Xbox 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Microsoft’s Original Console

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Check  out other Guides in the Retro Gaming 101 Series

The sixth generation of console gaming offered some of the biggest upsets in console video game history in the decades following its crash.  Former console powerhouse Sega said goodbye, Sony claimed some of the highest console sales in history, and an American company managed to reenter the console market and actually grab hold of the second place sales spot.  Microsoft had become interested in console video games after helping develop Windows CE for the Sega Dreamcast and watching PC sales begin to decline in the closing days of the dot-com bubble.  The possibility of a Microsoft console was first mentioned by Bill Gates in late 1999, which was then confirmed by the company in a March 2000 press release.

The Xbox has become a symbol of much consternation with gamers in a generation where competition was quite fierce.  The brand managed to garner little support in Japan but became a largely American-themed console, championing series such as Halo, Dead or Alive, Ninja Gaiden, and Project Gotham Racing, and games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Fable.  Despite what criticism may remain from days gone by and what criticism is now being fired at its successor, the Xbox 360, the Xbox deserves its place among the likes of the Dreamcast, Gamecube, and PS2, and fully deserves to have its library explored.

Background Information

  • The Xbox was released in the United States on November 15, 2001, followed by a February 22, 2002, release date in Japan and March 14, 2002, in Europe.
  • The Xbox was originally known as the Direct X-Box.  Former Microsoft VP of game publishing Ed Fries told Gamasutra that marketing hated the name and came up with others, but focus testing revealed Xbox was the name of choice.
  • In the United States the Xbox unveiled at $299, while it sold for 299€ through most of Europe, £299 in the UK, ¥34,800 in Japan, and AU$699 in Australia, though it dropped swiftly to AU$399 to compete with the Gamecube.
  • By the end of its life the Xbox cost $149 in the US, and between 2001 and 2005 Microsoft had reported a nearly $4 billion loss selling them.
  • The Xbox was produced until late 2006, and the last game, Madden NFL 09, was released August 2008.  Nvidia stopped producing the console’s GPU in August 2005.  By the end of 2006 the Xbox had shipped over 24 million units, putting it well behind the PS2 but ahead of the Gamecube.  The majority of Xbox sales came from the United States.
  • Halo: Combat Evolved was the best selling launch title.  Halo 2 was the best selling overall Xbox game.
Xbox Prototype

Xbox Prototype Hardware

Historical Impact

  • The Xbox was Microsoft’s first foray in the console video game market.  While it failed to take the top spot in the sixth generation, it showed that once again an American company could make a successful console, albeit at an enormous loss.
  • While the company’s first attempt at making their own console, it was not the first time Microsoft had worked with console developers.  The company had developed an optimized version of Windows CE for the Dreamcast, but decided against using it for the Xbox due to internal politics.
  • With the PC market stagnating in the wake of the dot-com bust, more and more PC games were ported to the console.  This trend has continued, leading to some critics claiming the PC market is dying.
  • Following in the footsteps of early console FPS successes like GoldenEye 007, Medal of Honor, and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, the Halo series incorporated large scale multiplayer rivaling PC FPS, proving once and for all that the genre could be successful on a console.
  • At the time of its release, Halo 2 became the highest selling piece of entertainment in the first 24 hours of its release.  It sold $125 million worth of copies in a single day.  Comparatively, the film Spider-Man held the box office record at the time for most successful opening at $114 million over three days.
  • In 2002, Nvidia filed with the SEC claiming Microsoft was seeking a $13 million discount on shipments of Nvidia’s chips for fiscal 2002.  Microsoft responded by alleging that Nvidia had violated the agreement the companies had entered into, sought reduced chipset pricing, and attempted to ensure that Nvidia fulfilled Microsoft’s chipset orders without limit of quantity.  The dispute was quietly settled without the terms being released in February 2003, and Microsoft’s next console, the Xbox 360, featured a GPU from Nvidia’s rival ATI.
  • The original Xbox controller holds the Guinness world record for largest video game controller.

Strengths

  • Multiplayer Options: Xbox consoles feature 4 controller ports per console, system link cables allow for up to 4 consoles to be linked together for 16 players in the same game, and Xbox Live allowed more users to connect via the Internet from their homes when it was still active.
  • Break-Away Cables: Xbox controller cables feature breaking points where they can snap apart safely if accidentally tugged on.  This means someone tripping over a cord won’t lead to damaged controller ports or yanking the console off the shelf.
  • Modding: The Xbox was very popular with the mod community, so those with a little technical know-how can change the machine in a variety of ways to fit their needs.
  • Cheap: Outside of certain specific titles and peripherals, the Xbox game library is generally cheap; so too is the console.  Xbox 360s are backwards compatible with specific Xbox titles if an Xbox 360 HDD is attached.
  • DVD Playback: Much like the PS2 (but unlike the Dreamcast, Gamecube, and Wii), the Xbox is capable of playing DVDs.
  • Digital Media-Friendly: The Xbox can play music CDs and rip them to the console’s hard drive, then play them from there.  Certain games also allow players to access their audio data.
  • Hard Drive: The console saves game data to the 8 GB hard drive, so owners don’t have to worry about purchasing memory cards.  There is a memory card for those that want to transfer saves between consoles.
  • Lots of Game Ports: While many of the games may be ports or titles simultaneously released across consoles, the Xbox received quite a few enhanced ports of PS2 games, such as Genma Onimusha or Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams (Inner Fears in Europe).

Weaknesses

  • Size: The console was criticized heavily upon release for its size, as well as the size of its controllers.  Microsoft responded with the release of the smaller S type controllers for the Japanese console launch, but the stigma stayed.
  • Minimal Japanese Support: The Xbox library consists heavily of ports from other consoles and PC ports, which may keep away some collectors who already own those games on other machines.  The console also lacked the support of many Japanese developers, so fans of genres like JRPGs will likely be disappointed.
  • Accessories Needed for DVDs: Playing DVDs requires purchasing additional peripherals or modding the console.
  • Xbox Live Now Discontinued: While a strength at the time, Xbox Live is no longer available.  This includes online multiplayer support for any Xbox game played on the Xbox 360, and downloadable content for Xbox games can no longer be accessed.
  • Early DVD Drive Reliability Issues: Early Thomson DVD-ROMs have a tendency to become unreliable and give disc reading errors.  While these were replaced in later models with the Thomson TGM-600 or Philips VAD6011 DVD-ROM drive, these could also fail, resulting in the console being unable to read newer discs or displaying an error message showing a PIO/DMA identification failure.
  • Digital Game Signatures: Some game saves are digitally signed and won’t work if attempting to load them on a different console.  This limits the use of the memory card for transferring saves.
  • Random Hardware Reliability: A very small number of Xboxes suffered from component failure leading to the power cable melting or burning inside the console.  The failure rate was less than 1 in 10,000, and Microsoft released an updated power cable to fix the issue for free, but it’s something to keep in mind in earlier Xboxes in the US and Europe.
  • Pricey Accessories: Despite many of the games being cheap, some of the accessories are not

Xbox Console and Controllers

Technical Specs

  • CPU: 32-bit Coppermine based Pentium III with a 32kB L1 cache and 128KB L2 cache.  It runs at 733 MHz.  The Xbox has a 133 MHz FSB.
  • GPU: 233 MHz NV2A by Nvidia and Microsoft, featuring 4 pixel pipelines with 2 texture units each, a theoretical pixel fill rate of 932 Megapixels/second and texture fill rate of 1,864 Megatexels/second.  It features full scene anti-aliasing, as well as bilinear, trilinear, and anisotropic texture filtering.
  • OS: Entirely custom according to the Xbox dev team, though it is a stripped-down Windows 2000.
  • Total shared memory: 64 MB DDR SDRAM at 200 MHz.
  • Audio processor: NVidia MCPX, with 64 3D sound channels, HRTF Sensaura 3D audio enhancement, and MIDI DLS2 Support.  It is capable of Dolby Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS Surround, as well as mono and stereo.
  • EDTV and HDTV Support.  Resolutions: 480p/576i/576p/720p/1080i.  Max resolution: 1920 x 1080
  • 4 proprietary USB 1.1 ports
  • A/V Outputs: composite, S-Video, component video, SCART, RCA, and TOSLINK

Xbox Game Library

Even though it was overshadowed by the Playstation 2, the orignal Xbox had a respectable game library — especially by the end of its lifespan.  Here are a few guides that will give you a good idea of games to be on the lookout for when building your Xbox library.

Accessories

Xbox Original "Duke" Controller Xbox Controller v1 (aka The Duke) : The initial release of the Xbox controller was bulky, to say the least. There were a few people that actually prefer these models, but most people rejoiced when these were replaced with a smaller model.
Shop For Xbox Duke Controller at eBay
Shop For Xbox Duke Controller at Amazon.com
Xbox S Controller Xbox Controller v2 (aka Controller S): While the original Xbox controller was quietly discontinued, the Type S controller was unveiled in a variety of colors. If you’re going to buy an Xbox, look for these.
Shop For Xbox Controller S at eBay
Shop For Xbox Controller S at Amazon.com
Logitech Wireless Xbox Controller Wireless Controllers: Several wireless controllers were released by different companies, including Logitech, PDP, Activision, and others. The Logitech controllers are generally the most popular and provides almost a preview of what to expect with the Xbox 360 controller.
Shop For Xbox Wireless Controller at eBay
Shop For Xbox Wireless Controller at Amazon.com
Xbox HD Pack Video Cables: Those interested in stepping up from RCA cables can look into the official Advance AV Pack, High Definition AV Pack, or Advanced SCART cable if you’re in Europe. Numerous third party cables also exist, but they’re a crapshoot depending on the manufacturer.
Shop For Xbox Video Cables at Amazon.com
Xbox DVD Playback Kit Xbox DVD Movie Playback Kit: This “kit” is essentially a remote which enables the Xbox to play DVD movies. If you’re at all interested in playing DVDs on your black and green box without going through the trouble of modding it, this piece of equipment is required.
Shop For Xbox DVD Playback Kit at eBay
Shop For Xbox DVD Playback Kit at Amazon.com
Xbox Memory Card Memory Card: The 8 MB Xbox memory card will allow the transfer of saves for the Xbox, just in case you want to take your saves with you or manage to fill up that 8 GB hard drive.
Shop For Xbox Memory Card at eBay
Shop For Xbox Memory Card at Amazon.com
XBox System Link Cable System Link Cable: These bad boys are required to allow Xbox consoles to hook together for up to 16 player action.
Shop For Xbox System Link Cable at eBay
Shop For Xbox System Link Cable at Amazon.com
Xbox Live Starter Kit Xbox LIVE Starter Kit: This isn’t nearly as important now that Xbox Live no longer works for the original Xbox It included a headset and subscription to the service, as well as a game, such as Mech Assault or Crimson Skies.
Xbox Media Center Extender Media Center Extender: This kit enabled the Xbox to stream content from a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC and could also be used to play DVDs.
Shop For Xbox Media Center Extender at eBay
Shop For Xbox Duke Controller at Amazon.com
Wireless G Xbox Adapter Microsoft Wireless-G Xbox Adapter: This wireless adapter for the Xbox allowed players to wirelessly connect to Xbox Live. Even better, it’s apparently compatible with the Xbox 360.
Shop For Xbox Wireless G Adapter at eBay
Shop For Xbox Duke Controller at Amazon.com
Xbox Portable Screen Portable Screen: If you absolutely need to play Xbox games while traveling, this 7” screen from Intec will be a godsend…as long as you have the required power adapter to power it and are willing to put up with a 7” screen.
Shop For Xbox Screen at eBay
Shop For Xbox Screen at Amazon.com
Xbox X Connection Xbox X Connection: If you absolutely hate the Xbox controller, this device allows you to use PlayStation controllers instead. It even enables the Dual Shock feature.
Shop For Xbox X Connection at eBay
Xbox Action Replay Action Replay: If you absolutely, positively must cheat in an Xbox game, accept no substitutions.
Shop For Xbox Action Replay at eBay
Shop For Xbox Action Replay at Amazon.com
Xbox Headset Alternate Headsets: Numerous third party headsets were released for the Xbox for those that didn’t want to stick with the original, including Plantronics officially licensed Halo 2 headset.
Xbox Music Mixer Music Mixer: Providing a music player with visualizations, some karaoke features, and a microphone, this device also allowed the uploading of JPEGs, WAVs, and MP3s from PCs running the Xbox Music Mixer PC Tool.
Shop For Xbox Music Mixer at eBay
Steel Battalion Controller Steel Battalion Controller: The mother of all mech controllers, this baby cost a pretty penny upon release and was the only way to play Steel Battalion. It’s expensive, bulky, and must be set up on a desk, sure, but no hardcore mech lover with an Xbox should be without it.
Shop For Xbox Steel Battalion Controller at eBay
Shop For Xbox Steel Battalion Controller at Amazon.com

Xbox Live Beta Tester Prizes: This rare set of equipment was given to beta testers of Xbox Live.  It included a translucent orange memory card, headset carrying case, and a t-shirt with the phrase “I have great hands.”

Emulation

  • Emulation of the Xbox hasn’t come very far and is almost exclusive to Windows.  The two furthest along are Cxbx and Dxbx.  Cxbx has been in development for nearly a decade, but suffered from downtime until interest in recent years took off.  Despite the similar names, the two are not competing with each other, instead using each other as inspiration to further both projects.
  • Xeon is an Xbox emulator for Windows XP that runs one game: Halo.  It doesn’t run it particularly well and hasn’t updated since 2003, so don’t expect anything more.
  • Xenoborg is another Xbox emulator for Windows, created by blueshogun96.  Blueshogun96 has released the alpha source code and has since joined the development team for Cxbx.
  • Because of the similarities with PCs, many emulators have been released on the Xbox.  Those include: MAMEoX (MAME), NeoPopX (Neo Geo Pocket Color), NeoGenesis (Sega Genesis), PCSXbox (PlayStation), and even Frodo-X (Commodore 64).

Modding

  • Andrew “bunnie” Huang, PhD, is believed to be the first person to hack an Xbox and released a book on the subject in 2003, Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering.  He penetrated the initial layer of security on the Xbox BIOS within several months of its release.
  • There are four major methods to modding an Xbox: modchips, TSOP flashing, softmods, and hot swapping.  TSOP flashing only works in select early models.
  • Installing alternate operating systems is a popular Xbox mod.  Linux, Unix, Berkeley Unix, Darwin, and Windows CE have all found ways onto the Xbox.
  • Some mods are used to install trainers, enabling cheats in games and over Xbox Live.  It can make for some interesting changes to gameplay, though it’s frowned upon for competitive gameplay.
  • Modding can also result in alternate dashboard, allowing for a greater variety of options and the ability to install/uninstall a variety of programs or backup information.

23 Comments

  1. toadhall says:

    Nice! This has piqued my interest in getting an Xbox, although the cost of importing one to my country could end up horrendous…

  2. BulletMagnet says:

    Two things I noticed:

    1) I was under the impression that the Jaguar’s controller was the largest, though I might be wrong.

    2) Under “advantages” you might add the system’s innate horsepower (best among its competition) and more specifically its HD readiness: while the other systems had some progressive scan and/or widescreen capabilities, neither went as far on this front as the XB did, not to mention that component cables for the GC are a pain in the neck to find.

  3. marurun says:

    Quite a comprehensive piece, here. Needs a little spell checking, though, ie. respectible.

  4. Stranno says:

    Best scene console ever, thanks to Xport

  5. LazorRamone says:

    He he, just few days ago I took my modded xbox out of a cupboard and put there few emulators plus games recommended on this site, and today, another article about Xbox 🙂 Must be a special sign 😀

    I personally find “S” controller great, one of the best joypad ever (I have tried PS2, PS1, Dreamcast, original Saturn and Mega Drive/Genesis controllers). Xbox massiveness is high price for its capability – harddrive, power. DVD drives are rubbish, really.

    Despite Xbox modability and ability to run (almost) perfectly plenty of cool emulators its, in my opinion, the worst console of those four from 6th gen consoles (DC, PS2, GC, XB) for retrogaming. Almost no japanese imports, 2D shmups, only few good beat em ups, retro collections and thats all. PS2 has at least some good shmups, DC is for me as an “oldtimer” the best. And the last “retro-console” ever.

  6. Dan says:

    While lacking in JRPGs, the xbox has quite an impressive selection of western styled RPGs, including KOTOR 1 & 2, Fable, Jade Empire and Morrowind. And as pointed out, has an oddly good selection of 2d fighters.

  7. Duane Dibbley says:

    I got an original Xbox about a year ago just to play Panzer Dragoon Orta. Totally worth it, IMO. I’ve also been playing through the first Halo, which is a pretty good game, but highly overrated. I have had good results from Monster’s component cable. Also of note is where the Xbox manual states something to the effect of the Xbox being heavy enough to crush small children.

  8. Metal Jesus says:

    This is a great overview with great detail… You and I seem to be on the same wavelength sometimes. 🙂 Here is my video retrospective I published a few months ago.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXB_clwjI28

  9. Bob says:

    One thing about the XBOX I hate the most is the controllers. The Logitech wireless ones were pretty bad, original was pretty bad.

    Xbox360 on the other hand has the best current gen controllers IMO.

  10. CRTGAMER says:

    Nice Guide! I held off on getting this console because of all the other systems I already own. the size of this console is huge, almost as big as an Atari 5200. Steel Battalion is the game that would win me to get an XBox, if only i can find the that doesn’t involve a second mortgage! 🙁

    Say, how does one get their Avatar pic in the comments?

  11. CRTGAMER says:

    To clarify, the expensive Steel Battalion Controller.

  12. racketboy says:

    And Thanks, Metal Jesus,
    I need to get caught up on watching the rest of your archive — good stuff!

  13. Calibrator says:

    I had a Gamecube back then and a Dreamcast before it and didn’t think too highly about the Xbox as it seemed to have mostly PC conversions. I was of course aware that there are some great exclusives or “best versions” on this console like Cold Fear and Stranger’s Wrath (both highly recommended by the way) but there just wasn’t enough incentive to get a brand new system which also was very expensive, initially.

    However, last year I got a used one in good condition with a solid library (lots of “must-haves” like Fable, Halo 2, Jade Empire, Rallisport Challenge etc.) for a good price and I was *pleasantly* surprised by the whole system. It boots up quickly, has a fairly easy menu, game loading is acceptable and 5.1-sound is supported if you get the right cable.
    The only critique I had: The fan was way too loud. I replaced it with a spare PC fan and now have a great system that I get back to whenever I’m too bored with the PS3 😉

  14. pakopako says:

    What, no mention of the external HD DVD accessory for the (now) discontinued line of HD DVDs?

    Duane Dibbley — also don’t forget the XBOX is bullet proof in case your friend in the Sanitation ministry gets itchy in the trigger-finger again.

  15. Calibrator says:

    @pakopako:
    The HD-DVD-addon was for the X360!

  16. Zell says:

    emmm…Nice but i though every console from 6th generation and above comes with 128 bit processor, not a 32bit cpu

  17. breakwind says:

    Although i’m a proud PS2 owner, i was always envious of the Original XBOX’s awesome pc-like processing power and online set-up.The graphics and the ability to rip audio tracks your game disc is something the PS2 console severly lacked!

  18. boringsupreez says:

    Xbox is one of my top 3 favorite consoles, nice to see a feature on it.

  19. Patrick says:

    I see tons of used Xboxes on Craigslist. Cheap good last gen console.

  20. Tyler says:

    I think you should add something about being able to play online with programs such as Xbox Connect and Xlink Kai, Xbox/Halo 2 is far from dead.

  21. Aaron Charron says:

    I loved this system and it sports my largest library of games, edging out my Dreamcast collection (because i lost some DC games). I even still have a bunch of XBM demo disks.

    Ninja Gaiden really showed off the capabilities of Team Ninja.
    Dead or Alive 3 also showcased the power of the XBOX as well as the second game showed off what the Dreamcast could do. Shenmue 2, PGR, Jet Set Radio Future, NHL 2K5 (Best version), Otogi, KOTOR, Jade Empire, 2 Great Oddworld games. Blinx the Timesweeper (underrated), Mechassault (the second was kind of lame and way too easy). Best version of Splinter Cell. I even liked Bloodwake.

    Overall it was the Sega exclusives that brought me over there. It was a killer decision picking it up over the Gamecube.

  22. TheBrick says:

    The Duke, the biggest controller ever? Hell no. Biggest gamepad? Definitely. The biggest controller ever would probably be the Steel Battalion controller, coincidentally also for the Xbox.