Microsoft’s first foray into video game hardware back in the early 2000’s was something of a mixed bag. While its hardware was quite sturdy and reliable compared to its successor, the original Xbox had its own share of quirks and oddities. From its mammoth hardware and almost comically bulky controller, to the (at the time) risky move of offering a paid online service, the Xbox was far from perfect.
Still, Microsoft could boast the most powerful hardware for its time, a premium online experience, and a usually superior means of experiencing third party games. With so many games though, some inevitably failed to live up to the massive hype established by the marketing and/or the franchise itself.
While the now iconic FPS Halo took off on Microsoft’s machine, the library was lacking in a few areas. Xbox could certainly boast a healthy lineup of FPS games and sports titles in particular, though there wasn’t a ton to get excited about if you already owned a PS2. Support was strong on the Western front, but lacked Japanese support.
Still, the Xbox did alright for itself, ending up with countless games that both looked and played solid, and a second place finish in the console war. Given how crowded the library quickly became, there were naturally a lot of games that slipped through the cracks. Some just didn’t receive the marketing or hype they deserved, while others perhaps lacked the mass-market appeal with their quirky concepts. Still others simply got lost under the looming shadows of games like Halo, Project Gotham Racing, and Morrowind.
With that said, let’s take a trip back to the early years of the new Millenium and examine some of Xbox’s most overrated titles, as well as the hidden gems that may have been lost in the pages of gaming history.
30 Best: Psychonauts
While many of the games on this list haven’t aged particularly well, Psychonauts still rings as novel and appealing with its colorful visuals and unique gameplay. It feels like a twisted version of 3D Mario or Banjo Kazooie, with a dynamic Matrix-like narrative that’s as bonkers as its quirky art style. The game contains a surreal vibe throughout, which helps to supplement some memorable 3D platforming gameplay. The experience adheres to solid mechanics while often mixing up the scenarios you find yourself in to keep things fresh.
29 Bad: Star Wars: Obi-Wan
The fact that these visuals appear to be straight from an early N64 game doesn’t bode well for this one. It certainly doesn’t look like this game belongs on a circa 2001 console – especially the most powerful of its generation. It’s true that the Star Wars franchise has produced mixed results when it comes to quality games. For every KOTOR, there seems to be 2 or 3 cases of Star Wars: Obi-Wan or Kinect Star Wars.
It’s a shame, because a game starring the iconic Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi does offer the potential for an engaging title. The issue is, it feels rushed; not just with the shoddy visuals, but the boring, lifeless gameplay, cheap mechanics, and rough voice acting. Stick with the similar, yet far superior The Force Unleashed.
28 Best: Phantom Dust
Similar to JRPGs, strategy games seem to be somewhat underrepresented on the Xbox. It’s a good thing then, that this little known hidden gem, Phantom Dust, delivers. The game is surprisingly nuanced for a console strategy game, while at the same time, comes with appealing, gameplay chock full of action.
Phantom Dust utilizes a unique combat system, not unlike a tabletop or card game, with collectible attacks that are limited use, forcing you to plan your attack wisely. It’s easy to get into this one, with the diversity of abilities and combos, fun online mode, and arcade-style gameplay.
27 Bad: The Simpsons: Road Rage
What is it about established movie and TV franchises that so often lead to mediocre video games? Perhaps it’s the lack of effort on the part of developer – realizing that their game will garner a certain amount of success regardless of its quality? In the case of this wannabe Crazy Taxi racer, The Simpsons: Road Rage, it somehow crossed the million sales threshold on the Xbox alone despite its shoddy nature. This game has all the hallmarks of that game, with a few key missing elements – namely the quality, refinement, solid mechanics, or charm Crazy Taxi had.
26 Best: Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath
Much like Psychonauts, the Oddworld games on Xbox fell victim to containing weird, quirky themes that perhaps lacked mainstream appeal. Considering Xbox’s relatively small install base, this makes it tough to gain success. While Munch’s Oddysee provided the foundation of a unique and wacky take on the adventure shooter, this 2005 sequel built on those elements and made for a superior experience.
The weird concept of using insects and little furry critters as ammunition for Stranger’s crossbow is more fun than ever here. This is thanks to some refined mechanics, slicker graphics, more inspired environments, and even more experimental gameplay.
25 Bad: Blinx: The Time Sweeper
Funky concepts and themes can be a mixed bag in video games. They can stand out and make for a truly innovative, impressionable experience. Though, in the case of say, Blinx: The Time Sweeper, the levels of weirdness can be a bit much.
A time-traveling cat who can manipulate time sounds like an amusing premise with potential. The problem is in the execution – the mechanics are wonky, the difficulty is frustrating, and camera controls are quite literally “shaky”. Also, the game’s combat mechanic of launching trash cans into opponents seems both ill-fitting and off-putting.
24 Best: Beyond Good & Evil
Ubisoft may have been a bit ahead of their time with this hidden gem. Beyond Good & Evil runs with a Prince of Persia style of fantasy-based adventure, but with an even stranger premise. The game wasn’t widely received upon its initial release, though has slowly but steadily gained recognition over time, helping to establish Ubisoft as a major player in the industry. Beyond Good & Evil contains a deep and unique narrative, memorable characters, as well as a fine blend of action, adventure, platforming, and stealth.
23 Bad: NFL Fever 2003
Before the NFL license was taken over EA, there were a number of titles by various developers that offered unique approaches on pro football, with varying degrees of quality and success. You had the very non-Madden, arcade-based insanity of NFL Blitz, though you also had some games that adhered to a similar nuanced sporting sim approach.
Still, the quality didn’t always measure up to the Madden standard. Enter the NFL Fever series – specifically the 2003 edition on Xbox. This entry, in particular, feels dull, repetitive, and comes with some questionable AI to boot. The game also fails to add much of note from the previous entry.
22 Best: Phantasy Star Online Episode 1 & 2
This game was really ahead of its time – at least with its emphasis on online gaming. In an era where Everquest was one of the few MMORPG games in town and World of Warcraft had yet to be released, online gaming was in its infancy, especially with console RPGs.
While you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone online in the barren ruins that comprise the Phantasy Star Online servers, the actual gameplay still holds up. It contains some endlessly addictive co-op multiplayer featuring plenty of colorful environments and diversity of weapons and abilities to play around with.
21 Bad: Sonic Heroes
It’s quite apparent these days that the rapid-paced platforming style of Sonic games doesn’t translate well to the 3D realm. In the early 2000s though, this notion wasn’t established; understandable, since the first 2 attempts at 3D Sonic games were actually pretty solid.
But then Sonic Heroes happened, along with a slew of less-than-satisfactory attempts to reinvent Sonic. While certainly not the worst in the series (Sonic ’06 anyone?), Heroes did mark one of the first major dips in the quality of games featuring our favorite blue hedgehog. Wonky mechanics, limiting on-rails gameplay, and cringe-worthy voice acting bog down an otherwise sufficient platformer.
20 Best: Jet Set Radio Future
The cell-shaded visuals and exhilarating “Tony Hawk with graffiti” style in the cult hit, Jet Grind Radio, certainly drew the attention of many Dreamcast gamers, seemingly coming out of nowhere. This sequel builds on that appealing foundation and dazzles with some even crisper visuals thanks to the power of the Xbox.
This sequel largely adheres to the same wacky, fast-paced gameplay of its predecessor. Though it further fleshes out the arguably simple experience with interconnected stages, new objectives, and several multiplayer modes. Grinding on rails and spray-painting random walls has never been so fun!
19 Bad: Bruce Lee: Quest Of The Dragon
I remember hearing a good deal of hype surrounding this game, while I was busy smashing it up with GameCube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. Perhaps this game would be Microsoft’s cool, edgy (and maybe more nuanced) version of that, featuring the iconic martial artist Bruce Lee? Maybe it would be the next generation of Street Fighter?
A fighting game where you get to kick some behind as Bruce himself? Surely this must be awesome!
Well, we soon found out that this was far from the case, and the hype died rather quickly. The game contains some goofy looking character models, an awful camera, poor controls, and dull environments to boot.
18 Best: Shenmue II
In another case of a converted Dreamcast cult classic, this time we have Shenmue II, the dynamic action RPG from Sega. Unfortunately, just like the first entry, this game never quite managed to take off, but those few that have played both of these hidden gems recognize this as being even better than its predecessor.
For those that haven’t played the first entry on the DC, Shenmue II has got you covered with a DVD dedicated to catching you up on the narrative and workings of the first game. This sequel also features an even more engaging and immersive story. Additional gameplay refinements include multiple paths to earn cash, new minigames, and the ability to speed the game’s clock forward to cut back on downtime.
17 Bad: Star Wars Knights Of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
You could make the case that Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II is a decent enough game in a vacuum. But coming off the heals of the engaging and enjoyable first KOTOR, Bioware didn’t quite deliver on matching, let alone surpassing the expectations following that release.
While the game certainly boasts graphical improvements vs its predecessor, this is about the only area in which it excels. Bioware attempts a more dynamic plot here, but it comes off as convoluted. It doesn’t help that many of the characters are quite dull and uninspired. The abundance of gameplay bugs and unpolished gameplay don’t do it any favors, either.
16 Best: Kung Fu Chaos
Not to worry – Kung Fu Chaos is a far better experience than the similarly-themed Bruce Lee: Quest Of The Dragon, with decidedly more fun and cartoony theme to boot. While not quite on par with the similar arcade fighter, Super Smash Bros., you’re still given an endlessly addictive and fun brawling bonanza.
The game also contains some very impressive visuals and animations for its time. It’s surprising this didn’t get more attention, as Kung Fu Chaos proves to be a fun, and highly underrated multiplayer party game to enjoy with friends.
15 Bad: Fuzion Frenzy
It looks like Xbox fans were looking in the wrong direction when it comes to satisfying party games. While Kung Fu Chaos was hardly given a second look, this mediocre orb-based party romp ended up being one of the highest selling titles on the platform. Its colorful themes and action-based premise may seem enticing, but at the end of the day, Fuzion Frenzy just feels lifeless, and grows old after mere minutes of playing. It comes off as a cheap imitation to Mario Party or Super Monkey Ball, with far less charm, and an even simpler premise, if that were possible.
14 Best: Steel Battalion
It’s perhaps understandable why Steel Battalion would be a bit off-putting to most gamers. After all, this wasn’t just a game, but a mega-package featuring a realistic pilot control panel with a whopping 40 buttons, pedals, and large lever-like joysticks. Yet, getting past the cumbersome and clunky hardware that came packaged with this game, Steel Battalion proves to be a very solid flight simulator. It’s like Mech Warrior on steroids.
Assuming you had the stomach to assemble everything and learn the complex controls, this game really provides an exciting, complex, and immersive experience. It’s like being in possession of your own personal flight-based arcade machine.
13 Bad: Enter The Matrix
At the dawn of the new Millenium, The Matrix was all the rage, following the hype surrounding the anticipated sequels. Unfortunately, like the disappointing sequel films, this game version of the cerebral sci-fi hit turned out to be a dud that failed to live up to the ’99 classic.
The first problem is that the game follows two characters most care little for, and who are hardly even featured in the films, Ghost and Naobi. The controls and camera are tricky to deal with, the mechanics are shoddy, and the AI is questionable at best. The difficulty is usually crazy, and the gameplay features some frustrating “hacking” sections, that you basically need to look up to figure out.
12 Best: Xyanide
While the Shoot-Em-Up genre seemed to have gone through something of a hiatus in the early 2000s, apparently nobody told Playlogic Entertainment. While the genre has been known for some pretty lackluster graphics, Xyanide dazzles right off the bat with some truly epic cutscenes and terrific sound design for its time. While the game isn’t perfect, it certainly contains some familiar fun and addictive shooter gameplay that blends retro action sensibilities with more modern visual glitz. It’s a classic feeling shmup that’s easy to get into and tough to put down.
11 Bad: Medal Of Honor: Rising Sun
In the early 2000s, the Call of Duty franchise hadn’t yet completely taken over the FPS scene as we now know it. Other contenders for FPS supremacy, like Medal Of Honor, were garnering plenty of hype and sales. Though, like that franchise, these games proved to be a mixed bag.
Credit where credit is due – Rising Sun at least somewhat steers clear of FPS WWII tropes, by dropping you into battles on the South Pacific rather than Nazi Germany. Though this is pretty much where the ingenuity ends, as the gameplay feels formulaic, repetitive, and uninspired throughout. It doesn’t help that the game has a pretty simplistic linear design throughout, or that the lackluster AI is virtually useless.
10 Best: Star Wars: Republic Commando
Despite being a game that falls under the massively popular Star Wars banner, Republic Commando specifically never received much notice. It also surprisingly didn’t get a sequel, despite being one of the stronger Star Wars games in the early 2000s.
The game contains some intense and exciting FPS gameplay with a tactical twist, along with plenty of content – there are three different campaigns to burn through. It feels like a nice combination of Halo and Metroid Prime with a strategic edge, nice visuals, and of course, a cool Star Wars overlay. It’s tough to create a memorable Star Wars game based on the plots and settings of the mediocre prequels, but Republic Commando pulls it off.
9 Bad: Driv3R
While the GTA series broke new ground, setting the stage for a new and exciting era of open-world sandbox games, Driv3r just doesn’t do much with its open-world nature. As a result, it tends to feel like “GTA Vice City lite.” The game takes a dip in quality from the already average first two Driver games, and fails to really stand out or do anything interesting.
The gameplay is limited and buggy compared to the hit Rockstar series, the environments are repetitive and uninspired, and the blocky visuals haven’t aged too well. You’re also fairly limited in terms of the carnage and destruction you can cause, which is part of GTA‘s appeal.
8 Best: Panzer Dragoon Orta
There probably wasn’t a terribly large market for colorful, Japanese-style on-rails shooters on the Xbox, especially those who origins trace back to the 90s. Still, for those who bothered to look, Panzer Dragoon Orta proved to be a surprisingly fun hidden gem, with some appealing shooter gameplay and majestic environments.
Sega had quite a presence on Microsoft’s debut console, with mixed results; though this title was certainly one of their stronger entries. Soaring through the skies with a massive dragon and blasting your foes into oblivion is an endlessly satisfying endeavor, even with the limited on-rails movement.
7 Bad: Dead To Rights
It would seem that, at least on the Xbox, the “safe” route of crafting a successful game involves throwing in dark, gritty themes and lots of guns. This is certainly the case with this fairly typical action-shooter, Dead To Rights. While the narrative is decent, the actual gameplay is tough to get through, between some ridiculous AI, cheesy voice acting, a finicky camera, and basic, monotonous combat. The game just feels like one giant trope for M-rated shooters of the early 2000s; and one which hasn’t aged particularly well.
6 Best: Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth
Imagine my surprise when I realized that the Xbox had a game seemingly similar to one of my favorite games of the 2000s, GameCube’s Eternal Darkness. Similar to that unknown gem, Call Of Cthulhu relies on playing with your mind and warping the game’s reality for its source of thrills and chills.
Unlike that psychological thriller though, this feels distinctly Lovecraftian with its dark, twisted themes. It also stresses more intense stealth elements vs leaning on mindless action. Additionally, Call of Cthulhu utilizes some pretty solid shooting mechanics, making for a well-rounded, 1st person horror that makes you feel as though you’re living a Lovecraft novella.
5 Bad: Blood Wake
While the title of this vehicular combat game invokes feelings of excitement and grandiosity, the gameplay itself doesn’t quite live up to the name, nor the hype it received in the early Xbox days. It’s not horrible on its own merit – but compared to Crimson Skies or Twisted Metal, from which Blood Wake almost blatantly rips off, (minus water-based environments?), it doesn’t measure up. It also doesn’t help that so much of this game’s enjoyment depends on the boat handling, which unfortunately feels pretty wonky.
4 Best: Jade Empire
Jade Empire often gets overshadowed by the likes of Bethesda’s Morrowind when it comes to quality WRPGs on the Xbox. Yet, unbeknownst to many at the time, Bioware was quietly establishing itself as another major player in this area with games like KOTOR and the less known, but equality great Jade Empire.
Unlike their Star Wars titles, however, Jade Empire runs with a completely unique and imaginative premise. Its cool Eastern themes and engaging narrative draws you in, but its solid mechanics and appealing gameplay keep you coming back for more. It utilizes an intuitive combat system that feels satisfying and keeps the action flowing.
3 Bad: Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland
While the Tony Hawk series had not yet bottomed out in terms of its quality, American Wasteland pretty much marks the beginning of the franchise’s steep decline, with some stale and lifeless gameplay. It didn’t help that the aesthetics of the game weren’t quite cutting edge anymore, as it was utilizing some pretty old hardware by the time it released in 2005.
While the game dials things back from the more unorthodox Underground games, the problem with this is that it feels formulaic as a result. This entry fails to really break new ground, unless you count the addition of BMX bikes, which aren’t that fun to play around with anyway.
2 Best: Stubbs The Zombie
Timing can be everything in art. If Stubbs the Zombie had come out maybe 5 or 6 years later, when the zombie craze was beginning to take off, perhaps this cult hit would have fared a bit better. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be, and so, Stubbs the Zombie joins the list of obscure but enjoyable hidden gems, which seem so prominent on the Xbox.
The game uses the solid foundation of the Halo engine – though this is where the similarities to that franchise end. Stubbs features a fun blend of goofy humor, an interesting story, a cool retro-futuristic premise, and of course, lots of brain-eating zombies.
1 Bad: SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle For Bikini Bottom
There were a number of lame games I bought back in the day, simply because they were based off cartoons I enjoyed. Virtual Bart, Rocko’s Modern Life: Spunky’s Dangerous Day, South Park Rally, and more. SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom is perhaps one of the more disappointing examples of a letdown of a game based on a TV show.
Unlike the cartoon, which features charming characters, witty humor, and memorable moments, this game is a dull, unfunny, and annoying. Basically, take a mediocre version of Super Mario 64’s formula and slap a SpongeBob overlay on it, and you have this lackluster 3D platformer.