This is the company that couldn't pull the plug on its muscular and costly console fast enough -- and not just because the cord was about to incinerate your house. Microsoft's rapid prudence allowed it to rein in the hardware for its next system, and to successfully transplant Xbox Live into a body now recognized for its sustainability, if not its fragility.
It worked out for the business, but didn't leave much time for less popular system-exclusive games to flourish or to be found. Ironically, the Xbox commercial that drew the most ire, after it crudely launched a baby through a window and into a cemetery, proved that there can be some truth in advertising after all. "Life is short," it said, "play more." We wrongly figured it was talking about us.
After the break: A list of our favorite, often overlooked Xbox games.
Breakdown is a bizarre FPV (first-person verber). The game's head-mounted camera never comes off, and never fails to capture what seems excessive in one moment and expressive in the next. When you do a sideways roll, the camera rotates a full 360 degrees. You drive a jeep through an earthquake, tilt your head back to down a soda, physically pick up ammunition from the floor, administer flying kicks, and visibly regret eating a poisoned hamburger -- all from a first-person perspective.
The novelty doesn't always translate to effective mechanics, and being punched in the back of the head isn't more enjoyable in a game than it is in life, but Namco's blind devotion to its virtual eyes keeps the whole game together. Chronicles of Riddick and Mirror's Edge have done it better, years later, but without the kooky sci-fi plot that somehow blends time travel with "The Matrix."
Developed by Beep Industries, Voodoo Vince exhibits an odd resentment for the cute, bouncy protagonists we so love guiding over levitating platforms. Brought to life in a caricature of New Orleans, Vince is a sarcastic, asymmetrical doll with a penchant for suicide. Able to redirect his pain onto others (how dark!), Vince can temporarily kill himself using semi-random, non sequitur methods. Running with scissors is a classic, but there's no beating the summoned drive-by shooting from an old-fashioned mobster car.
The off-beat, occasionally mean humor covers up a lot of holes in the platforming, and there's a lot of obligatory thingy collecting, but at least Vince is likely to join you in mocking those vestigial bits.
Before they were chained to the tank assembly line, the folks at DICE made really fast cars. You might only know them through Battlefield (or Joystiq articles in which someone does and then doesn't announce Mirror's Edge 2), and might think it odd to think of them having an excellent arcade racing pedigree, reaching all the way back to 1998's neon-drenched Motorhead.
Rallisport Challenge 2 reflects some of DICE's ongoing passions: it looks great, effectively conveys the feeling of hurtling along in a metal cage, and is best built for online play -- well, it was back in the day. Does anyone still remember Microsoft's "XSN Sports" brand?
Panzer Dragoon Orta is so good, it's worth forgiving every instance of "You Orta play this" incurred in reviews. Sega's Smilebit team reduced many of us to blubbering, inarticulate idiots at the time, coaxing us to describe the visually astonishing game as squeezing the last drop of graphics out of the Xbox. We somehow made effective programmers into jacked-up juicers.
Even without the pedigree of the Panzer Dragoon series (which brings along beautiful music and a melancholy world), Orta stands out as a challenging, relentlessly paced on-rails shooter. Switching between three different and equally useful dragon types, dodging projectiles, and attacking enemies all around you is a hectic affair, and it all pays off in a nail-biting, hair-pulling fight against an abstract final boss. So yeah, you really Orta play this.
JSRF created an unexpected conduit for Sega fans between the Dreamcast and the Xbox. If you need proof of the Xbox's technological superiority over Sega's failed system, look to the massive playgrounds and crowds found in JSRF. It's not quite an open world, but the free-form skating introduced in Jet Grind Radio can really breathe here.
Sega didn't let that extra power go to waste. In addition to refining Jet Set's bold, cel-shaded graphics (remember, that used to be a THING), the developers simply lose their minds when it comes to level design. JSRF is a game brimming with challenge, exemplified by the complicated, criss-crossing network of rails and high jumps (and dinosaurs) that shows up in an elaborate theme park. The theme is NIGHTMARE.
JSRF is perhaps best remembered, however, for telling us to shut up and eat. Too bad no bon appetit!
This game was overlooked by almost everyone, including Microsoft, who declined to publish this Microsoft Game Studios-developed game outside of Japan. Those who did notice the budget-priced game got a fast-paced, strategic, and weird online experience that has yet to be replicated.
It's a multiplayer arena combat game, but it also a card game, with every attack "drawn" from spawn points around each arena. Players build their "decks" to outfit themselves with all the attacks they want, from projectiles to flame swords, and then submit to the luck of the draw as they face off in ruined post-apocalyptic cityscapes. If only more people had played it, this "online gaming" thing might have worked out. [Note: This entry is contributed by JC Fletcher, because stupid Ludwig somehow missed this game.]
First of all: Good luck selling a game called "Quantum Redshift."
In case the title didn't clue you in, it's a futuristic racing game (see: pointy hover vehicles) that borrows happily from Wipeout and F-Zero. A more apt comparison at this point would be Star Wars Episode 1: Pod Racer, the one good thing to come out of the prequel trilogy. Despite boasting characters even more irritating than the ones conjured by George Lucas, Quantum Redshift offers a good mix of face-melting speed, shortcuts, and surprisingly large and vibrant environments. At a primitive level of satisfaction, it's almost worth recommending as a rocket-powered flight through really impressive shader effects.
GunValkyrie sold Stockholm Syndrome on a disc well before Demon's Souls did. Supposedly starting life as a light-gun shooter for the Dreamcast, GunValkyrie morphed into a fast-paced gauntlet that was challenging in just about every way -- even physically.
There's not much elegance to the shooting itself, but the trick to overcoming the game's horde of aggressive space bugs is in your futuristic, rocket-equipped suit of armor. Manipulating both thumbsticks correctly allows you to hover in mid-air, dash forward and backwards, and rotate in 90- or 180-degree bursts. It's a complicated mess of clicking and recharging that eventually becomes second nature, provided you've got time and endurance enough to think about three-dimensional movement through, above, and below clusters of enemies. The reward is robust, improvisational movement that hasn't quite been replicated in any game since.
(Bonus points if you finished GunValkyrie on the original Xbox controller and not the Controller S.)
The amount of detritus remaining after a proper scuffle between Japanese deities can be measured in blocks -- as in the amount of hard drive space eaten up by From Software's Otogi games. The dreamlike visuals and graceful movements of the playable heroes belie their destructive habits, which tend to reduce villages and forests to computationally expensive mounds of rubble. And when you load up your bloated save file tomorrow, the level will look exactly as you left it. There are no overnight janitors in ancient Japan.
Aside from that remembered novelty, Otogi 2 is an exciting action game that draws from mythology to create larger-than-life battles and a truly eccentric cast of characters. "Eccentric" is the polite way of addressing the talking, levitating tree stump.
There are only two possible articles that call for a description of 2002's Buffy the Vampire Slayer game: a list of the best Xbox games; and a discussion of good games derived from TV shows, which should just be repackaged as a tweet.
The Collective display a genuine love, if not reverence, for Joss Whedon's source material, and find an easy, engaging combat system to match his agile heroine. They couldn't get the real deal to voice Buffy, but the writing, environments and characters all feel lifted straight from the show. Killing vampires also adds a wrinkle to the action, prompting Buffy to toss defeated goons into spikes, or stake them with the leg of a broken chair before they get back up. (Much of the combat later carried over into Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb, another excellent licensed title by The Collective.)
Unlike many of the games on this list, Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays better on the Xbox 360, where it gets an occasional boost in framerate.
I decided to constrain this list to games that remain exclusive to Xbox today, which is why wonderful standouts like Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, Ninja Gaiden and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth didn't make the cut. ToeJam & Earl III was omitted because it sucks.