As the Dreamcast’s sales diminished and Sega was forced to bow out of the hardware business, Microsoft managed to fill in the gap with the release of the Xbox in 2001, its first entry into the video game market. Boasting the highest technical specifications of its generation, a built-in hard drive to store game data and save files, and the ability to rip audio tracks from CDs to be used as in-game custom soundtracks, the Xbox was built with power and comfort in mind – well, maybe not so much comfort, as the hulking size of the original controllers and the system itself would attest. But with the technological prowess and financial backing it had, Microsoft dressed the Xbox to impress, and impress it did, easily edging out Nintendo in sales – the only competition that mattered, as the PlayStation 2 was leading the market in sales with too wide of a margin to ever catch up with. Perhaps what the Xbox is best known for, though, is getting the ball rolling for online play; with the release of its online service, Xbox Live, the Xbox took the first big leap in making online play the industry standard it is today. All that being said, let’s look at my top picks for this black and green gaming beast!
5. Jet Set Radio Future
Officially out of the hardware business, Sega wasted no time in bringing over some of its most popular titles to other systems, including the “Jet Set Radio” series. “Jet Set Radio Future” takes place in Tokyo, in the year 2024. The corrupt Rokkaku Police Force is using their power to take away the freedoms of speech and expression from the people. As a member of a youthful inline skating group known as the GGs, it’s your job to fight back in the only way you know how: covering the streets – and walls – of Tokyo in graffiti. “Jet Set Radio Future’s” gameplay consists of going out on missions, skating around, collecting spray paint cans and tagging designated areas with graffiti. The bright and colorful cel-shaded art style perfectly complements the tone of the game, and its soundtrack is impressively large with a varied mix of upbeat techno, pop and rock. Basically, if you want a fun game that doubles as eye and ear candy, “Jet Set Radio Future” is the way to go.
4. Beyond Good & Evil
Quite possibly the definition of a cult classic in the gaming world, “Beyond Good & Evil” is a game that received the highest of praise from critics but had the unfortunate fate of bombing hard in sales. Combining action, adventure, stealth, and puzzle elements, “Beyond Good & Evil” follows Jade, a young reporter who joins an underground group of journalists called IRIS after her home planet is invaded by an alien race known as the DomZ. A military group called the Alpha Sections emerges to fight against the DomZ, but all is not as it seems. As Jade, you must infiltrate key Alpha Sections and DomZ locations to learn the truth behind the DomZ invasion. “Beyond Good & Evil’s” excellent voice-acting and ambient musical score add to the overall atmosphere of the game, resulting in a highly immersive experience.
3. Max Payne
And now, a game that had no trouble whatsoever gaining popularity: “Max Payne.” This gritty third-person shooter puts an emphasis on story, exploring the emotional struggles of titular character Max Payne. An officer of the NYPD, Max returns home one day to find his wife and daughter murdered by three junkies, high off a new drug called Valkyr. Years later, Max finds himself undercover, working for the family responsible for trafficking the drug. After the only person that knows he’s undercover is killed, Max is put down as the prime suspect, forcing him to fight for his life against both the police and the crime syndicate he was working for, all the while trying to piece together the mystery of his family’s murder. The game’s story is told through highly detailed graphic novel-esque panels in between levels, and Max himself provides highly metaphorical narration in-game. “Max Payne” was also one of the first games to utilize the ‘bullet-time’ effect made popular by “The Matrix,” where time slows down and you can see bullets whizzing by you. In short, “Max Payne” is a super stylish and super dark shooter that’ll keep your attention all the way to the end. If only the same could be said about the movie.
2. Halo: Combat Evolved
Quite possibly the most iconic game in the Xbox’s library, “Halo” quickly rose from standard launch title to company mascot. The story of “Halo” begins when a human spaceship called the Pillar of Autumn is attacked by an alliance of aliens known as the Covenant. Master Chief, a fully armored super-soldier aboard the ship, is awakened from his cryogenic sleep in order to help fight off the attackers. Taking too much damage, the Pillar of Autumn and its escape pods crash land on a large, ring-like space station, aptly named Halo. Master Chief is then given the task of finding out what Halo’s purpose is. As far as gameplay goes, I wouldn’t say that “Halo” did anything revolutionary, but everything that it did do was done excellently. One of the first shooters, if not the first, to incorporate it, “Halo” had a secondary health bar on top of the normal one that was regenerative – take hits and it’ll go down, wait long enough and it’ll go back to full; take too many hits and it’ll start digging away at your normal health. The game’s artificial intelligence is impressive as well, including four difficulty levels. “Halo” also included a healthy assortment of weapons and vehicles of both human and alien origin, all of which felt like they had their own advantages and purposes, not to mention that the game introduced what has become my favorite weapon in a shooter: the plasma grenade, or “sticky”. Nothing is more satisfying than throwing a plasma grenade long distance and hearing that little beep that informs you that you hit an enemy with your grenade, it stuck onto them, and they don’t have very much time left to live. Take all this, add in an epic violin-filled musical score, and you’ve got yourself a hit.
An absolutely brilliant platformer that, unfortunately, suffered the same fate as “Beyond Good & Evil,” “Psychonauts” tells the tale of a boy named Razputin. Gifted with psychic powers, Raz runs away from his life of circus performing to sneak into Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, a government training facility used to hone the powers of psychic-enabled children so they may grow up to be psychic agents known as psychonauts. There, Raz discovers that something is amiss when more and more children start to quite literally lose their brains. With the help of the camp counselors – psychonaut agents themselves, Raz must develop his psychic powers, solve the mystery of the missing brains, explore and ease the psyches of multiple people, and eventually face his own inner demons. The gameplay is very much exploration-oriented, with Whispering Rock serving as the game’s open-ended overworld and the minds of the various people you encounter serving as the main game worlds, all of which are leaps and bounds different from one another. The game also has a unique, detailed art style and quirky, dark-ish sense of humor that’ll outright make you laugh out loud on multiple occasions. “Psychonauts” is pretty much a platformer that puts an exceedingly fresh spin on the genre while still harkening back to the platforming collect-a-thons of old. Like I usually say when it comes to these number one spots, you just have to play it.
And that’s the end of that chapter. Next week, we’ll finish off looking at the consoles of last generation as we delve into the system I thought to be vastly underrated – the Nintendo GameCube!