A look back at the strengths of the OG Xbox on its 20th birthday

·5-min read

20 years ago today, the original Xbox was released. It’s a pretty big milestone for the entire gaming industry, because it’s hard to imagine console gaming without Xbox today. But back then it was pretty risky — Microsoft was the first American firm to release a gaming system in eight years, and the company wasn’t really well-known for being a game developer or publisher outside of the Flight Simulator series and built-in Windows games like Solitaire and Minesweeper.

Admittedly, the Xbox brand didn’t really take off until the release of the 360 in 2005. But the OG Xbox made a pretty good showing for its first try, thanks to a solid lineup of games and no thanks to its enormous Duke controller. Today a few Engadget staffers would like to chime in with their cherished Xbox memories, ones that really highlight the strength of Microsoft’s first outing in the console world.

Strength #1: System Link

Halo: Combat Evolved

A year before Xbox Live launched and redefined console gaming forever, there was the multiplayer of Halo: Combat Evolved. It sounds archaic today: there were no such things as online play, bots or centralized player accounts. But there was System Link, an Xbox feature that allowed multiple consoles to connect together for offline LAN parties. Together with Halo's four-player split-screen support, System Link allowed up to 16 players to battle it out.

In many ways, Halo's multiplayer was the logical evolution of Goldeneye, the first console shooter to enthrall a generation of gamers. And while System Link may sound like a pain to set up, it was perfectly suited to large networks, like the one at my college. That's how I found myself spending hours with my roommates, huddled in front of a basic 20-inch TV, learning the intricacies of Halo's combat. I never quite mastered the three-shot kill — two in the center, one in the head — but I got close.

I can recall one heated match as if it was a war story. My team and I were huddled in the middle of Blood Gulch, one of Halo's iconic maps featuring a long canyon with two bases at each end. The scores were neck-and-neck, never more than a few kills leading on either side. All seemed lost. We were sitting ducks in No Man's Land, with only the protection of a few hills in front of us. I had a sniper rifle, but very little ammo. In a moment of desperation, I poked my head up and, miraculously, took an enemy out in front of their base. When another person popped up, I was able to headshot them with the same clip. Game over.

I later learned that someone from the opposing team threw a chair against a wall when they lost. I can't imagine an online match with some randos provoking the same sort of visceral response. That's just Halo multiplayer, baby. No internet required. — Devindra Hardawar, Senior Editor

Strength #2: PC ports

Morrowind

I have a confession to make: I’m not much of a console gamer. Coming from the former Yugoslavia, where Nintendo products were exorbitantly expensive, the one constant in my gaming life has always been the PC. While other kids in Canada, where my family eventually settled, grew up on Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, my favorite childhood games were Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, Dune II and The Secret of Monkey Island.

So when Microsoft released the Xbox in 2001, I wasn’t excited for it until the release of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in 2002. I didn’t own an Xbox, but my best friend did. At the time, neither of us had a PC capable of running Morrowind at a playable framerate. So when he bought a copy of the game, one of the first things I did was come over to watch him create his first character. Mind you, we played countless hours of Halo: Combat Evolved together, but Morrowind was the game that consistently ignited our imaginations.

To this day, we talk about some of the ways he managed to break the game. For example, he eventually became the leader of both House Hlaalu and Telvanni. And at one point, he received a quest to assassinate a Hlaalu landholder. He travelled to the estate only to find out he was its owner, so there was no way for him to finish the quest. By modern standards, that’s janky design, but it’s those quirks that made me fall in love with Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls series at large. — Igor Bonifacic, Contributing Editor

Strength #3: Exclusives

Jet Set Radio Future

My time with the original Xbox was limited, and I remember looking at games like Halo and Fable with awe. And the fact that it got a lot of games that would normally only be on PC — like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — was also swoon-worthy. But then and now, there was really only one reason I wanted an Xbox, and that was to play Jet Set Radio Future.

The original game, Jet Grind Radio, was probably one of my favorite Dreamcast titles at the time. I loved the look of it, the gameplay and oh, the soundtrack. Especially the soundtrack. But when the Dreamcast was discontinued, it left some great franchises stranded. Games that Microsoft was perfectly happy to pick up for its foray into the console market, like Shenmue and my beloved Jet Grind Radio, which was switched back to its Japanese monkier for the sequel here in the US.

The gameplay remained mostly the same, with your skaters tasked with spray painting walls with their tags, battling against other gangs and avoiding the police. But Future also dispensed with time limits and enclosed stages, allowing you to skate between one section and the next. And the soundtrack, of course, was a banger. Guitar Vader, Cibo Matto and Bis. (Okay, maybe I’m the only person who cares about Bis. They wrote The Powerpuff Girls end theme! 'Social Dancing' is a great album!) — Kris Naudus, Buyer's Guide Editor

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