The original Xbox was a beast in more ways than one. Both console and controller looked as if they were made for an extinct race of giant gamers, and with that size came an unparalleled degree of processing power.
As a debut console, it challenged already established competitors with deep libraries of franchise exclusives and install bases. Even two decades later, many often think of Microsoft’s foray into console gaming as having a thin library and a lack of must-play exclusives outside of Halo.
We’re guilty of thinking this way, too. Going into creating a representative list of the best Xbox games, we had the mindset that we might struggle to do so while avoiding sequels and games from multiple series, yet the opposite turned out true – we struggled to curate this list down to just 20 games. The Xbox was much more stacked than we remembered. Surely, we’ve missed one or two of your favourites.
Don’t believe us? Read on to see just how many great games graced this big black and green monster of a console.
While this list isn’t ordered in any particular way, did anyone doubt that Halo: Combat Evolved would come first? A launch title for Microsoft’s risky venture, developer Bungie single-handedly made the Xbox a must-buy console while revolutionising how we played first-person shooters. We’d argue that, to date, it has been the most important launch game in any console’s history; without Combat Evolved, we might not have had successive Microsoft consoles.
A mind-blowing campaign on a lush ringworld saw the now famous Master Chief taking on the Covenant. It gave us breathtaking setpieces – The Silent Cartographer has one of the best beginning sequences to a level – with enemy AI and tight first-person action that redefined an entire genre. A sharp twist into horror territory from the latter third of the game shocked everyone who went in blind; quite suddenly, the Flood flipped how Combat Evolved played like a Grunt getting blown up by a plasma grenade. And it could all be played cooperatively with a friend.
This isn’t even mentioning the multiplayer. In an era before Xbox Live, four players could play on the same console, but the true star was the System Link feature that allowed more Xbox consoles to connect to the same local network. Hordes of friends got together in basements and college apartments to play through highly customisable multiplayer modes for hours upon hours. Halo: Combat Evolved was more than just a game – it was a revolution in every respect.
Its sequel Halo 2 improved upon what came before in almost every way and, of course, deserves to be on this list – but for the sake of diversity, we’ve omitted it. Suffice to say, it's also worth a look.
When the Dreamcast died, so too did hopes of a sequel to the sublime Jet Set Radio, which of course, made our list of best Dreamcast games. Luckily, such a tragic fate was not meant to be, and the series made a triumphant return to the Xbox two years later with Jet Set Radio Future.
Never then or since has rollerblading looked so cool. Set in Tokyo, Jet Set Radio Future put you in control of an inline skater tasked with reclaiming the city from an oppressive megacorporation and police force. Grinding rails, powerslides, and doing tricks were a necessary part of the game, and so too was branding the city with your own gang’s graffiti.
But it was the soundtrack more than the slick gameplay that set Jet Set Radio Future apart. Such a stylish game required comparable music, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it’s one of the best on Xbox and in gaming as a whole.
A reboot of a 1988 side-scrolling beat ‘em up, Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox retained the series’ punishing difficulty and added fluid, hack-and-slash action that would give the aptly named developer Team Ninja credibility outside of fighting games. As a visceral, controller-breaking romp through sixteen chapters of slaying and decapitating, Ninja Gaiden brought to the Xbox a rival to the Devil May Crys and God of Wars with a handful of naturally gifted female characters that our younger selves loved to ogle but would have us embarrassed to play the game today.
Other than some very imaginative boss designs and some great little puzzles, protagonist Ryu Hayabusa also came equipped with a handful of weapons that played quite differently and could match just about any playstyle. It’s a shame Team Ninja hasn’t made a return to the series other than releasing a remastered collection, though we’re not complaining, with all the great games they’ve gone on to develop since.
One of the best stealth games in history and certainly the best on the Xbox, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell innovated the genre and gave us a tale full of intrigue to go along with doing so. Michael Ironside brought some amazing depth with his voice work as Third Echelon’s field operative Sam Fischer. A layer of tension permeated all of Sam’s missions with its great emphasis on stealth and limited resources. With limited ammo for both lethal and non-lethal weapons and gadgets, his best weapon was the darkness from where he could sneak up on enemies to incapacitate or interrogate them quietly. He could also do the ‘split jump’ to suspend himself in hallways, which was equal parts funny-looking and cool.
A remake of this classic is currently being worked on at Ubisoft, and we hope they do it justice. It made such an impact on us that we can still hear the sound his night vision goggles made to this day.
A unique take on the genre, the original Project Gotham Racing challenged the very essence of racing games with the addition of Kudos points (an evolution of the system seen in the Dreamcast title Metropolis Street Racer). You see, instead of winning the race being of paramount importance, scoring enough Kudos points by drifting around corners, driving fast enough, and passing other drivers became key.
It made for an exhilarating, unique experience when combined with the level of polish and graphical fidelity the game had. This was also true of Project Gotham Racing 2, which improved upon the original with more cars and online functionality. Reviewers at the time lauded it as a feature-rich, gold-standard racing game, and we couldn’t agree more.
Project Gotham Racing’s developer Bizarre Creations suffered from the fate of many mid-level developers of the mid-2000s: gobbled up by mega-publisher Activision and spit out when it wasn't profitable enough. Bizarre Creations shuttered in 2011, though Microsoft owns the rights to Project Gotham Racing.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is still the best Star Wars game and has the best Star Wars story of all media. (No, you can’t convince us otherwise.) Amazing worlds to experience (except Taris) and characters with depth as deep as Tatooine’s sands are vast, it remains a stellar experience with one of gaming’s greatest twists that we won’t spoil on the off chance you haven’t yet experienced it – you really should.
An evolution of BioWare’s previous work, the round-based, pause-and-play combat worked in terms of strategy, excitement, and character advancement; levelling your customisable hero into a powerful Jedi felt great in 2003 and it still does now, mostly because BioWare built it upon well established D&D rules. We sincerely hope the remake, which has yet to receive any semblance of a release date, lives up to the original’s legacy.
It wouldn’t be a list of the best games on any given console without the inclusion of a Grand Theft Auto game. While many in the series graced the Xbox with their crime laden presences, we give the edge to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas over III and Vice City for a few reasons. Foremost, it was the final GTA on the console and, therefore, the most fully realised. It opened the series up to non-urban environments, giving us sprawling wilderness to explore along with three major cities.
High-speed police chases and shootouts between these cities, along with flying planes and helicopters across the massive map, laid the groundwork for later GTAs that continued to build upon the innovations San Andreas brought to the legendary series.
Building upon the first two Pro Skater games, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 cemented itself as the best Tony Hawk game and has maintained that title until this very day. With more ways than ever to kick-flip and grind through real-world locales (this Canadian author is quite fond of the Canada Olympic Park-inspired level from his hometown of Calgary), no game came close to it in terms of arcadey fun. Unlockable characters like Wolverine and Darth Maul make it the best Marvel game on this list and the second-best Star Wars game, too. Facts.
And the soundtrack – oh boy. Its high-tempo, punk and rap-heavy soundtrack introduced a generation to the likes of Alien Ant Farm, CKY, and KRS-One.
Before Assassin’s Creed, we had Prince of Persia. While it’s another game we’re (im)patiently waiting for a remake for, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time cleaned house in 2003, winning plentiful Game of the Year awards for good reason. The use of the Prince’s Dagger of Time added an extra layer of complexity and fun to a crowded action-adventure genre to go along with a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood Blockbuster film (and no, don’t remind us of the film starring Jake Gyllenhaal).
Several sequels and a reboot would emerge from Persia’s sands in the following years, creating a lasting legacy we’re excited to see continue.
A direct challenger to the PlayStation’s Gran Turismo series, the first Forza Motorsport took realism to unprecedented heights in 2005, pushing the Xbox for all it was worth. At the time, it was by far the most realistic racer ever made, and that epithet would continue all the way up to the absolutely gorgeous Forza Motorsport 5.
The wide variety of cars available, from common sedans to sports cars, and the different career modes available to them, made the first Forza a must-play for any car enthusiast. And while the Xbox original may no longer look like the cutting-edge, realistic masterpiece that it once was, it's a series that still impresses today.
For quite some time, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was the pinnacle of movie-based games; in the mid-2000s, we got quite a lot of insulting shovelware that tried to sell copies on name alone. This was not the case for Butcher Bay. A prequel to the film The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black starring everyone’s favourite family member Vin Diesel, Butcher Bay has players control Riddick as he tries to escape from a maximum security prison.
A mish-mash of genres, including stealth, action, and first-person shooting, Butcher Bay took after great games like Splinter Cell, Far Cry, and Half-Life and lived up to their high bar. It won several Game of the Year Awards, including one from Spike TV, and went on to earn a sequel on the next generation of consoles.
The least well-known title from BioWare’s era of RPG domination, Jade Empire took what we loved from BioWare RPGs and firmly planted them in Chinese myth. With dialogue mechanics taken from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire set itself apart not only with its setting but also with its ‘Open Palm’ and ‘Closed Fist’ conflict resolution options that leaned neither toward good or evil. Instead of magic or the Force, the Spirit Monk protagonist channelled Chi to unleash otherworldly attacks during its real-time combat.
Despite underperforming in sales, Jade Empire still had every hallmark of what made a BioWare game an immersive, must-play experience, and while the series is all but dead, we still hold out hope for a revival one day.
Egregious loading times aside, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind gave Xbox owners a masterpiece of an open-ended RPG. Much more free-form than its more prominent sequels, Morrowind set adventurers completely free on the island of Vvardenfell. This was a time before rampant enemy scaling and scripted events; Morrowind had an absurd amount of content to uncover in every direction and a myriad of ways to break the game outright.
But it wasn’t just this freedom that made Morrowind great. A deep lore permeated throughout the entire game. The odd Telvanni wizards. The nomad ashlanders living in the dusty wildernesses. Dagoth Ur and his cthulu-like abominations. The list goes on – for any fantasy fan, the third Elder Scrolls game was the game to play on the Xbox.
Despite never living up to what developer Peter Molyneux tried to sell to the media and fans, Fable turned out a great Xbox game regardless. Fable follows the Hero of Oakvale’s life as he becomes either a renowned hero, a terrible villain, or something in between. More than just dialogue choices, the hero’s appearance would change over time as he killed innocents or protected them, ate vegetarian or abused his wife/husband, giving a fresh, perceptible layer to the role-playing genre that even expanded to how much beer he drank or how high his Strength stat was.
Townsfolk would react to your appearance and actions in many fluid ways, such as cowering in fear or praising your deeds. In many ways, these mechanics were ahead of their time, and like many games on this list, we eagerly await more info on the continuation of the series.