Before you get a chance to say it, let me stop you in your tracks. Yes, Xbox has good first party games. Actually Xbox has great first party games. Have some of their most promising franchises been lying dormant for many years? Sure. Have some of their best series been the result of recent developer acquisitions? Probably. But let’s not get hung up on technicalities. That fact of the matter is that from Fable and Forza to Elder Scrolls and Doom, the 1st party catalog of Xbox can stand toe to toe with that of ANY of it’s competitors. So let’s celebrate 20 years of the neon green behemoth by counting down their very best franchises.
Sea of Thieves is quite an interesting game to land on this list. Launching during the underwhelming Xbox One generation, it was one of the few 1st party bright spots on that console. When it launched though it didn’t exactly blow away critics and gamers. The bones of a great game were there from the start but there wasn’t a ton of meat on them. Thankfully developer Rare was committed to the game and they have been cranking out loads of additions and improvements ever since it launched. From their regular (and free) expansions like The Hungering Deep and Smuggler’s Fortune, to the recent A Pirate’s Life which added a story based off of Disney’s Pirate’s of the Caribbean, the have continued to make this game better and better.
Probably my favorite thing about Sea of Thieves is that you can experience it however you want. Do you want to be a solo adventurer seeking gold on their own? Go for it. Do you want to assemble a crew and tackle the games narrative quests? Have at it? Do you want to get three friends together on a Saturday night, get drunk, shoot cats out of cannons, and somehow manage to shipwreck your vessel on the tiniest of islands? Abso-freaking-lutely. In my opinion that might be the best way to experience the game, and when it comes to games that serve as a means to just hang out and have fun with your friends, there aren’t many better.
The second Rare developed game on the list is one that fans have been anxiously waiting to get a sequel to for nearly fifteen years. Banjo Kazooie debuted in 1998 on the Nintendo 64 and quickly made a splash by being nearly as good as the iconic Super Mario 64 which preceded it. The game received a sequel two years later which was also well regarded, and after developer Rare was acquired by Microsoft in 2002 the third game in the series, Nut and Bolts, was released to a much more mixed reception due in large part to the adding of crafting and vehicles (although the game has some strong defenders).
In the years since we’ve anxiously awaiting a return to it’s platforming roots, and we’ve been teased over and over again with appearances in games ranging from Minecraft to Super Smash Bros Ultimate. We even got a Banjo Kazooie Amiibo, but every summer as we watch the Xbox E3 Presentation we walk away disappointed that our favorite Bear and Bird have yet to make their triumphant return. 3D platformers are one of the few genres that Xbox is lacking in, and I truly believe that sooner or later we’ll get that Banjo Fourie announcement and all will be right in the world.
There is no Xbox without Halo. I truly believe that the absolutely massive success of Halo: Combat Evolved and it’s subsequent sequels was largely responsible for the success of that first console, and without those games who knows what the future would have been for Microsoft’s console. There have been few series in the history of video games that have made as tremendous of an impact as the adventures of Master Chief and Cortana have. With over 80 million video games sold, it has truly been a phenomenon.
When original developer Bungie moved on from the series though and passed the baton to 343 Industries, many felt like the series lost a little bit of that magic that made the games so special. Halo 4 and 5 were successful in many respects, but Halo launches were no longer the “event” that they once were. The upcoming release of Halo Infinite though is hoping to change that and return the series to it’s former glory. Only time will tell if this series will reclaim it’s crown as one of the greatest series in the history of gaming, or if continues to become a relic of the past.
Whether you prefer your racing games to be highly realistic simulations or more action packed thrillers, Forza has been franchise of choice for car buffs for years. While I appreciate the hell out of the precision and attention to detail they bring to Forza Motorsport, for my tastes I prefer the more “arcade” style racing of the Forza Horizon series. When I say arcade though, don’t imagine doing barrel rolls off of flaming ramps, the game does a great job of finding that balance between the realism that automotive aficionados will appreciate and the accessibility and fun that more casual fans will love.
Horizon 3 and 4 are where the series really put the pedal to the metal and that’s probably in no small part due to the fantastic DLC they offered for the games. In Horizon 3, racers got a chance to race on the iconic orange track of the Hot Wheels brand, while in Horizon 4 they transformed the world into a LEGO speedway. With a great lineup of cars, thrilling races, and visuals that consistently push the boundaries of what is possible, Forza Horizon has comfortably sat on the throne as the very best racing game available.
If there’s one series that has cemented itself as the very best that Xbox has to offer, for me that is undoubtedly Gears of War. Debuting in 2006 from developer Epic Games and outspoken creator Cliff Bleszinski, the game told the story of Marcus Fenix and his squad of commandos as they battled the Locust Horde, an army of creatures that burrowed from the depths of the planet to lay waste to cities above. The game embraced it’s “bro” attitude and gruesome warfare, but underneath that admittedly cheesy exterior was an interesting story and a cast of great characters. Think of it as sort of the Fast & Furious of the gaming world, the plot drives things along but you’re really here for the amazing action and cast that you love.
When the series was handed off to new developer The Coalition starting with Gears 4, they didn’t miss a beat and introduced a new generation of soldiers and a terrifying new race of enemies to battle. In the latest entry in the series, Gears 5, they took the series to new heights by introducing new gameplay elements and delivering some of the most stunning visuals of the generation. They’ll also done a great job of fleshing out the world with spinoff games like Gears Tactics, a series of successful novelizations and comic books, and a great new DLC for Gears 5 titles Hivebusters. With a long running series like this it would be understandable for it to lose some of it’s luster as time goes on, but in contrast Gears of War is better than ever before and the future of the series looks fantastic.