Welcome back to Kevin’s Favorite Games! In this series, I will list my favorite games for every console I have ever owned (or at least played enough to have a reasonable opinion on the games). Clearly, this will not be a “best games of every console” list. The rankings will be based on my opinions and my experience, considering the time in my life in which I played these games. These games are not all going to be console exclusives, as I have played many exclusives and non-exclusives, and each console tends to have its own positives and negatives for each title.
Obviously, my opinions are 100% correct. You’ll likely disagree, and that’s ok. You have a right to be wrong. With that said, assuming you disagree with me, let me know what your favorites are.
Here are my 10 favorite original Xbox games.
I know what you’re asking: “Ten, Kevin? TEN?” Yes. Ten. The OG Xbox was the first console my dad brought home (classic consoles came later from yard sales). He was torn between the PS2, GameCube, and OG Xbox and we went to Toys R Us many times to play the tester consoles and decide. Ultimately, we got the Xbox and I fell in love IMMEDIATELY. To honor the Xbox, you get ten entries. Deal with it. As always, there are spoilers ahead.
10.Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2x (2001)
Synopsis: Dubbed a “Director’s Cut” 2 by GameSpot, THPS2x was an enhanced port of the original PlayStation’s smash hit Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. Featuring 19 levels from Pro Skater and Pro Skater 2 (along with five new levels), THPS2x launched alongside the Xbox and brought skateboarding to the next generation of consoles in a huge way. The career modes from Pro Skater and Pro Skater 2 were included in the game, as well as career mode objectives for the newly added levels. Graphics and physics were enhanced, allowing for a much more arcade-like experience. In each level, you must complete objectives (different for each park) to unlock the next area.
In addition to unlocking new levels, you must complete objectives to earn stat points, skateboards, and new skaters. For example, if you complete 100% of the objectives on every level with a created skater, you unlock Spider-Man (along with variants of his costume) with maximum statistics. Neversoft was the developer of the Spider-Man games at the time, so the inclusion was easy for the team to pull off. Unfortunately, with Insomniac now in charge of Spidey games, he’s not unlockable in the recent remake Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2. If you complete every objective on every level with a non-created skater, you unlock Officer Dick, the asshole security guard chasing you around in a golf cart on the schoolyard level. Something I had not realized at the time was that Pro Skater 3 was released before Pro Skater 2x, and as such, certain features from 3 were included in 2x. Namely, you could create a female skater and a visible balance meter was included for grinding.
Analysis: There is one enduring legacy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2x: this is the game that started my obsession with Pop Punk and Ska music. Every track from Pro Skater 2 was included, and every single track is excellent. Notable tracks include “Guerilla Radio” by Rage Against the Machin, “No Cigar” by Millencolin, “May 16” by Lagwagon, and “You” by Bad Religion. These punk and pop punk songs led me down the rabbit hold of other soundtracks to Tony Hawk games, which led me to Superman by Goldfinger (thus leading me down the path to ska). The soundtrack is widely considered one of the best of all time.
Gameplay is fun and fast, and the time limits for each stage help the gameplay rather than hurt it. You get in and out quickly – no lingering and struggling. Yes, I’ll admit that not hitting all your objectives in time and needing to re-try the level over and over is annoying, but it’s also a great way to learn the game. You can always use the free skate mode to practice and it’s not awfully hard to learn the layout of the maps.
Not being a skater, I can’t speak much to authenticity or even the mechanics of the game very much. I could name only the most basic tricks that can be pulled off. All I can say is that it introduced me to an entirely new culture and was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing games in which I was completely unaware of anything I was doing. If you want to experience the fun of THPS on modern consoles, the remake Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is absolutely worth the money.
9. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)
Synopsis: You drop in to sometime in 9th century AD as THE PRINCE OF PERSIA (you don’t ever get a name) as he commands his father’s armies through India to visit the Sultan of Azad. A mysterious and totally not sketchy Vizier of a local kingdom tricks THE PRINCE into attacking the nearby palace to retrieve THE SANDS OF TIME. During the conquest, THE PRINCE loots THE DAGGER OF TIME and kidnaps the Maharaja’s daughter (Farah) as a prize for the Sultan. Upon bringing Farah to the Sultan, the totally not sketchy Vizier convinces THE PRINCE to release THE SANDS OF TIME and everyone but THE PRINCE, the Vizier, and Farah are turned into sand monsters. Your job, as THE PRINCE, is to undo the damage caused by THE SANDS OF TIME, using THE DAGGER OF TIME to rewind time in short bursts to overcome difficult puzzles and large groups of enemies. Eventually, with help from Farah (with whom he predictably falls in love), THE PRINCE contains THE SANDS OF TIME and rewind history to before they were unleashed. The story ends with the reveal that THE PRINCE was the narrator the whole time, recounting his story to Farah. That totally not sketchy Vizier shows up again to kill THE PRINCE but is finally killed by our hero, who reveals a secret word Farah told him when they fell in love. THE PRINCE gives the dagger to Farah and the story ends.
The Sands of Time is an action-platformer that emphasizes free-running to reach objectives and solve puzzles. Key to solving these puzzles and avoiding traps is a time-control feature. You can reverse or stop time to reveal new paths or provide an opening to get past a trap. Combat is free flowing and rhythmic and requires the use of the time-control powers to beat certain enemies and bosses.
Analysis: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was my introduction to Ubisoft’s world of third-person action games. The moveable camera and innovative parkour mechanics were the first taste I ever had of true freedom of movement (something we tend to take for granted in games these days). While earlier games were “open world” to an extent, none had free-flowing movement over, under, and through obstacles. Most games would have you swinging in the air (Spider-Man) and jumping over things in your way, but little else. The Sands of Time had you wall-running, swinging, climbing, and jumping through massive, sprawling areas. Each level had a grand sense of scale and you truly felt like you could climb anything. Ubisoft would take these climbing mechanics and perfect them in the Assassin’s Creed series (at least two games from this series will find their way on to future lists). That freedom of movement was incorporated into the combat, too. It was fast-paced, rhythmic, and free-flowing. Later titles such as the Batman: Arkham series and Insomniac’s Spider-Man perfected this combat style.
Ubisoft saw the freedom of movement as an opportunity to make the puzzles incredibly difficult, but they never felt unfair. You had to utilize every trick in your book to traverse the giant palace rooms and solve puzzles – and you were always rewarded for your trouble. Finding Sand Clouds increased the maximum power and hidden magic fountains increased your maximum health. The puzzles and combat require the use of your many powers, including reversing time in ten second bursts, slowing down time, freezing time for a single enemy, or freezing time completely. You essentially need to find every power upgrade available to complete the game, as the puzzles and combat difficulty increases in each new area and requires you to use significantly more powers.
The stylized Arabian settling was reminiscent of Disney’s Aladdin, and offered a peak at a much darker side to that fantasy. The character-driven plot touches on a lot of the same themes that Arabian fantasy stories often do – a scheming Vizier (a high noble in a kingdom), a roguish handsome protagonist, and saving a Sultan’s daughter that would normally never find herself in the company of said protagonist. In terms of the skeleton of the plot, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time felt familiar, but it took steps forward from those fantasies in that Farah (the Sultan’s daughter) was a well-developed and strong character on her own. She assisted in combat and could be killed – she was clearly weaker than THE PRINCE, but she could hold her own and was necessary to beat enemies and solve puzzles. The romance felt earned and not forced, and she was rightfully skeptical as THE PRINCE recounted their adventures to her. Unlike many other games in which you must save or protect the helpless female, Prince of Persia felt like you were fighting WITH her to save the world. It doesn’t feel new anymore, but at the time games didn’t focus on developing side characters a lot (you’ll see another example of this development in an entry on this list soon).
The sound design was incredible. Middle Eastern music and melodies were mixed with hard rock to give a modern feel to the background music. It also served the purpose of subtly upping the tension and pace of the game. Typical Middle Eastern and Arabian melodies in Western movies or games are often a bit more relaxing and calming, but the introduction of the hard electric guitar riffs raise the pulse a bit and prepare you for fast action.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was incredibly well-received, and for good reason. The graphics, combat, sound, and narrative were gripping from start to finish. Sadly, the franchise never reached those heights again. However, a remake was announced in 2020 for release in 2021. While it was indefinitely delayed, Ubisoft claims it is still coming. If it does release, I’ll be returning to this glorious setting as soon as I can.
8. MVP Baseball 2005 (2005)
Synopsis: Simply put, MVP Baseball 2005 is the 2005 offering of the MVP Baseball series. Coming off the historic 2004 World Series that saw the Boston Red Sox win their first title since 1918, MVP Baseball 2005 features Red Sox star Manny Ramirez on the cover. The game has an exhibition mode, a manager mode (an exhibition, but you are the manager and do not control any action on the field), two franchise modes (Dynasty and Owner Mode), scenario editor (create and then play your own custom scenarios), and practice minigames.
The game has every MLB team and stadium, including the brand-new Washington Nationals and RFK Stadium. Each franchise has accurate minor league teams as well – all the AAA, AA, and High-A teams that were controlled by the MLB club were authentic (outside of the famous Wilmington typo in which it is spelled “Willmington”). Notably absent were Kevin Millar (not a member of the MLBPA) and Barry Bonds (withdrew from the licensing agreement). Bonds was replaced by a generic character named Jon Dowd with Bonds’ position and attributes. Dowd was so famously overpowered in the game that he frequently finds himself on lists of the all-time most dominant sports game athletes.
In addition to accurate teams, stadiums, and minor leagues, MVP Baseball also featured many legend players that could be used in Dynasty Mode if the option is selected and over 100 retro uniforms to use in-game. You could play games with guys like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gherig, and Cy Young. Their design and animations were as true-to-life as any game could make them at the time. Fantasy parks and legendary stadiums (like the Astrodome in Houston or Olympic Stadium in Quebec) were also available to unlock and use.
The two franchise modes were Dynasty Mode and Owner Mode. In Dynasty Mode you can take control of a team for up to 120 seasons (Spring Training games included). You take control of managing games and the roster to build an MLB dynasty, with all 120 of those seasons’ league leader and awards statistics being retained. You can set goals for players, with meeting them giving them attribute boosts and failing can cause them to lose attributes. Spring Training minigames allow you to obtain bonuses for your players as well, to aid in development. Owner Mode takes the Dynasty Mode to a whole new level, allowing you to control all the same things as Dynasty but adding the layer of also adding ownership responsibilities. You must control the finances of the team, including ticket/concession/merchandise prices, hiring staff, scheduling promo nights, and upgrading/maintaining your stadium. You can even create a new stadium for your team. In both franchise modes, games could be rained out, forcing your team to play double headers to finish a series.
In addition to the Owner Mode and new minigames, the biggest addition was the “Hitter’s Eye” feature, which changed the color of the baseball during the pitch to signal what type of pitch was coming. The ball is white for fastballs, green for off-speed pitches like changeups, red for breaking balls like curveballs, pink for sinkers, and orange for knuckleballs. This mechanic was meant to simulate a real hitter recognizing a pitch type based on the spin of the ball. Managers could also go out and argue close calls, with you controlling the intensity of argument. The more intensely you argue, the more likely the umps change the call in your favor. But if you go too far, your manager will be ejected, and you can no longer make managerial decisions for the rest of the game (like substitutions and pitching changes). Arguing balls and strikes earned an automatic ejection (side note: when I umpired youth baseball games, I also had an “automatic ejection for leaving the dugout to argue balls and strikes” rule).
Analysis: MVP Baseball 2005 was the first baseball videogame I ever owned, and what an intro to baseball games it was. Frequently lauded as one of the top sports games ever created, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Player models, authenticity, and gameplay set this game apart.
Player models looked relatively realistic, given the hardware limitations. Batting stances are faithfully recreated, even for the legend players. While pitching motions are not incredibly diverse, you still see variations, like the inclusion of sidearm pitchers and legend windups. They did not move stiffly and awkwardly, like you would see in earlier baseball games and even sometimes still see in football titles. Hitting felt like it was based on physics and not animations, as you couldn’t easily jack a 450-foot home run off a down-and-away pitch unless you were Barry Bonds (sorry, Jon Dowd) with an absolutely perfect swing.
Authentic to the game, sound design is a key piece of what makes MVP Baseball 2005 able to stand the test of time. The pop of the glove when a pitch is caught, the crack of the bat when you make solid contact, and the roar of the crowd when you hit a home run make you feel like you have premium seats at a baseball game. Bigger stadiums are louder, and minor league parks are noticeably smaller and less populated. Jerseys and stadiums looked and felt exactly like they should look, down to the smallest detail (except, of course, that pesky “Willmington” typo).
The incredibly large number of teams you can play with gave MVP Baseball significantly more play time than most sports titles. Having all MLB teams, plus their AAA, AA, and High-A teams was exciting, because you felt like you had total organizational control. I was able to play a game as my hometown Frederick Keys, a team that no longer is affiliated with an MLB club. The logo and uniforms were accurate, and I felt like I was controlling the team just up the road from where I grew up. MLB games these days don’t have that level of detail, and it’s noticeable. I saw MLB stars on rehab assignments with the Keys, and I saw future MLB stars like Manny Machado starting their careers there. It was cool to feel like I was able to control that organizational growth in a game.
Gameplay is simple to master and is often quite easy unless you tweak the gameplay settings to put yourself at a disadvantage. Hitter’s Eye made the hitting a little too easy at times. It felt like you knew exactly what pitch was coming at any given moment (you know, like you were on the 2017 Houston Astros) and if you paid attention, you would always be able to make solid contact on a pitch. While you could absolutely make it harder to play against the computer, the default settings were a touch too easy to master. Playing with friends tended to negate how easy some of the mechanics were, as most of the time you had to disable the Hitter’s Eye feature to make for a fair game.
All in all, MVP Baseball 2005 was perhaps the deepest and best professional baseball videogames ever created. Unfortunately, by losing licensing with the MLB, we haven’t seen MVP Baseball since the OG Xbox days. Modders have kept the game alive, however, and you can access current teams and rosters if you can download mods on your Xbox. Even without mods, this game is worth going back to.
7. Project Gotham Racing (2001)
Synopsis: Launching exclusively alongside the original Xbox in November 2001, Project Gotham Racing immediately established itself as Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s Gran Turismo series. Fast, stylish racing exploding into your living room as you needed to do more than just win races to advance to new rounds and unlock new cars. Using a system called Kudos points, racers are given points for skills like power sliding around corners, overtaking other racers, and riding on two wheels at speed around corners. You also need to hit certain speeds to meet challenges to be able to advance. Most racing games gave you points for driving stylishly, but PGR was the first game to make style a requirement.
London, New York City, San Francisco, and Tokyo are beautifully and faithfully recreated, as the game’s focus is on city driving. Multiple camera angles can be used, from the nauseating front bumper view to my preferred third-person view behind the car. Players create a driver, customizing the license plate style (the style being for one of the four available cities) and text, as well as their helmet style.
Multiple game modes are available: quick race (checkpoint races where you must finish in the Top 3 to advance), arcade race (where you need to score a certain number of points to progress to the next level), kudos challenge (where you race through 12 levels with 9 different challenge types to unlock rewards), time attack (finishing as fast as you can), and multiplayer races. Each game type forces you to start on Easy difficulty and meet certain conditions to unlock the next difficulty level. Each difficulty level is a specific track – for example, London’s Trafalgar Square is the arcade mode’s “easy” race. You then select your city, your unlocked car, and you’re off to the races (pun intended).
During races, you have access to 12 radio stations, 5 of them being real-world stations. Each one has its own genre and there’s something for everyone there.
Analysis: Fun fact – this was the very first Xbox game my dad and I ever played at home. It began a tradition where the very first game I play on a new console is a racing game, since racing games are usually the most graphically powerful launch titles. I love seeing games show off everything a new console can do, and PGR was a great introduction to the Xbox.
The menus are sleek and stylish, but never sacrifice style for function – a noticeable theme throughout the entire game. You are not assaulted with more visuals or sounds than you need, but what you have looks very cool. The cities are not overpopulated with things in the backgrounds, so what does show up on your screen is impressively detailed. The draw distance was also impressive, with realistic looking buildings in the distance and a nice lens flare feature when you are facing the sun. Shadows looked good for the time, too. Because of the focus on keeping features to a minimum, loading times are shockingly quick. Early Xbox games were notorious for long loading times, yet it took less than a minute to load into a race.
Unfortunately, the default sound setting makes the tire squealing overshadow the other sounds in the game. You can easily turn it down, but it was annoying to have to change. The radio stations and song selections were excellent, however. Every station had great songs and entertaining DJs.
PGR’s difficulty curve deserves some mention here. It was insane. Easy and Medium races were so easy that it was almost impossible to not score enough points to at least earn a silver medal (point scores getting you Bronze, Silver, or Gold), while Hard and Very Hard were incredibly difficult to complete kudos challenges. As such, it was hard to unlock new cars and paint jobs. I remember specifically my dad worked for weeks to unlock the British Flag paint job for the Mini Cooper and it took so long that he unlocked it, put the game down, and never touched it again. Most cars handled similarly, making the annoyance of unlocking cars difficult to justify at times.
What I remember most were the split screen races against my dad. It was the first time we ever played a videogame together, and it was a great bonding experience. He taught me the value of getting your ass kicked at something, too, as he never let me win and forced me to get better at the game to beat him. Being absolutely horrible at racing games, I never did win. But I took that lesson to heart and used it to practice and kick his ass in Madden 2002, which led to him not playing games against me ever again.
6. Spider-Man (2002)
Synopsis: Spider-Man is the first in a trilogy of movie-tie ins with the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. Loosely following the plot of the film, Tobey’s Peter Parker gains his spider powers, decides to use them to win money in a wrestling match, and is cheated out of his money. He lets a thief get away with stealing the prize money from the promoter, who then kills Uncle Ben. The thief is the leader of the Skulls gang, and they were tracked to a warehouse by the police. In his wrestling costume, Peter beats up everyone inside, confronts the thief, and accidentally lets him fall out a window and die. Peter then becomes Spider-Man.
As Spider-Man, you fight Shocker, Vulture, Scorpion, and the Green Goblin. The Xbox version has a special level, in which Spider-Man is kidnapped by Kraven the Hunter and must escape a trap-filled zoo. Spider-Man ultimately squares off with (and defeats) the Green Goblin, saving Mary Jane and the city. After a passionate kiss, Peter tells you to “go outside and play.”
Spider-Man is a basic level-based beat-em-up, but the levels are sections in the city that must be accessed. For example, you can swing around outside, but to confront Uncle Ben’s killer, you must go inside a warehouse and that level begins. There are fighting and stealth segments in many levels, and each level culminates in a boss fight. Each level is scored based on time, damage/detection, combo usage, defeating enemies, and stealth efficiency. Gold Spiders are hidden in every level, each unlocking new moves that you will absolutely need to complete the game. Completing levels on different difficulties unlocks new costumes: Easy unlocks civilian Peter costume, Normal unlocks the wrestler costume, and Hard unlocks the Green Goblin costume. Unlocking Green Goblin is perhaps the coolest part of the game, as Goblin has access to his gadgets: the glider (with machine guns), pumpkin bombs, and razor bats. The story even changes a bit, too, with Harry becoming Green Goblin to figure out how his dad died and fighting an impostor Green Goblin.
Cheats could unlock all the costumes, including Captain Stacy (Gwen’s dad), Shocker, and Mary Jane, though they are just skins and have only cosmetic changes. Since Mary Jane is a cosmetic change and the story remains, the game ends with Mary Jane kissing Mary Jane, which did unfortunately cause controversy upon release.
Analysis: I can hear the screams of “Spider-Man 2 is better” now. But hear me out. Yes, Spider-Man 2 was an objectively better game. But this particular movie tie-in is my favorite in the trilogy. From the trippy techno-bumping spider bite intro to the final credits, I had a BLAST. With a huge New York City rendered in 3D, I felt like I was able to swing all over town. Yes, Spider-Man 2 had a better swinging mechanic, but I would argue that Spider-Man’s was more important in that it set the stage for everything Spider-Man 2 and later Insomniac’s Spider-Man accomplished.
The inclusion of Bruce Campbell as the narrator, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, and Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin add immersion to the already entertaining gameplay. Since it’s a movie tie-in game, having actual characters from the movie (Campbell was the wrestling announcer) along with movie-accurate visuals enhances the experience. Campbell as the tutorial narrator is particularly entertaining as he sarcastically guides you through training, ultimately eating a sandwich as he finishes off the tutorial.
Controls were stiff and awkward, but it was far better than the previous Spider-Man game on the N64 and PlayStation. The fighting was a primitive version of the excellent combat we see in games like Batman: Arkham and Insomniac’s Spider-Man, but it helped lay the foundation for free-flowing combo-based fighting.
Feeling fully in control of Spider-Man (I love Spider-Man 64, but that controller was very restrictive) fighting a group of his best non-symbiote enemies was incredible. I beat this game with every single character skin. Future Spider-Man games better capture the combat, gadgets, and web-swinging, but this version captured the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film in a way that few movie tie-ins ever do.
5. NCAA Football 07 (2006)
Synopsis: NCAA Football’s videogame for the 2007 season sees you take control of a college and play through a career as a coach or take control of a player and play through his college career on the road to becoming a Campus Legend (the name of the single-player mode). What makes this year’s offering stand out from previous years (other than your typical graphical upgrade and roster update) is the tagline: “Turn the Tide.” Earlier entries emphasized “home field advantage” and “hardest places to play” but the ‘07 version put a spotlight on the biggest ally/opponent of every team: momentum. As teams make big plays, the momentum meter shifts to their logo on the scoreboard. The more momentum a team has, the better the players perform. Bigger schools with better home field advantages see an easier time swinging momentum in their favor at home. Hell, there’s even a decibel meter for the stadiums!
Campus Legend was a deep and detailed “single-player” mode in which you take control of an unsigned high school recruit and run drills to earn attribute points. At the end of your drills (different ones for each potential position) you will receive scholarship offers from schools, depending on how well you perform. A top-tier performance in the drills earns you offers from every school in the game. You can take one of those offers, or you can choose to enroll in any school of your choosing as a walk-on. As is the case in the real world, walk-ons must do more to earn their place at a bigger school. You enroll in school and must choose a major. Each major will improve certain statistics, with harder majors giving you better types of stat boosts. You must balance performance on the field with performance in the classroom, as you need to succeed at both if you hope to become a legend. During the season you must attend class (simulated if it’s not a test or quiz), attend practice (where you earn attribute points if you do well), and then choose an evening activity. You can either study and receive the answer to a potential exam question, meet with a tutor to improve your GPA, play a position drill to earn extra attribute points, or go to a social activity to boost popularity. Weekends are for games (assuming they are scheduled for that week). There’s a HUGE focus on academics – if your GPA goes down, so do your stats. At the end of the mode, when you have fully cemented yourself as a legend, you can export your player to Madden NFL 2007 to continue your pro career, or you can jump right into Dynasty Mode as coach of your team.
FUN FACT: this game features a place in your dorm with a photo of your girlfriend. As your performance improves and your accolades pile up, the girl in the picture gets hotter. Hilarious, but obviously it was cut from future iterations of the game.
The game features all the 1A (FBS) and 1AA (FCS) teams that existed at the time with accurate rosters and uniforms. Basically, if you wanted to play a game between Howard and JMU, you could – something that future versions of the games noticeably lacked. There was also fantastic in-game commentary and a pre-game show featuring ESPN Gameday’s Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso (legends of college football broadcasting). Those three even got fully rendered and animated characters, with Corso donning the head of the mascot for the school he predicts to win (like in real life on College Gameday). It’s quick, but it feels authentic and representative of my favorite part of Saturday mornings (at a relatively early age I stopped with the morning cartoons and started on College Gameday).
Analysis: I always preferred the college football games over the pro football titles. When I first started playing sports games, I was inundated with NFL options. I had to choose between Madden, ESPN NFL 2K, NFL Quarterback Club, and NFL Fever (among other less serious titles like NFL Street and NFL Blitz). I only ever had two college football options: College Football 2K and NCAA Football. College Football 2K2 and 2K3 were fun, but it simply didn’t hold a candle to NCAA College Football 2002, a game released one year earlier and yet dominated it in every way. Starting that year, I absolutely HAD to have the new NCAA Football game released each year.
NCAA Football 07 was, in my mind, the absolute peak of the franchise. The stadium atmosphere and momentum system felt real. It was genuinely harder to play in bigger and louder stadiums. Little improvements like jumping the snap on defense, multiple types of offensive deception (double reverses, aborting kicks to run a fake, etc.), and “momentum moments” (where you’ll get a dramatic slo-mo and camera zoom on an amazing play) make the game feel alive in the way that a college football game in real life is alive. The animations felt more physics based and smooth and real-life than 360/PS3 versions of the game.
The sound is superb. College fight songs play in the menus, which are a welcome change from the soundtracks of other sports games. The collisions sound violent on big hits and the crowd cheers feel deafening and overwhelming at times.
Outside of the momentum system feeling slanted towards bigger schools and Campus Legend mode allowing you to create awkward stat distributions (lord knows why I would need my Defensive Tackle to have 99 speed and 50 strength), there are basically zero negatives to this game. A true timeless classic, which is amazing for a genre that is based on yearly updates to graphics, gameplay, and rosters.
4. Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee
Synopsis: The third Oddworld game (the first in 3D) is an action-adventure platformer that released exclusively for the Xbox as a launch title. There is a backstory option that explains the events leading up to the game, but it is totally optional and not necessary to understand the game’s story. Following the events of Abe’s Exoddus, in which former slave Abe frees his fellow Mudokons and destroys the SoulStorm Brewery, we are treated to an extremely dark opening cinematic. Munch explains that he is the last of his species, that they were captures by webs. He explains that after looking for a long time, he finally heard one of his own people calling back. It turned out to be a trap, and he was dragged off.
The scene ends with Abe and his fellow Mudokons standing around a giant alien reminiscent of the Brain Bug from Starship Troopers. The Brain Bug (called “The Almighty Raisin”) tells Abe that he must go rescue Munch to find the rest of his enslaved brethren.
Cutscenes show that destroying the brewery did not stop the evil and greedy Glukkons, as they have moved on from their drink production on to more sinister projects. The Glukkons have hunted the Gabbits to near-extinction to use their eggs for Gabbiar (get it, like caviar?) and use their lungs to replace their own that are being destroyed by being chain-smoking assholes.
Munch, the last living Gabbit, is being held by the Vykkers (researchers working for the Glukkons). He is fitted with an electronic device to control him, but Munch learns that he can use it to free some Fuzzles (enjoying all these weird names yet?) who then help free Munch from his bindings. Fuzzles are adorable fuzzy balls that are very cute when happy and incredibly deadly when mad. They are Munch’s main weapon in his fight to escape the lab. Upon escaping, Munch runs into Abe, who takes him back to the Almighty Raisin.
The Raisin explains that they need to work together to infiltrate the lab Munch escaped from, where Abe can find eggs of unborn Mudokons, and Munch can save his species with the last can of Gabbiar in existence. Abe and Munch must force Glukkons to donate to one Glukkon names Lulu and make him extremely wealthy, with Abe rescuing Mudokons and Munch rescuing Fuzzles along the way. Eventually, when you infiltrate the lab, you will get one of a couple different endings.
The “bad” ending is reached when you do not save enough Fuzzles or Mudokons. The Fuzzles will turn on you, killing Abe. Munch will be killed and have his lungs harvested for the Queen, and the last can of Gabbiar will be eaten. The Mudokon eggs will hatch into a new slave labor force.
The “good” ending is if the player has saved just enough Fuzzles and Mudokons. Abe and Munch work to rescue the eggs of the Mudokons before an auction to sell them off, sending them to a transport commandeered by Abe’s rescued Mudokons. Lulu is forced to attend the auction and take part in it, with Abe managing to make him win the auction. Abe and Munch grab the can of Gabbiar and escape from the Labs. As they escape, Abe and Munch watch as Vykkers Labs are destroyed by explosives planted by the Fuzzles, seeing a second moon in the sky baring the footprint of the Gabbits on its face.
There is one more ending option, for anyone who got “Angelic Quarma” by rescuing all the Mudokons and Fuzzles. After the destruction of Vykkers Labs and the liberation of the Mudokon eggs, the Glukkon economy essentially collapses, and Lulu is blamed for it.
Analysis: Fans were split on Munch’s Oddysee. Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were both side-scrolling action platformers, so the jump to fully 3D was a bit of a shock to returning fans. It didn’t help that gameplay was barebones and basic, mostly revolving around collecting items and unlocking doors and cages. Abe needed to find “spooceshrubs” to unlock these areas and rescue his fellow Mudokons. Munch needed to find the Fuzzles to help open things for himself and kill enemies. Vending machines gave Abe abilities (like extreme speed) for a short time, and Abe could possess enemies to do things for him. Usually, the best way to get through an area was sneak and then sprint away when you got caught – not exactly the most engaging gameplay. The puzzles were fun at first but got bland quickly. It was not the most entertaining game, but something special was there.
The beauty of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee was in the visuals and the story. Visually, this game was stunning, particularly in cutscenes. Everything felt alive and the world felt as dark and grimy as the story wanted you to believe. In fact, the visuals and animation were so well-received that it was nominated for awards in 2001 for art direction and innovation, winning an Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences award for “Outstanding Achievement in Innovation.”
Story-wise, Munch’s Oddysee was in a league of its own. Building on the previous two games and a lore-rich world that was dying to be explored further, Munch’s Oddysee told an engaging and heartbreaking story about the danger of profiteering individuals with little regard for the world around them. I’m not here to make value judgments about economic systems, but what the Oddworld games do is warn people that the wrong people in charge of mega corporations can do insane amounts of damage to ecosystems and to themselves. Selfish people do selfish things and enough power in corrupt hands can destroy entire species (or planets). The story is told through the eyes of the victimsof these disastrous actions, but these victims do not stay that way for long. They become heroes and saviors, showing that even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant person can take on a goliath. All it takes is the choice to never back down.
Oddworld games have akways benefitted from how goofy and cartoonish the world is. Cute Fuzzles are actually incredibly smart and vicious, even though they look like tiny fuzzy balls. Mudokons are meek, quiet, and a little gross (they love a good fart – there’s even a fart button), yet they have the heart of a champion when called upon to do great things. Vykkers are disgusting looking alien creatures, and their lack of morality is more ugly than their appearance. Glukkons are selfish, disgusting, and profiteering, letting them be easily manipulated and overtaken. Everyone’s appearance is strange, and yet it fits into the odd world (get it?) perfectly. I spent hours reading everything I could find about all the characters and the world they lived in – I couldn’t get enough!
Munch’s Oddysee was followed by Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, an excellent first person shooter, a remake of Abe’s Oddysee called Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty!, and a direct sequel to New ‘n’ Tasty called Oddworld: Soulstorm. Hopefully we can revisit Oddworld again soon in another fully 3D game.
3. Star Wars: Republic Commando (2005)
Synopsis: Star Wars: Republic Commando is a squad-based tactical shooter that drops you in the Clone Wars as the leader of an elite commando unit of clone soldiers. Your squad consists of Scorch the demolitions expert, Fixer the tech expert, and Sev the no-nonsense brute. As the leader, you command your troops through various locations on special missions throughout the entire three-year Clone Wars.
The intro to the game is a montage about how special your squad is. You are elite commandos, bred to be better than any common soldier. Your missions will be more dangerous, your tasks more complicated. As you are told this information, you see clips of your clone’s accelerated growth and training from a first-person view. The importance of your squad is stressed repeatedly by the Kaminoans, and your first assignment is the Battle of Geonosis.
In addition to Geonosis, your squad is deployed to a derelict space cruiser overrun by Trandoshan slavers and Kashyyk. On Geonosis, you must infiltrate a droid factory and assassinate a Geonosian general. On the derelict cruiser (now one year into the war) you must regain control of the ship, destroy the Trandoshan dropship, and then protect yourself from an invading Trade Federation starship. Towards the end of the war is when you are sent to Kashyyk to rescue Wookiee Chieftain Tarfful from those pesky Trandoshans. You witness General Grievous arriving on the planet and are sent to capture him. He escapes, leaving behind his guards, whom you dispatch quickly. As you uncover a secret alliance between the Trandoshans and Separatists, the prelude to the Battle of Kashyyk kicks off. You complete objectives and protect the city of Kachirho from invading forces, where Sev is cut off. Before you can go rescue him, your squad is pulled out as the city is abandoned and lost. Your squad is debriefed by Master Yoda as a huge Republic fleet is deployed, and the game ends as you prepare for your next assignment. The full-scale Battle of Kashyyk shown during Episode III is about to begin.
You have two weapons to start, a blaster rifle and a rechargeable pistol. The blaster rifle gets attachments that change it into a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher. You can pick up other weapons, like a Geonosian Beam Rifle and a Trandoshan Shotgun, among others. As the game progresses you gain access to more varied choices during battles, like specific places to have soldiers post up and attack from. Since everyone has equal proficiency in all weapons, you can assign anyone to any position, and it will be effective. You will need to use these positions, too, because enemies can quickly overwhelm you if you are not prepared.
Analysis: Republic Commando is an excellent game, relying heavily on Star Wars lore, strength of characters, and exceptional squad tactics.
Interactions between the squad lent more emotional weight to the otherwise unsurprising story. Any Star Wars fan knows how the Clone War ends, so this game doesn’t throw anything particularly new at you. What it does, however, is make you care about the clones you are commanding. They are clearly not your run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter clones. They have quirks, personalities, and unique voices. Scortch is quirky and fun-loving, Fixer is by-the-books and straight-laced, and Sev is focused on kicking ass. Your character, known as “Boss”, is armed with fantastic one-liners and a dry sense of humor that provides levity to a very heavy game. At one point you see a dead Jedi, and your character quips, “A more elegant weapon for a more civilized time, eh? Well, guess what? Times have changed.” Nevermind how Boss knows what Obi Wan tells Luke in A New Hope, that line was hilarious. The overwhelming forces and brutal nature feels like a callback to Vietnam war movies where the soldiers are outnumbered, cut off, and doing everything they can to survive a seemingly insurmountable onslaught.
Great squad A.I. keeps you focused on the action and not on babysitting. They do not run to get themselves shot, and they have the instincts to take cover and target enemies. You can rely on your teammates to cover or assist you when needed, but they can also take care of tasks like hacking a console. In fact, sometimes it’s actually better to have teammates take up sniping positions because they will be more effective than you. The production of the animations and squad tactics were overseen by a former special forces commander, making the gameplay feel like what you would expect a squad of highly-trained commandos to do in the Clone Wars.
I am not sure there’s a single bad weapon in the entire game. Sure the blaster rifle and pistol are a tad weak, but it makes sense. The blaster rifle is your first gun and it has a high fire rate with good accuracy. The pistol has unlimited ammo. Every other side weapon, be it your attachments or the enemy guns, are fantastic and varied. Particularly excellent is the Wookiee Bowcaster. It fires relatively slowly, like a crossbow, but it packs an accurate and brutal punch. The wrist blade for melee never feels underpowered and is always helpful.
This game was armed with excellent visuals, including great lighting, realistic shadows and effects. The sound design is faithful to the movies. Everything looks and sounds exactly like a Star Wars property should. The score is appropriately heavy for an incredibly dark and brutal Star Wars title. The title track evokes memories of the gregorian chants from Halo, but instead of being more ethereal and mystical, it’s much more loud and heavy – like the difference between the Ancient Greek stories and the brutal Vikings of old.
A sequel to Republic Commando was reportedly in development called Imperial Commando, but never made it past the concept art stage. How disappointing, seeing as the closest we got to an Imperial Commando game was the intensely disappointing Battlefront II campaign in 2017.
2. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
Synopsis: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR from here on out) is an RPG that launched exclusively for Microsoft, on the Xbox and Microsoft Windows. Set around 4,000 years before the formation of the Galactic Empire (at the end of Episode III), you take charge of an unnamed character and progress through the story in one of many different potential ways.
You start by choosing a class – scout, soldier, or scoundrel. Your class will determine what abilities you should be using, and how easy it will be to upgrade them. Non-class skills use more upgrade points, and certain abilities are not accessible at all. Through dialogue choices, the way you interact with the world around you, and the people you align yourself with, you will gain dark side and light side points, shaping the powers you can use as well as the ending of the game. For example, a light side user can access Force Lightning, but it will be significantly weaker than a dark side user. Conversely, a Dark Jedi can use Force Healing, but it will heal you less. Your alignment, light or dark, will affect how characters around you interact with you, and will drive away party members that do not also align with you. The ending will change based on your choices, as well as who survives.
Here is where I normally give an account of the story. I don’t want to spoil the story or plot points for anyone who has yet to play or read about what happens. Anyone who loves the game understands that it contains one of the best twists in gaming history. What I will tell you is this – you must venture across the galaxy to recover your connection to the Force, uncover why it was cut off, and stop the Sith from destroying the Republic. You uncover clues to an ancient weapon that can turn the tide of the war in favor of the Republic or the Sith, and through the search you discover the story of Darth Malak, leader of the Sith, and the former Jedi who turned him: Darth Revan. To uncover these clues, you visit places like Dantooine (location of a Jedi Temple where you can recover your connection to the force and build a lightsaber), Kashyyk, Manaan, Tatooine, and Korriban (homeworld of the Ancient Sith and my personal favorite location in the game). Each planet has different goals and objectives, each of which can be completed in multiple ways. You are also faced with choices that have far-reaching consequences and that can follow you to other plants. For example, on my very first playthrough, my actions on Manaan got me banned from ever returning to the planet again. As you discover the secrets of the ancient weapon, the Star Forge, you make large and small decisions that will affect the fate of the entire galaxy. Everything matters. If you have not played KOTOR before and enjoy Star Wars lore, please go play this game. Seriously.
You have access to a diverse group of companions: Republic pilot Carth Onasi, Twi’lek Mission Vao, Wookiee Zaalbar, Jedi Bastila Shan, Jedi Juhani, Grey Jedi Jolee Bindo, utility droid T3-M4, Mandalorian mercenary Canderous Ordo, and assassin droid HK-47. Each has their own skills and personalities, which can steal the show at times.
Carth is loyal to the Republic but is hiding a deep pain from his past that leads to explosive outbursts of emotion. Mission is a headstrong scoundrel that will happily run headfirst into trouble to do the right thing or save her friends. Zaalbar is a fiercely loyal Wookiee that would follow you to the ends of the galaxy if you asked. Bastila shares a deep connection to your character and her arc is as important as yours. The same, to an extent, goes for Juhani. You encounter her as she is falling to the dark side, and you can save or kill her. Your choice has long-lasting ramifications. Jolee is a grumpy old man who is disillusioned by the Jedi order and can be turned light or dark. T3-M4 is essentially a stand-in for R2-D2 but is useful in his own right. Canderous is a self-interested Mandalorian mercenary and great with heavy weapons. His arc is more subtle as he learns to work with and not against Jedi, like he did in the Mandalorian Wars. He returns as a companion in KOTOR II (as Mandalore). HK-47 is perhaps the best companion, as a ruthless killing machine that unintentionally has jokes for days. You will likely settle on companions you want to keep with you quickly, though it is easy to swap them out. Experience gained applies to all characters, so when you bring along new people, they will level up to match yours. The game is best played when you swap out companions on different planets – bringing Zaalbar along on Kashyyk opens up entire questlines that would be closed off without him.
Analysis: What a masterpiece. What more do I have to say? Everything you do matters. The story and twist are amazing. Each character stands on their own. Not a single moment is wasted, repetitive or boring. Yes, animations are clunky and stiff at times, but it’s a 2003 RPG. It’s not going to move smoothly like Halo 5, Insomniac’s Spider-Man or God of War. But what it does is feel like a rightful part of the Star Wars universe… Perhaps even the best part.
You get to be a Jedi, and you get to do it your way. You aren’t handed a list of powers and a straight-line objective. You get to choose your powers and their strength, and you get to choose how to use them. You can customize what you wear, what your skills are, and even the color and function of your lightsaber. You can have Blue, Green, Purple, Yellow, or Red. You choose a Jedi sub-class that gives works the same way as the scout/soldier/scoundrel classes, but with Jedi powers. You also don’t have to be a Jedi, which is amazing. Yes, lightsabers will usually be the best option as far as damage numbers, but you can use blasters throughout the entire game if you want. You’re never forced into a box, which is what makes KOTOR stand out so much.
The dialogue and story choices, morality system, and choice of worlds to visit clearly influenced later RPG classics like Mass Effect. Visuals and sounds give you the impression that you are in the galaxy you know and love from Star Wars films, but a significantly older, ancient version of it. Everything is new and yet it’s familiar in the best way. With tons of awards and high ranking on lists much more prestigious than this one, I’d say just about everyone agrees that KOTOR is a classic.
I still go back and play Knights of the Old Republic to this day. A remake or sequel to this classic franchise would be incredibly well-received and would earn an immediate pre-order from tons of fans, myself included. Get on it, BioWare!
1. Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Synopsis: A mysterious ring floats in the shadow of a large planet. The camera pans up as a massive ship, the Pillar of Autumn, moves onto the screen towards the mysterious ring. A voice demands, “Cortana, all I need to know is: did we lose them?” A female voice responds that they both know the answer to the question, and we cut to a clearly decorated captain of the Pillar. Cortana mentions that the people chasing them are “The Covenant” and they have “always been faster”. Clearly this threat, whatever it is, is winning. Captain Keyes orders the ship to go back to combat readiness, as they alert “everyone” on the ship. Marines run to battle and action stations, ready to fight. The Marines and their Sergeant look and sound oddly familiar (hello, first Aliens reference). They’re preparing for something major. The camera cuts to a priority message saying, “UNSEAL THE HUSHED CASKET” and we get our first look at Master Chief – a quiet hulking bionic figure. The music builds into a grand crescendo, and then you are suddenly in the Chief’s armor. As you perform diagnostics, the Covenant attacks, sending the ship into disarray as you are bombarded by a strange alien force Hellbent on exterminating everyone on board.
Halo: Combat Evolved has a flawless opening scene. All the important characters are introduced in their element. None of the intro is done with a grand CGI cutscene. It’s all in-game and flows seamlessly into the action of the game.
Eventually, the Pillar of Autumn is forced to crash onto the mysterious ring, and the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) forces are scattered. Armed with an assault rifle, a pistol, and AI companion Cortana in your head, you must round up the survivors and rescue Captain Keyes. Upon rescuing Keyes, you begin to learn the ring world you landed on is much more than it seems. Cortana enters the computer system and finds out a dark secret – Halo is a weapon. Now you must figure out why the Covenant is so focused on activating the ring. Keyes, searching for a weapons cache, accidentally releases the Flood, a parasitic enemy that was trapped and contained in the ring. The ring’s caretaker, 343 Guilty Spark, comes online and grabs Master Chief to activate the defenses. Just before he can do so, Cortana reveals that Halo’s purpose is to kill all sentient life to starve the Flood. Cortana and Chief decide the only way to stop the threat of Halo and the Flood is to destroy the ring, using the Pillar of Autumn to do so. Chief finds Captain Keyes assimilated into the Flood and must literally rip the neural implant from his head to access parts of the Pillar of Autumn needed to destroy the ring. They return to the Pillar, manually destabilize the reactors, and destroy Halo.
Analysis: If you know anything about me, could there be any other selection than Halo? This is my favorite game series of all time, and it’s not even close. The first time my dad booted up the game, I was hooked. See, I was still young when Halo came out and my parents got in their head this notion that I couldn’t play a game that was Rated M due to violence and language. What I did was develop a habit that definitely hasn’t followed and haunted me to this day – I waited until everyone was asleep, snuck downstairs, and played Halo until the sun came up. Dad caught me (there are individual save files for games, not sure how I thought I could get away with it) and let me sit with him while he played and later gave me his blessing to play by myself. I couldn’t get enough. I loved every game that my dad brought home with the Xbox, but nothing gripped me like Halo. The lore, the music, the futuristic combat – everything made me obsess over videogames like nothing ever has. Friends would come over (I was the only one who owned an Xbox) and we would spend hours after dark playing split screen together. Friends were made and lost over that game, specifically a custom game on Rat Race with unlimited grenades. If you know, you know.
Halo’s music is next level. It was the first videogame soundtrack I ever bought, and I still have it in heavy rotation on more than a few of my playlists. Mixing Gregorian chants and a hard rock electric guitar was genius. Martin O’Donnell at one point told Aaron Marks of Music4Games that he was told what was supposed to happen throughout each level so he could specifically craft songs to mimic the emotion a player was meant to feel at any given moment. He told Marks that the three words used to describe the game were “ancient”, “alien”, and “epic” and those are the three words he crafted his music around. All three words were perfect descriptions of the game, and the music fit all three perfectly.
I would like to focus for a moment on one of the three main words to describe Halo: alien. The game directly pays homage to Aliens, one of my favorite sci-fi/horror franchises of all time. Sergeant Johnson in Halo was inspired by Master Sergeant Al Apone, a gruff, no-nonsense cigar-chewing marine badass. The Halo marines had helmet recorders and digital ammo counters on their guns, like in Aliens. The Flood take direct inspiration from Facehuggers. Halo’s Pelican bears resemblance to Aliens’ dropship, and the Pillar of Autumn looks strikingly similar in shape and size as the Sulaco in Aliens. To me, the more references the better. I adore it.
“Alien” is also the perfect to describe the weaponry. No gun truly looks or feels like a modern-day human weapon, even the UNSC weapons. Sure, you have clear inspirations, with the assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, and rocket launcher all being clearly derived from modern weaponry. But the design has been altered to feel futuristic and alien in all the best ways. They fit the universe and aesthetic in how they look, feel, and sound. Covenant weapons are odd and fire projectiles that are strange and colorful. They are loud and shrill sounding. Most of their weapons cannot be recharged or reloaded, adding to the feeling of being alien.
In addition to how much I loved the game, it’s undeniable that Halo left its mark on the gaming industry. Halo almost single-handedly kept the Xbox alive (until KOTOR came along to cement the system as a major player for years to come). Trying to break into the gaming market with a brand-new console while Nintendo and PlayStation were kicking ass was a near-impossible feat, so Microsoft trotted out a game that had perhaps the biggest impact of any game ever. Praise GoldenEye: 007 all you want, but Halo was much more influential. Essentially creating what is known as the “twin-stick shooter” (a game in which the player used one joystick for movement and the other to look around and aim), Halo pushed the First-Person Shooter genre to the forefront of gaming, where it remains to this day.
On the 10th anniversary, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary for the Xbox 360 released, with an in-game option to swap between old and remastered graphics. Later, the game was included in the Master Chief Collection on the Xbox One, meaning I essentially bought the game three separate times without regretting it for an instant.