Yesterday, November 15th, marked the 10th anniversary of Microsoft’s Xbox console being released in North America. Launching at a high-for-the-time $299, the prospects seemed dim right out the gate, especially with stiff competition from the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo’s GameCube, set to release only three days later.
As a PC in console clothing, gamers weren’t sure what to make of Microsoft’s first foray into console development. When it was first revealed by Bill Gates at the Game Development Conference in 2000, the Xbox was an upright-standing chrome... thing in the shape of an X, with a big green glowing center light.
But even after a much-needed case change, previews of the Xbox were met with skepticism from gamers--at least until launch. The system sold out shortly after its release, driven by a game that would soon become synonymous with the Xbox name: Halo: Combat Evolved.
See, the Xbox had a surprisingly solid launch line-up. Other than Halo, which we’ll get into in a minute, it launched with Tecmo’s Dead or Alive 3, boasting what was then the absolute best graphics available on a home console, along with the quirky Oddworld: Munch’s Odyssee and the incredibly sleek Project Gotham Racing, giving the system a varied and interesting startup library. But what really captured gamers’ hearts and imaginations was the story of Spartan John-117 and his war against the fanatical alien Covenant.
Before Halo, first-person shooters weren’t much on consoles. Sure, there was GoldenEye 007 on the N64, but to gamers who had played Quake--released a year before--it felt dated and clumsy. With first-person games on the PC bringing tense and exciting narratives (Half-Life) along with dynamic-yet-deep multiplayer action that included vehicles (Starsiege: Tribes), the idea of a strong first-person action game on a console was--until Halo--a pipe dream.
And yet, Microsoft and Bungie hit the nail right on the head. Halo had a roller-coaster campaign mode that could be played in split-screen co-op, and allowed for up to 16-player multiplayer over LAN, something previously only available to PC gamers.
Throughout its seven-year lifespan, the Xbox’s library had a little bit of everything. In all honesty, it was nothing compared to the ridiculously huge and varied PS2 library, and its exclusives weren’t as universally high-quality as the GameCube’s, but it was definitely good. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights:
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell- Most stealth games up to this point had followed the lead of Metal Gear Solid, with little success. Splinter Cell gave you a far-less-than invincible character and taught you stay in the darkness, giving the feel of the PC-exclusive Thief games on a console and in a modern setting.
Jet Set Radio Future- It’s been said that the Xbox was the spiritual successor to the Dreamcast, and it’s mostly correct, especially with the number of Sega exclusives in the Xbox’s early library. Jet Set Radio Future upgrades Jet Grind Radio in every conceivable way, from its fast-paced aggressive inline and graffiti action to its beautiful cel-shaded graphics and unforgettable soundtrack. Despite critical acclaim it was met with poor sales and was eventually released as a pack-in title along with Sega GT 2002.
Panzer Dragoon Orta- We didn’t get a Panzer Dragoon on the Dreamcast, but Sega made up for it with Orta on the Xbox. The soaring, tumbling and freewheeling through an endless diamond sky of the previous games got a nice kick with the Xbox’s processing muscle, but this, too, fell flat for Sega.
Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball- It’s hard to talk about this game and make cracks about lonely nerds never having met a woman because a lot of female gamers I’ve known have found this game equal parts hilarious, fun, and relaxing. Yes, I like it too. It’s a nice break from headshotting aliens.
Shenmue II- While it was originally released for the Dreamcast, we never got the sequel to Yu Suzuki’s free-roaming adventure in the US because the PS2 messily murdered the Dreamcast with a preview video of Metal Gear Solid 2. Thanks for that, Kojima. Naturally, we weren’t able to carry over our progress from the first game, but at least we were able to continue Ryo Hazuki’s adventures in Hong Kong while he hunted for his father’s killer.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic- With PC-style shooters represented by Halo and Max Payne, it was only natural that a PC-style RPG would make its way to consoles. KotOR made BioWare a household name, providing a deep quest that mixed traditional RPG storytelling and gameplay with undercover missions, Hardy Boys-style murder mysteries, and epic Jedi-Sith warfare to give the best Star Wars experience in years.
Ninja Gaiden- The PS2 had Devil May Cry, with acrobatic combat and style to spare. The Xbox answered back with Ninja Gaiden, putting the “hard” back in “hardcore gaming.” After sitting out for two and a half years, this was the game that finally got me to buy an Xbox for its old-school challenge.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay- Proving that not all movie-based games are absolute turds, Vin Diesel himself produced a video game based on Pitch Black’s antihero Riddick. A first-person stealth game, Chronicles of Butcher Bay uncharacteristically had more melee than shooting, and was an unusually excellent game based on a licensed property, setting the stage for others like it in the future.
Fable- While you didn’t have a dog and you didn’t rule a kingdom, the original Fable had a lot of lofty aspirations that were only realized in later iterations. But the first time around, it was an absolute blast, providing players with choice and freedom in a role-playing environment. Sure, there was a story guiding the entire game, but there was so much room to just goof around for hours and hours and it felt like an afterthought at times.
Halo 2- Few titles shaped modern console gaming like Halo 2, for better or for worse. From then-unheard-of levels of online functionality to downloadable content, the game drove the success of the growing Xbox Live online service and let gamers play with and against people all over the world. Despite the campaign’s ridiculous letdown of a cliffhanger ending, the multiplayer carried the game for years, even after the release of the Xbox 360.
My best memories of the Xbox involve lugging it and my TV to a friend’s house for 16-player Halo 2, where I could write a whole article just telling stories from those parties. What about you? Let’s hear some of your fondest--or worst--memories of Microsoft’s monstrous black box!
Thanks to justme8800 for a correction regarding the launch price!