By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
Despite being an entirely 21st-century console and only being officially discontinued 8 years ago, the Xbox and its library feels oddly inaccessible today, especially compared to its contemporaries. I fully admit up front that this could entirely be my own perception, and my views on this may be way off base. It just seems to me that when you think about PlayStation 2 or GameCube games, there doesn’t seem to be an especially high barrier of entry to playing them today. GameCube games are fully playable on all but the Wii Mini, and with there being over 100 million of them floating around in the world (plus the 20 million just dedicated GameCubes that have been shipped), most people with even a passing interest in video games probably have a console in their home right now that they can pop in and play a GameCube game on. Not to mention that Nintendo games and games for Nintendo systems always seem to be in high demand and heavy circulation among gamers and collectors. As far as PS2 games go, the numbers are even higher than that in terms of hardware that exists in the world that can play PS2 games, and PS2 games also seem to be heavily played, sold, and traded even today. I just don’t see that type of attention paid to Xbox games, and for a console that isn’t especially old, I wanted to explore why that might be.
Let’s address the obvious elephant in the room right off the bat: Backwards compatibility. As I said, the Wii is just about 100% backwards compatible with the GameCube library and even has out of the box, built-into-the-console plugins for GameCube controllers and memory cards. The Xbox 360 only features backwards compatibility with a specific list of Xbox games, and it’s a list that unfortunately leaves a lot of great games out (while also inexplicably including some real duds). I can sense you are already chomping at the bit to point out how the PS3 handled PS2 backwards compatibility far worse than the 360 did, with only a small number of launch window units having any PS2 functionality to speak off before it was stripped out entirely from all other versions of the console going forward. At least all 360’s allow you to play some Xbox games, right? Well, sure, but somehow, PS2 games still feel more relevant and easy to play today than Xbox games do. I believe that a large part of this has to do with how prematurely the Xbox’s life was cut short, with Microsoft largely abandoning the system to go all-in on the 360 much, much sooner than Sony did with the PS2, which was only officially discontinued worldwide in 2013. As Sony continued supporting and believing in its second-born, it did a number of things to entice consumers to keep buying it (or buying it again), with increasingly improved hardware and, most notably, the slim version. The Xbox didn’t have a single major hardware redesign in its entire existence save for limited editions with purely color and art-based changes, and minor internal modifications that mostly served to battle piracy and correct earlier hardware failures.
All of this, combined with there not being any “official” way to remove the Xbox’s built-in hard drive (and we all know all hard drives will eventually crash on you), means that having a clunky, over-sized, crash-prone Xbox console in your house is the only legal way to play any of the number of non-360-compatible Xbox games. Fantastic games like the two Otogi titles that are only on Xbox and can’t be played on 360 and will probably never see a re-release of any kind, require an original Xbox to play. Or Phantom Dust. Or Steel Battalion (especially if you took out a second mortgage to buy that controller). In some cases, they even break up franchises: there’s Kingdom Under Fire, which has Crusaders playable on 360 but not Heroes; or how MechAssault 2 is playable on 360, but the original is not. The Xbox was also home to some console-exclusive versions of games that are otherwise only available on PC as they aren’t 360 compatible, like Deus Ex: Invisible War, Advent Rising, Myst IV, and Tron 2.o Killer App, the last of which had a number of changes and additions from its PC counterpart. And are games like Voodoo Vince, ToeJam and Earl III, Gunvalkyrie, Galleon, or Kung Fu Chaos absolutely essential, must-play, can’t-miss games? Not necessarily, but they are all good enough to be worth playing and I for one believe that any and all games that are even remotely worth playing should be playable and accessible. And again, they just don’t feel that way to me being “trapped” on the Xbox. In addition, I haven’t even touched on the widely reported technical issues people have had trying to play even supposedly compatible games on 360, with problems ranging from minor audio and visual hiccups to major issues like game crashes and corrupted save files, which makes even playing games on the 360 from the compatibility list a touchy and unreliable affair.
The other piece to this is digital storefronts. While Sony may have completely abandoned its noble promise of all PlayStation consoles being backwards compatible with all previous generations forever and ever that they made back when the PS2 launched, they have at least taken the step of making a number of their PS2 games available to purchase on PSN, either as their bare-bones original versions or as HD remakes. Just about every major 1st-party PlayStation 2 franchise has seen an HD collection on PSN or even at retail. Far fewer Xbox games have received such a treatment outside of the Halo franchise. Microsoft teased us with its short-lived “Xbox Originals” program on 360, but abandoned it after only releasing a few dozen games and has also since removed some of the more interesting titles like Stubbs the Zombie (although that one, fortunately, is at least backwards compatible). Since then, there has been no mention on Microsoft’s part to put any more original Xbox games onto Xbox Live, with only publishers who want to do that themselves in HD remake form – like with Beyond Good and Evil or Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath – being the only games that see any type of re-release. In a gaming landscape so thick with retro enthusiasm and putting old games onto new systems via digital distribution, it’s a shame how any retro games that had the apparent misfortune of calling the original Xbox their home are destined to stay stuck there, with only the relatively small number of people still willing to dedicate the shelf space to Microsoft’s hulking spaceship of a system able to play them anymore. Not to mention that a sizable number of those people are probably only keeping Xboxes around because of how handy they are as emulation machines, not for the actual Xbox games.
Again, this could all just be my own skewed perception, as someone who currently owns a number of original Xbox games that either aren’t 360 compatible or that I just only have the Xbox version of, and am currently without a working Xbox. So I have probably 50 or so games that are basically useless to me at the moment. I know, just buy another Xbox, right? It’s not like they cost $300 anymore. But that’s just it: Buying another Xbox feels like a chore to me for some reason. If my PS2 or my Dreamcast or my N64 or my Saturn stopped working, buying another one would be a no-brainer and I’d start pricing them almost immediately. I don’t feel like I have an Xbox bias – as I said, I amassed a sizable library for the thing so I obviously was a fan of it, and I’m holding onto my games for it so I clearly entertain the idea of playing them again someday. I honestly don’t know exactly why it feels like such a burden to replace my Xbox and to keep one around when I’m someone who keeps all of my old systems and loves rotating them out and having older ones hooked up. By all means, give me your theories on this in the comments – or just tell me how completely off the mark I am on this whole issue if you think I am.