20 of the best Xbox games ever

Luke Albigés - December 1st 2021

As November draws to a close, so too does our month-long Xbox20 celebration, and we've saved the best of the best for last. We're all caught up on 20 years of Xbox history, so now it's time to look a little more closely at the games themselves, and more specifically, the ones that rank among the very best to have ever released on Xbox.

As with our forgotten Xbox gems piece, we've limited the scope here to focus primarily on first-party titles, Xbox console exclusives, or games typically associated with an Xbox platform... opening the floodgates to two decades' worth of amazing multiformat games would absolutely saturate the pool, and we don't want that. What we did want, though, was to get the whole TA news crew involved in something this big, so expect to hear from all five of us as we run through 20 stone-cold Xbox classics. Let's get into it, shall we?

Ninja Gaiden Black

Character action games are so reliant on tight controls and satisfying combat that they're notoriously hard to get right, but oh-so-rewarding when done well. Ninja Gaiden Black is comfortably in the genre's top flight, and it's kinda wild that 2005 gave us two of the very best in this and Devil May Cry 3. Black is the definitive version of Team Ninja's already-incredible Ninja Gaiden reboot, and introduces, among a bunch of other things, two much-requested features — an easier difficulty mode called Ninja Dog to help less skilled players beat what is famously a damn tough game, and an even harder one in Master Ninja to give experts a true challenge. It still looks and runs great for a game that's over 15 years old, too, especially since it's one of the many games that benefits from Xbox One X enhancements when played via backwards compatibility, so it actually looks better than ever today. Both Ninja Gaiden and Black launched as Xbox exclusives, although a revised version of the game subtitled Sigma made it onto PS3 a few years later, and other systems more recently. Despite the better visuals and extra content in Sigma, it wasn't without its issues (and even removed and altered some elements) so most purists will tell you that Ninja Gaiden Black remains the best way to enjoy the original game in the revived series.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2

For a few years, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved would be held as the gold standard against which all other Xbox Live Arcade games would be judged. Having evolved from a simple mini-game hidden in the garage of Bizarre Creations' superb Project Gotham Racing 2 to a fully-fledged release, this simple shooter offered countless hours of score-chasing fun, and proved a difficult benchmark for other XBLA titles to reach both in terms of quality and popularity. Since others were clearly struggling to top Geometry Wars, Bizarre Creations just went ahead and one-upped itself, dropping this sequel in 2008 that added a ton of longevity by introducing six unique game modes, each with its own highly competitive leaderboards. The classic mode returned as Evolved (now with even more enemy types), joined by ingenious additions such as Pacifism — a callback to the achievement of the same name in the original, with a flood of enemies that can only be destroyed by passing through exploding gates — and Deadline, with that short three-minute time limit making this the perfect mode for a quick score attack fix. This simple arcade shooter is borderline perfect, so little wonder the series hasn't managed to hit such a lofty high since, with new developer Lucid Games falling a little short of the mark with 2014's Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and the Blind Forest is a classic in the full sense of the word. Music, gameplay, visuals; everything combines wonderfully in Ori to create an excellent platformer with a surprisingly weighty emotional gut punch. That’s not to say it doesn’t come with its challenges — the escape sections in particular are ridiculously hectic — but, like with Celeste, the brief loading times between each inevitable death helps hold back any extra frustration.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a wonder to look at, too, and you’ll most likely find yourself stopping in each new area just to take in the kaleidoscope of colours and the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack — and let’s talk about that soundtrack for a minute, because it is exceptional. Ori manages to get so much across without the need for dialogue, and the swelling music is a big part of that; easily complementing the game’s emotional themes, the music is almost its own character, and the havoc Ori and the Blind Forest wreaks on your emotions wouldn’t be nearly as drastic without it. Just as Journey had such an impact on PlayStation players, Ori and the Blind Forest manages to wordlessly communicate something magical that stays with you long after you finish the game.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

We're going back to the OG Xbox era again now, and this classic BioWare RPG set in a galaxy far, far away was one of those games that really made those without an Xbox green with envy. It's telling that director Casey Hudson went on to also be director on the Mass Effect trilogy, as Knights of the Old Republic offered an extremely similar experience set in the Star Wars universe — dialogue and action choices that swing you towards the Light or Dark Side (each with their own perks and powers), twisting and branching core narrative, strong interplay with party members, and galaxy-spanning missions should all sound familiar to Shepard's fan club. The main difference between the two is the combat, with KOTOR continuing BioWare's trend of the time of using adapted tabletop RPG rules just like in its massive Baldur's Gate games and hits or misses calculated with behind-the-screen dice rolls and modifiers from your friendly DM, the Xbox. This is fuelled by more of a classic RPG stat system, unsurprising with KOTOR drawing heavily from the Star Wars tabletop RPG, which in turn is based on a classic D&D D20 system. Knights of the Old Republic arrived exclusively on Xbox in mid-2003 to unanimous praise, and it's easily one of the best Star Wars games of all time, not to mention one of BioWare's best. It did arrive on PC later that year but wouldn't appear on anything else for a decade, releasing on mobile in 2013 and finally on Switch just last month. A remake was also announced recently, but it seems like the upper hand is on the other foot this time around — the new version has been confirmed to be a timed PS5 console exclusive.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

You can’t very well write up an article detailing the 20 best Xbox games without mentioning the space-faring Covenant destroyer himself, can you? But where do you start when discussing Halo? Everyone has their own opinion about what makes a great Halo game, and it would seem there isn’t really a right or wrong choice when picking a favourite. We decided to go down the safe route — as spineless as it may seem — and pick the one title that has it all: The Master Chief Collection. This one-purchase deal (or Game Pass download) holds every great main-line entry into the series: Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2 Anniversary, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach, and Halo 4, and due to the nature of the bundle, the multiplayer lobbies are still open and flourishing, and each of the games (especially the earlier ones) looks and plays better than ever. Much like Sea of Thieves, MCC is a different beast today to what we saw at launch (which was pretty rough), but ongoing support has turned it into a great celebration of all things Halo. Will Halo Infinite be coming to pinch this spot soon? We'll just have to wait and see...

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath

Oddworld is a series that has really played the field with third-party exclusives. It has seen unique offerings for all three platform-holders over the years, showcasing all the loyalty of a certain disgruntled Rupture Farms employee. After launching two fan favourites on PlayStation and seeing those adapted for Nintendo's handheld systems, Oddworld Inhabitants would make Xbox its home for Microsoft's inaugural console generation, with one title ready for launch (the decent Munch's Oddysee) and one later in the generation: the exceptional Stranger's Wrath. Munch did change things up a decent amount in terms of gameplay compared to Abe's PS1 classics, but Stranger completely threw away the rulebook, trading the industrial setting for the frontiers of Oddworld's weird west. It still retained that wonderful sense of character for which the Oddworld series is beloved by many, with everything from the gangly outlaws to the little critters used as ammunition brought to life beautifully. Stranger's Wrath looked absolutely stunning — a textbook demonstration of Xbox's power advantage over rival consoles — but it seemed like publisher EA wasn't prepared to risk putting its money where its mouth was, and despite rave reviews, a lack of marketing saw the game fail to perform commercially. It reportedly didn't even come close to breaking even, leading to a HD re-release years later in an attempt to balance the books and get this unsung classic into the hands of an even broader selection of players.

Crackdown

Hands up if you specifically bought Crackdown to get in on the Halo 3 beta... okay, now lower your hand if you ended up not liking Crackdown in the end. Turns out this is an awful experiment as I can't actually see your hands, but I'm guessing that if I could, I'd still be seeing a fair few of them proudly held aloft — Crackdown was indeed a pleasant surprise. Most games are meticulously balanced to avoid putting too much power in the hands of players and potentially letting them break the game, but Crackdown's approach was basically the polar opposite. By the time you'd maxed out any given skill, your agent would have truly superhuman capabilities, soaring through the sky with huge bounding leaps, outrunning cars, lobbing around gigantic objects... you just felt so, so powerful by the end. Most skills increased purely by using relevant abilities, with only Agility as the outlier, leading to a surprisingly enjoyable quest to explore every inch of Pacific City in search of the Agility Orbs that boosted this useful trait. Don't lie: just reading 'Agility Orb' made you hear that unforgettable chime, didn't it? Right, right... I can't hear you either. Never mind. The series now stands at three games from three different developers (although Crackdown 3's rocky development took it through more teams than that on its own), though neither sequel has been able to truly recapture what made the original so much fun. Crackdown: come for the Halo 3 beta, stay for one of the most entertaining open world games of the generation.

Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise wasn't really a true sequel to Viva Piñata — I see it more as an enhanced, definitive version, almost like the third version of most Pokémon game duos. That's no bad thing, mind, because there honestly wasn't that much about Rare's original engrossing garden sim that needed fixing, so a few additions and improvements just made it that much sweeter. It's just so easy to get incredibly invested in this colourful world of candy-packed critters, tending and expanding your plot for hours on end in order to attract bigger, better, and rarer creatures. Despite needing to see off ne'er-do-wells that would smash your piñata pals and feast on their delicious innards, Viva Piñata is just such a chilled game, and there's so much character and nuance to everything (classic Rare) that you can mess around for weeks and still not see or do everything. Sadly, unless you're playing on 360, you also can't unlock everything either — two achievements are tied to using the Xbox Live Vision camera to scan special cards for in-game rewards, and since that isn't supported on Xbox One or Series X|S, the completion is only possible on original hardware.

Project Gotham Racing 3

I noticed a few comments on the best forgotten gems article wondering where Project Gotham Racing was, and the simple answer is that it just wouldn't have been a good fit. PGR, the successor to Dreamcast favourite Metropolis Street Racer, was to the early days of Xbox what Forza is to modern Xbox — superb exclusive racers with a focus on driving skills and often some tight urban racing. I'd even go so far as to suggest that Forza proved the natural evolution of PGR's style of racing just as that series did to MSR, with a two-pronged approach via Motorsport and Horizon picking up a lot of that Bizarre Creations DNA after it shut up shop in 2011. MS actually still owns the PGR license should it want to use it, but simply now has a stronger brand in Forza, and probably doesn't want to cannibalise its own audience with such similar racers. Still, PGR was fantastic in all of its iterations, making it hard to pick one out in particular, so strong 360 launch title PGR3 is perhaps the safest pick. Undoubtedly one of the best day-one pick-ups with the new console, it was business as usual for PGR — drive fancy cars, earn Kudos through skilful racing, challenge friends and rivals to online races, and just generally have a bloody good time — while the game looked better than ever thanks to that shiny new tech powering it.

Sea of Thieves

Like a ship without a sail, Sea of Thieves was almost dead in the water not long after it launched. The swashbuckling multiplayer game wasn’t particularly well-received by critics or players, with both lamenting the lack of content and repetitive quests — Sea of Thieves was taking on water on its maiden voyage. Thankfully, Rare was there to bail out the seawater, hoist the sails, and navigate towards golden shores atop content-filled waves to where Sea of Thieves is today — one of the best Xbox exclusives Microsoft has to offer. Sea of Thieves relies heavily on emergent gameplay and your interactions with other players. On paper, that doesn’t sound like a good idea at all, but in practice, it ensures you’ll always come away with a story. Whether that’s you and your crew being pursued across the map by a ship filled with other players that eventually culminates in a ferocious naval battle filled with cannon fire, sword fights, and sometimes Krakens, or something less intense such as completing a few quests with a lovely random player that you’ll probably never see again. As long as you thrust yourself into the world of Sea of Thieves, each session will play out differently, and it’s for this reason that so many players keep coming back. Well, that and all of the wonderful new content Rare keeps adding to the game. A bounty of new quests, mechanics, features, and a full-blown Pirates of the Caribbean expansion all keep the game from getting stale. Combine this with the game’s wonderful visuals, fantastic physics, and some exciting emergent gameplay, and you’ve got a treasure of a game on your hands.

Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow

Despite being a wild deviation from the typical strategic Rainbow Six gameplay PC players were used to, Rainbow Six 3 proved a huge hit in the early days of Xbox Live. Ubisoft made everything much more console-friendly, removing complex mission planning mechanics and character switching while improving squad AI and even adding the ability to command them with your voice. Gunplay still felt tight, and every encounter lethal, lending this new Rainbow Six experience a unique flavour... one that could only be found on consoles, and was best on Xbox. It wasn't even particularly close — the PS2 version looked worse, came later, and required the separate online adapter to play with others, while the GameCube version didn't even have online support, limiting it to just two-player local games. Seeing the game shine on Xbox, Ubisoft came out with an exclusive pseudo-sequel in Black Arrow, adding new maps and modes to help inject new life into the massive online scene on Xbox Live. Unsurprisingly, it went down well, with gameplay tweaks and improvements keeping Rainbow Six 3 alive on console far longer than you might have expected based on how different it was to the games that came before. Just goes to show that changing up a proven formula isn't always a bad thing, especially when you're trying to win over a whole new audience.

Forza Horizon 5

I couldn't exactly slap a 10/10 on this bad boy then leave it hanging, could I? This isn't just recency bias, either — Forza Horizon 5's place here is absolutely deserved, with the racer representing the absolute pinnacle of Playground's achievements so far in the genre, even if it is currently still struggling a little under the weight of some ten million players eager to speed around Mexico. It's the largest, prettiest, and most varied map in Horizon history, the amount of variety in the car list and event types is just nuts, and it's so easy and enjoyable to just pick up and play that you can sometimes just blink then realise it's three in the morning and you have accomplished precisely nothing. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this remarkable racer grows and evolves as the new seasons and series roll around, and I'm already ridiculously invested in the Accolades system, which has me using my full garage rather than always falling back on the same handful of go-to rides. Is it the best arcade racer ever? No, because OutRun 2 and Burnout 3 exist, but it certainly earns and very much deserves a spot on the podium as far as I'm concerned.

Jet Set Radio Future

Music rights are a bitch. Thanks to licensing deals made to build this sequel's outstanding soundtrack, it will likely stay forever trapped on the original Xbox hardware it launched onto — on day one for non-US early adopters, no less — and that's a crying shame. This stylish follow-up to the original Dreamcast delight came about thanks to an existing partnership with Sega before it bowed out of the console market, expanding the scope of the game, making cracking use of the better hardware to make the cel-shaded visuals pop more vibrantly than ever, and delivering an experience the likes of which you wouldn't be able to play on any of Xbox's rivals. While it seems like the chances of JSRF seeing any sort of comeback are beyond lost, hope for the future is not — the upcoming Bomb Rush Cyberfunk mimics that unmistakable Jet Set Radio style in terms of both visuals and gameplay, and it even has JSR composer Hideki Naganuma on board. Understand, understand, understand, understand, understand, understand the concept of spiritual successors.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

From flying across the snow-capped peaks of the Andes to crashing a plane into your house (don’t pretend like you haven’t done it), Microsoft Flight Simulator is a technical marvel, and Asobo Studio can only be commended — where else can you explore the entirety of the world from the comfort of your own home? And for a game that really does feature the entire world, it has no right to look as good and as detailed as it does. Major cities, numerous airports, dozens of aircraft, and hundreds of landmarks have all been wonderfully recreated, and they all look phenomenal — even the 37,000 AI-generated airports look pretty similar to their real-life counterparts! Sure, the simulator might be a little dry for some people’s tastes, but Asobo has done a great job in making the sim more accessible to the more casual audience by adding tutorials and Xbox controller support. Eventually, Microsoft Flight Simulator would come to consoles for the first time in its history, opening up the sim to a whole new generation of players. Here too, Microsoft Flight Simulator is every part of its PC counterpart — it looks just as good and performs just as well. Microsoft Flight Simulator really is a jewel of a game in Microsoft’s exclusive games crown.

Gears of War 2

There pretty much had to be a Gears game on here, seeing as it's one of Microsoft's flagship exclusive franchises, although much like with PGR, which you consider the correct pick to be will mainly come down to personal preference. For me, 4 and 5 both missed the mark by steering more into armies of mechanical enemies and instantly losing so much of the impact of that visceral combat around which the games are built, while I felt 3 got a little out of hand and the original perhaps hasn't aged all that well, all of which is me showing my working for championing Gears of War 2 here. New elements like the chainsaw duels and meatshields really added to that (for want of a better word) meaty combat that I missed in the more recent games, the campaign had some awesome set pieces, and the new Horde mode going on to be a series staple shows just how strong an addition that was. It's a Gears game so obviously the achievements are a bit on the daft side, but when the Seriously achievement 'only' asks for 100,000 kills across all modes, you know you're getting off light compared to the grindtastic horrors that we've seen since.

Splinter Cell

Seeing the original Splinter Cell running on an Xbox back in the day blew me away. The lighting effects in particular felt like a generational leap over anything that had been seen before on console, and having them directly tied to gameplay mechanics made them more than simply eye candy. It truly felt like something which — in the console space, at least — could only be done this well on Xbox. And that was proven to be true. Splinter Cell launched first on Xbox, and when it later snuck up on the other systems, those versions were but shadows of the original. With Metal Gear Solid still top hound in the stealth pack at the time (and then still exclusive to PlayStation), Microsoft found itself with a legitimate countermeasure in Splinter Cell's initial exclusivity, and then arguably a second time when the other versions dropped and the Xbox version still came out on top. Truth be told, I don't think this is even the best game in its series, but those strong ties to Xbox are what land it a spot here over sequels I personally think are better overall — messing with other players online in the small-scale Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer mode in follow-up Pandora Tomorrow remains one of my fondest memories from the early days of Xbox Live — but no other Splinter Cell game proved such an amazing advert for Xbox as the original.

Minecraft

Minecraft started its life in the plains of personal computing, but it has built its house for many players in the caverns, caves, and cliffs of Xbox. Minecraft, of all the games on this incredible list, is probably the most daring in that it wholly trusts the player to make their own fun. The premise has not changed since 2009: you gather materials, build a house, and craft stuff. The blocky world you negotiate has a language unto itself, smartly presented so that anyone can begin the process. Devilish creatures roam the land, sky, and caverns at night, so you need to to prepare and protect yourself and your stuff at all costs. That requires plenty of hacking at trees and stone, reforming those materials into new gear, and creating an ever better selection of tools to deal with the environment around you. You can also build an elaborate house (in fact, that is probably the most important thing of all). That is kind of it — but then, that is the magic and the beauty of Minecraft, and the reason it is one of the biggest IPs of all time. Everybody understands — and can get to grips with — Minecraft on pretty much any device.

That begs the question, why is it one of the best Xbox games? Well, the game was first ported onto Xbox 360 by 4J Studios in 2012. That makes it the first console version of the game, and this close connection between Microsoft and developer Mojang is, in part, a stepping stone for the eventual acquisition of the company into the Xbox Game Studios portfolio in 2012. Minecraft might be everywhere, and be one of the best games on any given device, but it just feels more at home on Xbox in the console space. Indeed, that old Xbox 360 version of the game is old news now. Minecraft has kept building, growing, and restructuring in ways that have only made it better under Microsoft's stewardship. Caves are deeper, and cliffs are higher. More bosses need to be killed, while the oceans are teeming with life. Houses can be more elaborate and stuffed with incongruent materials, while Redstone contraptions are growing more and more complex by the day. Minecraft is just an ever-present title for many, many players out there, as well as being a hyperbole-worthy quality game by any measure. Minecraft is the phenomenon that kept delivering — so welcome to the world-seed of our top 20 Xbox games!

Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

Here's another that I saw get some love in the comments of the forgotten gems article, but your collective fears were unfounded — Crimson Skies got a free upgrade to first class. This true Xbox exclusive (the planned PC port was cancelled) dropped in late 2003 on the original console, and it can perhaps be seen as the antithesis of Microsoft's own Flight Simulator. While that series is all about offering players realistic air travel action, this one goes down the pure action route, with flashy cinematic dogfighting that would likely make Flight Sim tut in contempt, if it had the ability to tut. We should probably all be thankful that it does not. The larger-than-life presentation of aerial combat in High Road to Revenge comes from two main sources, namely the IP originating from the board game scene, and the previous game (simply called Crimson Skies) being an arcade release. It was designed to be a thrill ride, and it absolutely delivered on that promise — its PS2 contemporary Sky Odyssey was more interested in journeys and precision, not unlike Nintendo's Pilotwings, so if you wanted a proper plane-versus-plane-versus-whatever-else scrap, Crimson Skies was the best place to find it. And arguably still is... modern dogfighting games often tend to lean too far into realism and/or complexity, or just simply can't match the simple pleasure of this bona fide Xbox classic.

Shadow Complex

I think Shadow Complex might be the first Metroidvania game that I played that wasn't part of the two series from which the portmanteau takes its name, but even if it wasn't, it was certainly one of the best early ones. Launching exclusively into Xbox Live Arcade in 2009, the impressive 2.5D game actually clawed at that missing half-dimension, with enemies sometimes coming from either foreground or background. While this wasn't the most precise thing in the world, it offered Shadow Complex a degree of depth that so many side-scrolling games lack, as well as a USP to help set it apart in what was about to become an extremely competitive sub-genre. The foam launcher too offered a tool that was pretty novel in this kind of game, allowing players to build their own platforms and potentially pull off skips and sequence breaks using just their own creativity and ingenuity. While this would be developer Chair's last console offering, the team still had some impressing to do. It released the stunning Infinity Blade on iOS in 2010 — the first mobile game to use Unreal Engine, and with remarkable results — but the team hasn't really had a whole lot to show after the couple of Infinity Blade sequels that quickly followed.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

It’s fitting that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion makes the cut as one of the 20 best Xbox games, considering that Bethesda is now part of Xbox Game Studios after Microsoft’s mammoth acquisition. Oblivion hit the Xbox 360 in 2006, and although its sequel, Skyrim, packs in the visual appeal and many other bonuses, it’s Oblivion that takes the crown for storytelling... and the fact that it launched as a de facto console exclusive, with exactly a year-long head-start on the PS3 version. There is something about Oblivion’s quests that put the game on another level compared to the other entries into the series, which is only bolstered by the fact that the game’s world really pushed the Xbox 360 to its limits and showed just what the console could achieve. If you’re yet to play The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion but have enjoyed Skyrim, we highly recommend you book a ticket to Tamriel once again because it really is worth it — it’s even got a couple of DLC packs to work through, and horse armour!

And that's your lot! Hope you've enjoyed our Xbox20 celebrations as much as we have, as we've got loads of neat ideas for articles and series for the future. For now, though, there's plenty here with which to argue and loads of room down there to do so, so have at it... just play nice, yeah? Cheers.