Games That Defined the Microsoft Xbox

Feel free to read up more on our Defining Games Series or our Xbox 101 Beginner’s Guide for more information on Microsoft’s first console.  We also cover the Xbox in our Hidden Gems series.

As if Sony joining the video game console landscape with the PlayStation weren’t enough, software juggernaut Microsoft threw in its ambitious hardware into the arena with the Xbox in 2001.  PC gaming already had a huge ecosystem, and Microsoft wanted to take advantage of its position in OS + x86 hardware to get a jumpstart in the living room.

While Microsoft was preparing the Xbox, Sega was also reeling in the economic disappointments from their Dreamcast console.  They had announced that they were ceasing production of their console and would be transitioning to a games-only business.  It’s worth noting that Microsoft and Sega also had a bit of a partnership with Microsoft’s development of Windows CE for the Sega Dreamcast (not heavily used but still note-worthy enough to get the badge on the front of the console)

Being a new American player and relying a lot on PC ports and first-party exclusives like Halo, Microsoft didn’t have much Japanese game support on the Xbox aside from Sega (who didn’t pledge complete exclusivity to Microsoft).  The result is a library that feels relatively impressive but rather lopsided in terms of variety.  In the end, the Xbox did relatively well and remains a solid console library to have in one’s collection.

Halo Series

While Microsoft did have some respectable in-house talent for game development, they knew they needed to bulk up make a strong effort against the PlayStation 2.  Bungie Studios, who primarily worked on MacOS games (Marathon and Myth), was planning on releasing Halo (then a third-person action game and previously a real-time strategy) on MacOS and Windows simultaneously.  However, in June of 2000, Microsoft announced that they had acquired Bungie and that Halo would become an Xbox exclusive and re-written as a first person shooter.

Halo made a substantial impact on the console landscape as it was the first modern FPS game that really clicked with a controller as the primary input device. Goldeneye 007 (and later Perfect Dark) from Rareware innovated quite a bit in control schemes and multiplayers while adapting to the console world and its limitations at the time.  However, Halo came in at the right time where beautiful, high frame-rate graphics and dual-analogue stick controllers were maturing and teamed it with a high-production execution that would feel much more timeless than Rare’s N64 work.  You can see our discussion of Halo’s and Goldeneye’s contribution the console FPS landscape here in our forum.

Halo also expanded heavily on multiplayer support. Where most other console FPS games tended to max out at four human players, Halo supported sixteen, allowing players to mix up split screen and networked consoles. Unfortunately, Xbox Live was unfinished at the Xbox’s launch, so online multiplayer had to be dropped from Halo: Combat Evolved, although playing a sixteen-player LAN setup was a truly legendary experience.

To sweeten the deal, friends also had the ability to play the campaign co-op mode, which became a favorite of many.  Halo did avoid bots in the multiplayer setup, however, in order to put the focus on human opponents.  Even without the option of bots, multiplayer was incredibly flexible and became a highlight of the Halo series. 

To further popularize FPSs, Halo drew in the mainstream crowd with an iconic world surrounded in mythology.  The campaigns pumped a sense of heroism into the player’s bloodstream while simultaneously being compelled by a sense discovery and wonder.  More than a decade after its release, the franchise seems like common knowledge, but when the Xbox came out, everyone was discovering the Halo universe and the mysteries it contained.

As much as the gameplay, story, and the graphics grabbed the spotlight, the soundtrack was instrumental to engaging the player and giving them a sense of the epic world they were dealing with.

While the majority of PC first-person shooters at the time gradually gave you more powerful weapons, and more difficult opponents, Halo: Combat Evolved revealed most of the weapons and enemies halfway through and then let you learn the strengths and weaknesses of what you had to work with.  You had to rely on your own learning to make the most of the remainder of the game.  You get to know the enemies instead of facing new ones constantly.  Halo had some of the era’s best enemy AI, so you had to take time to learn their “personalities” and fighting styles.

Precision aiming is not really a priority in Halo: Combat Evolved. It was more important to learn the interactions of weapons and enemies.  Much of this was designed with the analog sticks of the controller in mind instead of the mouse and keyboard of a PC.  This is also much of why the eventual PC release of the game didn’t feel quite right to PC FPS fans. 

Halo 2 ended up trying to be more like a PC FPS with added elements like boss battles, more mechanics, better graphics, and the introduction of online multiplayer — including a matchmaking system that did a pretty decent job of matching you up with people of similar skill.

While each iteration of the Halo series has had varying levels of acceptance over the year, Halo 2 may have been the most widely loved.   However, each installment had a consistent play style and had enough depth to make it interesting but not so complex as to push you away.   It also found that wonderful balance of being simple to learn but difficult to master.  It required you to be a strategist to keep your edge over your opponent.

Both Halo titles for Xbox are extremely well-rounded, innovative, and due much of the praise they receive.  While neigh-sayers may claim that the games were overhyped, the original Halo was not really promoted any stronger than other Xbox launch titles.  What set it apart was its strong word of mouth and the introduction of the now-hallmark first person shooter genre to millions of console gamers.

Halo 2 was so loved that it kept a massive community going on the original Xbox for years after the Xbox 360 came out, and much of the drama in the Xbox community when it came time to shut down Xbox Live for the platform revolved around Halo 2.

For a certain generation, Halo is what they grew up on.  Much like many of us may have grown up on Super Mario Bros. or Crash Bandicoot, Halo is the landmark game that consumed many of these youngsters’ every spare, waking moment.

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Fable

The grand power of the Xbox compared to consoles preceding it attracted attention of ambitious developers that had been waiting to make their imaginations come alive.  Peter Molyneux (of Populous fame) always seemed to have outlandishly ambitious visions for upcoming game titles, and the Xbox seemed to be just the console to work on.

Big Blue Box Games, a satellite studio under Molyneux’s relatively new Lionhead Studios was working on a new game going by the name “Project Ego”, an open-ended RPG that was all about building your character.  Molyneux often touted the game as being “the greatest of all time” and promised many subtle ways that a player could have a realistic effect on the characters and environments — many without the development team’s having even been consulted.  It’s almost as if Molyneux was hoping to will the features into existence.

Lionhead was struggling to find a publisher for Project Ego, but fortunately for them, Microsoft was looking for an RPG to round out their lineup.  They also appreciated having a name like Molyneux’s to support the platform and perhaps create a defining franchise for the Xbox (possibly Microsoft’s answer to Nintendo’s Zelda franchise).

After 4 years of development Microsoft had to give Lionhead an ultimatum of cancellation, but Fable finally launched in September 2004 in time for the holiday shopping season.   While it didn’t live up to every one of Molyneux’s promises, it did end up being a very solid action RPG.  

Fable was one of the first games that gave many gamers the ability to develop their character’s behavior and alter their appearance through physical changes and clothing as opposed to a typical character creation system.  While it didn’t feel especially realistic, it helped create a feeling of immersion, and the character felt personal to the player.

The cities within Fable’s setting of Albion feel aged and lived-in, and the non-playable characters actually feel like real people and have a distinctly British sense of humor.  Your character’s actions also seem to have some affect on your reputation, and your actions elicit comments from the game’s non-player characters.

With a modest amount of openness, the interactions with the hundreds of NPC community members, and the aged personality and deep history of the world of Albion, Fable felt more like a real world compared to the simplified fantasy setting in something like a Zelda game.  One could argue that this made Fable feel more at home to the target Xbox audience.  At the same time, Fable was also a bit more mainstream of an RPG as opposed to being as wide-open as something like Morrowind.

Fable was less puzzle driven than the likes of Zelda but instead more task and quest oriented.  These types of activities helped shape your character.   The storyline was interesting enough to keep you going, and the ending left fans hungry for more.   The story wasn’t Fable’s strongest feature, and that may have been what actually kept it from true greatness (aside from disappointments stemming from Molyneux’s grandiose promises).

While Fable does often feel like an adventure game, it is indeed an RPG — you earn experience points and spend them to increase certain traits. Your character’s abilities are separated into three different attributes: Strength, Will, and Skill. Each governs a different way of playing Fable and developing your character.   Unlike a D&D game, where you have to choose to be a fighter or a ranger or a magic-user, Fable enables you to be any three or a mixture of all three. The way you play governs the way your character grows.   

For more casual gamers, one can get a “quick” experience by completing the main quests and side quests with 15 to 20 hours of gameplay.  However, if you really want to dig deep into what Fable has to offer, read into the history of the world, and build relationships (for better or worse — anywhere from getting married and playing with kids to getting drunk, terrorizing the children, or killing everyone in town), you can easily spend 50 to 100 hours in the game.  Managing the balance between the casual player and those willing to invest heavily is one of Fable’s great strengths.

Instead of Molyneux’s initial promise of “for every action, there is a consequence”, it is more of experiencing a game the way you want it to be played.  However, there are still a few wounded souls that won’t let Peter Molyneux’s promise of “If you drop an acorn on the ground, it will eventually grow into a tree” slide — even after more than a decade.  Other promises, such as 4 player co-op and the ability to have children, didn’t arrive until later Fable installments, but most people found the original Fable to be the most charming installment in the series.

In the end, the original Fable is a solid experience and one of the Xbox’s best games.  In some ways, to those who have played many modern RPGs, Fable may seem relatively simple in a handful of ways, but many of those more modern titles built on top of the foundation that Fable laid out, and it truly did raise the bar for RPGs in a lot of aspects.   For all the complaints that it didn’t live up to Molyneux’s hype, it did have some innovations that influenced many games in the years to come.

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Dead or Alive 3

While Microsoft did acquire Bungie and Lionhead in addition to some of its other internal development projects, they still needed to court third party developers — especially those that focused on arcades and consoles instead of just getting PC game developers to move over their home platform.  

The Microsoft team also wanted to be able to sign on exclusive content that would show off the technical capability of their powerhouse hardware.   This vision aligned well with Dead or Alive series creator Tomonbu Itagaki’s design philosophy of always targeting the most powerful console available.

At the same time, the fighting genre was at a bit of a turning point.  While Capcom arguably ruled the 1990s with it’s Street Fighter franchise, it struggled to maintain its hold on the genre in the early 2000s as other 3D franchises were building a following.  Itagaki’s goal was to focus on refining their franchise and harnessing the power of the Xbox to transform the DOA franchise into a true contender.  Some would say that early in the console generation, Dead or Alive 3 was a killer app for the Xbox (believe it or not, the term was used more for DOA3 than for Halo early on), blending the lighting-speed combo strings of Tekken with the intelligent strategy found in Virtua Fighter.

Team Ninja wanted to find the balance of incorporating new concepts while simultaneously refining the combat system.  Itagaki credits the approach to the team’s habit of completely deconstructing the game with each new generation.  “Mostly, we start from scratch”, he reveals.  “We look through every spec in the game, and if there’s anything we feel that we can use, we will pick it out and use that part, but even then, it will still be upgraded and refined.”

DOA3 quickly became one of the original technical showpieces for the Xbox launch while also being a fast and fun brawler.  DOA3’s animation seemed effortless, and the interactive environments reinforce this feeling of cohesion and immersion.  The game itself took much of what everyone loved about Dead or Alive 2 on Dreamcast and Playstation 2 with less emphasis on juggling, a new tag feature, and some other more minor tweaks. 

Dead or Alive 3 also saw the addition of two new female characters, Hitomi and Christie, as well as two new male characters, Brad Wong and Hayate (however Hayate was not exactly a “new” character as he appeared in the previous game as Ein, although his moveset in DOA3 is new). Hitomi quickly took off as one of the more popular female characters of the series despite her late addition. Dead or Alive 3 became the best selling game of the series and one of the top 50 best selling Xbox games.

Team Ninja was one of the few Japanese developers that showed the Xbox early support, but they were excited to see what they could do with the cutting edge specs of the 2001 console world,  Dead or Alive 3 did not disappoint those who were looking for a fast and furious fighter that was also accessible to the non-hardcore fighting player.

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Project Gotham Series

The Project Gotham series quickly went from being a follow-up to the popular Dreamcast racer, Metropolis Street Racer, to being one of the premier racing franchises in gaming.  The original game in the series was one of the essential launch titles for the Xbox and ended up being the second-best selling game on the console — second only to Halo.

Metropolis Street Racer introduced Bizarre Creations’ “Kudos” system that rewards players for racing stylishly in addition to quickly.  Unlike many racing games, winning the race doesn’t necessarily mean that they will advance to the next round — Kudos points factor into the challenge.  This encourages racers to work on their power sliding, overtaking opponents, and avoid collisions.  More Kudos points can also be racked up by executing longer stunts.  Also much like MSR, Project Gotham Racing prided itself on detailed and accurate creations of famous cities such as San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and New York City.

The beautiful courses are challenging, but your competition possibly even more stress-inducing.  Once you get into the races, you’ll frequently find yourself peering through the rear view mirror, trying to block your opponent from passing you. Sometimes you can manipulate the AI to your advantage by simply slamming cars to slow you down and help you around corners, but they’re smart enough to aggressively seek out gaps and pass you on straightaways.  Like most of the best AI opponents, you’ll find the competition in Project Gotham to be tough but fair.

Even with Bizarre Creations’ innovative additions to the racing genre, Project Gotham Racing still pushed the envelope in terms of visual detail and realism.  With such a good presentation, Guinness World Records actually issued the game records for their efforts in car models and racing environments.  The New York City area was especially impressive, featuring a Brooklyn Bridge comprised of more than one million polygons.

While the first games in the series did not support online play, Project Gotham Racing 2 did add Xbox Live functionality for both online races (up to 7 players) and downloadable content.  PGR2 added crossover SUVs and pickups to the selection of performance cars and super cars as well as a handful of new locations such as Stockholm, Moscow, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Sydney, and Yokohama.  The sequel also introduced the world to a cult classic, Geometry Wars, which was included as a bonus mini-game.

Project Gotham Racing did an excellent job of finding the right blend of realism and arcade racing.   It’s a fine balance that can appeal to anyone who appreciates speed and style.

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Forza Motorsport

With Sony’s racing simulation dominance with the Gran Turismo series, Microsoft knew they had to step up and create a juggernaut simulator of their own – Forza Motorsport.

Microsoft had already published a slew of racing games on its console, including Midtown Madness and Bizarre Creations’ exemplary Project Gotham Racing series, but at the time, Polyphony Digital’s simulation was not only the most popular and acclaimed racing game out there, but PlayStation’s number one series of any genre.

Microsoft took this challenge seriously by devoting nearly three years of development and a team of 150 experts to form Turn 10 — a development studio that would be tasked with documenting the minute physics of cars and their racing environments and pairing it with cutting edge graphics.  The focused on digitally describing gravity, drag coefficients, the weight of a car’s engine, surface temperatures, and thousands of other factors to build the most accurate environments possible at the time.  The team went above and beyond the standard zero-to-sixty times, top speeds, and other standard specs, instead doing a full physics model for each vehicle in the game’s lineup.

“From a business perspective it was supposed to be the Gran Turismo answer on the Xbox,” says Dan Greenawalt, creative director at Turn 10 and the face of Forza. “But that’s not what inspired us creatively, it was more about our own vision of what simulation should mean and combine an Xbox style of design -looking at the technology, the hard-drive and Xbox Live- and how we take advantage of that. So the first thing we were doing was building an engine from scratch. Which, as any developer will tell you, sucks. It’s hard work.”

When going head-to-head against the PS2’s Gran Turismo 4, Forza’s physics engines recalculates 240 times per second, compared to GT4’s 60 times per second.  This aimed to increase the accuracy of how a particular vehicle’s configuration would match against the airflow, ground traction, and such.  Prior to the game’s release, Popular Science published an interesting piece involving experienced racers testing out Forza with cars and tracks they were familiar with and comparing to real life.  

In addition to factoring in the configuration of the car and the environments, Forza innovated by calculating how damage not only influences the appearance of the car but how it affects the performance and physics of the car.  Collisions will alter the car’s handling, top speed, and acceleration.

When compared to Gran Turismo 4, Forza had another secret weapon.   Xbox Live was gaining momentum after the success of Halo 2. Forza Motorsport leveraged its connectivity with both online racing and the detailed livery editor, which allowed players to create and share paint jobs for their cars. A feature that became so integral to Forza that the studio snapped up some of its best amateur designers to sit at Turn 10 and design graphics for cars internally.

While the original Forza Motorsport may feel like a proof of concept compared to it’s predecessors, it did not disappoint Xbox racing enthusiasts due to its realism in terms of the racing itself and its ability to realistically model damage to cars from both a cosmetic and a performance standpoint.

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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Bioware was an upstart studio founded in the mid nineties by three doctors who decided to design and program their own games. Within a few years, they helped to revive the dying RPG genre on computers with Baldur’s Gate, its sequel, and Neverwinter Nights. Those games still bore a lot of the hallmarks of the older SSI games and other RPG contemporaries – very text heavy with graphics that could be best described as “minimal”. In 2003, however, they were given an opportunity that ushered in the era of the modern Western RPG.

Set 4000 years before the movies, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic tells the story of a mysterious Force sensitive who gets caught up in the latest assault by the Sith against the Republic, and it soon becomes clear that there’s more going on than just what is happening on the surface.

Having a good deal of PC development under their belts, LucasArts and BioWare felt at home developing KoTAR for the PC and Xbox. “We could do the things we wanted to do on the Xbox without as much effort as we’d need to do it on the PS2 or GameCube,” LucasArts’ Mike Gallo said.   Project Director Casey Hudson added “Having experience in developing for other consoles gave us the proper mindset for implementing this game on the Xbox, and, by comparison, the Xbox was relatively easy to develop for.”   Getting the chance to feed the hunger for RPGs on the Xbox was also a way to incentivize the Bioware team.

KoTOR introduced basically all of the staple conventions of modern Bioware games. The Star Wars setting provides the Light and Dark Side ratings that would later show up in affection bars and Paragon/Renegade ratings. Conversations are zoomed in, cinematic affairs that frequently include characters doing more than just staring at one another. Combat is much more action packed, though it is still semi-turn based (it’s actually still the d20 system; think Baldur’s Gate in real time with pause). You continuously return to your ship between missions and can easily change out party members from mission to mission. There’s a minigame based on Blackjack and several puzzles based on classic problems you probably saw in school.

KoTOR would later get a sequel done by Obsidian that would spend a lot of time investigating and subverting the themes of the greater Star Wars universe, but the original game reveled in that classic Star Wars feel. Despite the fact that it’s set so far before the movies, it still resonates; it still feels like a Star Wars game. Combine that with some amazing writing on the companion dialog (I challenge anyone to remove HK-47 from their party), and you have the harbinger of Western RPGs’ finally breaking Japan’s stranglehold on the console RPG market.

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Jade Empire

Fresh off their success with Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware set off to get back in touch with their roots and make an action game (that’s right, their first game was Shattered Steel, a mech simulation game). Rather than develop something like a Devil May Cry or a Ninja Gaiden, however, they went with an action RPG to take advantage of the pool of writing talent they’ve built up over the years. The result is Jade Empire, an RPG set in a China-inspired world featuring a martial arts based combat system.

Jade Empire’s combat is built around a familiar system of weak attack/strong attack/block that is seen in so many other places to form a rock/paper/scissors effect. The wrinkle comes from the fact that there are several different styles that one can switch between mid-combat. These styles have different attack animations, damage values, and possible added effects. This allows you potentially to subvert the standard triangle. In addition to the physical styles, you also have access to support styles (attacks that deal no damage but can inflict major status effects), magic styles (that use a magic meter), and weapon styles (which use a meter that can also be used for “bullet time”). Proper use of these various tools is the key to success.

The RPG elements are still strong; your character levels up, gaining access to additional styles, larger resource meters, and the like. The game is just as dialog heavy as KoTOR and you again have a morality meter, this time stylized as two different martial arts philosophies: the Way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist. This ends up being a bit of a shift away from the pure good/evil divide of Star Wars and is something closer to the Paragon/Renegade split of Mass Effect. Still, though, it does roughly correspond to good/evil choices much of the time. You, once again, have access to several companions, though this time you only can have one following you at a time. This is likely due to an attempt to avoid confusion in a melee-based game.

Jade Empire ended up being a stepping stone for Bioware before their next big game, Mass Effect. You can clearly see several ideas being tried out in Jade Empire before their finished version in Mass Effect, such as moving away from turn-based and role-based to fully real-time combat as well as making the morality system less about good/evil and more about player disposition; after all, at the end of the day, you still are trying to save the world because otherwise you wouldn’t have a plot.

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Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee

The creative studio, Oddworld Inhabitants, founded by Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning, had always wanted to develop a pentalogy of games each of which introduced a new hero that joins together to help the others with their own dilemma in a world with mystical destinies and evil corporations in a time similar to our own Industrial Revolution.

This series featured empathic little alien characters set in the Oddworld Universe that Lanning has described as “The Muppets meets the X-Files” and “Dysfunctional Disney”.  Their love of the world was clearly evident as each character had their own personalities unlike those in most action-oriented games up to that point. 

Fresh off the success of Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus on the PlayStation, Oddworld Inhabitants was trying their hand at bringing their ambitious interactive storytelling to more powerful hardware.   Even though it was the third game Oddworld title, Munch’s Oddysee served as the second chapter in the Oddworld pentalogy, it was also the first in the series to make its way to 3D gameplay.

In one early conversation with Xbox co-founder Seamus Blackley, Lanning decided to exaggerate what he needed in his game so he could figure out what the Xbox was capable of: the ability to put four dozen characters on the screen simultaneously, with multiple lighting and shading effects, a huge landscape with 400 trees in the background and clouds passing overhead casting shadows. 

“With the Xbox, this should be a breeze, right?”  Lanning asked.  Blackly laughed him off, and Lanning admitted he was kidding but only a little.  He wanted something ambitious, but after frustrations with the limitations of the PS2, he knew that Sony’s console wasn’t going to cut it (Munch’s Oddysee was originally announced for the PS2 — see the crew talking about the PS2 demo footage ).

An abundance of action was important, but Oddworld Inhabitants also was very passionate about the facial expressions and eyes on the characters.  “A lot of game developers don’t care about the eyes”, McKenna said, “but we come from making motion pictures.  We care about our characters more, and much of the emotion and empathy starts with the eyes”.

Much like with Fable, it was easy for an enterprising designer with powerful hardware at their fingertips to get overly excited.  Lanning was originally hoping to incorporate ambitious simulation aspects to the game — including “critter-husbandry, environmental management and exploitable addictions, day cycles and class struggles”.  You can read up on more of Lorne Lanning’s ambitions for the game in this interview from 2000.

With the small studio pushing to create an other-world experience on a cutting-edge platform, Oddworld Inhabitants ran into technical and time restrictions to meet the Xbox launch.  It also simplified the game’s depth a bit based on user testing feedback.  However, Munch’s Oddysee progressed enough in its less-ambitious form and was eventually shown alongside tech demos leading up to the Xbox launch on more than one occasion and was one of the marquee launch titles for the Xbox.

Lanning was able to show the game deploying dozens of little characters on the screen while simultaneously displaying a vast landscape featuring big cliffs, reflective streams, trees that looked like they swayed in the wind.  It was the same scenario he had joked about with Blackley, but now it was running on the Xbox.

“We’ve been waiting for a time when hardware is not the issue,” he said.  “The Xbox is allowing us to do what we’ve always wanted to do.  This is a sense of the world we’ve always been after and wanted to create…These are the stories we want to tell.  These are about characters that have dilemmas.  Our characters aren’t the superheroes we want to be.  Our characters are the poor, sad schmucks that we really are.  That’s important to us to empower these characters and bring them to life and make you feel compassion for them.”

Much like with Fable, Munch’s Oddysee had it’s ups and downs with critics, especially those that had hang-ups about the lofty ambitious early in the project.  Munch’s Oddysee, however, did deliver some of the best graphics, audio, and story demonstrated during the Xbox’s first year.  Munch also featured an excellent blend of platforming, puzzle solving, collecting, and battling while maintaining a nice pace. There were no discouraging difficulty spikes, but it required the player to engage their brain a bit and think ahead.

In hindsight, the delightful Oddworld games harken back to more imaginative time where a game’s narrative was absurd, its characters bizarre (but lovable), and its world weird and wonderful.  Experiencing this combination of what was the most cutting edge hardware of a generation is refreshing.

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Jet Set Radio Future

The Sega Dreamcast was a wonderful console with some ambitiously unique games that made the machines commercial demise rather painful for fans.  Once Sega announced they were going software only, everyone looked forward to see where Sega would share their love.

Even though Sega brought Sonic to all the remaining platforms at the time and sprinkled the PS2, GameCube, and Game Boy Advance with some interesting exclusives, Sega was arguably most generous to the Xbox, especially early on with gems include Panzer Dragoon Orta and North America’s only release of Shenmue II. 

Jet Set Radio Future was the epitome of early relationship between Sega and Microsoft.  Microsoft greatly needed some Japanese-crafted titles that were out of the ordinary to give additional life and variety to the game library.

Jet Set Radio Future’s slick cel-shading animation style was able to take full advantage of the high-end graphical capabilities with an approach that wasn’t aiming for true-to-life realism.  The soundtrack, much like the original Dreamcast title, was an amazing, eclectic experience featuring Jet Grind Radio mainstays Hideki Naganuma, Richard Jacques, and Guitar Vader, among others. 

For those unfamiliar with the series, Jet Set Radio Future sets you as a member of a graffiti-tagging gang of skaters in a futuristic Tokyo.  It combines tricks such as riding on walls, grinding on rails, and flips with collecting spray cans to try to tag your territory all while trying to escape the police. 

There are some significant gameplay adjustments from the original Dreamcast title; tricks such as grinding are much simpler to pull off, time limits are removed, more control is given over speed, and tagging large graffiti pieces is as simple as holding down a trigger.   

“From the smallest detail to the main features, everything was evolved,” explains Director Masayoshi Kikuchi.  “We are rebalancing lots of things — tricks, style animations, and game controls.  We want to give the game more extreme sensations, not only speed.  We really want to upgrade the feeling of skating in these urban environments.”

Jet Set Radio Future also features a full trick system that is essential increasing your speed when grinding and for making some of the seemingly impossible jumps you’ll have to make. As you progress through the levels, adding new trick skills will become more vital to your success.

The blissful combination of visuals, audio, and energetic gameplay is addicting for those who are willing to dive into its world.  JSRF was eventually eventually bundled as a console pack-in combo disc with Sega GT 2002, so it ended up in a lot of people’s hands.  On its own, it may not have received quite the commercial success it deserved, but it carved up a respectable place in the Xbox library and the memories gamers.

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Steel Battalion

In the early 2000s, Capcom was hitting a new stride of innovation and Capcom Production Studio 4, let by producer  Atsushi Inaba started working on a concept of creating a cool peripheral and then making a game that would suit that peripheral. It was definitely a big chance for Capcom to take as the peripheral would dramatically increase the consumer per-unit cost and wouldn’t necessarily be useable for future games. Despite that, they did end up taking it all the way, and the result is Steel Battalion.

Talk to anyone who paid attention to Xbox’s lineup at the time, and Steel Battalion will stick out. Retailing for $200, it features a huge cockpit simulation controller for piloting a walking tank in the vein of MechWarrior. Mech fans weren’t completely unfamiliar to buying a controller for a game.  Those that spent time on the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast may remember the Twin Sticks for use with the Virtual On franchise.  However, think of the Steel Battalion being the Gran Turismo/Forza to the Virtual On’s Ridge Racer/Project Gotham in the simulator vs arcade analogy.

The Steel Battalion setup features two joysticks, a throttle, three foot pedals, and more switches and dials than you can shake a stick at. The goal was to bring the simulator experience to consoles in a way that had never been done outside the PC before, and in terms of putting you right into the cockpit, Steel Battalion is fantastic.

In addition to all the standard stuff for weapon selection, targeting, and the like, the game features “realism” components like triggering wipers when mud gets splashed over the cockpit and a series of buttons and switches for triggering the startup of the machine. It even has an eject button which is crucial in gameplay; if you die in a mission instead of ejecting, your campaign is over and your save is wiped.

Of course, having been developed for the Xbox really lets the graphics match the controller’s sense of immersion.  While the models themselves aren’t especially impressive on their own, Steel Battalion makes excellent use of filters, shaders, and plenty of other visual tricks to maximize the visual impact on the hardware. The landscapes look like war-torn battlefields, and everything else has a gritty, realistic wartime style. From the look of enemy units as they collapse and explode to the dirt that kicks up when turning quickly, Steel Battalion is a breathtaking visual experience.

A multiplayer-only stand alone expansion called Line of Contact was also released, taking advantage of Xbox Live to let people compete head to head, but beyond that, the peripheral got no other use. It was just too specialized (though it has been repurposed on PC thanks to controller adapters). It was, however, a sign that consoles were starting to look for parity with PCs.

Random collector’s note: Only limited quantities of the first run of Steel Battalion were produced and sold out quickly. It was later re-released in limited quantities worldwide with blue controller buttons distinguishing it from the first edition with green button.  As you can expect, the game didn’t sell especially well and was a rather costly investment on Capcom’s part, but managed to turn a small profit.  Steel Battalion’s producer, Atsushi Inaba, stated that the production was developed to show “what can be done in the game industry that cannot be done in others.”  It’s always going to be easiest to stick to what works – rehashes, established genres or themes (such as sports), but this is self-destructive, he says.

Just as with the Forza vs Project Gotham analogy, don’t expect Steel Battalion to be a blissful experience for everyone.   It was designed to scare off casual players and cater to hardcore mech players.  With the intricate control scheme, there is a lot to keep track of, but those that enjoy that type of thing will find lots to geek out about.

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Ninja Gaiden

Development for this follow-up to the NES classic was originally started in 1999 for Sega’s NAOMI arcade system with an eventual Dreamcast port.  However, with the announced cut of the system in 2001, Temco wanted to make the Ninja Gaiden revival a PS2 launch title.  However, Itagaki was very impressed with the software development kits for the Xbox and pressured the team to move in that direction. 

Ninja Gaiden originally did not have plans to have common traits with its NES namesake.  However, for retail reasons, Temco talked Itagaki into considering it.  While they did not end up incorporating much in terms of story of game world (instead the new series is based on the world of Dead or Alive), the team noticed that fans were drawn to the violence, so he included that aspect in addition to the high level of challenge to unite the games in spirit.

Itagaki wanted Ninja Gaiden to be hard tough but fair — challenging the players on their reflexes rather than on their memories of layouts and timings.  AI played well into this scenario with enemies that are smart, reactive, and coordinate as a team.  In fact, you could be sent airborne by one opponent and then struck by a mid-air follow-up attack from another enemy.

Itagaki himself said of the opponent design, “In other action games, the enemies are there for you to kill. In Ninja Gaiden, the enemies are there to kill you.”  Of course, to combat these cunning creatures, you will need the hardware and software to deliver.  The Xbox and Ninja Gaiden do not disappoint.   The game runs a fluid 60 FPS, and the modern incarnation of Ryu Hayabusa is incredibly agile and responsive.  Ryu also gives you some jaw-dropping mobility options including running up walks, bouncing between walls, and traversing between the tops of enemies heads.  Of course, there are many other cunning maneuvers to learn, allowing you to navigate and destroy efficiently.  The Xbox was obviously the right choice for Team Ninja to provide the fluidity needed to fulfill this vision while also keeping the visuals stunning.

Team Ninja actually kept working on the Ninja Gaiden project and released free downloadable expansion packs called “Hurricane Packs”.  The two packs tweaked the AI difficulty and camera system, added enemy types and attack skills, and added some alternative worlds to battle in.  The expansions were later compiled with some other new features in a new retail release by the name of Ninja Gaiden Black.  Itagaki viewed this release as the final version of Ninja Gaiden and it was eventually ported with enhanced graphics on the PlayStation 3 under the name Ninja Gaiden Black Sigma in 2007.

In the end, it will take a lot of work to uncover all of Ninja Gaiden’s secrets, master your techniques to maximize the breathing room while battling your opponents, and of course, attempt to reach the game’s conclusion, but chances are that all you need is to give Ninja Gaiden a look to be extremely impressed by it. Obvious care and detail went into every single aspect of this game, and it’s still one of the brightest jewels of the Xbox library.

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Conker: Live and Reloaded

In addition to obtaining Bungie prior to the Xbox launch, Microsoft also acquired Rare, famed for its work on Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64.  Rare started out as a developer for the ZX Spectrum and did work for a handful of publishers to eventually partnering with Nintendo as a second party studio.

Since Rare needed a bit more financial power to keep growing, and Nintendo held off on offering more funding or an outright purchase, they accepted a purchase offer from Microsoft.  Rare owned their privately developed IPs like Conker and Banjo but obviously not Nintendo IPs like Donkey Kong and Star Fox, so Microsoft was buying franchises, not just the studio.  Rare’s first Microsoft title was actually a new IP – Grabbed by the Ghoulies – but it ended up getting mixed reviews and not grabbing the intended audience.  

Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the N64 was originally released in 2001, and while it wasn’t considered a commercial success, it had a cult following.   Conker was originally developed as a cutesy adventure game, but early response to the game was tepid.  Not wanting to waste the development work, they retooled the style of the game to depend on mature, scatological humor.  While this change was probably a major factor in its commercial limitations, it was also the bit that got certain gamers talking, especially considering it was on a Nintendo console.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day did get good critic reviews due to groundbreaking graphics for the N64, a great camera system, fascinating animation, and engaging gameplay.   Rare knew they did a lot right with Conker, and it did seem to make sense that the game would sell much better on a console that was seen as more grown-up like the Xbox. 

In 2005, Conker: Live and Reloaded was unleashed on the Xbox and featured a remake of Bad Fur Day for the single player mode as well as a new multiplayer mode that made use of Xbox Live for modes like Capture the Flag or Deathmatch modes.  The game was originally to be subtitled “Live and Uncut” and to feature a completely uncensored single player game.  But many fans were critical at how the censorship detracted from the game and soundtrack.  The multiplayer modes were pretty popular for well over a year and a half, keeping the game in the top 10 online titles for the Xbox.

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Crimson Skies:  High Road to Revenge

For the longest time, the Xbox installment of this arcade flight shooter flew under the radar with many owners of the Microsoft console, but High Road to Revenge eventually transitioned from “Hidden Gem” status to one that is frequently considered a mainstay in Xbox collections and recommendations after the 360 and Xbox One grabbed the spotlight.

The dieselpunk alternate 1930’s setting of Crimson Skies originated with Jordan Weismann and Dave McCoy from the role-playing game company, FASA.  (Weismann and FASA were known for titles such as BattleTech, MechWarrior and Shadowrun).  Weisman stated he wanted to “take the idea of 16th century Caribbean piracy and translate into a 1930s American setting”.

In this alternate timeline, United States is fractured into bunch of warring nations.  With flight being becoming the primary source of transportation, air piracy runs rampant and there’s no formal law enforcement to deal with it.   It’s up to the anti-hero Nathan Zachariah and his crew to take care of the situation.  Your task is to complete a series of defensive missions to combat the sky pirates. 

While discussing the development of the Crimson Skies universe, Weismann commented:  “Whenever I create different universes — MechWarrior, Shadowrun, Crimson Skies -— to me, it’s all about looking at ‘What are the fantasies that excited us when we were 5?’ And if we can find a new and more sophisticated way to tap into that fantasy … Crimson Skies is just combining two classic male fantasies: You get to be a pirate; you get to be a pilot.”

If you enjoy arcade-like flight action games such as Rogue Squadron or Star Fox, Crimson Skies will feel right at home.   The combat features intuitive controls and a slow but satisfying pace.  The Xbox hardware was able to bring great detail to the dogfighting experience whether it be enemies on the horizon or up-close-and-personal battles.  The draw distance is massive, pop up is entirely absent, and the resolution is crisp enough to give you a clear view of what’s going on at all times.

The ten different aircraft can be upgraded by earning credits in the game. Primary weapons have infinite ammunition, while secondary weapons like rockets and electricity waves can only be used a finite number of times.

While the campaign mode is the core of Crimson Skies, split-screen, system-link and Xbox Live multiplayer modes allow up to 16 players to dogfight in six game types on five multiplayer maps. Downloadable content was also released including seven new plans, two new planes, two new game types, and three new maps.

Crimson Skies’ presentation is rounded out by its personality created by professional voice acting that adds a blend of drama, noir, and comedy as well as its 1930’s era soundtrack that envelops you in adventure and charm.  

Overall, High Road To Revenge is an excellent, polished package that offers instant and constant entertainment from the moment you boot it up.

Shop for Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge on eBay
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Quality PC Ports

If you haven’t picked up on it already, it was a big selling point for PC developers to be able to jump into the console space with the familiar system architecture of the Xbox.   It took a little while for some of the most daring developers to be the first to invest in the new platform, but once the ball got rolling, biggers names and franchises started to dive in.

In the end, it was very healthy for the console industry as it led to a more diverse genre selection as a whole, and it could also be argued that it also a major stepping stone to a more Western influence in a previously Japanese-dominated console software market.

There were quite a few solid PC ports on the Xbox, but some of the most definitive titles are the following:

Honorable Mentions

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell – It could be argued that Splinter Cell was a major selling point for the Xbox.  It was an exclusive for the Xbox for a while, and other consoles’ ports were just a little less impressive than the their Xbox sibling.   It was also a fresh franchise that really only had Metal Gear Solid as legitimate competition.  The franchise eventually became a multi-platform blockbuster, making people forget it was ever a major selling point for the Xbox.  (eBay / Amazon)

Sega GT 2002 – The original Sega GT was the Dreamcast’s answer to Gran Turismo, and it was a respectable attempt at the time.  As Sega moved away from the hardware business and diversified its software offerings among different platforms, it decided to improve Sega GT on the Xbox.  It didn’t get a lot of attention on its own, but it ended up being widely distributed by being paired with Jet Set Radio Future on a pack-in disc.  Unfortunately, between Project Gotham and Forza, Sega GT 2002 got rather lost in the pack.  (eBay / Amazon)

MechAssault – MechAssault originated as a proposal to Microsoft from the team behind the BattleTech franchise about building a console installment from scratch to support online play.  MechAssault ended up being one of the first Xbox games to support Xbox Live, and it included many features that eventually became standard for a XBL-enabled title.  (eBay / Amazon)

Midtown Madness 3 – The first two installments of the Midtown Madness series were fun additions to a PC gamer’s collection.  They had the traditional fun of a racer but with more freedom given to the player instead of being restricted to a set course.  Additionally, nearly everything in the environment was fair game for smashing in or knocking over.  The third game in the series shined its brightest on Xbox Live where there were quite a few participants compared with some other racing games. (eBay / Amazon)

Feel free to read up more on our Defining Games Series or our Xbox 101 Beginner’s Guide for more information on Microsoft’s first console.  We also cover the Xbox in our Hidden Gems series.


6 Comments

Great list! Looking over at what Nintendo is doing with their mini classic consoles had a friend and I discussing what a “Xbox Classic Edition” would consist of. If a consoles identity in time is defined by it’s games, this list is about as definitive as it can get.

It’s now my hope that all these games become backwards compatible with Xbox One and are accompanied with the ability to download them so a new generation can experience the likes of KOTOR and Conker.

betagam7 says:

“The game was originally to be subtitled “Live and Uncut” and to feature a completely uncensored single player game. But many fans were critical at how the censorship detracted from the game and soundtrack.”

If I may offer a little constructive feedback, I found this part to be a little confusingly written. The second sentence seems like it’s going to explain the first but it’s actually about critical reaction to censorship that hasn’t expressly been noted. It feels like something is missing in between explaining that the game was released in a censored state.

AngrySquirrel34 says:

Welcome back racket! Excited to see new content up, with the promise of more to come.

My only suggestion is more emphasis on “what are the good games for today” rather than the “defining games” for retro consoles. While an interesting academic exercise, I’m not keen on running out and buying DoA, Forza, and PGR for the original XBox, for example, when much better versions of those games exist on 360 and XBOne.

The “best games for today” series, on the other hand, led me to many cherished purchases back in the day. Especially for the GBA (Drill Dozer!) and Dreamcast.

racketboy says:

Thanks for the warm welcome! I totally understand. I will probably revisit that series sometime in the future.
With this I was trying to round out the Defining series since I had most of the others from the generation. That and I also read “Opening The Xbox” which gave me a lot of enthusiasm for the background of the stories.

I also feel like it would be harder for me to cover the “Best for Today” on Xbox since I have limited Xbox knowledge and very little 360 knowledge.

AngrySquirrel34 says:

That makes sense. As a content provider (especially of the unpaid variety ;D) you have to pursue what interests you. I appreciate the work that goes into writing these articles, and look forward to the other projects you have in the pipes.

The other series I had a lot of appreciation for was the “Hidden Gems” series. The way you broke things out by genre was very helpful.

racketboy says:

Yeah, I’m hoping to slowly dig back into the Hidden Gems to revise and expand as well. It’s a challenge to prioritize all the possibilities 😉

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