The Xbox is now 20 years old, and so what better time to take a fresh look back at Microsoft’s first console and remember its best games. There were many incredible ones despite the machine enjoying just a four-year lifecycle, and IGN staff has ranked our top 25 here. As always, if we missed one of your favorites, tell us about it in the comments below!
The 25 Best Original Xbox Games of All Time
25. Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II
A Dreamcast favorite, Phantasy Star Online was a riveting action-RPG. It also proved to be a harbinger of things to come with its $10 per month always-online price tag, but in return you got an absolutely incredible connected world that allowed you to make friends and slay monsters together, with your MAGs looking over your shoulders. If PSO got its hooks into you, they went in deep, and the result was one of the most memorable original Xbox games ever made.24. MVP Baseball 2005
24. MVP Baseball 2005
MLB The Show 21 finally gave Xbox fans what they’d been waiting years for: a great simulation baseball game. To put that in perspective, those fans had been waiting since…2005, when MVP Baseball’s last MLB-licensed edition proved to be one of the greatest sports games ever.
In fact, long after EA abandoned it, the mod community kept MVP 2005’s rosters updated on PC, and dedicated fans continued to play it for many years. But back on Xbox, it got everything right: hitting, pitching, fielding, and baserunning. And it did all that with gorgeous (at the time) graphics and stunning, lifelike animations. MVP Baseball 2005 will never be forgotten.
23. Burnout 3: Takedown
Burnout 3 had no unique connection to Xbox in any way, but that’s OK because it was simply sublime and belongs on this list. It is a near-timeless racing game that’s more about smashing the other cars than it is about avoiding and zooming past them. That subversion made it unlike any other driving game that’s been made before or since.
The star of the show, of course, was Burnout’s Crash mode, and Burnout 3: Takedown is where developer Criterion realized it was more than just an afterthought. Instead, it was a pillar of the entire game. But it wasn’t a one-note racer. Road Rage mode – in which the goal was to cause as many of your opponents to crash as possible – was a sadistic sport, while Hot Laps challenged you to complete perfect runs at 200mph with almost no margin for error. Burnout 3 is just as much fun today as it was in 2004, despite its now-aged graphics. Most racing games cannot claim that.
Psychonauts went on quite a journey before it was released in 2005, near the end of the original Xbox era. It was the first game from Double Fine, the studio that LucasArts legend Tim Schafer started after going out on his own. It was originally scheduled to be an Xbox exclusive published by Microsoft in the early years of the console before the business of video games got in the way.
It did end up releasing as an Xbox exclusive under Majesco, and it was worth the wait. There were strange and beautiful brains to explore in this telekenetic platformer, and lead character Raz quickly stole every player’s heart. It’s poetic that Microsoft ended up purchasing Double Fine and publishing Psychonauts 2 over a decade-and-a-half later.
21. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Like Ninja Gaiden, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time took an early gaming classic and reinvented it in a near-perfect way for Xbox. Platforming and puzzles are the backbone of Sands of Time, with combat serving only as a last resort. Still, that combat was really wonderfully handled, as the Prince was no bulletproof superhero. He wouldn’t take much damage before succumbing to his wounds, and so you needed to rely on your wits instead.
The ability to rewind time was revolutionary in that moment of gaming history, and Prince of Persia expertly recaptured the spirit of the original game while beautifully reimagining it for the modern era.
20. Otogi: Myth of Demons
Long before From Software made it big as the developers of Dark Souls, the talented team made the Xbox-exclusive ninja action game Otogi: Myth of Demons (and later a sequel called Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors). It was beautiful, polished, precise, smart, and action-packed, and it did so half a year before Ninja Gaiden came out. Is it as good as Itagaki’s classic? No, but it remains one of the best games – exclusive or otherwise – to ever grace the Xbox.
19. Steel Battalion
The Xbox-exclusive Steel Battalion would never be made today. It was a first-person mech sim – the mechs were called vertical tanks, or “VTs” here – and the hook was that it was such a simulation that it came with its own proprietary 40-button controller and three-pedal foot box.
If that wasn’t enough for you, it was also such a sim that if you failed to hit the eject button on the giant controller prior to having your VT destroyed in the campaign, you’d lose your save game and be forced to start all over again. Steel Battalion cost $200 at the time it came out, while the Xbox itself was $300. It is truly a unicorn in gaming history.
If at least one cult classic belongs on this list, it’s the Xbox-exclusive Breakdown, a one-and-done science-fiction adventure best known for that part where you eat and then vomit up a hamburger without leaving the first-person view. Stubborn adhesion to the first-person perspective was one of Breakdown’s core tenets, but given the game’s melee-combat focus, it totally worked.
You play Derrick Cole, a man who awakens in a science facility with no memory of what happened to him. The ensuing campaign is one of the most engrossing sci-fi mysteries in Xbox history, and as you get more powerful you feel more and more like a superhero – which was more than you could say of actual superhero-based games of the time.
17. Top Spin
A tennis game on the top 25 Xbox Games of All-Time list? You’d better believe it! Top Spin wasn’t just a phenomenal tennis sim that featured a ton of real-life superstars of the sport. It was also one of the pioneers of Microsoft’s online sports initiative, XSN, which integrated Xbox Live online play with webpage-based stats and tournament information, allowing you to participate in online events and then track your progress on the web afterwards.
16. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
When Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas came out for Xbox, it wasn’t just a big deal because the game was absolutely incredible. It was a big deal because it was the first time that a Grand Theft Auto game released day and date on Xbox along with PS2. The biggest series in the world finally gave equal time to Xbox, and San Andreas was Rockstar’s most ambitious effort yet.
It was primarily centered in Los Santos, GTA’s fictional Los Angeles, but its vast real estate spanned an entire state, including San Fierro (San Francisco), Las Venturas (Las Vegas), and the rural areas in between. It lives on in memories (and memes) today.
15. Full Spectrum Warrior
Full Spectrum Warrior wasn’t a game at all, in the beginning. It was a training tool built for the US Army that was converted into a game. And it made a heck of a unique one. In Full Spectrum Warrior, you guide your troops through a combat zone with one goal: keep them alive.
Formations, carefully considered movements, and suppressing fire are the keys to survival. Funny enough, for an actual military shooter, you didn’t really do any shooting yourself. And yet, the strategic Full Spectrum Warrior was every bit as tense as any other traditional shooter.
14. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
As history has since shown, Xbox needed Bethesda as much as Bethesda needed Xbox back in 2002. The Xbox needed RPGs – and great ones, at that – to compete with PS2’s avalanche of great JRPGs, and Bethesda needed to expand its market from PC to consoles. The Xbox was the perfect fit for both parties, and Morrowind brought an RPG experience to consoles the likes of which had never been seen before. Its high-fantasy open world was teeming with player possibilities, and its first-person perspective pulled you straight into Tamriel and Morrowind in a way that the third-person view of the traditional JRPG could not. This was the beginning of a long and bountiful partnership between Microsoft and Bethesda.
MechWarrior was a beloved PC game franchise. It was one of the best pen-and-paper-to-video-game RPG translations that had ever been made to that point, and MechAssault took that universe and made a faster-paced, more arcade-y version of it that felt great to play with a gamepad for the original Xbox. It managed to retain the soul of the more simulation-focused parent series.
Even better, it was a day-one launch title for Xbox Live, and its multiplayer proved to be unique and brilliantly suited to the Xbox Live environment. This is another game that has remained disappointingly dormant in the years since its release (MechAssault 2 hit a couple years later but wasn’t as good), leading fans to wonder if MechAssault will ever return.
12. Project Gotham Racing 2
Kudos! That is what we’ll always think of first when we think of this beloved Xbox racing franchise from the renowned developers at Bizarre Creations. PGR began life on the Dreamcast as Metropolis Street Racer, but it really forged its identity on Xbox, and that’s where Kudos come in. When you did awesome stuff on the track, like drifting, passing, powersliding, etc. you’d be rewarded with Kudos points that would level you up.
The power of the Xbox hardware relative to the PS2 really shined here, as PGR2 was gorgeous (as future entries in the series would be as well). PGR2 deftly walked the line between arcade and simulation racing, making itself incredibly approachable for more casual players, while still offering enough for hardcore sim fans to grab onto as well. Its soul seems to live on today in Forza Horizon.
11. Jade Empire
BioWare made not one but two incredible (and exclusive) RPGs for the original Xbox. KOTOR was the first and it has historically gotten all of the glory, but the second was Jade Empire, an excellent Eastern-influenced epic that took home one of the highest review scores IGN had ever given at the time. It borrowed the morality system from KOTOR but ditched the turn-based combat in favor of a real-time combat engine, resulting in much faster, more fluid fights. It was a classic (and unfortunate) case of critical success and commercial failure, but it’s never too late. If you get the chance, play it.
Long before anyone not named Rockstar had made a good open-world game, FASA Studio came pretty darn close with Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. It wasn’t a true open-world game, but there were plenty of spots you could get out of your fighter plane and interact on the ground while on foot. Crimson Skies boasted fantastic graphics and great multiplayer that wasn’t like anything else on the Xbox, and it eventually became something of a cult classic on the console, with fans clamoring for years afterward for a sequel that never came.
9. Jet Set Radio Future
Many Dreamcast fans would agree that the original Xbox was, spiritually speaking, the Dreamcast 2. Sega threw its full support behind Microsoft’s fledgling console after its own had failed, and of the many great Sega games to land on Xbox, Jet Set Radio Future was arguably the most memorable.
The stylistic in-line-skating action game was unlike anything else on this or any console, and at one point it was even a pack-in game with the Xbox (along with the also-excellent but less-remembered Sega GT 2002 Racing). Jet Set Radio Future was so unique it was never really imitated, though it does seem to have been a clear influence on Insomniac’s 2014 Xbox One classic Sunset Overdrive.
8. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3
Rainbow Six 3 continued Tom Clancy’s dominant run on the first Xbox by bringing close-quarters, team-based tactical military shooter gameplay to Xbox Live. While Xbox’s new online service had stars early on – MechAssault is also on this list – it wasn’t until Rainbow Six 3 released one year into Xbox Live’s life that the network finally had its first breakout hit. But it wasn’t all about multiplayer; the single-player campaign was great, too, and its really nifty party trick was the ability to don the Xbox Live chat headset while you were running the campaign and issuing simple voice commands (like, “Stack up” and “Go go go!”) to your AI teammates.
Fable had a lot to live up to thanks to Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux’s lofty pre-release promises, but in the end Fable turned out to be a heck of a game. Albion is a wonderfully realized British fantasy world, with appropriately British humor and charm. A true good and evil system allowed you to play how you wanted to, with good deeds eventually creating a literal halo over your character’s head, while breaking bad would cause horns to grow out of your hero’s skull. Fable didn’t reach the peak of its potential until its first sequel on the Xbox 360, but the first Fable was nevertheless one of the original Xbox’s best and most memorable games.
6. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay
Movie-licensed video games suck. Or at least, they did until Starbreeze Studios and Vin Diesel’s own Tigon Studios came along and threw that stereotype into a Dumpster. Riddick would’ve been a classic even with no association to Diesel’s film series, because Escape From Butcher Bay was an impeccably designed first-person stealth game that mixed a stunning bespoke game engine (heck, even the normal-mapped rotating metal cube of a menu screen looked amazing) with great characters, a fantastic story, and a mix of gameplay styles. Riddick was light years better than it had any right to be, and it was an Xbox exclusive to boot.
5. Ninja Gaiden
When Team Ninja and rockstar designer Tomonobu Itagaki, both known for the Dead or Alive fighting game series, trotted out a then-modern reboot of the classic arcade/NES action game Ninja Gaiden, we could not have predicted what it would become: no less than a nearly perfect high-speed action game. The weapons, the moves, the enemies, the set pieces, the bosses, the 60fps action – all of it was as close to flawless as an action game can possibly be.
Sure, you might throw your controller through a wall before it’s all said and done, but the sheer satisfaction of defeating bosses like Alma arguably paved the way for the Soulsborne-style challenge that many gamers thrive on today. If you could guide Ryu Hyabusa through the entire lengthy campaign on Master Ninja difficulty, then you truly were a gaming god. Ninja Gaiden was a marvel.
4. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
The original Xbox wasn’t just trying to compete with the PlayStation 2 on a hardware level. It also had to stand up to Sony’s highly successful machine on the software side too, of course. And the PS2 was heavily entrenched as an RPG powerhouse. Enter Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, an exclusive Xbox RPG from the PC RPG masters at BioWare. It was not only the greatest role-playing game on Xbox, but one of the greatest RPGs of all-time.
It’s so legendary that it’s being remade 20 years later. BioWare’s masterpiece spun an irresistible Star Wars tale set 4,000 years before the original film trilogy, and brought with it memorable characters like HK-47 as well as, crucially, a morality system that allowed you to be the most noble Jedi you could be or…the most monstrous, double-crossing Dark Side menace you’d never seen in a video game before. And the twists and turns the story took…it’s still jaw-dropping.
3. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
The third Splinter Cell from the ultra-talented team at Ubisoft Montreal had everything. Killer graphics? Check (those dynamic shadows!). Incredible Dolby 5.1 sound? Check. A brilliantly designed single-player campaign that let you go full-stealth, gadget-crazy, or guns-blazing? Check. A four-mission (later expanded to six through free DLC) co-op campaign that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced before? Check. And the best take we’d ever see on the innovative asymmetrical Spies vs. Mercenaries multiplayer mode, in which a trio of nonlethal, gadget-laden spies playing in third-person try to outmaneuver a trio of slower, heavily armed mercenaries hunting them from the more restrictive first-person view? BIG CHECK. It was also iconic Sam Fisher actor Michael Ironside’s best performance as the sardonic spy. Splinter Cell peaked here, but it peaked at a nearly unreachable high point.
2. Halo 2
While we can’t honestly say that Xbox Live probably wouldn’t exist without Halo 2 (it was already doing just fine before Bungie’s long-awaited sequel came out, thankyouverymuch), it is fair to say with a straight face that Halo 2 completely revolutionized online multiplayer gaming for consoles. In fact, taken as a whole, Halo 2 somehow lived up to its galactic levels of hype (it had already been delayed from Spring 2004 to November 9, 2004) and then EXCEEDED IT.
The campaign added compelling new layers to the Halo universe, including the stunning playable introduction of The Arbiter, the visuals were among the best on the entire console, and multiplayer…just wow. The “virtual couch” hopper system on Xbox Live let you easily connect – and stay – with your friends all night long, the ranking system rocked, the maps might’ve been the greatest collection of multiplayer battlegrounds ever collected under a single game’s roof, and th
e customizability that was offered could only be rivaled in the PC space. Halo 2 was a dinosaur-killing meteor. It raised the bar in so many ways, and it remains beloved through The Master Chief Collection.
1. Halo: Combat Evolved
It’s almost a 1a and 1b situation with Halo 1 and Halo 2, but it’s not out of the question to suggest that the Xbox as a platform might not have survived 20 years if not for Halo: Combat Evolved being a genuinely revolutionary console game that doubled as the killer app for Microsoft’s first console. And thus, the original Halo gets the nod in the top spot.
Combat Evolved birthed a universe that millions of gamers remain emotionally invested in to this day, with characters we still adore, multiplayer the likes of which home consoles had never seen, and it brought LAN parties into the console space too. Its influence is still felt today, and deservedly so.
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