Before the local release of the PlayStation 4, we featured a series of articles looking into the history of PlayStation – so why not give it another go on the eve of the Xbox One’s local release? Let’s take a brief look at the history of the console that started it all for the Xbox brand.
Back in 2001, the console landscape was a very different place. Sony dominated the sphere with its PlayStation 2, while Nintendo’s Gamecube was struggling to find much of a market despite its incredible library of first party titles. SEGA was discovering that its Dreamcast was about to sink the company’s entire home hardware division. Ok, maybe in retrospect it wasn’t all that different.
But it was in that year that things changed, and changed how consoles would function in the decade to come. It was in that year, that Microsoft entered the fray with the launch of the Xbox.
It actually all started quite a bit before then. In 1998, a team of Microsoft employees convinced Bill Gates that it would be a smart move to enter the console war, if only to continue the Microsoft tradition of taking other peoples ideas and trying to doing them better.
Kevin Bachus, Seamus Blackley, Otto Berkes, and Ted Hase formed the Redmond Giant’s first console team, bringing Microsoft Game Studios Ed Fries on board to head up games. Right from the beginning, it was meant to bring the flexibility and power of a PC to the console market – and in fact started its prototype life as a chimera made from parts ripped out of Dell machines. Microsoft’s Direct-X Box as it was called then, was supposed to have double the processing power of the yet-to-be-released PlayStation 2.
It took two years for Microsoft to go public with its console. Bill Gates eventually showed it off at 2000’s Game Developer’s Conference, touting its “next gen” features. It was the very first console to feature a hard drive and built-in networking for broadband connections. Attendees were wowed by the hardware, but developers weren’t all that keen to jump straight in, with most seeing it as little more than PC in a set-top box.
Microsoft’s original Xbox really was very nearly a PC stuffed in to a console box, with a Pentium III serving as its CPU. It featured a custom Nvidia-made GPU that performed similarly to Nvidia’s GeForce 4 Ti4200 PC GPU.
- 733MHz Pentium III with 128Kb L2-cache
- 64MB DDR SDRAM
- nVidia NV2A ASIC 64MB
- 2x-5x DVD-ROM Drive
- either 8GB Western Digital or 10GB SeaGate Harddrive formatted to FATX
- C: boot partition
- D: DVD-drive
- E: data partition
- F: additional data partition (usually not available)
- X:, Y:, Z: game caches
- nVidia MCPX with 64 3D voice channels
- Power supply
The Xbox controller features two analogue sticks, a pressure-sensitive directional pad, two analogue triggers, a Back button, a Start button, two accessory slots and six 8-bit analogue action buttons. All of that was housed on a controller that was nearly the size of a dinner plate, giving it nicknames like “Fatty” and “The Duke.” The thing was just too damned big – and is cited as one of the reasons people with smaller hands, like those in Japan, just ignored the system.
Microsoft made up for that blunder with the release of a smaller, lighter controller called the Controller “S,” which eventually ended up being the system’s de facto Controller in Japan, and later the world – and the forerunner to the beloved controller seen in the later Xbox 360.
The Xbox was far away from being a guaranteed success – but something happened that would make Xbox a household name. That thing was Halo.
Steve Jobs originally showed off Halo as a Mac and PC game at the Macworld conference in 1999 – but Microsoft ended up buying the studio responsible, making Halo: Combat Evolved an Xbox exclusive and one of the system’s launch titles. It’s a series that would later become synonymous with the Xbox brand, and cement the console in the hearts of many gamers.
On November 14, 2001, Microsoft released the original Xbox, and a million of the things flew off US shelves in three weeks, despite a $299 asking price. It took a little while for the system to be released in Europe and Japan – but it hardly made a splash in either region. The high cost of developing the system and its poor international sales didn’t do much for profitability and a $100 price cut didn’t help on that front either. What the cut did do though was make the system far more appealing to consumers; enough so that it outsold Nintendo’s Gamecube by the end of that console generation. That’s no mean feat for a company’s first console.
Arguably the most important event in the evolution of the Xbox and the growth of Microsoft’s firm place in the gaming industry happened a year after the console was released, with the launch of its online service, Xbox Live.
In November 2002, Microsoft released the Xbox Live Starter Kit, bringing the sort of online multiplayer gaming that console gamers had up to then only dreamed of. Playing against people from other parts of the world, with a communal environment was unheard of – especially with voice chat and a curated friend’s list. Xbox Live also allowed gamers to download new levels, new content, and even whole games from the internet.
With over 150,000 paid subscribers in its very first week, Xbox Live was most definitely success – and the numbers have continued to grow since then. The entire thing and how seamless an experience it was gave Microsoft an early foothold in the next generation of consoles, which would come earlier than many had anticipated.
Because the Xbox had such familiar, PC-based architecture and Microsoft was new at this, the Xbox was cracked open for piracy and the emulation of other systems not long in to its lifecycle. With a hard-drive already built in to the system, crackers and modders had a place to store their pirated games without much fuss. On the upside, the system being open gave way to things like XBMC, which started its life as Xbox Media Centre. Throughout its life, the Xbox made Microsoft no money and by the end of 2004, the technology that had once been the system’s biggest selling point had become its biggest obstacle.
Just four years after the release of the Xbox, Microsoft was ready to release its successor, the Xbox 360.
The games that mattered
Halo: Combat Evolved
With a brand new console on the way, and very little experience under the belt, Microsoft knew that they would need a game that would be the defining reason to own their Xbox. A game that would bring people together, or keep them entertained when they played solo.
And that game was Halo: Combat Evolved. Nailing the formula right the first time, Bungie crafted an impressive world that punctuated its action with breath-taking visuals, action and an orchestral score that still resonates with fans to this day. While the single-player was a winner, it was the multiplayer side of the game that kept folks coming back for more, as Halo created an entire culture of online competition that lasted for years, paving the way for future sequels.
Project Gotham Racing 2
The original Project Gotham Racing was a great game, but it was also a rough launch title. Clearly, something had been rushed here. But underneath the tarnish, there beat the heart of a racing champ. A sequel was needed, and that’s just what Bizarre creations set out to do, as they were given the time and resources necessary to create a bigger, better and badder racing game where style spoke louder than pole position finishes.
Superior in every single way to the original game, PGR 2 took things a step further with the online component, leveraging that Xbox power to take races out of the living room and onto the growing online arenas of Xbox Live, making the subscription to that service worthwhile.
If Project Gotham Racing was the fast and furious side of driving on the Xbox, then Forza Motorsport was the far more serious and dedicated simulation racer on that console. A simulation racer that was technical to a fault, Forza Motorsport set the bar for simulation racing games on the Xbox, creating a rival to Sony’s juggernaut franchise Gran Turismo.
And in many ways, Forza Motorsport was far more innovative for its time. Players were able to take their skills offline or online, vehicles had better damage models that impacted on driving, while the Drivatar could learn from your racing patterns and create a better challenge.
But more than that, Forza Motorsport was a deep experience, that catered to a market that wanted to know of every nut and bolt in their car. It found the lightning that had made such technical games magic in the first place, and bottled it up for gamers to experience on the Xbox.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell
If there’s one thing that the Xbox had going for it, it was enough hardware to start a robot revolution. That console was packing some serious heat, but few developers were taking advantage of it. And then along came the very first Splinter Cell game. For the first time, Metal Gear Solid had a true rival in the stealth genre, a sneaky game that looked like an A-class Hollywood production thanks to the team at Ubisoft Montreal.
Unrelentingly challenging, Sam Fisher made a hell of a debut on the Xbox, in a game that introduced the world to a set of iconic night-vision goggles.
Panzer Dragoon Orta
When it comes to on-rail shooters, there are no games better and prouder of that genre than Panzer Dragoon. Finding too small an audience on other consoles, the franchise hopped onto the Xbox, creating a beautiful atmosphere that was complemented by some serious action and solid shooting mechanics.
Star Wars Knights Of The Old Republic
For many years, traditional and old-school RPGs had been a staple on the PC platform. But change was in the air. Console games were beginning to make serious changes in the industry, and developers wanted to experiment with those systems, crafting tales that took advantage of dedicated hardware and accessibility.
Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic was a gamble of a game. It had that nostalgic charm of older gameplay mechanics, and a universe that may have been familiar, but it was set in a galaxy that was long, long ago. But when it launched, KoToR was a smash hit. It wasn’t enough to create a new universe filled with memorable characters, an entire library of lore and a twist that no one saw coming.
It was a game that made RPGs popular with the mainstream, elevating it above the niche status that the genre had been stuck in for so long. The Force was indeed strong with this one.
Critically acclaimed yet a commercial failure, Psychonauts was clearly ahead of its time. And also in your head. Another quirky game from Tim Schafer, Psychonauts was perhaps too imaginative, too far out for the regular gamer, but it helped create a hell of a legacy and still happens to be a ton of fun to this day. It’s a one of a kind game, and worth the head-trip into your own brain-space.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
RPGs were beginning to find a home on the Xbox, but the third Elder Scrolls game took things a step further with Morrowind. Vast, detailed and free, Morrowind was a breath-taking journey that allowed you to create any kind of character that you wanted. From there, the choice was yours: dip into the main quest, or find your own path in life. It’s one of the greatest Elder Scroll games ever made, setting a new benchmark for console RPGs.
The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
There’s a golden rule in gaming: movie tie-in games are always crap. But if there was one sole exception to that rule, it was the Riddick game. Thanks to Vin Diesel being an actual gamer, he knew what he wanted to see in a game that starred his iconic anti-hero, and what he got paid off in a way that made the actual films pale in comparison. Brutal, challenging and possessing an unreal level of quality, the first Riddick game showed developers how to make a licensed game not only work, but succeed as well.
Fight Night Round 2
Boxing has been a video game staple on any console. From Mike Tyson’s Punch Out to Ready 2 Rumble, the fine art of pugilism existed in one form or another. But the majority of those games were goofy. None of them managed to capture the actual intensity of the squared circle, and the danger of a one-two combination when your guard was down.
Fight Night had been a solid entry from EA in that genre, but Fight Night Round 2 made you feel actual pain as your blows connected with the skull of an unlucky opponent, or as you watched a left hook to the ribs break your bones. It was a revolution on the visual side, while using your corner-men to help you come back from a disastrous round added all manner of strategy to the fine art of smashing someone’s face in.
Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time
When the persian prince finally re-appeared after many years of absence, it wasn’t in a game that featured top-notch boss battles or a decent amount of gameplay to while away many hours with. It was in a game that served as a magnificent tech demo for what studios could really do, as the prince leaped, jumped and mastered time in a game that brought the old school kicking and screaming into a new generation. It was both nostalgic and new at the same time. But it was also a hell of a lot of fun.
Ninja Gaiden Black
Ninja Gaiden games have a very specific audience. And it’s most likely an audience that enjoys pain, as this shinobi-centric entry in the series made games such as Dark Souls look like a walk in the park in comparison. Beyond the sheer challenge however, Ninja Gaiden Black was a supremely well-designed game, merging breakneck action with fantastic level design. As magnificent as the first Ninja Gaiden game was on the Xbox, it’s the special edition that is even more worthwhile, thanks to a sheer abundance of tweaks, improvements and bonus content.
You’ve got to hand it to Bioware. They made Star Wars cool again, and for their follow-up, they were Eastbound and down with a martial arts epic for the ages. Jade Empire was an original game that mixed Asian mythology with classic Kung-Fu action, resulting in a game that worked on so many levels. Everything from the action to the story, is just sublime, and it’s another game on this list that is in need of a sequel so that more gamers can experience the magic of this 2005 gem.