The XBox console launched in 2001, two years after Microsoft announced it. The firm’s first step into the console space enjoyed a record-breaking start in North America, selling 1.5 million units in less than two months. Many of those sales were thanks to a strong set of early games, notably Halo: Combat Evolved, which is still regarded as one of the greatest launch titles of all time.
The console’s slogan was “Power your dreams”. But as with any console, power didn’t mean much without the games to show it off. Microsoft’s reputation and resources opened up solid third-party support, but many early games struggled to utilize the powerful hardware. Over its lifetime, an emphasis on more Western-friendly titles also limited XBox’s appeal in Japan and other Asian markets.
The console wars of the early 21st century drew lines with publisher exclusives. The original XBox had a strong line-up of unique titles, but it also faced intense competition. While it outsold Nintendo’s GameCube and Sega’s Dreamcast overall, it fell short of the record sales set by Sony’s Playstation 2.
By the time the final XBox game was released in 2007, it had a library of about 1000 titles. Some of those have become legendary, and here are the best released on Microsoft’s original console.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo is the kind of launch game that every console wants. Bungie’s first-person shooter didn’t just set a new bar for the genre on consoles. PC gamers had always treated FPS as their own, but this was the game that made them jealous. Halo was revolutionary. Alongside its epic, arching science-fiction story, it innovated console multiplayer and introduced regenerating health that would quickly become a shooter standard. Halo was a big statement from the new console on the block, and its 2004 sequel was nearly equal in every way.
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Playing The Sands of Time was a memorable experience and a multi-console high point that the franchise has never recaptured (although a much-delayed remake is in development). The fighting doesn’t quite hit its potential, but athletic moves and intuitive controls made for a platforming experience like no other. The time-turning mechanic at the center of the game set a challenge to all platforming rivals. Mainly, its legendary status is thanks to its brilliantly realized atmosphere and design. To see why, you only have to look at the disappointing rockier, harder-edged sequel.
Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow
The second Splinter Cell title fine-tuned the experience of 2002’s first game. In some ways, it felt like a natural extension of the original, expanding Sam Fisher’s world with a more engaging story and a step up in voice acting. It divided the critics but is probably the original XBox’s high-tech, stealth peak.
Dead or Alive 3
Another launch game was determined to show off the sheer power of this rugged console. An expanded role for its 3D-axis and extra time for counters were a major draw. Its environmental damage set a new benchmark for the series, too. DOA3 is an excellent example of polishing a formula to showcase the potential of a new platform.
The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
This game was a prequel to cult break-out film Pitch Black and a well-planned multimedia extension of the franchise when released alongside the blockbuster The Chronicles of Riddick. It stands head and shoulders above other film tie-ins on this console or any other. An excellent fusion of shooter and stealth, like the broader franchise, it attracted mass interest but was also comfortable with its cult appeal. Graphically, it stood up to big-hitting rivals like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, which made it one of Microsoft’s key exclusives.
Many of Psychonauts’ development team came from LucasArts, bringing their experience of humorous and compelling point-and-click adventures with them. Psychonauts was inventive in its approach to characters and level design, resulting in an evolved platformer with a psychic twist. If anything, it was a bit too ambitious. Its sales didn’t match its critical response, delaying a sequel for years.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
XBox owners had to wait a long year for this installment of Rockstar’s GTA series. San Andreas gave players a whole state to play in, and its tone set a benchmark that subsequent games haven’t entirely rediscovered. It created the impression that players could do anything, and as a graphical improvement on the Playstation version, it kept the rivalry between console owners strong.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
A legend that never fades, Knights of the Old Republic quickly achieved a strong reputation among fans of the space franchise. Developer Bioware set themselves an ambitious task with an RPG that made the most of its setting thousands of years before the Star Wars films. There were new planets, new characters, and even new lightsabers to grab. One of Bioware’s brilliant moves was fusing well-realized Star Wars mythos with the D20 system of Dungeons & Dragon in this rich and rewarding story.
Ninja Gaiden Black
A tweak of the 2004 original and its downloadable Hurricane Packs, also released on XBox, Team Ninja’s second Ninja Gaiden game addressed criticism with two new difficulty levels. The Ninja Dog setting dialed down the notoriously hard game but added constant mockery if you selected it. That’s Ninja Gaiden for you. A host of new costumes and weapons, along with a new combat-based mission mode, ensured its place as a top action-adventure game on the console. Challenging fights, plenty of gore, and satisfying combat mechanics made it a favorite.
Burnout 3: Takedown
The third game in the Burnout series traveled the globe in its mission to throw players against unrelenting AI and increasingly over-the-top thrills. The third game saw the Burnout franchise’s fun, destructive, and straightforward concept peak, and it remains one of the greatest arcade racers to grace a console. A key innovation was the Takedown of the title, where players repeatedly slammed into their opponents until they crashed.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
Pro Skater 3 made a splash upon release, earning top reviews on PS2 and an odd status as the final game released on the N64. However, the XBox version was generally regarded as the definitive one thanks to additional content and a higher frame rate.
Fable could never live up to its pre-release hype. While a few features didn’t make the final game, it innovated RPGs with its alignment ratings. Good actions increased positive points, like saving villagers or eating tofu, but players could also fall the other way. In the end, this Microsoft exclusive was just a bit too short. While a commercial success, it didn’t change the game the way it promised to. That quest fell to its sequels.