In terms of flashy big-budget exclusives, the Xbox One has been an unexpected disappointment. Everything that could go wrong, it would seem, did.
In the years after the Xbox One’s launch, Microsoft canceled a handful of high-profile projects, from franchise expansions (Fable Legends) to surprise reboots (Phantom Dust), experimental user-generated games (Project Spark) to collaborations with acclaimed outside developers (Scalebound), and whatever it had planned for the ill-fated Kinect 2.0.
Forza Horizon notwithstanding, the publisher’s biggest ongoing series have flagged, most notably the fine but forgettable continuations of Halo and Gears of War. Nonetheless, Microsoft’s leadership routinely positioned Master Chief and Marcus Fenix at the center of the Xbox catalog, expanding on their respective properties with a well-made but inexplicable strategy series and an oddball mobile tie-in.
The Xbox One spent much of its life cycle burdened by the successes of its predecessor and the decisions of long-departed leadership. Only in the past couple of years has Microsoft begun to unmoor itself from the past, acquiring a bundle of promising studios and allowing iconic properties to veer in new, different directions.
Is it ironic or fitting that one of the Xbox One’s best features is its backward compatibility? Plans for Xbox 360 backward compatibility on Xbox One were announced at E3 2015. Four years later, 560 Xbox 360 games are backward-compatible, more than a fourth of the games released on the console. And an additional 33 original Xbox games are backward-compatible, too. If you purchased these games digitally, they’re automatically available for download, free, on your Xbox One through your Xbox Live account.
Some of those games have been upgraded to take advantage of the extra graphical power of the Xbox One X. In some cases, like Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, the backward-compatible version on the Xbox One X is the only available means of playing the game in 4K resolution.
In hindsight, the backward-compatibility program has felt like an ongoing effort to, if not provide fancy AAA games, give players what they want. Better means of accessibility. Smaller, creative games. Joyful social spaces. As the company shifts toward its next console, backward compatibility may be the launchpad from the past that points the company in the right direction for the future.
[Ed. note: To keep the list manageable, we haven’t included games that have received remasters. For example, Halo: Combat Evolved, Gears of War, and Red Faction: Guerrilla are excellent games that have been improved upon by modern remasters.]
I would say that they don’t make games like this anymore, but they do: It’s called Crackdown 3. The latest entry took a hammering from critics who derided its limited scope, simple visuals, and lack of things to do. But what feels old and thin today felt like a cup of fresh water when Microsoft released the original Crackdown in 2007, the heyday of samey, sepia-toned shooters.
At that moment, Crackdown was perceived as one of many Grand Theft Auto wannabes. But unlike its contemporaries, it prized fun above all else. Where other open-world games had snarky stories, realistic violence, and limited mobility, Crackdown treated its world like a colorful jungle gym. On the Xbox One X, the original Crackdown looks and handles like the sort of lackadaisical riff on superheroes that today we might get from a medium-sized team taking a big creative swing. It’s a grimy, full-of-attitude game, the franchise yet to have its rough edges polished into mediocrity.
Crackdown 3 feels like a relic from the past, but the original was ahead of its time.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane
The Hydro Thunder series deserved a better fate. The boat racing game, originally released in arcades in 1999, had the potential to become a mega-franchise, similar to its sibling Cruis’n USA. Both games were published by Midway, best known for arcade megahits like Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and NFL Blitz.
But Midway was a different company by the time it published Hydro Thunder. That same year, Midway left the pinball industry, beginning a rapid downward spiral that terminated with bankruptcy in early 2009. Hydro Thunder didn’t get a true sequel until 2010.
Published by Microsoft Game Studios, Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a fantastic sequel, capturing the oddball track design of its predecessor and emphasizing unpredictable wave physics that separated it from countless other racing games. But I suspect it was too late. Arriving 10 years after the original, exclusively on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade digital storefront, Hydro Thunder Hurricane once again seemed to be the right game at the wrong time.
Motorcycles don’t exactly spring to mind when one thinks of tough platformers. But the Trials series has been doing its thing for over a decade now, forcing bikes through comically outrageous tracks, pushing the limits of what two wheels are capable of.
Trials HD is one of the best installments of the series, blending tight controls and spot-on physics to ensure that every crash is in the hands of the player. Tracks set in factories or on dirt tracks are filled with swinging platforms, spiked balls, and other implements of destruction, ready to send your biker into fiery pits of doom.
While it’s not as thematically silly or graphically pretty as later entries, Trials HD nails the gameplay the series is known for and is a great entry point for newcomers.
Don’t be fooled by the cute graphics and simple 2D platformer gameplay: Spelunky will crush you into dust. But thanks to its ingenious design, the magic of Spelunky is that each time you return to it, you’re a little bit smarter and more prepared.
Players control an adorable Indiana Jones-esque gentleman as he makes his way deeper and deeper into caves and temples filled with gold and jewels. And, predictably, horrible beasts.
Spelunky is a true roguelike, restarting and randomizing after every death. That means that you’re liable to see variations of the first level dozens (if not hundreds!) of times before you take out the final boss.
After hundreds of hours of Spelunky, my brain has been reprogrammed, allowing me to calculate jumps and bomb trajectories in a split second. This level of familiarity with the game has proven that despite its randomness, Spelunky is never unfair. The fault, as always, lies with me and my stupid brain. It’s predictably unpredictable.
The Fable series has always toed the line between a delightful world full of potential and a shallow to-do list of familiar quests. Though the series has never fully delivered on the promises of its visionary creator, Peter Molyneux, Fable 2 comes closest. The land of Albion is intriguing, dangerous, and just zany enough.
An action RPG, Fable 2 offers a breadth of choice. Want to get married? Have kids? Bite the heads off baby chickens? Go for it. In one playthrough, I’m a hero who keeps the land safe. In another, I have multiple husbands and a dizzying body count.
Even 10 years later, Albion still serves as a marvelous playground. The sandbox elements of the game are anchored to a narrative that delivers some unexpected punches to the gut.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a fascinating, well-written role-playing game that helped establish developer BioWare’s legacy.
For fans of modern RPGs, the gameplay can be a little clunky, and the starting planet takes some time to get through. Once I worked my way through that opening gauntlet, though, I found a gem that rewarded me for my time and effort. Knights of the Old Republic is regarded as portraying one of the most popular and celebrated time periods in Star Wars history for a reason; there’s a rich treasure trove of lore, adventure, and romance to discover.
Knights of the Old Republic has one of the best twists in gaming, and a memorable cast of companions. While BioWare would go on to improve on its formula in titles like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, KotoR has the spark of experimentation — here are big ideas being tested for the first time. My first game ended in triumph, and I was a champion of the Jedi ... but my second playthrough went an entirely different and satisfyingly tragic route. It’s different each time I revisit it, whether I restart right away or 10 years later.
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX+
For a long time, Pac-Man was simple: Eat all the dots in a maze, avoid ghosts unless you’ve recently scarfed a power pellet. The Pac-Man Championship Edition series changed all that, adding strange effects to Pac-Man’s familiar maze, with graphics and music that felt much more at home in the late 2000s. Pac-Man Championship DX was the weirdest iteration of this series, making the classic arcade game far more surreal and surprising, yet still as engrossing as ever.
For starters, there are the striking, psychedelic visuals. The maze walls pulse and move, and mazes can reconfigure themselves after Pac-Man grabs a power-up. Then there’s the ghost train. Instead of having one specter hot on your heels, Pac-Man now attracts the attention of rainbow-colored train of ghosts, blocking off any chance to double back on your own path. But a perfectly timed power pellet means that you’re suddenly chomping through a conga line of fleeing ghosts. Pac-Man could also turn the tables by tossing a bomb, causing the ghosts to scatter back to the center of the maze.
These new additions helped spice up the captivating gameplay loop of the arcade classic, and introduced a new generation to the time-sucking glory that is Pac-Man.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
One of Monolith’s most underrated games, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a supremely weird experience. Players take on the role of detective Ethan Thomas and join in the hunt for a serial killer. As the story unfolds, I’m introduced to a seemingly supernatural force and people who, for some reason, wrap their heads in duct tape. I also seem to remember collecting an awful lot of dead birds. But I digress.
Condemned is the best first-person melee game of the Xbox 360 generation. In a catalog dominated by first-person and cover-based shooters, it stands apart as something wholly unique. It’s not a click-fest, but a tactical game based on rhythm and timing. It makes smashing people in the noggin with a lead pipe or slashing them with a 24-inch paper cutter perversely satisfying.
But there are also elements of the early survival horror genre as well. Condemned is best played late at night, with all the lights in the house turned off. If you’ve ever enjoyed a police procedural, or had fun with titles like Resident Evil or the original Half-Life, you should definitely check it out.
The Orange Box
In the history of video games, it’s hard to argue for a better value proposition than Valve’s The Orange Box. I’ve still got my original copy for the Xbox 360. If you pop that disc into an Xbox One today, everything on there is still playable, and most all of it has aged extremely well.
The Orange Box contains Half-Life 2 and its first stand-alone expansion, Half-Life 2: Episode One. Put together, those two (one-and-a-half?) games provide the template for the modern single-player first-person shooter. Even though we’re likely never going to have a Half-Life 3, it’s hard to make an argument against spending some more time with Gordon Freeman.
The Orange Box also includes Portal, another wholly unique, utterly complete, and bizarrely timeless gaming experience in its own right. It’s a game that I return to every so often to play start to finish. While Portal 2 may have been longer, I’d argue that it’s no better than the original.
The Orange Box also includes Team Fortress 2, which is bittersweet these days. While TF2 might well be the model for the modern class-based hero shooter, finding a game on consoles is nearly impossible. The last time I loaded it up on my Xbox One — sometime in 2018, I believe — there was only a single active server and a handful of active players. While the community on PC is still around, although slightly diminished, TF2 on consoles is a ghost town.
Given the quality of the other three games on the disc, however, I hardly even noticed.
Red Dead Redemption
You can argue all day about whether Red Dead Redemption is actually the greatest Western of all time, or whether it’s better than Red Dead Redemption 2, or whether that prequel is any good at all. I’ll leave that to you. Hell, I still haven’t finished RDR 2; I got sidetracked trying to gather pelts to upgrade my satchel.
The original Redemption, though? That one has stood the test of time for me. The ceaseless forward march of video game graphics renders a lot of decade-old games obsolete. Not so with Red Dead Redemption, which has managed to remain a timeless classic nine years after its debut. (It sure helps that it’s playable in 4K on my Xbox One X.) Unlike many of its last-gen contemporaries, it hasn’t been followed by all that many copycats, and even if it had been, no one — not even Rockstar itself — could quite manage to re-create the level of investment I had in the character of John Marston.
I can’t recommend Catherine without a dump truck of caveats. For starters, the game is woefully ignorant about transgender identity, and often apologetic about internalized misogyny. It frequently feels like the game and I are in direct conflict.
And yet, I love playing Catherine for its frantic, totally unique puzzle mechanic, where I’m a beleaguered man in a pair of boxers assembling towers of blocks to climb out of my own nightmares. Each night, as the nightmare wears on, I’m confronted by a monstrous version of my fears: my furious fiancée, my unborn child with a chainsaw ... and a big butt with a tongue.
Catherine is also one of the few games I’ve played that is about men, but not by default. It seriously examines insecurities about relationships and growing older. It examines abuse, and the ways in which people who have experienced it can lash out at everyone around them (particularly their intimate partners), perpetuating the cycle. It’s infuriating, actually, that so much good and so much bad can exist in one package. Catherine epitomizes “your mileage may vary.”
—Simone de Rochefort
Developer Remedy Entertainment left its popular Max Payne franchise behind to make this follow-up, also named after its hero. But where Max Payne found its cinematic, slow-mo inspiration in Chinese action movies, Alan Wake looked to the serialized success of shows like Lost and Twin Peaks to model a new kind of video game narrative.
While the Twin Peaks comparison is easy to make — mysterious goings-on in a woodsy Pacific Northwest town — it’s Lost’s imprint that’s most pronounced in Alan Wake. The long-in-development game debuted as an open-world tech demo at E3 in 2005, shortly after the first season of Lost wrapped up, and shipped nearly five years later, just a week before Lost concluded its six-season arc. In that span, the title would be reimagined as an episodic series, complete with cliffhangers and “previously on” recap segments.
Over the course of the game’s six episodes, players are pulled through a mystery that confidently doles out its secrets, leaning on the discrete format of an “episode” to keep players connected to the larger arc. In leaving Max Payne, Remedy also abandoned the traditional three-act structure it tried to graft onto that series in favor of something more befitting the length, and consumption patterns, of your average AAA video game.
Just Cause 2
Just Cause 2 is my desert island game. Similar to Crackdown, Just Cause 2 zigs where so many Grand Theft Auto clones zag. Rather than focus on realism and story, developer Avalanche Studios provides the player with a massive (even by today’s standards) virtual island to treat as their sandbox.
The locale is full of cars, boats, and planes, but the best means of transportation is the combination of a grappling hook and a parachute, which allows protagonist Rico to scale mountains and zip across valleys like a paraglider scooting over the horizon.
Just Cause 2 has missions and objectives, but they’re superfluous, an opportunity to master the game’s controls and physics before you make your own fun. Want to tether a sports car to a jumbo jet, then carry it into the clouds? Go ahead! Want to destroy a power plant while hanging upside down from a helicopter? Please do!
We’ve yet to get the video game equivalent of the Fast and the Furious franchise, but with a little elbow grease, Just Cause 2 will help you create the Nos-fueled set-pieces of your dreams.
Driver: San Francisco
When I first saw a preview version of Driver: San Francisco, its developer gave me one of my favorite elevator pitches of all time: Google Maps, but as a video game set inside the lead character’s “coma dream.” The final product more or less delivers on this magical promise.
Taking a series inspired by 1970s movie car chases in a very different direction, the game allows me to zip out from the body of a driver to a bird’s-eye view of San Francisco, then hop into the driver of another vehicle. The missions become high-speed puzzles, like finding the perfect vehicle to cut off a getaway car, or swapping between two racers to guarantee they place first and second in a street race.
Ubisoft has toyed with the idea of Driver: San Francisco, most notably with The Crew series, but has never returned to the core notion that a racing and puzzle game can be one and the same.
Is Skate 3 the best skateboarding video game ever made? Maybe. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series has cornered the nostalgia market, but revisiting both franchises today, Skate feels more responsive and modern.
Though it spanned multiple entries, the Skate games never approached the gargantuan fan base of their arcade-style competitor. Perhaps that’s because its victories are comparably hard-won: I can spend hours perfecting a single trick. But for that same reason, Skate 3 sticks in the memory and stands against the sands of time.
It’s especially worth revisiting for owners of the Xbox One X. Similar to Red Dead Redemption, Skate 3 looks incredible and new in 4K.
Gears of War 2
The original Gears of War was my introduction to cover-based gunplay — and a game that taught me why third-person shooters could be just as fun as their first-person cousins.
Gears of War 2 took everything I loved about the first and added more. Chainsaws were back, and this time I could duel with them. Cover returned, and this time I could use the corpses of my enemies as portable shields. It even improved upon the unbelievable-for-the-time graphics (and that legacy should hold up, thanks to its Xbox One X enhancements). I devoured the campaign in a single day, which I’ve never done before or since and have never once regretted.
Well over a decade later, Gears of War 2 stands as the apex of Epic Games in the pre-Fortnite era. It exemplifies what brought the developer console success, the kind of game that made the Xbox 360 dominant among my friends: a technical showpiece that manages to be as fun to play as it is to watch.