The Xbox is turning 20 this year, meaning it can almost legally drink in the United States, and can already sneak across the border into Canada and enjoy a Molson with some Timbits. But has it aged gracefully? Here’s a list of 5 original Xbox games that still hold up today.
For an exercise like this, it’s important to set some rules of engagement. First, let’s define what we mean by “hold up”. It would be wildly unreasonable to expect a game from nearly two decades ago to have graphics so gorgeous they melt your face. What we looked for here are games that still look objectively good on a large 4K display. Second, the gameplay should feel comfortable on a modern Xbox running in compatibility mode. Lastly, the game should be available on the Microsoft Store. There’s nothing worse than getting the itch to play a game you can’t easily get your hands on. This means even though a game like Amped or Project Gotham Racing might still be a blast today, you won’t see it on this list. This isn’t a list of the best Xbox games ever, but this is a great playlist of games you can hop on and tackle right now!
So, without further ado…
#5 JADE EMPIRE (2005)
A few heads turned in the early 2000s when BioWare opted out of producing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, instead opting to work on Jade Empire. The company felt strongly that both visibility and profitability would be better served by establishing original IP. Enter: Jade Empire.
This Action RPG was an Xbox Exclusive on release and featured a story rooted in Chinese mythology. The game featured beautiful graphics with great character models, something that knocked The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind off this list. (The character models in Morrowind look SUPER creepy on a 4K television today.) Possibly even more impressive was the estimated 320,000 words of dialogue that were all voice acted. Nathan Fillion even makes an appearance, providing the voice for Gao the Lesser!
#4 MX UNLEASHED (2004)
Racing games tend to hold up really well over time, with titles like Atari’s Pole Position and Nintendo’s R.C. Pro-Am still being a blast to play even today. As previously mentioned, Project Gotham Racing isn’t eligible for this list, but that leaves plenty of room for a fantastic title like MX Unleashed to earn a well-deserved spot.
Not only does this title still look and play great, but the in-game physics are impressive for a racer of this vintage. The controls are still responsive and dialed in. Best of all, this can be had for free via Microsoft’s “Games with Gold” initiative.
#3 CRIMSON SKIES: HIGH ROAD TO REVENGE (2003)
A well-executed flying game can really stand the test of time. This Xbox Exclusive entry in the Crimson Skies franchise hit GamePass in August 2021 and is really worth a download.
Like MX Unleashed, the graphics have aged like a fine wine. Once again, we also find that the controls are really responsive. The story is engaging enough, with humor and irony sprinkled in the 1930s alternate-history setting. There’s also some couch co-op to be had via split-screen play, a feature regularly abandoned from modern games in the name of greater graphical fidelity.
#2 NINJA GAIDEN BLACK (2005)
This has to be one of the great platform to 3D reimagining’s ever. A descendant of the NES side-scroller, this plays fast and somehow manages an arcade feel despite the 3D implementation. It’s really refreshing to play in a sandbox like this in a context other than a first-person shooter. There’s not much else to say here- go play this game!
#1 STAR WARS JEDI KNIGHT: JEDI ACADEMY (2003)
A lot of games could have landed on this list, but Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy feels incredibly relevant for a lot of reasons. A playthrough will immediately conjure visions of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the modern release by EA. In fact, running a lightsaber mission on a tram system with a cohort positioned in a ship outside the train immediately elicits recall of the 2nd mission in the more modern title. Unlike the Knights of the Old Republic games which controversially don’t appear on this list, the control scheme feels familiar to the modern player and the character model work in the game is a revelation as well. Best of all, players get treated early on to seeing a young, powerful Luke Skywalker starting his Jedi Academy- a real treat for those of us that shed a tear during the last episode of The Mandalorian Season 2. The open mission structure also feels current, and the voice acting is terrific. This game definitely inspired a lot of games we play today, even if it’s not top-of-mind in that regard. The only real drawback here is some frame stutter (our test machine was an Xbox Series X). The minor issue was definitely not enough to keep this from making the top replay spot on this list.
Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2. These legendary titles are best experienced as part of the Master Chief Collection and, as such, didn’t feel like a great fit for a list encouraging folks to play OG Xbox titles in their original form.
What are your favorite Xbox games that are still worth booting up today? Let us know in the comments below!