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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Horror in a Box: 20 Years of Exclusive Horror Games For Xbox Consoles

What started as a snicker for many gamers way back in 2001 has gone on to become a successful endeavor for Microsoft. True, the Xbox has always played runner-up to Sony’s PlayStation, and it wasn’t without its growing pains (the initial Xbox controllers, the infamous 360 Red Ring of Death), but the extraordinarily large game console that could still ended up as the one that brought console gaming online in a meaningful way (sorry, Dreamcast), and today provides gamers with a massive library of titles to enjoy, thanks to the Xbox Game Pass and the Xbox Backwards Compatibility program. And while console exclusivity is a rarity these days, there are still those select titles that at one time or another you could only play on the Xbox.

So, with that in mind, here are some highlights throughout the Xbox’s first 20 years that either were/still are exclusive to the Xbox or were initially released first on the system. And yes, technically some of these did release on PC at the same time, but Sony and Nintendo were still left out, so it still counts.

Halo (2001, Xbox)

Admittedly, Halo isn’t the first thing you think of when it comes to horror, but then there’s that part of the game where you encounter The Flood that changes that perception pretty quickly. The Flood was so popular for players that the parasitic organisms made their return in Halo 2 and Halo 3. Meanwhile, Halo was both a system seller and a key title for Microsoft’s then-fledgling Xbox Live service, and helped bring multiplayer gaming on a console to the forefront. It also introduced a different kind of horror for gamers in the form of foul-mouthed 12-year-olds screaming into their mics during multiplayer sessions.

Gears of War (2006, Xbox 360)

Halo was Microsoft’s franchise series for the Xbox, but that didn’t stop Epic Games from cranking out a system seller of their own. Far grittier (and browner) than Halo‘s sci-fi action, Gears of War also had that lovely Lancer Assault Rifle that produced plenty of plasma for those getting up close with any Locust. There was also that trailer that made use of “Mad World” by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews from Donnie Darko that put protagonist Marcus Fenix in a bit of a bind. Apart from that, Gears of War looked so slick for its time and had some fun multiplayer modes. Again, not outright horror, but several horror elements were woven into the gameplay and story.

Condemned: Criminal Origins (2005, Xbox 360)

Someone over at Sega must have been a fan of The Silence of The Lambs, as Condemned: Criminal Origins is a near-perfect mash-up of survival horror and a crime thriller. The idea of the player having to investigate crime scenes and record evidence at points throughout the game juxtaposes nicely with the raw melee combat the player engages in with psychotic vagrants that have a habit of jumping out at you from the shadows. Admittedly, the story is on the weak side, and while interesting, the crime scene investigations aren’t particularly deep. Nevertheless, the idea of searching a condemned building for a serial killer with only your flashlight is still awesome.

Doom 3 (2004, Xbox)

After the massive successes that were Doom and Doom 2, id Software was tasked with the impossible with Doom 3. The result forgoes the pure guns-blazing action for more of a survival horror atmosphere, though you still have plenty of gunplay to satisfy your bloodlust. The scripted jump scares and predictable AI was annoying, but you couldn’t deny how gorgeous the game looked. Not to mention the oppressive atmosphere in the UAC base was only heightened by the fact that the game forced you to switch from your weapon to a flashlight to see in the dark. And hey, the Xbox version featured a two-player co-op mode, which combined with the other multiplayer modes, made it a must-have.

Alan Wake (2010, Xbox 360)

We’ve sung the praises of Remedy’s Alan Wake numerous times over the years, and it’s easy to see why. The game pays homage to numerous horror influences (notably Stephen King and Twin Peaks), cleverly utilizes the episodic format, employs unique (for the time) gameplay mechanics, and overall looks/sounds superb, even over a decade later. Fans were blessed with the recent remaster, and a hope that Remedy will finally give them (and everyone else) a sequel that was sorely needed after the short standalone game, American Nightmare.

The Medium (2021, Xbox Series X/S)

Bloober Team’s foray into next-gen proved to be a massive hit for the studio. While The Medium drew upon classic horror games such as Silent Hill for inspiration, the result was still a game all its own. The team played to their strengths and crafted a wonderfully moody and tense game that was enhanced by Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka participation in the game’s score. Adding to that was the implementation of the dual reality gameplay, which at first comes across as a bit of a gimmick, actually works to create some clever solutions puzzles for the player to solve as the game progresses.

State of Decay (2013, Xbox 360/One)

Arriving before the glut of open-world zombie apocalypse games hit the market, Undead Labs struck gold with State of Decay back in 2013. The game became a hit on Xbox Live Arcade, selling over a million copies for the developer. The game eventually received a remaster for the Xbox One, followed by the sequel in 2018. While it suffered from technical hiccups and a flawed main storyline, the sheer depth of the game with its survival aspects and combat made its paltry $20 price tag a steal.

Rise of Nightmares (2011, Xbox 360 Kinect)

With the success of Nintendo’s Wii, Sony and Microsoft jumped onto the motion-sensing bandwagon, with varying degrees of success and quality. Sega’s Rise of Nightmares was pretty typical for the Xbox Kinect in terms of its execution. The story has your House of The Dead goofiness, with the player having to rescue his wife from a mad scientist and his hulking goon. The game itself can be best described as average, making adequate use of the Kinect’s motion controls, but stumbled with the graphics and the replayability. Depending on your taste for HoTD cheese, this might be worth your while.

Stubbs The Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse (2005, Xbox)

Another cult favorite, Stubbs The Zombie‘s exclusive appearance on the original Xbox probably limited its potential for a sequel. This is despite the game being as fun as it is humorous. The recent re-release preserves the game exactly as it was when it was released back in 2005, for better and for worse. By modern standards, Stubbs‘ dated gameplay mechanics screams for an update/remake. Hopefully, developer Aspyr gets a second crack at it. Or at least hands the game over to a studio who will treat the game and its fans right.

Dead Rising (2006, Xbox 360)

You knew this was coming. The dream of playing out Dawn of The Dead in video game form came to fruition a year after the Xbox 360 was released, and scored another hit for Capcom. Despite the subsequent sequels never matching the original, the original Dead Rising remains a fun sandbox title. The sheer number of ways players could dispatch hordes of zombies was an absolute blast. Sure, the game’s timer was a pain for those who just wanted to mow down zombies, rescue survivors, or complete Case Files, but it gave way to replayability (and multiple endings). After all, you can’t save everyone from a zombie apocalypse. And you did eventually unlock Infinite Mode, so it all worked out.

Left 4 Dead/Left 4 Dead 2 (2008/2009, Xbox 360)

We all know Left 4 Dead and its sequel are modern classics, which becomes all the more apparent with its spiritual sequel, Back 4 Blood, not quite reaching the same heights (so far). What’s even more surprising is that the PC-centric Valve decided to give Xbox 360 fans versions of the games that weren’t hot garbage. Sure, the fun mods that Steam players have been enjoying for years aren’t available on the 360, but that’s beside the point. The fun and frantic gameplay of Left 4 Dead translated perfectly to the console and Left 4 Dead 2 only gave us more zombie-smashing goodness, and then some.

Carrion (2020, Xbox One)

While “reverse horror” titles have been done before to varying success, Carrion is thankfully one of the good ones. Catering to fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Carrion combines the fun of picking off the hapless humans as you crawl through vents and sewers of a subterranean base with superb pixel-based graphics, wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack by Cris Velasco, and throws in some cool puzzles to break up the wanton human munching. It’s sadly on the shorter side, and the lack of a minimap is frustrating in some cases, but those are minor when you’re ripping open doors to feast on the scientists huddled in the room.

Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth (2005, Xbox)

Oh, what could have been. Despite being seen as a commercial flop after being in development for over six years, numerous delays and multiple features dropped, Dark Corners Of The Earth is still one of the best Cthulhu mythos video games ever. Making great use of Lovecraft’s material, the novel Sanity meter that did more than Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem‘s similar mechanic managed to, and featured a wonderfully dark, unearthly atmosphere, Dark Corners Of The Earth was hung up on bugs and steep difficulty curves. It also didn’t help that it was released with next to no attention paid to it, which doomed it at retail. Developer Headfirst Productions planned on releasing at least two additional games under the Call of Cthulhu banner, but a lack of a publisher and Headfirst’s eventual bankruptcy put an unfortunate end to the potential.

Breakdown (2004, Xbox)

Namco’s 2004 sci-fi experiment for the original Xbox was a quirky mix of first-person shooting and fighting, and admittedly might have been a bit too out there for most gamers who were enjoying the run ‘n’ gun gunplay of other shooters at the time. Still, you can’t deny that Breakdown was compelling in its mechanics and its Terminator-esque story. With the game being made available for download from Xbox Live Store and having been made part of the Xbox Backwards Compatibility, there’s still very much an opportunity for the current generation of gamers to experience it.

Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams (2001, Xbox)

Now before everyone starts screaming in the comments about how I’m wrong, the original Silent Hill 2 was released for the PlayStation 2 in September 2001. An extended version, subtitled Restless Dreams, contained a short bonus scenario “Born from a Wish” and supported 480p resolution, which was released for the Xbox on December 20. Eventually, PS2 owners got this version in the form of the Greatest Hits line, so everyone was happy. As for Silent Hill 2 itself, this is a no-brainer for one of the greatest Survival Horror games ever made: buy it.

Fatal Frame: Special Edition/Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly Director’s Cut (2002/2004, Xbox)

Again, like Konami and Silent Hill 2, Koei Tecmo had originally released Fatal Frame on the PlayStation 2 first in 2002, but later in the year, opted to release a Special Edition version of the game for the Xbox. This version featured graphical upgrades, new ghosts to fight, a revamped camera interface, bonus costumes for Miku, and a new “Fatal” difficulty mode. You also had an Art Gallery that you could unlock by completing the game on the new difficulty mode. Likewise, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly received a Director’s Cut for the Xbox a year after the PS2 release. This version also featured enhanced graphics, Dolby Digital audio, added First-Person Shooter Mode and Survival Mode, a new ending, and additional costumes.

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (2010, Xbox 360)

Konami tried a new approach for the Castlevania series with Harmony of Despair, a multiplayer spin-off featuring an all-star cast of Castlevania games’ past that emphasizes loot gathering and boss battles. Leaning heavily on the multiplayer aspect, the massive end bosses take a ton of hits to be defeated, and the game itself is just too difficult and monotonous if you decide to go at it alone. Harmony also relies heavily on the grind, requiring you to spend money to upgrade your equipment before taking on the boss itself. As a result, Harmony of Despair feels hastily cobbled together and artificial, with none of the story, nor exploration, you’d hope for in a Castlevania game.

Metro 2033 (2010, Xbox 360)

The one that started it all for the Metro game series (adapted from Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel of the same name), and the perfect game for the then-new 4A Games, who had experience working on the similarly-themed S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. And like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Metro had the harsh atmosphere of a post-nuclear fallout nailed down along with the survivalist gameplay, but was also subject to several bugs. Nonetheless, the shooter had sold 1.5 million copies by June 2012, and had a Redux version that PlayStation 4 fans could finally get in on the fun.

Vampire Rain (2007, Xbox 360)

They can’t all be winners. While AQ Interactive didn’t aim to drop what could’ve been a cool survival horror stealth game this badly, they unfortunately did. What was supposed to be akin to Metal Gear Solid, Vampire Rain had you sticking to the shadows to avoid vampires that could end you with just two hits. Unfortunately, the comparisons to Metal Gear Solid didn’t do the game any favors. Nor did the schizophrenic AI, gameplay that boiled down to trial-and-error where you’re limited in your approach, weapons that are either woefully underpowered or overpowered that it breaks the whole stealth mechanic, and the throwaway multiplayer component. The eventual PlayStation 3 port didn’t fare much better if you’re wondering.

Oxenfree (2016, Xbox One)

More supernatural spookiness than outright horror, that shouldn’t stop you from checking out Night School Studio’s debut game. Oxenfree‘s outstanding story is the main draw, which unfolds via exploration and dialogue choices. The cool thing is that the two overlap, creating a sort of “active cutscene” as you walk and engage with characters. It’s this unique way of developing the story and its characters that shows just why Oxenfree snagged so many award nominations for its narrative. The sequel Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, looks to continue the same immersive gameplay.


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