X marks the spot
On November 15, 2001, there was a serious shake-up in the console wars as Microsoft entered the ring with Xbox, launching first in North America, with Japan, Europe and Australia getting to join in a few months later.
Even as one of the richest companies in the world, success was not guaranteed, but over the past two decades, major innovations and memorable franchises have truly cemented its place in gaming history.
A commitment to broadband and a hard drive in the original Xbox was the kind of long-term thinking that propelled Xbox Live as what online gaming is today, while Xbox 360 became one of the most successful and longest running console generations, which didn’t just see the rise of HD, but also indie games through Xbox Live Arcade.
There were some disasters too – Kinect is something the platform holder would rather forget existed, while it’s basically recovering from the awful initial strategy of Xbox One. Yet it has learned and emerged a stronger player, building up its portfolio with major acquisitions like Mojang and Bethesda, taking its history seriously through backward compatibility, and through Game Pass opening the doors for players to discover more games than ever.
To celebrate 20 years of Xbox, we decided to do a good old-fashioned and very unlikely to be disputed ranking of the the 20 Xbox games that have mattered most. The best of the best. And even if you don’t agree, there’s no doubt that each shines a light on some of the best exclusives or significant moments in the platform’s history.
20. Ninja Gaiden (Xbox, 2004)
Dark Souls is often heralded as one of the most difficult games of all time, but Japanese developer Team Ninja could also lay claim to this title with its original Xbox exclusive, Ninja Gaiden, a 3D reimagining of the classic 8-bit action side-scroller. Ultra violent and ultra punishing for its time, its enhanced release Ninja Gaiden Black also was an incredible demonstration of the Xbox backwards-compatibility program that could bring back original Xbox titles looking almost like they were new releases.
19. Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Xbox One, 2020)
Metroidvanias have been all the rage in recent years, and the Ori series is definitely one of its most beautiful. It’s a game that tugs on the heartstrings just as much as it tests your gaming mettle. Ori and the Will of the Wisps does what every great sequel should do, enhancing and expanding on its systems, including new combat, while it’s also one of the best examples of next-gen, rendering on Series X at an eye-watering 6K.
18. Jet Set Radio Future (Xbox, 2002)
Microsoft entered the console wars just as Sega bowed out, though some might argue the Xbox was a spiritual successor to the Dreamcast, with the Japanese company also making some exclusives for the console, including a sequel to one of the most stylish games ever conceived with its toon-like visuals and catchy soundtrack. Jet Set Radio Future’s cult status is only made greater as the one title on this list that still isn’t playable on a modern console. (Can someone please sort that out?)
17. Lost Odyssey (Xbox 360, 2007)
One of Microsoft’s significant investments in Japanese games was its support of Mistwalker, founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, and Lost Odyssey was its magnum opus. On one hand, it’s a very traditional turn-based role playing game, but by exploring themes of immortality, it has one of the best stories ever told in the genre with emotionally rich writing, incredible voice acting, and arguably the most likeable (or least annoying) child characters ever.
16. Super Meat Boy (Xbox 360, 2010)
Xbox Live Arcade in the 360 era saw the rise of indie game developers, opening game making to more people brimming with ideas and able to sell them for just a few quid. We could include many examples, but Super Meat Boy is the definitive hardcore highlight, as the titular hero tackles one insanely tricky level after another with precision-perfect platforming, or dies trying. Proof that gamers still like being put through the meat grinder.
15. Fable II (Xbox 360, 2008)
From the mind of the overreaching Peter Molyneux, the original Fable was an over-ambitious role-playing game that often fell short of expectations. Its 360 sequel, however, goes down as one of the most-loved games in Xbox history, and one that really expanded the possibilities of what you could do in the fantasy world of Albion. A quintessentially British adventure that wasn’t afraid to mix mature adult themes with a genuine funny bone.
14. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Xbox, 2002)
Skyrim may be the most popular from The Elder Scrolls series, but Morrowind hailed PC developer Bethesda’s leap to a console with enough power to realise a massive open-ended open-world role-playing game, where the main plot came secondary to letting you explore as you please. It was enough to make players forgive the myriad bugs or dodgy first-person combat. Coming full circle, Bethesda is now of course part of the Xbox family.
13. Psychonauts 2 (Xbox One/Xbox Series X|S, 2021)
Double Fine’s Psychonauts was a 3D platformer ahead of its time back on the original Xbox in terms of storytelling and dealing with themes of mental health, though playing it can feel dated. Its long overdue sequel fortunately excels in every way, brimming with mind-bending ideas, terrific characters (including some standout celebrity performances from Jack Black and Elijah Wood), but most importantly has as much heart as it does grey matter.
12. Sea of Thieves (Xbox One, 2019)
Rare made its overdue comeback with an original first-person online pirate adventure. Despite a lacklustre launch, players soon rallied behind it as a game that’s just great for hanging out together, whether you’re sailing the high seas, hunting for treasure or getting drunk on grog. And it’s undoubtedly helped by being part of Xbox Game Pass. Ongoing updates and new content, including a fantastic collaboration with Pirates of the Caribbean, has only ensured the game goes from sea to shining sea.
11. Inside (Xbox One, 2016)
Indie developer Playdead’s deadly puzzle platformer Limbo is already a brilliant game but its follow-up Inside is its crowning masterpiece. While it plays similarly, as you control a boy on a 2D plane trying to avoid a multitude of gruesome deaths, Inside’s art direction is off the charts, with added depth making every frame so cinematic and atmospheric. Its shocking left-field ending continues to haunt minds to this day.
10. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox, 2003)
Breaking from the divisive prequels at the time, Knights of the Old Republic took us back an even longer time ago in a galaxy far, far away, for an original Star Wars role-playing adventure giving players unparalleled freedom and decisions in a story that could see you aligning with either the light or dark side of the Force. It’s arguably one of the best Star Wars stories ever told.
9. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Xbox 360, 2007)
Call of Duty games are an annual gaming fixture but few entries were as game-changing as the original Modern Warfare, transporting the military first-person shooter from its WWII setting to a modern era that also took in urban combat. With one of the most explosive single-player campaigns ever made and a multiplayer progression system that set the standard for online shooters, it’s still remembered as a massive hit for Xbox Live, owing to Microsoft’s exclusivity partnership with Activision during this era.
8. Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, 2010)
BioWare’s sci-fi space opera represents one of the most renowned role-playing studios at its peak. The highlight is undoubtedly the original trilogy’s middle chapter as your version of Commander Shepard assembles a diverse team on a suicide mission to save the galaxy. Besides improved combat, your choices also mattered, including those from the first game you could carry over.
7. Gears 5 (Xbox One, 2019)
Gears of War has been a huge franchise for Microsoft since the 360 days, best known for popularising cover-based combat and the excellent active reload mechanic. Besides its relentless shooting and chainsawing action, Gears 5 really proved that the series actually had chops for deep characters and storytelling, with a bold decision to centre the story on Gears 4’s Kait Diaz as she uncovers the origins of the Locust and her own family history.
6. Microsoft Flight Simulator (Xbox Series X|S, 2021)
A bestselling series confined to PC for much of its history, the latest Microsoft Flight Simulator utilises Microsoft’s cloud computing tech to literally map the whole world into the game in real time. It’s astonishing that a game that pushes most PCs to its limits manages to run on console with a regular controller, but that also brilliantly opens up the flight sim to whole new players who can jump in as a virtual tourist to anywhere.
5. Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360, 2010)
The tale of outlaw John Marston on a mission to hunt down his former gang in order to be reunited with his family remains Rockstar’s masterpiece, set in a beautiful melancholy open world of the old West with gaming’s most unforgettable ending. It’s also a perfect demonstration of Xbox’s backwards-compatibility programme, using the power of Xbox One X or Series X to essentially remaster a decade-old classic in stunning 4K.
4. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Xbox One, 2015)
Geralt of Rivia made his console debut on Xbox 360 with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, but it was his follow-up, massive open-world adventure The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that stood out as one of the most memorable games in modern gaming, with so many brilliantly written tales in a grim, war-torn, morally ambiguous world. It also boasts two of the best expansions, with Blood and Wine well worth considering as a fantastic game in its own right.
3. Minecraft (Xbox 360, 2012)
The most revolutionary game of the last decade may not have started as an Xbox game, but the acquisition of Mojang Studios in 2014 makes Minecraft an important part of Xbox’s history. That the sandbox game that can be literally anything you want it to be continues selling on multiple platforms also laid the foundations of ‘Better Together’, making Minecraft one of the first games to incorporate cross-play gaming.
2. Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One, 2018)
Microsoft got its own Gran Turismo back on the original Xbox with Forza Motorsport, but it’s spin-off sub-series Forza Horizon from Playground Games that’s truly come into its own, paring back serious simulation (although the hardcore stuff is still very much there for the petrolheads that want it) for gorgeous open-world driving fun. While the new Mexico-set instalment could easily take this spot, and every Horizon game is utterly brilliant, we’re going to opt for the fourth entry, which not only introduced a game-changing weather system but also made Blighty look the best it’s looked in a long time.
1. Halo: The Master Chief Collection (Xbox One, 2014)
We can’t talk about Xbox without its defining tentpole shooter, and the best way to experience them is in this masterful collection, which includes the original trilogy. There’s Combat Evolved, surely one of the greatest console launch games of all time; Halo 2, which brought the brave new world of online gaming to millions of console gamers via Xbox Live, and Halo 3, which finished the fight on an epic scale few games of other media could dream of. Hail to the Master Chief!