an arcade game then a simulation. You have lots of ways to blow up other planes in dogfights, instant access to barrel roles and Immelmann turns, health and ammo crate pickups mid-air, and even the ability to hop on a turret and blow up other planes in first person. The controls are great, and the visuals are some of the best on the system. I’m not sure what it is, but the flames coming out of your engine when you are at full speed and the bass-heavy thuds of your wing mounted machine guns always stood out to me.
The game’s campaign puts you into various open-ended levels that give you the option of choosing to progress the game’s story or seek out side-activities and other rewards to upgrade your current aircraft or acquire new ones. You will get into great dogfights, epic boss battles, and some other really nice set pieces. It’s a fun ride and was great competition for Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, which was a huge game at the time on the Nintendo GameCube.
Finally, the game had some really robust Xbox Live features. In fact, the game was delayed by a year in large part due to making sure the multiplayer portion was good, and boy did that delay pay dividends. The game included a bunch of planes for use in multiplayer, with lots of maps and modes as well, ranging from the expected dogfighting deathmatch modes to the uncommon for flight games capture the flag mode, along with the very unexpected Wild Chicken mode, which was a strange CTF/Deathmatch hybrid mode that ended up being what I played the most. Crimson Skies also ended up being a pack-in game with Xbox Live Starter Kits later in its life, so the population was always strong.
#10 Panzer Dragoon Orta
Panzer Dragoon Orta is the final entry in SEGA’s long running Panzer Dragoon series of on rails shooters that originated on the Sega Saturn, and it was exclusive to the original Xbox. This game takes place in the same ancient world as the previous titles, albeit several decades in the future from the original game. The story, while not the most original thing in the world, is well told and captivating. You play as Orta, a girl who has spent her entire life as a prisoner to an ancient society known as the seekers, hidden away from the game’s antagonist known only as the Empire. One night, her village is attacked, and she is nearly captured by the Empire only to be rescued by a legendary dragon. Finally free, she sets off to find the truth about who she is.
In addition to the main campaign, there are some extras that you can unlock, such as a port of the original Panzer Dragoon game, but more importantly a sub story mode, which has you play as a young Imperial solider of the empire in training, named Iva. While the game play in Iva’s story is not as extravagant as the main game, the story of Iva is very gripping: the story is told very similarly to the thousand years of dreams in Lost Odyssey and offers a really good look at the other side of the coin versus the main campaign. Overall, it adds a lot to the world building and alot of perspective, in addition to being an emotionally investing story.
The dragons in all of the Panzer Dragoon games act more like bio-organic airplanes then anything else, where dragonriders use them to fly around the world and engage in dogfights with different flora and fauna, as well as other not to friendly riders. As mentioned earlier, Panzer Dragoon Orta is an on-rails shooter, which means the dragon’s flight path is per-determined when the level begins, with the player controlling the dragon’s movement on the X and Y axis, as well as controlling the armaments on the dragon. The camera is a little weird at first, where you rotate it in 90 or 180 degree intervals, but once you get used to it, you will feel right at home blasting away enemies.
Speaking of combat, the game uses a very forgiving aiming system, where while some weapons have free aim, most of the time its more like you are painting targets on the screen and then hitting everything you had painted automatically. While on paper this probably sounds disappointing for those who prefer white knuckle shooter action, the process of taking enemies out is actually quite satisfying and can easily can set you in a state of Tetris-like flow, which is somewhat rare in other shooter games. Make no mistake, though, the automatic aiming does not make this game easy. The challenge comes from deciding what weapons to use for specific enemies and at the same time dodging the near bullet hell enemy projectiles.
For me, though, the thing that really stands out with Panzer Dragoon Orta, and why I rank it so high on this list, is because of the game’s wonderful music, artwork, and, most importantly, sense of scale. Outside of God of War on the PS2, there is no rival for Dragoon’s enormous sense of scale as you fly around in large open spaces with massive enemies and machines flying around with you; at the time this was one of the most breathtaking experiences in the industry.
#9 Project Gotham Racing 2
Project Gotham Racing 2 is the follow up to Bizarre Creations’ stand out launch title, Project Gotham Racing, which in and of itself was a spiritual successor to the criminally underrated Metropolis Street Racer for the Sega Dreamcast. By the time Bizarre Creations released Project Gotham Racing 2, they had already somewhat mastered how to make a racing game feel good to play, and PGR2 was where they really got to put that expertise into an all-around great package.
The classic arcade racing from the first game returns, although it’s a bit more fine-tuned. Weather affects the way you drive, and cars now have a grip statistic to make racking up long drift chains easier if you choose the right car. This is a good thing because the fantastic Kudos system from the first game returns, handing out points for driving with style, although this time around there are a lot more points given out for driving well and not just for drifting whenever possible like the original. While Project Gotham Racing 2 is more of an iteration then an innovation over the first game, there was quite a bit added to the package. Yes, you get significantly more cars and significantly more tracks, but you also get a lot of new features. The Garage mode makes its debut, allowing you to view your cars in 3D, and geometry wars also got its start here before later spawning into its own gaming franchise.
The biggest addition by far, though, was the inclusion of Xbox Live support. You could finally race against friends online in Kudos races or standard ones, and you could even participate in single-player ghost races against online ghosts, a precursor to Drivatars in the Forza series. Best of all was the community created game mode called “Cat and Mouse,” where you would split into two teams, with each team having one player select the Mini Cooper as their car (the slowest car in the game) while the rest of the players were either red or blue supercars. The first team to get their Mini Cooper across the finish line wins! This mode was a blast to play, and it ate MANY weekends back in the day.
#8 Phantom Dust
Phantom Dust is one of the most unique games of all time. It was one of the only games developed by Microsoft Game Studios Japan before it dissolved. The game is a third-person-action-strategy-deck-builder-arena-combat-RPG-game (I told you it was unique). While it may sound like I just threw a bunch of keywords out there, the team at MGS Japan was able to combine those into a really great experience.
Phantom Dust takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, where all of Earth has been covered in a dangerous “Phantom Dust,” making it inhospitable for most of humanity, forcing most people to live underground. Only a select few, known as Espers, who in this calamity developed the power to control the dust, can travel on the Earth’s surface. A major side effect of being exposed to the dust was that all of humanity’s memory has been wiped, so it is the Espers’ job to travel to the surface to find any information they can to piece together humanity’s past. It is in these expeditions that they discover two pods containing Espers named “Alpha,” whom you control, and another named “Edgar.” Throughout the game you meet other Espers, learn to master your control over the dust, and discover what remains of the world and its history. As you play, the game’s story begins to unfold beautifully, telling a very sophisticated story that is wonderfully delivered and thought-provoking. This kind of sci-fi is rare in video games; think Blade Runner to Halo’s Aliens.
While the story is incredible and something I think anyone who is interested in thought-provoking sci-fi should experience, it’s not the main reason why Phantom Dust is on this list. That reason, of course, is the very unique gameplay. The battles in this game play out in a destructible 3D arena, where you square off against other Espers using your power of the Dust to fight. How that power manifests is through a pre-assembled deck of cards that are dealt out as powerups on the map; as you cast spells, more cards are dealt out as your try and draw into your combos like a classic trading card game. There are all kinds of different cards from different schools of magic that run the gamut from offensive, defensive, utility, long range, short range etc. The more you play, the more cards you unlock, giving you access to more and more packages and synergies. It does such a good job of combining these things as, not only do you have to worry about building a cohesive deck, drawing into combos, Tempo, Ramp, and everything else that comes with a TCG style game, but you also need to account for positioning, cover, and elevation, all things that come into play in any other third person action game.
In today’s day and age where there are tons of trading card games like Hearthstone, MTG Arena, Legends of Runeterra, and many more, all with thousands of players thanks to their free to play model, Phantom Dust would absolutely THRIVE. However, since it released before the dawn of free to play and came out mere months before the Xbox 360, it’s relegated to just being one of the greatest hidden gems of all time. Microsoft did try to revive the series with a new entry a few years ago, but development issues caused that project to be cancelled. As a consolation prize, though, the enhanced version of Phantom Dust is available for free to all Xbox users, and I strongly recommend checking it out!
#7 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was the game that put BioWare on the map. I mean, don’t get me wrong: their previous works with the Dungeons & Dragons IP produced fantastic games, but KOTOR is what allowed them to burst into the mainstream and likely introduced more people to the Classic-RPG experience than any other game that came before, something that the power of the Star Wars brand helped with greatly. It separated itself from most western RPGs at the time due to its significant visual upgrade and cinematic presentation, but it also differentiated itself from other Star Wars games thanks to its incredibly fleshed out characters and absolutely incredible story line. It’s due to the success of KOTOR that BioWare was able to move away from licensed game work and create its own franchises like Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age.
In KOTOR you play as a player-created character who awakens on a Republic capital ship with no memory of who they are or how they got there. After escaping the ship and crash landing on the planet Taris, you discover that the evil Darth Malak, apprentice of Darth Revan, has built a massive Sith army and has been killing or converting members of the republic. Starting on Taris and eventually travelling across the galaxy, you will fill in pieces of your memory, acquire companions, and, most importantly, locate star maps to help find the location of a the source of the Sith’s power. While the broader story line is nothing special on paper, the characters you meet, the relationships you have with them, and how the events play out are fantastic. You also have a lot of agency into how events will transpire and ultimately how the game will end as every decision you make pushes you closer to the light side or dark side of the force. There is also an incredible twist that needs to be witnessed by any Star Wars fan.
The combat is a very conventional turn based system, albeit with a Star Wars flair. Instead of swords, you have Vibroblades and Lightsabers; instead of magic, you have the Force etc. Initially it did seem kind of tedious, but it absolutely grows on you and becomes challenging as the game moves on. While it doesn’t do a lot of new stuff in terms of how you fight, the fact that it is so deeply Star Wars from an audio visual perspective really adds a lot of charm to the system.
All and all, this is a game that many people hold as one of the best games of all time. It tells a tale that, according to what the vast majority of those who have played it say, is the best story in the entire Star Wars cannon outside of the original trilogy. It’s got an incredible new take on the Star Wars music with Jeremy Soule composing (Composer for the Elder Scrolls). Good combat with a ton of Star Wars flare await, as well as an incredible twist in the story that will stay with you forever.
#6 Ninja Gaiden Black
Ninja Gaiden Black is a re-release of the incredible Ninja Gaiden that released a year prior. Since digital distribution was in its infancy, it was not uncommon to have to buy a whole new disc to get a touched up version of a year old game (see Fable: The Lost Chapters, or Morrowind: GOTY Edition). As cliché of a term as it is to say, I firmly believe that Ninja Gaiden was a precursor to the Souls-like sub-genre, or at the very least I would be shocked if Hidetaka Miyazaki was not a fan of this series. While it didn’t have ‘souls’ that you needed to collect after you died, it did have intelligently designed levels with lots of shortcuts, extremely precise combat that was very hard but also very fair, and super challenging and memorable boss encounters.
The game actually takes place in the same universe as Team Ninja’s other major franchise, the Dead or Alive fighting game series (the third entry almost made it to this list!). You play as Ryu Hayabusa, a “super ninja,” whose family is charged with taking care of two legendary blades. The Dragon Sword, which Ryu wields, and the Dark Dragon Blade, which the Hayabusa family is charged with safeguarding in their village. The game begins with you infiltrating the base of the Shadow Clan and fighting their leader. After besting him in combat, it is revealed that the shadow clan leader is your uncle, and this entire level was more of a tutorial. This revelation lets you know what you are in for as that tutorial is very difficult. Soon after this family reunion, you get word that Hayabusa village is under attack, and a warrior named Doku has slaughtered the residents and stolen the Dark Dragon Blade, and you spend the rest of the game on a quest for revenge.
As mentioned above, the combat is extremely tough, but fair. You have many options for different weapons, which offer advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation, as well as learning new techniques and attack moves to help dispatch your foes. As you acquire these abilities, you obviously become stronger, but the game gracefully increases the challenge level of the enemies, which creates very good pacing. All of this is wrapped up in one of the most technically impressive games of the generation as the game is delivered in widescreen and at 60 fps.
This is one of the finest third person action games of all time, and finishing it is one of my most prized accomplishments. It was followed up by the equally great Ninja Gaiden II as well as a third entry that, while it released to a lukewarm response, gained back a lot of good will with its re-release in Ninja Gaiden 3: Razors Edge. Ninja Gaiden Black is backwards compatible on Xbox One / Series, and it is rendered at a gorgeous 4K while maintaining that crisp 60 fps. Anyone who is a Souls fan has got to play this. Trust me.
#5 Doom 3
ID Software is no stranger to appearing on “best of” or “greatest ever” lists as it is one of the most iconic studios of all time. They are responsible for introducing us to the First Person Shooter genre with Wolfenstein 3D, and they are also responsible for FPS games taking over the world with the subsequent releases of Doom and Quake. Doom and Quake both embody the “I’m not stuck in this room with you, you are stuck in here with me” mentality to game design. That is, until the release of Doom 3. Doom 3 changed the formula, moving the gameplay much closer to the horror genre. This decision was a controversial one and admittedly put the entire franchise on ice until its triumphant return in 2016. However, on its own, without considering the legacy it had to live up to, Doom 3 is freaking incredible.
The game takes place on a Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC) Facility on Mars. You, a nameless marine (aka Doom Guy), arrive at the facility with a UAC board member who is investigating multiple incidents surrounding the facility’s controversial experiments happening in the Delta Complex. After a tense altercation between the board member and the facility’s director, Dr. Malcolm Betruger, you get pulled away and receive orders to track down a missing scientist and find him in a derelict part of Delta Complex frantically trying to send a warning to the UAC regarding the dangers of Betruger’s teleportation experiments. But it’s too late as a teleportation experiment explodes, sending a shock wave through the facility, turning most of the inhabitants into the un-dead and allowing the demons of hell to invade.
This set up could have led to Doom Guy going on a killing spree throughout the facility, rip and tearing his way through the game, but Doom 3 is a bit different. One of John Carmack’s (co-founder and main tech lead at ID Software) main inspirations for Doom 3 in fact came from a technological leap that made the creation of the ID Tech 4 engine a reality. An engine that was built around three primary features: unified lighting and shadowing, complex animations with fully dynamic per-pixel lighting, and GUI surfaces for more interactivity.
Doom 3 exists not specifically to mirror the gameplay of the previous installments, but as a way to show off these things, and it does so expertly. Most of the game’s UI is handled on surfaces, which I always thought was a nice touch, but the real showpiece is the lighting engine. The game is DARK, but you can equip a flashlight that really shows off the “dynamic per-pixel lighting.” This creates an active choice on weather you want the piece of mind of knowing what lurks around the corner or the ability to defend yourself from what lies there. The game’s sound design puts you on edge the entire time, creating one of the most frightening experiences of all time, and it’s certainly the scariest game I had ever seen at the time of its release. It doesn’t stray too far from the path of its ancestors, though, as a lot of familiar (demon) faces make their return, and there is a large arsenal of weaponry at your disposal. The later portions of the game also put you in more Doom-like situations that are significantly more rip and tear vs. pee your pants.
Doom 3 may not be a perfect DOOM game, but on its own merits it’s one of the best games to release in the 9th generation of consoles, and, because of the amount of horsepower needed to power that phenomenal lighting engine, it was only released on the Xbox. The Xbox 360 and PS3 would see a remaster called the BFG edition, which would come bundled with the Doom 3 Expansion, Resurrection of Evil, as well as the famous “Duct Tape” mod, which allowed you to use a gun and flashlight at the same time, providing a more action oriented experience for those that wanted it. The BFG edition is backwards compatible with the Xbox One, Series and PC.
#4 Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell
Now, it might seem a bit weird for me to put a game on this list that released on both the GameCube and PS2, given that everything else so far was exclusive to the original Xbox. The reason I personally think this qualifies is because the game released originally on Xbox first, and there were some pretty big concessions made to get this game to run on a ps2. That exclusive window is also the reason I picked the original Splinter Cell over the (imo superior) Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory. So perhaps consider this the ranking for the Splinter Cell series as a whole. Now that the declaimer is out of the way, let’s talk about one of the best series Ubisoft has ever made, the best character to ever come out of the Tom Clancy series of video games, and the game that redefined the stealth genre.
In Splinter Cell you play as Sam Fisher, one of the coolest characters in gaming, voiced to perfection by the stoic Michael Ironside. It’s a performance that rivals Steve Downes’ portrayal of Master Chief in terms of how bad ass they are. Sam is a former NAVY Seal turned NSA agent who gets elevated to the NSA’s most classified branch, “Third Echelon.” He will be trained to become the first Splinter Cell agent. The series will remain somewhat light on storytelling until future entries, but it’s enough to keep you engaged, though it’s not as if you need a gripping story to keep you engaged as being a Splinter Cell Agent is almost cool enough on its own.
Splinter Cell agents are field operatives who go to places no government can officially be, accomplishing top secret objectives and leaving like they had never even been there. It’s because of the sensitive nature of these missions that you are given a vast assortment of gadgets and equipment that serve to facilitate the game’s great stealth gameplay. You are armed with lethal weapons such as the FN F2000 Assault rifle and a silenced FN five-seven pistol, but going lethal often leads to problems and, in some cases, will result in failing a mission. Instead, your main weapon is awareness and vision as your have an assortment of different vision modes thanks to the iconic three-lens goggles on your head, as well as sticky cameras and various hacking devices. If there are obstacles that require a little more finesse, you also have sticky shockers, gas grenades, and more to deal with combatants less lethally. There is a large emphasis on light and dark, and while Splinter Cell does not have a lighting engine that is on par with what we see in Doom 3, taking advantage of the shadows is much more intertwined with the gameplay. In this game, you are the predator, as long as you stay in the shadows and control the engagements, creating a gameplay loop that is very satisfying and unlike anything that came before it.
Splinter Cell has an incredible legacy that spawned a bunch of great sequels, and even if it has been dormant for a long time, now, Sam has appeared in a bunch of other franchises, teasing us as the rumors of a new game continue to swirl around.
#3 The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Ahh yes, we’ve been expecting you. It’s not the highest rated game on this list, but outside of two of the greatest games of all time, which are coming up next, I truly think it’s the best game of the entire 9th generation of consoles. Yes, the game is a little rough around the edges; there is some jank and some patented “Bugthesda” bugs. However, bugs aside, Bethesda shot for the stars here, and it shows. See, Bethesda was actually on its last legs before Morrowind came along, and this was seen as one final effort to keep the lights on. Given that the end was nigh for the team, they figured they had nothing to lose and, in turn, flipped the entire RPG genre on its head. At the time, console RPGs were dominated mostly by JRPGs or other similar games. There were great characters and storylines, for sure, but the journey those characters went on and the worlds they inhabited were quite narrow. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind changed that.
Bethesda has a somewhat unique game design philosophy where every game starts with a map, and, on top of that, one of the first things finished in the development process is the music. This is because they want to build original worlds to tell stories in, as opposed to building original stories that just take place in them. It all starts with the map, which is one of the main reasons why you got a map inside of your copy of Morrowind. The music, in turn, acts as a tone setter and builds on the world. Both are valuable tools to have during the creation process that takes place early on in game development, and Morrowind is no exception. In Morrowind, the world is the main character, and the fun is derived from how you interact with it. You are just a nameless prisoner, after all, who arrives at the docks of Seyda Neen, a port city in the province of Morrowind at the beginning of the game. Morrowind is the home of the dark elves and is greatly influenced by their culture. The world itself borrows in some ways from standard fantasy, but it has a lot of unique elements that make it quite distinct. Once you arrive in Seyda Neen, you are given some vague instructions to seek out a man in the nearby town of Balmora, but, outside of that, once you leave the census office, you are free to do anything.
It’s at that moment right there that Morrowind earns its spot on this list. Sure, you could head to Balmora and progress your way through the game’s pretty decent main plot line, or you can explore the town. You could stumble upon a bounty hunter at the local tavern and help him collect from a wood elf who is dodging him, or, even better, scam them both. You could stumble outside of the city and find a dead tax collector and earn a good chunk of change finding out who did it. You can join the Imperial Legion, which acts as the pseudo police in most towns in Morrowind. If you don’t feel like following the law, you could join a guild of assassins known as the Morag Tong. Almost everything you see in the game can be looted; nearly every book you see can be read. Every NPC has something to say, and their relationship with you will be affected by your actions. The game does not scale with you as a player like future Elder Scrolls games, but will rather allow you to venture into places you shouldn’t be, filled with enemies who are way stronger than you, but also containing loot that is a significant improvement. The game is so open that it will even allow you to kill NPCs vital to the story, preventing you from being able to finish the game. It gives you the freedom to make your own decisions and will not hold back on the consequences for them, good or bad. Morrowind is a masterpiece, and there just simply was nothing like it at the time.
#2 Halo 2
And now we enter the Halo portion of the list, conveniently located at the very freaking top [or bottom of the page – Ed.]. In creating this list, I had two major problems: The first was choosing only 10 original Xbox games, a problem I solved by doubling the list and the word count, making life miserable for the editor [Thank you! – Ed.]. The second was choosing which Halo game was number one and which was number 2, because there was never any doubt that this is where they would both be. While I’m still not sure I made the right decision, as I spent more time playing Halo 2 than every game on this list, combined, hopefully it will make sense in the end.
Halo 2 takes place not too long after the events of Halo: Combat Evolved and is a pretty decent romp. While it does not reach the highs of Combat Evolved’s campaign, it does a phenomenal job of flushing out the lore of Halo, and, without it, I don’t think that Halo reaches the heights it has currently reached in terms of its trans-media adoption / extended universe. In a controversial decision at the time, you also spend a fair amount of time playing as the Arbiter. This changes the dynamic of the campaign as the Arbiter had different motives and some unique abilities. While some people didn’t like taking the focus away from Master Chief at the time, Arby has since become a fan favorite character. Halo 2 also introduced us to the Brutes, who would go on to become an even bigger threat then the original covenant from Halo: CE.
Halo 2’s campaign might not live up to the heights of Halo: CE, but it more then makes up with its industry-shifting multiplayer. There is a large divergence of multiplayer gaming that happened on November 9th, 2004, Halo 2’s release date, that is often overlooked by the gaming masses. Before Halo 2, you would scan through a list of servers, trying to find one that had enough openings for your and your friends to all fit in, praying that others didn’t join before all of you got in. Or, you could host your own and sit there in the lobby until others found your game on their server list. Halo 2’s multiplayer design lead, Max Hoberman, wanted a more seamless process and thus created what he would call “the virtual couch.” This system allowed you and your friends to join into a lobby, select a playlist with the match settings you were looking for, and then get automatically put into a game with other random players. After the match was over, you would be able to search again and, within seconds, be playing a new game against new opponents. If this system sounds familiar to you, it’s because nearly every single game that features some form of multiplayer since Halo 2 has used this system. Halo 2 shaped the way nearly every multiplayer game functions, and it’s impacts are still felt to this day.
But as good as the system was, it all wouldn’t matter much if Halo 2’s multiplayer didn’t deliver, and boy did it ever deliver. The genre-defying first person shooter controls and feel of the original Halo carried over, along with some very good tweaks. Firstly, they removed the Assault Rifle as the primary starting weapon and replaced it with a Battle Rifle. The BR, being a hit-scan precision weapon, created a very consistent base weapon, which was perfect for the competitive scene. On top of that you had some of the series’ best multiplayer maps, like Lockout, Ivory Tower, Midship, and Ascension, to name a few. There were also some new game modes, like one flag and assault, to help round out the package. All in all, Halo 2’s online multiplayer was groundbreaking at the time and insanely popular. It, alone, justified the price of an Xbox Live membership and catapulted Halo 2 into the record books as it became the highest grossing entertainment retail release of all time, not only surpassing any game released before it but also any film or album. It also skyrocketed the then relatively new e-sports scene, resulting in Halo 2 matches being broadcast on national television on the same channels that broadcast major league sports. This helped usher in the likes of twitch.tv in a major way.
#1 Halo Combat Evolved
Halo: Combat Evolved. There is a very good argument to be made that we are not here today, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Xbox, if this game did not exist. It is, quite honestly, one of the most influential games of all time, perhaps only after Mario, as it put Xbox and the console FPS genre on the map, and its impacts are even felt beyond that. The way Bungie transferred the act of moving in a 3D space while having precise, free-aim targeting is something that is used in nearly all of the most popular action games to release since. The addition of features like soft locking, aim acceleration, and cross-hair friction, to name a few, just did not exist in other shooters, and without them the experience was miserable. To really understand how big of a deal this was, here is a look at a snippit from a review for another console FPS game that released a year before Halo: Combat Evolved, “Alien Resurrection” for the PS2, one of the first games to adopt the common thumbstick controls nearly every game uses today:
“The game’s control setup is its most terrifying element. The left analog stick moves you forward, back, and strafes right and left, while the right analog stick turns you and can be used to look up and down. Too often, you’ll turn to face a foe and find that your weapon is aimed at the floor or ceiling while the alien gleefully hacks away at your midsection. Add to the mix a few other head scratchers – such as how the triangle button controls item and health use – and you’ll be wondering how Sony let this get by without requesting a few different control configuration options. ” – Gamespot
Just like Halo 2 did with online multiplayer, there is a very clear and distinct “before and after” point when it comes to console FPS games and the release of Halo: CE. Obvious influences like Call of Duty or Battlefield owe Halo a great deal of thanks, but even less likely benefactors like Fortnite, or even The Last of Us, all borrow from the foundations Halo built. However, above all that Halo did for Xbox and all that Halo did for the gaming industry at large, on its own, Halo is just an absolutely incredible video game. It is truly a moment in gaming history, where the stars just aligned and the team at Bungie were just able to capture lightning bolt after lightning bolt, bottle them up, and create video game royalty.
Starting with the campaign, we are introduced to the Master Chief for the first time as he is woken up from cryo-sleep aboard the Pillar of Autumn, a UNSC ship that is currently under attack from the Covenant. During this attack, you manage to escape in one of the last remaining escape pods and crash land on a mysterious ring world built by the ancient Forerunner civilization. Chief must find out why the Covenant are here in the first place, find any survivors from the Pillar of Autumn, and find a way off this thing. While the first mission, “Pillar of Autumn,” may look familiar to FPS games of the past, once you crash land on Halo and see just how wide open these areas are, it hit you like a ton of bricks that you are playing something new.
Very quickly you are introduced to so many new weapons, both human and covenant, and also vehicles to help traverse the world. Halo is filled with so many great missions that nearly all of them are burnt into my brain, but there is one moment that stands out as one of the best moments in video game history, and that is: The Maw. The Maw is Halo’s final mission, so if you have not played it before, incoming spoilers! In the Maw, you make your way to the crashed Pillar of Autumn with the plan of blowing up its reactor to destroy the Halo ring. While it is fun to hunt down the reactor exhausts and shoot a rocket into them to trigger the meltdown, the real prize of this mission is the famous “warthog run” at the end. The ship is exploding, you are given a count down to when the big boom is coming, and you have to traverse the bowls of the ship in a warthog to make your way to a pelican while everything around you is exploding and that sweet, sweet Halo theme is blasting in your ears. This was the first big action set piece that I had played in a video game that rivalled the best action scenes in film, and it’s one of my favorite moments in all of gaming.
Speaking of music, The Halo theme is one of the most iconic theme songs in all of gaming, and it is just further proof at how Bungie just kept finding lightning in a bottle, time and time again, throughout its development process. The Halo theme was written, composed, and recorded from start to finish in less than a week. With Bungie set to reveal the original version of Halo (an RTS) at an upcoming MacWorld event, there were several issues. For starters, the game’s sound engine did not work with Mac OS at all, to the point where there was no audio, game sound, music, or otherwise. Secondly, the recording studio of the composers they were working with, Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, had recently burnt down. In a crisis meeting, Marty convinced the leadership at Bungie to front him a measly $3500 to rent the equipment and hire the musicians to record the theme music that would be played externally from the machine the game was running on for the demo. So Marty drove from the Bungie offices to Michael’s basement to start creating what would become the Halo theme song, armed only with three keywords given to him by Bungie, “Ancient,” “Mysterious,” and “Epic.” Having the song “Yesterday” by the Beatles stuck in his head, O’Donnell deconstructed that melody, and through some wizardry, converted it into the famous Halo monk chant, repeating it over and over to himself the rest of the drive, as to not forget it before he arrived at Salvatori’s basement. The rest was history.
Although Halo: CE did not launch with online multiplayer as it came before the dawn of Xbox Live, it did launch with local and system link multiplayer, a feature that was nearly scrapped as the game had a lot of work left with the Xbox’s un-movable launch date looming. It was because of the dedication of the team at Bungie and their willingness to work long days and nights before the game went gold that multiplayer was able to sneak into the final build by a hair. Upon playing a game of Halo: CE multiplayer, it become very obvious, very fast, that the M6D Magnum pistol is extremely effective to a skilled player, and it’s this gun, alone, that really made the multiplayer so addicting and fun. The original intent for the multiplayer was to spawn with the Assault Rifle, a gun that was OK but not something you would want to go into a PvP battle with, instead opting to go on the hunt for power weapons. This is how other popular shooters worked, like Quake or Goldeneye.
However, in an attempt at pranking the team during final QA sessions, Bungie co-founder, Jason Jones, secretly buffed the pistol, making it one of the strongest weapons in the game. Being so close to code freeze, the change made its way into the gold master copy, and the rest was history. This borderline accident completely changed the dynamic of Halo’s multiplayer and made it a viable competitive game, and ever since, Halo: CE all pro-style modes have players spawn with a very capable weapon, be it the Halo CE pistol, the Battle Rifle, DMR, Halo 5 pistol, etc. Again, even mistakes or accidents during Halo’s development turned into lightning in a bottle. It is almost like Halo becoming what it has, was Destiny.
With studios burning down, the changing from RTS to FPS, moving from Mac to Xbox, having to hit a console launch window, having multiplayer almost scrapped, and the game in a nearly unplayable state just months before launch, seemingly everything was stacked against Halo: Combat Evolved. Not only did it overcome all of that, releasing as the highest rated game of the entire generation and becoming one of the greatest launch titles in the history of video games, but it also released as a game that would change how games controlled on consoles and paved the way for many of the great franchises we love to this day. It is for that reason that Halo: Combat Evolved, is the greatest exclusive game on the original Xbox.
Phew! There you have it! A little long winded, I admit, but this eight and a half pound hunk of plastic deserves it. How does this list stack up to yours? Anything major missing? Let us know in the comments below! But before you do, here are some of the Seasoned Gaming Staff’s favorite original Xbox’s honorable mentions and hidden gems!
Honorable mentions from the Seasoned Gaming Staff!
- Ainsley Bowden – Kung Fu Chaos – Offered 4 player couch co-op fun with a fantastic sense of humor. The evolving stages were unique, as was the announcer which actually made it feel as though you and your friends were filming your own kung-fu movie.
- Steve Esposito – Fable – It captured the essence of fantasy and was such an immersive experience when it came out. It practically helped mold the genre.
- Ty M – Star Wars: Obi Wan – I spent so much time fighting Darth Maul. It was one of the first games I ever did, start to finish.