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Hello, and welcome back to Silver Linings where I dive into the maligned and forgotten and see what I can dig up.
On 15 November 2001, Microsoft released the original Xbox. It was a gamble to be sure. The prior time an American console was released (the Atari Jaguar) was a massive failure. However, Microsoft had the strongest machine ever designed at the time, bold plans for an online infrastructure, and a big green guy named Master Chief to get people interested. While the sixth console generation ended with the Playstation 2 as the de facto champion, the Xbox's strong second place finish encouraged Microsoft to stay in the console market.
The Xbox found its strength with a strong selection of first-person shooters (especially Halo), fighting games, and plenty of action and sports games. However, one genre that the system hardly gets noted for was the RPG genre. The Xbox had two major problems in that regard. First was that it just didn't get that many. Second was that the ones it did get were not what console players were used to. At the time, console gamers expected RPGs to follow the Japanese turn-based style popularized primarily by the Final Fantasy franchise. The ones the Xbox tended to get were Western PC-style RPGs. Today, those are common on consoles, but they were almost unheard of at the time. It's yet another way in which the Xbox was a console ahead of its time.
To honor the original black and green box's 17th birthday, I found some cool adventures that were only on the Xbox (unless you count PC which I don't) or were at their best on the Xbox. I will also note when any game is compatible with the later systems. Jump in.
Arx Fatalis is a first-person RPG by Arkane, the same company that later made Dishonored. The caves that humanity was forced to take refuge in have some of the best atmosphere of the time. The mechanics are ahead of their time with the emphasis on crafting gear and creating custom spells.
'Azurik: Rise of Perathia'
Azurik released when the Xbox launched, and it was Microsoft's answer to Zelda. While reviews at the time were mediocre, opinions improved over time. The bright, colorful, and expansive world could be explored as you see fit, and the combining of elements for different spells was very well done.
Crimson Sea takes the easy slashing of Koei's Dynasty Warriors & puts it in an anime-like sci-fi universe. The story and characters are enjoyably cheesy, and the combat stays fresh all the way through. Strangely, while this one was only on the Xbox, its sequel was only on the Playstation 2.
'Deus Ex: Invisible War'
The second Deus Ex took heat from die-hard fans of the original for technical issues (mainly framerate drops) and that it appeared watered down for the Xbox. However, I don't see it. The world was expertly built, and the missions still allow for numerous approaches to complete them. It's an excellent entry in the cyber-spy franchise.
'Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes' (playable on Xbox 360)
There were several co-op hack-and-slashers on the Xbox, but Atari made this one ONLY for the Xbox. The visuals were some of the system's best, the combat stays fun, and the drop-in/drop-out nature make it a great party game. It's not Diablo, but it's good enough.
'The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind' (playable on Xbox 360 & Xbox One)
Even though the world has been enamored with Skyrim for years now, there's still something very special with Morrowind. Before it released in 2002, console RPG players had never seen the level of freedom that the third Elder Scrolls game presented. More than any game before (and even its sequels in some ways), Morrowind allows players to be anyone they want and do whatever they want.
'Hunter: The Reckoning' (playable on Xbox 360 & Xbox One)
This awesome co-op hack-and-slash is perfect for Halloween. Demons are let loose in the modern day, and four mystical warriors go into battle. The visuals are still awesome, the combat is still tight and varied, and the metal score still rocks. The sequel sub-titled Redeemer is also great (though it's not compatible with the later consoles).
'Jade Empire' (playable on Xbox 360 & Xbox One)
BioWare doing an action-RPG that revolves around Chinese mythology and kung fu? Yes, please! The mechanics in this one from the dialog to the morality choices to the combat can clearly be seen as a prototype for what BioWare would do with Mass Effect and Dragon Age. However, Jade Empire is still a fantastic game in its own right. Now, where's that long-overdue sequel?
This is one of the only Japanese turn-based RPGs the Xbox got. Though it got poor reviews when it released, it became a cult classic later, and, hey, I like it. While the story is thin, the mix of future tech and magic creates fun combat possibilities, and the randomly-generated dungeons keep the exploration fresh.
'Otogi: Myth of Demons'
From Software is known for pummeling players thanks to the Dark Souls series, and Otogi and its sequel feel like Japanese-flavored prototypes of that mindset. The combat is tight but very tough, and the fully-destructible environments are fun to ravage. The sequel even provides multiple characters to play with.
'Pirates of the Caribbean'
No, you aren't Captain Jack Sparrow in this game or Will Turner or Barbossa. In this Bethesda RPG from 2003, you get to launch your own adventure. While not quite as open as the Elder Scrolls games, you still get your own ship to go wherever you want and plunder anything you set your eyes on. Load it up, and grab the rum!
'Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic' (playable on Xbox 360 & Xbox One)
This is the reason BioWare became a force in console RPGs. KOTOR provides the perfect mix of tense turn-based combat, free exploration, and one of the strongest stories in RPGs and the Star Wars universe. The sequel subtitled The Sith Lords may be a little messier but it's also a blast (and playable on both of the later Xbox consoles).
This one from Microsoft and Climax takes some playful jabs at the tropes of traditional fantasy RPGs while still being a fun one in its own right. It's well-written and often very funny, and smart use of all four characters' abilities is the only way to survive combat. Yes, it can be tough, but it's still engaging.
Any that I missed? Want these all to become playable or get sequels on the Xbox One? Let me know, and game on!