The original Xbox from Microsoft entered the video game console marketplace at the turn of the millennium, bringing a software giant into the space occupied by the hardware giants of the time, with no one the wiser as to how successful they would actually become. What started as one man’s vision has to this day progressed into a pillar of the modern video games console industry.
Seamus Blackley was a physicist who was poised to make his life’s work at a superconductor in Texas. prior to Congress shutting the project down. An on-campus ad for physics programing in a Car and Driver game caught his interest, and he soon entered the video game industry. After stints at Blue Sky Productions and DreamWorks Interactive, Blackley eventually found his way to Microsoft to work on their DirectX software platform. It is from this work that he developed the idea that would eventually turn into the Xbox. While on a flight he suddenly was inspired to develop a new game console using the tools he had been working on, and called a colleague on the DirectX team named Kevin Bachus at 2 am to discuss this inspiration. Along with two other colleagues on the DirectX team, they developed a prototype and eventually approached the leader of the game publishing team, Ed Fries, to pitch the idea. Sony’s upcoming Playstation 2 was steering developers away from Microsoft’s Windows platform, and the goal was to create a console to compete against this loss of business. Calling the project ‘DirectX Box’, this was pitched to Bill Gates and other Microsoft executives. It was eventually approved after a tense Valentine’s Day meeting in 2000, and the project was unveiled publicly at the Game Developers Conference in March of that year. Development then continued onwards. Microsoft had already provided the Windows CE platform for the Sega Dreamcast, and there was some initial discussion with Sega regarding adding Dreamcast game compatibility to the developing console. Unfortunately, these discussions failed. Eventually the project name was shortened to Xbox, and after consumer testing revealed an affinity towards it the name remained as the actual retail title, despite the disdain Microsoft’s marketing department held for it. In January of 2001 the physical design and controller shape was revealed to the public at the Consumer Electronics Show, with wrestling star The Rock helping Bill Gates bring the new console out for a first showing. The Xbox was eventually released on November 15th, 2001, and interestingly enough Seamus Blackley proposed to his girlfriend with the help of Bill Gates that very same night.
The Xbox launched with a number of console innovations compared to it’s contemporaries, including a built-in hard disk for memory storage (which could also store music taken from the user’s own CD collection to be used in some games as part of a custom soundtrack), broadband support, as well as breakaway controller cables to ensure the console would not get pulled off its resting surface when some unlucky sap trips over the controller cord. It sold over 1.5 million units in the first 3 months after it’s US launch, for a total of a little over 24 million units worldwide during its production run. The initial price was $299, and the 20 or so launch titles included Project Gotham Racing, Dead or Alive 3, Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding, Rallisport Challenge, Bloodwake, Oddworld: Munche’s Oddysee, as well as a quiet little game called Halo. During Xbox development, Microsoft purchased Halo developer Bungie in 2000, who was creating Halo as a real time strategy game for Apple’s Macintosh line of computers. Halo took the console industry by storm, and revolutionized first person shooters for consoles, a genre at the time that was primarily dominated by PC’s.
The following year saw a price slash to $199 in an effort to improve sales, especially in the Japanese and European markets where sales we lagging. This made the sale of every Xbox a financial loss for the company, but increased household penetration helped propel Microsoft further into the industry, and their deep cash reserves helped pad the losses. On the one year anniversary of launch, Microsoft debuted its Xbox Live online service via the Xbox Live Starter Kit, providing console gamers a level of multiplayer connectivity not yet seen at the time. The service signed over 150,000 subscribers in the first week alone, growing into the millions over time. The launch of Halo 2 in 2004 saw astronomical sales numbers (2.5 million units in the first 24 hours), and carried with it strong online multiplayer interaction over Xbox Live.
Xbox production ceased in 2005 just prior to the release of it’s successor, the Xbox 360, and system support ended 2009. The final North American game for the Xbox, Madden 09, was released in August 2008. Xbox Live access for the ‘original’ Xbox was severed April 14th, 2010.
The Xbox did not actually see any design variation over its four years in production, but there were a few console color variations and a number of very limited edition special color designs from contests in various regions.
Accessories available for the Xbox added functionality in addition to the usual game peripherals. The Xbox controller design began life as a much larger controller affectionately known as the ‘Duke’. Eventually a revision was released, the Controller S, which was appreciably smaller and better fitted for the Asian market, where its size garnered issues. These were the standard controllers used to interact with games, however a number of other peripheral were released for game control, including arcade fighting game joysticks, racing wheels, light guns, and flight sticks for aircraft games.
The grand poobah of all controllers, however, is the controller set up for Steel Battalion. This mech simulation game was packaged with a multi-panel controller that took over an entire desk surface, and featured dozens of buttons and switches, as well as pedals. It cost about $200 at release for the controller and game.
Other random accessories include a microphone for music games, a dance pad for Dance Dance Revolution, memory cards that helped with the transfer of game saves from one Xbox to the next, a controller from Hip Interactive that combined a controller pad with a small digital screen (in case you have power but no TV), and a portable screen that attached to the bulky Xbox case. Two important accessories for the functionality of the Xbox include the DVD Playback Kit which combined a DVD-style remote and a receiver dongle that attached to the controller port so DVDs could be played on the TV through the Xbox (remember, this was in the days before wireless controls in consoles), as well as the HD AV Pack which allowed HD output (for games that supported it) to the TV via component cable and digital optical audio. One final accessory, the System Link Cable, permitted Xbox to Xbox LAN connection. I had the pleasure of playing local multiplayer with the original Ghost Recon game on one TV that was connected to a friend playing the same game on another Xbox via this cable. For many people, this was how multiplayer Halo was played prior to Xbox Live’s introduction.
The Xbox is home to a large number of incredible games, many of which are backwards compatible on hard-drive enabled Xbox 360s, and now via Xbox One’s backwards compatibility program. The original Xbox is still the best way to enjoy them. Here are a number of excellent standout titles:
Jet Set Radio Future
Beyond Good and Evil
Panzer Dragoon Orta
Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic
Ninja Gaiden Black
Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory
Halo and Halo 2
Project Gotham Racing 2
Conker Live and Reloaded
ESPN NFL 2K5
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
RalliSport Challenge 2
During the Xbox’s run, I was primarily playing Playstation 2 as my lead system. I ended up purchasing an Xbox early 2005 as I felt there were enough exclusive games to justify its purchase. The allure of Halo, Morrowind, Mechassault, Outlaw Golf, and graphically superior cross-platform versions of the Splinter Cell, Grand Theft Auto, and sports games drove me to that purchase. At the time, my Playstation 2 looked fairly miserable on my expensive new HDTV, and the Xbox’s graphical superiority help usher in early HD gaming for me in a much more attractive way. These games also seemed to draw me in for longer periods, as the Xbox supported games that had a more ‘mature’ feel for me. This is not to say the Playstation 2 was saturated with family-friendly fare like the GameCube, but its heavy emphasis on Japan-centric RPGs and 3D platform games did not hold my interest for extended periods. Xbox and PC exclusive Morrowind alone kept me entertained and enthralled for nearly a year. I still collect for this system to this day.
What are your thoughts on the original Xbox? Did sneaking around in true 3rd person as Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher make you completely forget the awkward controls of Metal Gear Solid? Did the weird mindscapes of Psychonauts make you think twice about your own personal mental battlegrounds? Did you marvel at what true jaw dropping open world freedom finally meant as you slowly made your way along the very first point of travel from Seyda Neen to Balmora in Morrowind? Did droid HK-47’s constant referral of you as a ‘meatbag’ seem a bit unnerving, as if you were at some point going to be his next target in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic? And, did the swashbuckling vibe of Crimson Skies evoke a taste of the familiar adventure films from the golden age of Hollywood despite its unfamiliar fantastical aeronautical theme? Post your comments and thoughts below on this beloved console.