Above: promotional imagery for 'Red Dead Redemption'
This November, the Xbox 360 celebrates its tenth anniversary. It joins a small club of home consoles to meet said milestone, while remaining (relatively) relevant. The PlayStation 2 was only officially discontinued globally in 2013, over 13 years after its spring 2000 launch. Production of the original PlayStation didn't stop until 2006, 11 years after its release in the West; and the Super Nintendo remained on sale in Japan until 2003, having debuted in its home nation back in 1990.
The 360's closest rival, the PS3, won't toast its first ten until late 2016, assuming Sony still considers it a worthwhile commercial venture in another year, given the ever-rising sales of the PS4. Microsoft's second home console, the white-and-green filling between the chunky black beast that was the first Xbox and the sleeker, though no less massive Xbox One that represents the company's current-gen concern, is a format that continues to impress at the tills, though – the majority of physical Disney Infinity 3.0 first-week sales in the UK were on 360, showing that even when older brothers and sisters upgrade to newer machines, their younger siblings keep the older consoles rattling and humming beneath bedroom telly boxes.
But Microsoft's big 360 drive this year now has nothing to do with the machine itself, new (UK) sales of which have fallen way behind the Xbone since 2014, and everything to do with making its massive library of games playable on its current-gen console. Microsoft dedicated a substantial chunk of its E3 2015 presentation to revealing backwards compatibility for the Xbone – the games won't run from the original discs, but when a supported physical-format title is inserted into the system, a copy of it will be downloaded to the hard drive from Xbox Live.
The initial line-up of backwards-compatible titles isn't exactly massive, but Microsoft is aiming for far more, and expects the list to grow significantly over the next few years. Over 1,000 games have been released for the 360 since 2005, though, so it's unlikely that every single one will become playable on the system's successor. That said, if any of the games highlighted become available on the programme – and I suspect that all of them will – do the right thing and play them immediately, because they most definitely do not suck when played today.
In other words, I suppose, these are the dozen 360 games that I think you need to be playing when they become backwards compatible on the Xbone – or on your actual 360, if you're yet to take them for a spin. Now, a quick caveat: if a game is already available for the Xbox One, in a remastered guise, then it's not included here. Hence the absence of Gears of War, anything from the Halo series, Dishonored, Grand Theft Auto V and Sleeping Dogs. Yeah, I said it. Sleeping Dogs is great, and if you're a firm fan of the GTA formula then you need it in your life. So go and buy it. Like, right now. And then, play some of these…
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'Remember Me', launch trailer
Remember Me (2013)
One of the best games of 2015 has been the episodic teens-and-time-travel adventure Life Is Strange, currently on part four of five with the climax coming any week now. It's not the first game by its French makers Dontnod, though. That would be this Capcom-published third-person brawler, which casts the player as Nilin, an "errorist" of 2084's Neo-Paris whose rebellious ways have been tamed courtesy of having her memory wiped. The plot is pretty good, something of a critique on how giving ourselves over to science can lead to incredibly harmful situations, especially when a single organisation has the monopoly on that technology, and the game's memory remix sections – essentially forerunners to the time-rewind feature seen in Life Is Strange – are excellent, if sparingly used puzzles. The main gameplay goes for the Arkham series-style approach to melee combat, with the bonus of Nilin's moves being editable in the Combo Lab.
Remember Me showcases a host of neat ideas, wrapped up in some beautiful visuals; but the impression it left on critics was slight at best. It's a game that players who choose not to commit themselves will forever remain cold to; but dive into its fiction, its colourful slums and sumptuous soundtrack, and it quickly becomes an addictive distraction unlikely to be forgotten soon.
'Blur' launch trailer
Mario Kart 8 is just about the best multiplayer racer money can buy on current-gen consoles – but if you've a Microsoft-branded machine in your living room, or a Sony one for that matter, you're not going to be getting hands on with the Wii U exclusive whenever you feel like it. Which is where the Bizarre Creations-developed Blur, published by the titans at Activision, comes in. This is weapons-based racing but with real cars and locations. So if the idea of blowing the shit out of the vehicle in front with a homing missile as you speed around Brighton's seafront, the streets of Barcelona and hills of California appeals, you know what to do. And you should, really, as Blur excels both as a straight racer and a gleefully chaotic battler.
'Skyrim', official trailer
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
You might have heard of this one. Previous-generation role-playing games simply didn't come any bigger than Bethesda's Skyrim. People are still playing it today, as they have been since its launch. Twenty million sales can't be wrong. And yes, I could have gone for Dark Souls here, in the fantasy RPG slot, but y'know, I just never got that into it. I suppose it comes down to what you want out of your dragons and dungeons sort of adventure: punishing difficulty, which no doubt leads to immense satisfaction, or the opportunity to explore an amazingly immersive world without the fear that the merest grunt of a goblin-thing could kill you should you mistime a thrust by a millisecond.
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'El Shaddai', launch trailer
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (2011)
While this one, perhaps you missed. It's definitely worth a look, though, as you simply won't find another game like it amongst the 360's library. A third-person fighting game, which is sometimes a 2D platformer, based loosely on the Book of Enoch, it mixes satisfying combat with visuals straight out of the most wonderfully surreal dream, colours rushing and mixing, the landscapes like a Roger Dean work popped into reality one moment and more akin to a Katsushika Hokusai painting the next. Designer Takeyasu Sawaki's previous credits include both the cel-shaded delight Ōkami and Devil May Cry, which goes some way to explaining both this game's aesthetic and combat mechanics. It's something of a niche attraction amongst the 360's many and varied fisticuffs affairs, but El Shaddai is worth investing in, exclusively for its uniqueness.
'Portal 2', teaser trailer
Portal 2 (2011)
Come on, now. Valve's Portal 2 is just about the most ingenious, hilarious puzzle game ever made. It might even be best played with two, too. You already own it, I'm sure. Play it again today, with a friend or all on your own, and cry a little because Half-Life 3 is never, ever happening. Probably.
'Spec Ops: The Line', launch trailer
Spec Ops: The Line (2012)
Yager's Dubai-set shooter is not hilarious, at all. No spoilers, but it features one of the most harrowing scenes you'll ever witness in a video game, and you're its cause. Spec Ops looks for all the sand-whipped world like Just Another Shooty Bang game, but get into it a little, spend an hour in its company – in the company of Captain Walker (Nolan North on perhaps career-best form), Lieutenant Adams and Staff Sergeant Lugo – and its black-as-midnight heart becomes apparent. This is no heroic venture, no saving-the-day mission of amazing odds overcome by amazing people. It's a nightmare, unfolding slowly, always getting darker as you press onwards, surrounding you and swallowing hope. It's less about bad versus good, and more the completely mad against those who are ever so slightly saner. This is Apocalypse Now: the game, essentially, and come its climax you definitely won't think of all shooters as possessing only generic potential.
'Red Dead Redemption', launch trailer
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Rockstar's greatest production to date, and I'm considering Grand Theft Auto V in that assessment, and so much more than simply the studio's (in)famous car-jacking-and-more series but "on horses". To play Red Dead is to live Red Dead, for as long as you can, but much like Spec Ops this isn't a story with a happy ending. Everything up to that moment is simply wonderful, though, the game's vast spaces the perfect tonic after the suffocating Liberty City streets of GTA IV. There's a reason that so many gamers are clamouring for a sequel to this cowboys and colonists open-world classic: it's amongst the best HD-era video games ever made.
'Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony', debut trailer
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Still amazing, seven years on, Rockstar's first HD GTA game erects an amazing interpretation of New York City and invites you to use it as your own personal playground. Having recently been in the Big Apple myself, playing some of GTA IV's (highly recommended) expansion pack The Ballad of Gay Tony once home again, to compare its virtual neighbourhoods with the real ones I walked around, really hammered home what an amazing job this game's makers did of capturing the unique atmosphere of its host city. Perhaps GTA V was your first experience of this records-smashing series – if so, you owe it to yourself to go back and spend some quality time with Niko Bellic and pals, as their small-time crimes expand into bigger and more dangerous deals before collapsing in on themselves with deadly results.
And if I didn't make it clear, just there, The Ballad of Gay Tony is a must, too, a main story-complementing, blindingly colourful spin-off that casts you as hustler-made-good Luis Fernando as he tries to balance his prison-time past with a life on the straight and narrow. Also, it features Omid Djalili dancing to Busta Rhymes' "Arab Money" in his tiger-fronted smalls. You don't get that in Call of Duty.
'BioShock', launch trailer
Incredibly, there are people who've been playing video games since before they could finish a roast dinner out there that have never sat down properly with 2K's BioShock. Those people, weirdoes though they so clearly are, still have the chance to make that situation right, though. You can buy this game for a couple of quid in just about any second-hand games trader on any British high street. It's everywhere, still. And it is the first-person shooter as poetry. Art? Perhaps not, but BioShock certainly forces gaming into some interesting new areas of self-questioning introspection. Not playing this game, and claiming to have a true affinity for the medium, is like claiming to support Manchester United with all of your heart yet you've never been north of Warwick. Oh, wait. There's a pretty amazing twist in it, too, which I previously detailed here.
'Mass Effect 2', launch trailer
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
The middle game of BioWare's fairly essential sci-fi role-playing trilogy is the best of the three by far, losing the repetitive planet surface exploration of the first game and delivering an ending, while next-game-telegraphing in nature, that didn't have its fanbase up in arms. Memorable supporting characters, terrific action, amazing locations, snappy dialogue and just a little bit of inter-species sexytimes if that's what you're into: it's easy indeed to lose a few months to this game. (And I type from first-hand experience.) The plot perhaps won't immediately make sense to newcomers who skip its predecessor, but you're on the internet, so just look up what you need to and get on with stopping the Collectors by any means possible. Just be sure to do all the side missions first or else, well, spoilers.
'Catherine', European trailer
A puzzle game that's also a reflection of the crisis that rocks a man's mind when working out whether or not the time is right to commit to the person that might be their truest love, Catherine is a strange title straight out of the could-only-have-been-made-in-Japan file (it's by Atlus) which would be dismissed for its migraine-inducing difficulty late on if it wasn't for the compulsive story that surrounds the Actual Gameplay. You are Vincent Brooks, whose dreams turn to nightmares in which he must climb to the top of a stack of moveable blocks – some of which are lethal themselves – while being pursued by a horror constructed from his own psyche. During his waking hours, he spends time with his girlfriend, Katherine, who may or may not be pregnant, and Catherine, a too-good-to-be-true new love interest who just might have something to do with that shady dude running the bar at the Stray Sheep. And to write any more here is taking us into proper story spoiler territory. It can be hugely frustrating, but Catherine is another past-gen game that's worth playing for its inventiveness and individuality – and it'll probably remain a singular experience, too, as a sequel is unlikely.
'Vanquish', launch trailer
The team at Osaka-based studio Platinum are the masters of action video games, and the SEGA-published Vanquish might be the company's pièce de résistance, to date. Incredibly fast, deafeningly loud, dazzlingly bright, Vanquish is Gears of War with a million more mechs and nuclear-powered rockets in its boots. There's a story, not that you'll notice amid the riveting bullet-hell gameplay, and the whole thing's over in a relative heartbeat, the solo campaign done and dusted in less time than it takes to sit through the credits your average Peter Jackson movie. (Okay, not quite, but you're looking at around five to six hours, assuming you're not dying the whole time or hiding behind cover like a coward.) It is so much fun though, that anyone put off the game by its short duration, claiming that it doesn't represent value for money, is a nincompoop who doesn't deserve their Xbox in the first place. Give it to someone who cares – about breathlessly brilliant releases like this, a title that is somehow frequently featured on "underrated games" lists everywhere despite everyone who's ever played it fancying its jet-propelled pants off.
I expect the official Xbox website will have all the information you need on Xbone backwards compatibility, going forwards.
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