Learn To Love Your Xbox One Again with These 17 Backwards-Compatible Greats

Mike Diver
Games Xbox
Games Xbox

Sea of Thieves aside, Xbox owners haven’t exactly been spoiled for exclusives in 2018, to date. Aside from managing to keep PUBG as a console exclusive, the barren  Xbox landscape has been made all the more obvious thanks to the recent arrival of Sony’s God Of War.

There’s more coming, of course: Crackdown 3 will get here (eventually) and State of Decay 2 will sate those undead survival appetites.  While we’re sure E3 will give gamers more Microsoft goodness to look forward to, right now: new Xbox One exclusives are pretty thin on the ground.

Thank god for the Xbox One’s backwards compatibility functionality then. Introduced in 2015,  this clever real-time emulation has been a blessing for the console. Simply slip one of hundreds of old Xbox 360 discs into the system – or one of 13 original Xbox games – and presto: there’s a classic from yesteryear instantly running on your modern machine.

It gets even better for Xbox One X owners, where many older titles are improved above and beyond their original guises, with beloved classics made even better thanks to better framerates and some nice visual flourishes.

But tech-schmecs, right? What matters most with a video game is if it moves you, becomes embedded in your memories, and makes you want to bore all your friends about it.  Thanks to the time-travelling potential of Xbox’s backwards compatibility programme, further new (but, also, kinda old) experiences are added all the time.

With the original Xbox just hitting its 17thbirthday,  here are the best 17 classics you can enjoy on your Xbox One simply by picking up an old 360 disc on the cheap.

Red Dead Redemption

Originally released: 2010

With the sequel (okay, prequel) to Rockstar’s fabled Wild West romp set for an October release, now’s the perfect time to take this original Redemption out for a canter. Rumours of a remastered version of this open-world favourite, arguably representing its makers’ most authentic-feeling setting  have done the rounds for years, but sadly for us – have come to nothing.

But with 360-version discs selling second-hand for less than the price of a couple of pints, Xbox One-owning sorts are encouraged to slide into some dusty chaps for one hell of an outlaw adventure.

Red Dead really hasn’t aged a day. Thanks to some stellar voice performances, believably barren locales, evocative but sparingly used music, and a story that’s less about the American Dream and more doing right by loved ones –I t’s easy to throw around the word “classic”, but by Mr MacFarlane’s moustache, this game earns the accolade effortlessly.

Child of Eden

Originally released: 2011

With the sublime synesthesia simulator Rez Infinite available only for PlayStation, console wise, it’s natural for Xbox owners to look across at the bluer side of the market with envious eyes.

Luckily though, Rez’s designer and producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi actually directed a prequel to his most-celebrated work in 2011 – and while Child of Eden isn’t exactly the equal of its predecessor, it’s an audio-visual extravaganza that stands out as one of the past generation’s most singularly arresting trips.

Ostensibly a rail shooter, much like Rez before it, Child of Eden is an explosion of mesmerising colour and pulsating dance music. While it was initially showcased using the Kinect sensor, for those that don’t want to dust off the creepy looking camera, this is a game that’s far from reliant on it. It’s one of those that’s better to play, to get a real feeling for, than read about or watch videos of. Trust us, you’re guaranteed to have never played much else like it (Rezaside, obviously).

The Orange Box

Originally released: 2007

This is a list of no-brainers – but Valve’s The Orange Boxis right at the top. For one small price, you get Team Fortress 2which, admittedly, is something of a non-starter on anything but Steam. But bear with me, because also in the package comes the debut showing of Portal, the perfectly paced and magically mirthful first-person puzzler that introduced the gaming world to the superbly sardonic evil AI GLaDOS(aka: best gaming villain ever?); and not only the seminal sci-fi shooter Half-Life 2but also its two expansion episodes.

If you’re wondering why Half-Life 3 gossip has a tendency to light up social media whenever there’s a sniff of anything substantial – and it only takes the faintest whiff – play Half-Life 2. A few issues aside, which are only natural given that it’s 14 years old, it remains one of the purest story-driven FPS titles you’ll ever waft a controller at.

And yes, yes: mouse and keys, we hear you – but this is a console-centric list. Sit down.

Portal 2

Originally released: 2011

Okay, so you could call this a cheat, doubling down on the same series (if you can even call it that). But once you’ve had one Portal, you’re going to need another. The first game is a brief encounter – know what you’re doing and you can see the credits in four or five hours. The second? You’re going to be playing for more than double that, and it’s about four times as funny, too.

GLaDOS becomes just the best companion-cum-antagonist you’ll ever have the pleasure of being in your ear almost the whole time, while Stephen Merchant’s casting as another in-game AI, Wheatley, is amongst the medium’s most inspired (he rightly won awards for the role). The puzzles are expanded with more elements – it’s not all about placing portals here, but redirecting light beams and splattering special paint around the place – and the whole thing’s a dream to cruise through, testing the brain and tickling the funny bone in about equal measure.

Throw in a brilliant local co-op mode featuring a pair of charming robo-buddies, and you’ve a bona-fide must-have. So, um, have at it.

The Darkness II 

Originally released: 2012

The Darkness was one of the best FPS games of the 360’s early years, coming out in 2007 to positive reviews but moderate sales. As such, a sequel was no guarantee: but 2012’s follow-up is one hell of a surprise package. Like its predecessor, the player is cast as the Mafioso main-man Jackie Estacado, who’s possessed by a malevolent supernatural force: the Darkness of the title.

This monstrous power is (superbly) voiced by Faith No More and Mr Bungle frontman Mike Patton; and the game is a riot of satisfyingly gruesome comic-stylised shock and awe, as Jackie tears through his enemies using both snake-like tentacles (and associated abilities) and a range of deadly firearms.

With the game(s) based on Top Cow’s comic series, the sequel’s thick line art and cel-shaded aesthetic makes it seem like it’s popping straight off a page – and prevents it from feeling as dated as the more photo-real shooters of the previous generation. This is an ageing shooter that  still looks (and plays) great on an Xbox One.

Vanquish

Originally released: 2010

When Japanese studio PlatinumGames does action, you expect some pretty top-level results, and Vanquish delivers its thrills by the skip-load. A sci-fi third-person shooter with a bullet-hell edge, the game throws everything, quite possibly including the kitchen sink, at your character, Sam Gideon, as he tries to fight through an enemy occupied space station.

Sam’s decked out in a snazzy future bodysuit that basically has rockets pointing out of its arse, meaning you can jet-propel yourself around each combat zone, performing somersaults to avoid the incessant opposition assault.

Yes, there’s cover; but squatting down behind it for more than a second is likely to get you killed. If ever a game was designed to make a player exhale a fully deserved “phew” at the end of a level, it’s this one. Vanquish’s director, Shinji Mikami, is best known for creating the Resident Evil series; but this genuinely breathless, ever-exhilarating shooter is every bit as memorable as any head-turning zombie.

Bayonetta

Originally released: 2009

Why stop at one PlatinumGames title, when another of their solid-gold hits slips so silkily into your Xbox One? The high-kicking, angels-crushing Bayonetta might have got another chance to shine in early 2018 when it received a Switch port alongside its Nintendo-only sequel (ahead of the forthcoming, equally Nintendo-only third game), but this nine-year-old original isn’t showing any signs of its age.

Bayonetta remains an exemplary hack-and-slasher, although to categorise it as such is to undersell its combat mechanics, requiring more than a basic button-bashing mentality to get the most out of. Bayonetta herself is a supremely pliable protagonist, able to cartwheel away from incoming attacks and activating the slow-motion “witch time” to land additional blows on her foes; but there’s so much more here than just a singularly realised leading lady with seemingly endless legs. The whole Bayonettapackage sparkles with scintillating action, warm humour, genuine challenge (if you want it) and sharp-tongued wittiness – but please, steer clear of the ropey PS3 version.

Rayman Origins

Originally released: 2011

Nobody knew they needed another mainline Rayman game, but with the crisp and colourful UbiArt Framework engine making this 2D platformer more fantastically vibrant than any three-dimensional alternatives at the time,Rayman Originstruly felt like playing a madcap, action-packed cartoon. It’s a toss-up between this game and its 2013 sequel, Rayman Legends(which includes a number of Originslevels, as unlockable bonuses), for Best Xbox 360 Platformer Ever bragging rights – and with both being backwards compatible, you can take your pick (or, y’know, just get both).

There’s something special still about this first effort, though, that was absent on its follow-up. The element of surprise, probably. Because, come on now – a Rayman game? And it’s brilliant? Like, can’t-put-it-down, everything-feels-so-fresh, how-did-they-do-this, actually incredible? Pffft. What were the chances.

 

Dead Space

Originally released: 2008

It’s rare that something that wears its influences so brazenly on its sleeves – in this case, Resident Evil, the Alien movies, The Thing, HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, the DOOM and System Shock games – manages to manifest any kind of meaningful identity of its own. But against all odds, that’s exactly what EA’s Dead Space achieves. A deep space-set, haunted-house-styled, survival horror masterwork, this is a consistently uneasy experience.

Here the player will spend their time creeping their Isaac Clarke avatar slowly through a shattered space ship, and later down to the surface of a fracturing planet, forever nervy about what’s about to leap out of the dark.

Some monstrous mess of limbs and hair and dead flesh that just keeps coming unless you methodically remove the limbs. That’s an early piece of advice, left scrawled on a wall in blood. What the game never tells you in its opening stages, though, is just how memorable this multi-faceted homage to many movies, novels and video games past proves to be.

Alan Wake

Originally released: 2010

Swedish studio Remedy’s follow-up to a celebrated pair of Max Payne titles was an equally dark, but somewhat more surreal, third-person affair, where the player was repeatedly challenged to ponder: how much of what I’m seeing here is actually real? Alan Wake– A-Wake, geddit? – stars a thriller writer suffering from memory loss, stranded in a small Washington State town that absolutely borrows a clutch of cues from Twin Peaks.

Shamelessly so, at times: one supporting character cradles a lamp like a forerunner did a log, while flasks of coffee can be collected throughout the game. But while there’s a hefty dose of Lynch to proceedings, Alan Wakenever once feels predictable. Developer Remedy tells a fine story of lost family and friends, and of parallel worlds and alternative selves, across six TV show-style chapters/episodes.

Its action mechanics are interesting, too – enemies must have their protective darkness burned from them, by torchlight, before bullets can damage them. And the game’s sense of place is tremendous, too, with radio broadcasts relaying events as seen from other perspectives. Be like the game’s namesake and don’t sleep on this action classic.

 

Deadly Premonition

Originally released: 2010

Hidetaka Suehiro’s (he’s better known simply as SWERY) supremely divisive horror-thriller is another Lynch-inspired title where the similarities between Killer BOB-spooked TV show and suitably inspired game are rarely anything but strikingly obvious. Federal agent in a small, creepy American town, with a penchant for coffee; a compelling blend of comedy and horror running through the story; the ‘narrator’ of the piece, essentially SWERY himself, forever unreliable: the cult-appeal constituents are all in place.

And yet, Deadly Premonitionsurpasses all moderate expectations by just being so… weird. It’s a shaky, shonky, beautifully broken thing, that at times feels like a Resident Evil game made by a bunch of programmers who’d never actually played one of Capcom’s iconic titles.

It looks muddy and blurry, and the voice acting is positively wooden; but that kind of works to its advantage, adding to the surreal feel of everything. Deadly Premonitionearned perfect 10s and savage scathing reviews upon its original release – and you owe it to yourself, and your Xbox One, to see just how maddeningly unique this game is.

Driver: San Francisco

Originally released: 2011

It was this or Burnout Paradise– and with EA’s game having received a fine remaster in 2018, fully optimised to make the most of the Xbox One’s clout, it’s to Ubisoft’s open-world crooks and cars game that we’re turning. Driver: San Francisco is a weird take on a pretty conventional genre – the virtual city simulator, toured from behind the wheel of a car – where the lead character, the coma-struck Tanner, can teleport into the bodies of anyone in San Francisco to take control of their wheels.

This mechanic, called Shift, never once gets boring, as the player darts from dashboard to driveshaft across a sharply realised Frisco (and Oakland, and Marin County – think of this as a simplified version of the map that’d appear in Watch Dogs 2, developed by the same Ubi studio, Newcastle-based Reflections).

The silliness of the whole ‘possessing’ system is embraced by the game, which revels in its status as a video game: the only medium that can tell a story of dream worlds and Dodge Challengers in quite such a captivating way.

 

Fallout 3

Originally released: 2008

Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic role-playing series felt mannequin-stiff, despite its accomplished world-building and storytelling, in its most recent iteration, 2015’s Fallout 4. So if you’re coming to this third main entry afterplaying its follow-up first, be prepared for even more jerky and janky interactions. Get past the acquired-taste aesthetics though, and Fallout 3might be the most accomplished of any game in the series in terms of player (build) flexibility and core story.

Its V.A.T.S. combat mechanic – that’s Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System – brought a strategic quality to enemy dismemberment, and having an AI companion accompany your character across the wasteland of a nuclear-blasted Washington, DC, made what could be a very lonely journey a lot more enjoyable. Fawkes FTW, in case you were wondering. Not played the first two? Don’t worry, you certainly don’t need to be familiar, at all, with its preceding pair to make headway here.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Enhanced Edition)

Originally released: 2012

It’s not The Witcher 3– but really, what else is?

If you’ve played through CD Projekt’s 2015 RPG, though, and seen all it has to offer in the way of monster-slaying, treasure-hunting and wench-bedding (err, if that’s what your Geralt of Rivia is into, obviously), then backtracking to this 2012-released expanded version of the second Witcher game (now with tasty cinematics) is strongly recommended.

Sure, the world isn’t as developed as its follow-up, nor the writing; but a rather more streamlined (albeit still branching) campaign with fewer side-quest distractions, and the same neatly balanced level of low-fantasy ‘believability’, lend The Witcher 2 a compelling moment-to-moment rhythm.

Some of the marketing around the game’s original release was definitely on the questionable side – a nude calendar, anyone? – but the experience itself is of a high standard. It’s not quite as easy to get into, granted, as The Witcher 3, but stick with it and further riches await.

Skate 3

Originally released: 2010

Every E3, every Electronic Arts conference, it’s the same story: a swarm of tweets demanding to know where the hell Skate 4 is.

Until that magical day arrives, Xbox One owners will have to make do with the third entry in the series – which, due to its pretty-flipping-far-from-realistic physics, has become a Let’s Play favourite over on YouTube.

Does its bugginess make it bad, though? You’ll be too busy laughing to care either way. Which is a good thing, as getting good at Skate 3 is no small task – this isn’t an insta-click Tony Hawk kind of deal. Its controls are hardly intuitive, but when falling off your board (cue: x-ray injuries) can be as much a part of the fun as staying on it… That’s fine? Look, it’s not a classic, okay. Sure. But to play Skate 3 is to love Skate 3, for all its broken stupidity.

Spec Ops: The Line

Originally released: 2012

Taking cues from Apocalypse Nowand the novella that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic epic, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness– and also Jacob’s Ladderand the TV show Generation Kill– the Dubai-set Spec Ops: The Lineisn’t exactly what it seems to be.

What initially masquerades as a fairly routine third-person cover shooter slowly begins to twist and contort, its story progressing from a simple rescue-mission direction to something  much more horrific. Two words: white phosphorus. By the end, developers Yager have explored perceptions and criticism of American military operations overseas, and the most disturbing effects of PTSD.

Subtle either/or moral decisions are presented to the player from the start, if they look for them: shoot the opposition forces, killing them for sure, or instead take out the glass above them, that holds back desert sand enough to incapacitate them? With some excellently acted performances and well-tuned gun play meaning that some repetition can be forgiven, Spec Opsisn’t exactly the underrated jewel some coverage makes it out to be – it’s far too well covered, by now. Rather, it’s a multi-faceted but rough-edged gem that demands your first-time attention.

 

Fable II

Originally released: 2008

If you only got wind of Lionhead’s Fable series because of its unfortunate demise– or, maybe, optimistically, extended hiatus – then you are encouraged, indeed, to jump into this charming and big-hearted role-play series at its second entry.

It’s a pretty, distinctly British game world, populated by a cast of characters with familiar voices (Stephen Fry, Zoë Wanamaker and Julia Sawalha star), and while its story is fairly linear, its Albion setting is broad enough to go wandering in.

Your character can own a house, get married and have kids before ending their quest to overthrow the wicked Lord Lucien – not to mention spend a great deal of time with a very good pet pup. Until, that is, [redacted for spoilers]. It doesn’t do any one thing astoundingly and is showing its age visually, but the overall Fable II package is just so sunny and moreish, always putting the player right at its centre, that you likely won’t mind a little fuzziness. Ten years is a long time in video games, after all.

Mike Diver
Author of Indie Games: The Complete Introduction to Indie Gaming (2016) and How to Be a Professional Gamer: An Esports Guide to League of Legends (2016). Games writer and critic for FANDOM, Official PlayStation Magazine, Eurogamer, Nintendo Life and more. The Gaming Show (BBC) writer/researcher.
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