While the original Xbox system is nearly 20 years old, it’s still a fondly remembered console that was home to a variety of superb games. Though it never sold as well as other systems (it settled at around 24 million units sipped at the end of its life cycle), it marked the start of Microsoft’s journey into the video game console space. It was also the first time many of us experienced online gaming on a home system, with games like Halo: Combat Evolved and Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, among others.
Many famous video game series also began on the original Xbox, like the aforementioned Halo, Forza Motorsport, Burnout, and Fable series, to name a few. The Xbox Series X|S line of consoles certainly would not be where it is without the original Xbox, and Microsoft would likely be in a different spot if it didn’t venture into the video game space with its first machine 20 years ago.
But what are the best games on the original Xbox? After all, there are so many. We’ve compiled a list of the very best games the system has to offer, ranging in genre from action to first-person shooters and even role-playing adventures. Keep in mind, many of the system’s most beloved games are only available in physical format and are hard to come by — making some of them very expensive.
Having said that, these are the best original Xbox games.
In an attempt to rival Sony’s Gran Turismo series, Microsoft published Forza Motorsport, a sim racer with realistic visuals and physics. We didn’t know it at the time, but Forza would go on to become one of Microsoft’s tentpole franchises, and it all started with this game.
In total, it had 231 different licensed cars, a career mode (as well as quickplay), and lots of tracks — many of which are based on real locations. It offered a variety of car tuning options, allowing players to customize their vehicles. Despite being a sim racer, Forza Motorsport featured a number of assist settings, allowing players to ease into the more difficult tracks.
Panzer Dragoon Orta
Here’s a blast from the past: Panzer Dragoon Orta is an Xbox-exclusive rail shooter and it’s surprisingly excellent. In it, you play as Orta, a teenage girl who rides atop a dragon. You control the dragon’s movement onscreen and have the ability to utilize multiple weapon types against your foes.
In the early stages, it’s manageable, but as you progress, more and more enemies appear onscreen, attacking you from the land and the sky. Though it was short, Panzer Dragoon Orta received critical acclaim, with many fans praising its story, visuals, sounds, and controls. This game isn’t for the faint of heart and has a steep difficulty curve, even on normal mode. Still, it’s one of the highlights of the original Xbox catalog.
Action RPGs are a dime a dozen these days, but back in 2004, they weren’t as common on consoles. That’s why the original Fable was so beloved, as it introduced many players to the genre without an overcomplicated story or controls. There’s a time and a place for complex RPGs, sure, but Fable was an excellent entry point to the genre while still offering a fulfilling story with memorable characters and gameplay to match.
Part of what made this game so appealing was its simple controls and user-friendly UI. It was always easy to tell what to do next, allowing you to take in the story without scrambling through tons of menus or systems. Xbox wasn’t known for RPGs during this era, but Fable always remained an exception, giving players a heartfelt narrative with funny characters and an easy-to-pick-up gameplay loop.
The Half-Life series is certainly iconic in the video game space, and while the first game was excellent, Half-Life 2 captivated a large audience, offering satisfying gameplay and one of the best FPS stories of all time. If you look at a list of the best-reviewed games off all time, Half-Life 2 is likely at the top, rivaling many FPS games released today despite its age.
This is due to its compelling atmosphere, interesting characters, and unprecedented (at the time) use of physics. The PC version is the most famous, but it was also available on the original Xbox. Although the Xbox version was noticeably inferior to its PC counterpart, it was still a great way to experience one of the best games of all time.
Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow
Thinking about the Splinter Cell series in 2021 is sad because it has pretty much disappeared. But in the early to mid-2000s, the franchise hit its stride, and arguably the best entry was 2004’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. It launched on many platforms, but the Xbox version was the best reviewed and was praised for its visuals and multiplayer offerings.
From a design standpoint, Pandora Tomorrow was so smart, giving players intense stealth sequences that felt rewarding to get through. But aside from the superb single-player portion, many critics and players praised its online pillar, which pitted spies against mercenaries (this would later become a flagship component in future entries).
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
Games like Crimson Skies don’t really come around often, especially not now. But the early 2000s were a quaint time, with lots of experimental releases like Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. This arcade flight combat game took you to an alternate 1930s, wherein players were tasked with battling it out in the skies via planes — hence the name.
It was imaginative and offered lots customization options and weapons to choose from. Not only did this game have a robust, open-world single-player campaign, it also included a hefty multiplayer portion. This section of the game had deathmatch, capture the flag, and other modes to round out the package. Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge was unique when it launched and still remains an excellent aerial combat game.
Ninja Gaiden Black
Ninja Gaiden Black is the definitive version of the reboot, featuring its famous Mission Mode, which puts players in various smaller sections of missions from the main game, along with more difficulty options and cut scenes. The reboot, aptly titled Ninja Gaiden is essentially a 3D rework of the original series (which came out for NES).
Though its perspective was shifted in the reboot, its difficulty remained, giving players a challenging, fast-paced action game with tons of variety. Ninja Gaiden Black became famous for its difficulty and set the series on a new path, greatly evolving from its NES roots. Much like other entries on this list, the Ninja Gaiden series has sadly come and gone.
Beyond Good & Evil
There were so many intriguing ideas in Beyond Good & Evil, a game that blended stealth, puzzle solving, and action. At the time, many critics were awestruck by its visuals, and while they don’t look quite as good nearly 20 years later, their stylized design still holds up nicely — especially compared to many other games from that era. One of the best things about this game is the world building, which makes for a more immersive experience.
It has so many wild characters, lots of backstory and lore, and clever writing. What’s fascinating is that, despite the game’s legacy and positive reception, Beyond Good & Evil did not sell well, though it did pick up steam over time. It’s now entered cult classic status and even has a sequel on the way, which has been in development for a while.
Burnout 3: Takedown
Crashing and burning never felt so good as in Burnout 3: Takedown. This is yet another example of a game series that has gone dormant, and we miss it so much. Burnout 3: Takedown combined fast-paced arcade racing mechanics with the ability to crash into your opponents, which was arguably the most memorable part of the game.
With most arcade racers, your job is to simply reach the finish line first. But in Burnout 3: Takedown, crashing is encouraged. When you crash into an opponent, the sequence plays out in slow motion, adding to the drama and impact of the race. The other Burnout games are great, but Takedown is widely viewed as the best in the series.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
What a monumental game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was when it launched in 2004. It simultaneously extrapolated upon the innovative ideas of its predecessors while offering even more social commentary and satire on hot topics along with a massive open world to explore. It came under fire for its gratuitous violence and depiction of drugs and sex, but all that controversy simply gave it free publicity — which led to it becoming one of the bestselling games of the era.
Most people played San Andreas on PS2, but the Xbox version came out a year later, in 2005, offering slight improvements and new features such as the ability to play radio songs from CDs installed onto the hard drive. One of its most memorable new mechanics was the implementation of player stats that would evolve over time, much like an RPG.
It had a massive, sprawling open world, tons to do, and one of the best written (and acted) video game stories of all time. Even 16 years later, infiltrating the game’s version of Area 51 to find a hidden jetpack is one of the coolest things in all of gaming.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay
Serving as a prequel tie-in to the Chronicles of Riddick film, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay launched in 2004 for the original Xbox and received positive reviews. This is a first-person stealth game that stars actor Vin Diesel as Richard Riddick who is tasked with escaping a maximum-security prison.
Typically, movie tie-ins are mediocre at best, but Escape from Butcher Bay is an exception, thanks to its fun stealth combat, dark tone, and visuals. With it being a stealth game, much of the gameplay revolves around sneaking throughout the prison while incapacitating unsuspecting enemies. The stealth genre isn’t as popular as others, but it’s games like these that allow it to shine brightly. A remake/sequel titled The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena was released for the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2009.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) was a dream come true for many Star Wars fans. It was one of the leading RPGs that placed developer BioWare on the map and is still talked about frequently to this day. Somehow, KotOR matches the level of depth many fans expect from Star Wars, incorporating intricate systems, a deep narrative, and the beloved RPG mechanics BioWare is famous for.
It’s fascinating to play this game after experiencing Mass Effect or Dragon Age games because it has a lot of those early flagship ideas that make up the standard BioWare game we know today. There are branching dialogue options, multiple factions, and an emphasis on story. What’s neat about KotOR is its combat, which is a hybrid of round-based and real-time, allowing the player to strategize to take down their opponents. This, combined with the rich narrative, makes for one of the most beloved Star Wars games of all time — and one fans have been clamoring to see remade. It did get a sequel in 2004 called Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, though that game was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and wasn’t as well received as the original.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Before there was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Oblivion, there was Morrowind, a game that pushed the power of the original Xbox in 2002. If you try to go back to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind today, you’ll likely find it to be outdated. But at the time, it was a stunning achievement in game design. It follows a similar format to what you might be familiar with, featuring a large open world for players to explore, with lots of deep RPG systems.
But Morrowind was a huge step up from its predecessor, Daggerfall. Seriously, go look up a video of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall and compare it to Morrowind. It’s a night and day comparison. While Morrowind might not hold up as well today, it paved the way for future Elder Scrolls games, which would become one of the most influential RPG series of all time.
As the second BioWare-developed game on this list, Jade Empire borrowed a lot of the ideas from the acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It’s an action RPG based on Chinese mythology, but unlike KotOR, it features traditional real-time combat.
Throughout Jade Empire’s deep combat system, you’ll dodge, attack, and maneuver around your opponents — while selecting between the various styles. This gives you plenty to play with during the heat of battle. Aside from the combat, you’ll find a rich narrative in Jade Empire, which (unlike KotOR) is not based on a preexisting property, allowing BioWare to have free reign with the game’s story. In short, Jade Empire is an approachable game with fun combat and an easily digestible story. Plus, it allows you to jump right in without any preexisting knowledge since it was a new IP.
Halo: Combat Evolved
You saw this one coming. Halo is one of the most iconic video game franchises of all time, and it all started in 2001 with the first entry, Combat Evolved. There are so many reasons Halo is highly regarded; one has to do with its campaign mode, which tells an interesting story that features equally impressive gameplay — both solo and with another player in co-op.
Part of its appeal was its variety in levels, many of which comprised narrow corridors along with large, sprawling areas. It was an absolute blast playing through the campaign with a friend and even more fun when you cranked up the difficulty to Legendary.
Aside from the beloved campaign mode, Halo also featured a multiplayer section, placing teams of players against one another locally or via LAN connections. This is what contributed to the game’s longevity, giving its audience endless fun with friends. Since then, multiplayer has become one of the main pillars of Halo’s offerings and is still thriving to this day.
It’s hard to believe something could top the original, but Halo 2 did that and more. It once again featured an incredible campaign mode that included more twists and turns than its predecessor. Interestingly, it allowed you to play as two characters — Master Chief and Arbiter — giving players varying perspectives during the game’s story. It looked and felt expensive and was regarded as one of gaming’s biggest blockbusters.
But the real reason Halo 2 was so successful was its multiplayer mode, which was finally playable online via Xbox Live. This opened up the floodgates and reached a tremendous number of players, giving its audience fun, competitive multiplayer at any time thanks to the internet. The map selection was strong, the game type was varied, and the weapons were so much fun to use. Many Halo fans consider Halo 2 the best entry in the series, and it’s due in part to its multiplayer mode, which lives on to this day in The Master Chief Collection.