The Xbox team celebrated the console’s 20th anniversary on Monday, November 15, with a pre-recorded presentation that contained a lot of nostalgia, a lot of Halo footage, and a relative handful of new reveals.
One of the latter was a surprise drop for the Xbox backwards-compatibility program, where over 70 new/old games have been added to the current Xbox library. It’s one of the biggest releases of BC games yet, but it’s also the last of its kind.
According to Peggy Lo, the lead of the compatibility project at Xbox, the November 15 titles are the final batch of games that will be released for the time being. Writing at Xbox Wire, Lo said, “While we continue to stay focused on preserving and enhancing the art form of games, we have reached the limit of our ability to bring new games to the catalog from the past due to licensing, legal and technical constraints.”
However, one paragraph later, she also said, “Compatibility and game preservation are core to the DNA of Team Xbox and our community, and we are excited to explore new ways to preserve our history and bring the catalog of the thousands of titles available in the Xbox ecosystem to more players via new innovations such as Xbox Cloud Gaming and future platforms.”
This could mean that the BC project is only done for now, and will return in another form later on, or that the next Xbox (which is already on the drawing board) may feature its own take on the concept. Either way, this is phrased like a “see you later,” not a “goodbye forever.”
Xbox’s unusual emphasis on backwards compatibility has traditionally been one of the most laudable things about the system, particularly given Sony’s peculiar disinterest in historical preservation. While the Xbox’s current system isn’t perfect—most of the physical-media games on the BC list are treated like download tokens for an emulated digital version, rather than actually being run off the disc—it’s more than the competition is doing.
With this final batch of releases, the backwards compatibility list encompasses 612 out of a total of 2154 Xbox 360 games (28% of the total library) and 55 out of a total of 996 releases for the original Xbox (5% of the library).
To be fair, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. There are any number of games in either system’s library that are available through other means on the modern Xbox platform, whether due to a rerelease (Stubbs the Zombie, Resident Evil 5), compilation (the first two Halo games, which are packed into the Master Chief Collection), or HD remaster (2017’s Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition).
The overall BC lineup also does a decent job of hitting the high points of both systems’ library. While there are obvious omissions—Jet Set Radio Future, Lollipop Chainsaw, both Fatal Frames, Condemned 2, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball—most of what you’d want to be here is here, and most of the chaff has been quietly ignored. Nobody’s going to shed any tears over their inability to revisit Kakuto Chojin or Bicycle Casino; if they’re crazy enough to cherish those games, they’re also crazy enough to have a recapped, soft-modded Xbox for the purpose thereof.
At the same time, though, it’s often genuinely weird to see what does and doesn’t make it onto the BC list. Microsoft rarely offers any explanations here besides non-specific “fan requests.” As such, every set of BC releases is often a mixed bag of obvious hits, cult classics, historical preservation (i.e. the 2019 re-release of Too Human), and outright shovelware.
The November 15 drop is no different. Let’s get in there with a flashlight and talk about some of the best, the worst, and the weirdest retro games that you can now play on your Xbox One or Series X|S. This is, of course, incredibly specific to me.
This game doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It was a 2012 side project by Yakuza creator Toshihiro Nagoshi, and in a lot of ways, it was ahead of its time.
In Binary Domain, you’re mandatory-for-the-time snarky white guy Dan Marshall, who leads an international team of soldiers to post-climate disaster Japan in search of a fugitive scientist. Your opposition is mostly made up of “Hollow Children,” robots so advanced that they can pass for human, and may in fact not know they’re robots at all.
Aside from some great action set-pieces, Binary Domain has a system in place where Dan’s actions can increase or lower the trust placed in him by his teammates. That in turn can change the storyline, up to and including the possibility for betrayal. The hardworking and loyal French robot alone is arguably worth the price of admission.
Inexplicably, despite solid reviews, Binary Domain proceeded to sell terribly in North America. The issue seems to have been down to when it launched, as it was a cover-based shooter with AI-driven companions from an original IP that happened to come out in the same month as Mass Effect 3. Binary Domain has been trying to dig out from under that avalanche ever since, and has been overdue for rediscovery.
Dead or Alive 4
With the November 15 release, the entire core Dead or Alive franchise is now playable on Xbox One and Series X|S. They’re a like-it-or-hate-it proposition, with tons of flashy moves and a counter system that lets match momentum shift on a dime, and I’ve had a lot of luck using DOA as an entry-level title for fighting-game newbies. It takes very little practice to do cool stuff in DOA.
The reason to highlight DOA4 above any other backwards-compatible game in the series is primarily down to the presence of a Halo crossover character, Nicole-458, who’s essentially a stand-in for the Master Chief. She’s fun to play as, with a ton of incidental Halo shout-outs in her stage and move set, and is one of the secret weapons for anyone who’s trying to play “Six Degrees of Ryu.”
The drawback to DOA4, however, is that it’s got one of the most difficult sets of achievements on the Xbox 360, including one that’s unlocked by playing the game for 100 hours. (And we wonder why so many 360s burned out.) It’s a fun enough game to play on its own, as long as you don’t mind having that incomplete gamerscore sitting in your menu, taunting you.
Here’s a series that I’m surprised has been allowed to stay dead for as long as it has. F.E.A.R. might be the last great surreal first-person shooter, in the spirit of games like Condemned and Breakdown. It should not work as a horror game, because you’re a one-man army who is in surprisingly little danger from anything that can actually inflict damage to you, but it’s got the atmosphere and sound design to overcome that.
Part of F.E.AR.‘s long absence, to be fair, is probably that Monolith Productions has been stuck on WB’s Middle-Earth treadmill for a while now, to the point where it didn’t work on F.E.A.R. 3 at all. (It also wasn’t responsible for the games contained in the F.E.A.R. Files add-on, which have been enthusiastically disavowed by Monolith.)
Still, as a fan of a good horror game, there’s a lot in the overall trilogy I appreciate. The story’s too complicated by half and most of the cool supporting characters get unceremoniously ghost-murdered, but the F.E.A.R. games manage to remain effectively scary despite the fact that you’re playing as a superhuman killing machine in full battle rattle. The series is a violent grandfather to many of the horror-themed walking simulators of the last 10 years.
It’s hard to recommend Manhunt to anyone without sounding like a total psychopath, particularly after its controversial, too-edgy-by-half sequel. The original 2003 game is low-key one of the best stealth games of its generation, however.
I think some of my affection for it also comes from it being one of the last great Rockstar games that wasn’t Grand Theft Auto. At its peak, Rockstar always put in the work; if you can find a complete-in-box copy of Manhunt, it’s got one of the best manuals of its console generation.
As death-row inmate James Earl Cash, you get sprung from prison by an underground filmmaker who’s apparently got more money than God and an inexhaustible supply of crazy goons. You’re then dropped in a series of run-down urban environments with cameras watching your every move, left to either kill or die as cinematically as possible. Manhunt doesn’t have the cool gadgets or elaborate setups of a Splinter Cell or Thief, but it does let me smother a psychopath with a plastic grocery bag. Advantage: Manhunt.
It absolutely does run out of steam near the halfway point, where several stages end up turning into a relatively mediocre cover shooter, but Manhunt remains a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s just dark enough to be entertaining, with antagonists that ride the line between cartoonish and threatening. I’m sure that it was never going to be a tentpole franchise for Rockstar, even if Manhunt 2 hadn’t poisoned the well, but the original holds up reasonably well today.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
The original Max Payne has aged poorly (it turned 20 years old this year and no one seems to have noticed), while 2012’s Max Payne 3 feels way too much like an overblown fan production. That leaves 2003’s Max Payne 2, which is still the best game in the series.
Admittedly, it’s depressing. Two years after the original game, Max is still on the NYPD despite having killed more people than shifting tectonic activity—come to think of it, a violent cop utterly skating on the consequences of his actions is only more topical in 2021—when he ends up diving face-first into another criminal conspiracy. Once again, Max goes on a rampage through New York that reinforces two things: he is a total disaster of a human being, but he remains very good at shooting dudes in cinematic slow-motion.
There are parts of Max Payne 2 that are admittedly a bit dated by modern standards, like how often the theme song shows up, but it files most of the rough edges off of its predecessor to become one of the most consistently entertaining shooters on the Xbox. There’s a reason why “bullet time” mechanics were so ubiquitous for so long, and it’s mostly down to the player-created shootouts in Max Payne 2.
Flawed but Worthwhile
50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
This is one of the great “I’m not kidding” releases in video game history. 50 Cent really leaned into his reputation for being unkillable with this game, which sees him effectively invading the Middle East with only three members of the G-Unit as backup. By the end of the game, it leaves the player with the impression that the first major tactical blunder of the Iraq War—and possibly of all armed conflicts now and since—was not dropping an angry 50 Cent directly into the combat zone and pulling out all other assets.
In play, it’s a particularly violent third-person shooter, set in an urban war theater among ruined buildings and artillery barrages. It’s well-made as an action game, but what saves it from being entirely indistinguishable from a dozen other War-on-Terror action games is, well, you’re 50 Cent. You have a button that’s specifically designated to taunt the people you just killed and you’re conducting a violent rampage/international incident to a soundtrack of your own music.
I know people who are ride or die for Blood on the Sand, but it really is 50 Cent writing fanfiction about himself. It’s the hip-hop community’s answer to Rogue Warrior. If you can get over that, it’s a surprisingly solid third-person shooter, but I will never get over it.
This was notorious in the early 2000s for how difficult it is, and on replaying it, a lot of it’s down to the control scheme. Even in 2002, it doesn’t feel quite right, with too many movement options mapped to the left thumbstick.
Gunvalkyrie was originally intended for the Dreamcast, which I didn’t know back in the day, but makes a lot of sense now. Like a lot of Dreamcast games, it’s trying to do something weird; specifically, Gunvalkyrie was originally intended to be played with a lightgun and controller simultaneously.
It’s effectively an arcade-style rail shooter, but you have full control over your movement. You can’t turn easily, but you can jump and rocket-boost out of harm’s way on a dime, which gives you a lot of ways to control the battlefield. I want to draw a line between it and Capcom’s P.N.03, which feels like it shares a bit of creative DNA.
Gunvalkyrie could probably use a remaster or spiritual sequel more than anything else. It’s got some potential—it’s a weird steampunk/cyberpunk crossover, set in an alternate 1906 where the appearance of Hailey’s Comet gave certain people superpowers—but at this point, I have to wrestle with a solid 30 years of muscle memory every time I boot it up.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
It’s the Mortal Kombat game where you can murder Batman. That gets it some points in my book.
MKvDC gets more hate than it really deserves. It’s notorious for being the only T-rated game in the MK franchise—this is technically Mortal Kombat 8, as weird as that may sound—with “Fatalities” that replace the usual decapitations and dismemberment with bloodless neck snaps and incinerations. The fact that you can use these diet Fatalities on A-list DC superheroes only slightly mitigates their weak impact.
However, MKvDC is also the game where the MK team started to get its act together. It serves as a sort of mechanical midpoint between the notoriously janky combat of 3D-era MK and the near-total reinvention from 2011’s Mortal Kombat, and as such, is more entertaining to play than most of what came before it. Rather than being fun because it’s gory or broken or stupid, the way a lot of the older MKs are, MKvDC actually feels like a legitimate fighting game.
It’s also notoriously unbalanced, of course. Superman had a brain-dead infinite combo at launch and both Green Lantern and Flash can score a 45% combo off their breakers. By the time fans had discovered the latter, Midway had gone bankrupt and taken both support and planned DLC for MKvDC down with it. That relegates MKvDC strictly to “kusoge” night at your fighting-game get-togethers, but that’s not nothing.
TimeSplitters 2 & Future Perfect
A lot of people swear by this series, but TimeSplitters 2 is the only first-person shooter that’s ever made me motion-sick, so I’m lukewarm on this one.
I’m also outnumbered. TimeSplitters was a big deal back in the day, in a similar vein to the Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark. The original TimeSplitters was an launch title and exclusive for the PS2, while its sequels went cross-platform and picked up a more elaborate story mode along the way. TimeSplitters 2 in particular was one of the best-reviewed shooters on consoles at the time, and would’ve likely been #1 on the Xbox if Halo didn’t exist.
Unfortunately, Free Radical shut down in 2008, after spending two years on the canceled Star Wars: Battlefront III and subsequently releasing the unpopular 2008 shooter Haze. Were it not for those two setbacks, TimeSplitters likely would’ve continued to modern platforms, as would have Free Radical. Instead, the company was bought out by Crytek… then forced to work on Homefront: The Revolution.
Earlier this year, Deep Silver announced that the original founders of Free Radical were reforming the company under its umbrella to work on a new TimeSplitters, which would mark the first game in the franchise since 2005. As such, the two earlier games becoming backwards-compatible on Xbox is effectively a stealth promotion.
Conditional, at Best
Define “hubris.” Give an example.
Advent Rising was supposed to be the next big thing, back in 2005. Its publisher Majesco gave it the full-court marketing press, with ads in movie theaters, a tie-in comic book series, and a plan for a full trilogy. The game featured a script by science fiction legend Orson Scott Card, which wasn’t quite as much of a warning sign in 2005, and Card was on tap to write several tie-in novels. It was gonna be an Advent Rising world, and we were just living in it.
Then the game actually came out. Advent Rising at launch, on console, was a bug-filled mess that in no way justified the hype. There have been plenty of games before and since that have been the subject of this sort of pre-launch multimedia blitz—Gears of War and Dead Space both come to mind—but they usually had the gameplay to back it up.
In fairness, the PC version of Advent Rising shipped later, fixed some of the bugs, and has a small fan following to this day. If you’re going to try it, you’re better off dropping ten bucks on Steam than searching for the Xbox disc.
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Burning Earth
Few people exactly like this game, but it has a certain amount of fame/infamy among Xbox fans. Burning Earth was a 2007 release from the late THQ, one of the 2000s-era kings of licensed shovelware, which never met an animated license that it wouldn’t immediately turn into a 360/PS2/PS3/GBA game.
The reason to pick it up, which is likely why it made the BC list at all, is that Burning Earth has one of the easiest, if not the easiest, set of achievements in Xbox history. You can get all 1,000 Gamerscore points in Burning Earth in five minutes, by getting a 50-hit combo streak off the first enemies you see. It takes more time to load up Burning Earth on a 360 than it does to 100% its achievement list.
Beyond that, it has little to recommend itself besides being a 2-player co-op game set in the world of Avatar. I’ve heard of people who liked Burning Earth due to being 10 years old at the time, but that’s the best that can be said for it.
Oneechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad
This has to have made the BC compatibility list based strictly on trainwreck syndrome. Bikini Samurai Squad is the 2009 localization of a 2006 Japanese hack-and-slash that is mostly about a chick in a bikini slicing up zombies.
There’s a little more to it than that, such as the characters building up to “rampage mode” based on how much blood they’re covered with at the time, but BSS was already dull and repetitive back in 2009. It’s essentially the Japanese horror genre’s answer to those American videos that are just women in swimsuits shooting high-powered rifles; you aren’t buying this for the artistic value.
I cannot emphasize this enough: Oneechanbara is a bad game because it plays badly. The beach-blanket bloodshed aspect is nice and all, I respect it for knowing exactly what it is, but Bikini Samurai Squad isn’t a lot of fun to play.
That being said, Oneechanbara is an actual franchise that put out a game as recently as 2020. Somebody‘s buying these things, even if it’s hard to imagine who. There are hundreds of more entertaining sources of bikini violence in 2021, most of which are on the weird part of Steam.
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City
It isn’t a bad idea on paper: you play Operation Raccoon City as a team of Umbrella mercenaries who are stuck in Raccoon City during the events of Resident Evil 2 and 3. Later DLC added a new playable cast, six U.S. Special Forces troops, with their own unique missions.
ORC moved 2.6 million units, which puts it at #31 on Capcom’s overall sales list as of September 2021, but I have to figure that was mostly down to the strength of the Resident Evil brand at the time. ORC is an miserable experience overall; in PVP, everyone without the Super-Soldier trait is a dead man walking, and in PVE, everything you fight on any difficulty is a giant slab of health that takes several full minutes of machine-gun fire to take down.
(There’s some common ground here between ORC and this year’s Back 4 Blood, as games that are essentially sunk by a lack of downtime. ORC will bury you in Crimson Heads if you give it half a chance, similar to how B4B likes to hit you with half a dozen specials at once. Very similar energy.)
It’s an interesting artifact of the overall Resident Evil series, as one of Capcom’s broader deviations from its formula, but ORC just isn’t much fun. It’s worth a look for RE fanatics for its alternate-timeline look at the Raccoon City disaster, where you actually have the option to kill Leon in one of the Umbrella team’s endings, but ORC is otherwise a master class in unrealized potential. Some of the characters could be really fun to revisit, and the player-vs.-player-vs.-zombie-apocalypse angle is great, but ORC is one of those games where any fun you have is despite the game’s best efforts otherwise.
Sacred 2: Fallen Angel
This is a strong “C-minus” sort of experience. Some people hated it, some were indifferent, and a handful have a strange affection for it. Sacred 2 is the most Todd McFarlane thing to exist that didn’t actually involve McFarlane, featuring elves and angels warring over control of an energy source that makes their respective civilizations possible. It’s even got a title track from the German power metal band Blind Guardian.
Its issue here isn’t its overall quality as a game, but that the 360 port was notoriously unstable. Sacred 2‘s console versions featured a poor localization and multiple glitches, many of which went unfixed due to its developer, the German company Ascaron, shutting down shortly after it released Sacred 2‘s console ports.
If you’re going to play Sacred 2 at all in the 2020s, Deep Silver took over production on the title in 2012 and rereleased it on PC as Sacred 2 Gold. It’s a safer bet than the old 360 port.