TA Top Five: XBLA Titles

By Brent Johnson, 2 years ago
Just shy of a decade ago, Microsoft launched the Xbox LIVE Arcade (XBLA). The only way to gain access to the service in 2004 was to order a disc from Microsoft’s website that was snail mailed to your home and then had to be loaded onto your original Xbox. The service launched with just six titles but grew to 27 prior to the launch of the Xbox 360. Most of the titles, which were limited to just 50MB so that they would fit on the 64MB memory cards, were either arcade classics (Ms. Pac-man, Dig Dug) or games we now associate more with mobile platforms (Zuma, Bejeweled).

While growth was slow, Microsoft stayed committed to XBLA and integrated the service into the dashboard of the 360. Specials promotions began to kick in, such as ‘XBLA Wednesdays’, the predecessor to the very popular ‘Summer of Arcade’, and the service exploded. In March 2006, Microsoft reported a total of three million downloads. That total ballooned to over twenty million by January 2007. The rest, as they say, is history.

To date, there have been nearly 700 titles released through XBLA. To pick just five (less than one percent) and call them the best seems ludicrous; but that is OK because your columnist is a little crazy up for a challenge. To make this insurmountable task a bit more manageable a very basic guideline was followed: The games included on this list were XBLA titles first. Therefore, the highest selling XBLA title of all time, Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition, is not included because it began on PC. My personal favorites, Worms and Trials (all 3 titles), must too be excluded for the same reason. Another fan favorite, The Walking Dead, was released across multiple platforms at the same time; so it too must be left off this list.

What this guideline does permit is the inclusion of games that, after becoming hits on XBLA, were later ported to other platforms. Thus the inclusion of the first game on the list...

Honorable Mentions

Limbo Screenshot

LIMBO featured no dialogue, no text, no explanation and the story itself was very much open ended. Who was this boy the player controlled and why was he traveling across the landscape? Were you in Heaven, Hell or somewhere in between? Was this a metaphorical journey from boyhood to manhood? In the end, nobody knows and the journey ended right were it began. With all of these questions, and lack of traditional gameplay elements, the game still managed to pull you into this eerily horrific world. Like a great book seemingly engulfs you into its own universe, Limbo lured you in and did not let you escape until you had reached the end. Because of this, the side scrolling, 2D, puzzle platformer, became the breakout hit of 2010.

1 vs 100

It was 2009 and TV game shows were all the rage. 1 vs 100 was a worldwide phenomenon and Microsoft took the idea and adapted it into an interactive experience. In short, a single player was selected at random and engaged in a trivia contest against a ‘mob’ of 100 players chosen from amongst the online community. You could play along, and with each correct answer your odds of being selected to be part of the mob increased. As part of the 100, or if you were lucky enough to be the 1, this free to play, live, online experience would award prizes such as Xbox LIVE points and free games. Microsoft claims that the game set a world record for most participants in a single game show with over 114,000 simultaneous players. This game, like a great TV show in the pre-DVR days, had you rushing home in time for the live event.

Monday Night Combat

The 2010 Summer of Arcade promotion was unbelievably good. Not only did it include Limbo, but also Hydro Thunder Hurricane (Editor's Note: Happy now, Oddworld X?), Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (two very solid titles) and Monday Night Combat. The latter was a third person, co-op shooter in which you were part of a team playing various made-for-TV style games. Being an arcade title, it was somewhat stripped down and contained just two play modes; crossfire and blitz. Crossfire was 6v6 where the goal was to destroy the opposing teams money ball and protect your own by killing AI bots, other players and establishing defensive turrets. Blitz was a tower defense/horde mode hybrid in which you built and maintained defenses and blasted away at the onslaught of bots out to destroy your money ball. For Monday Night Combat, having only two modes was a strength because it focused the game on the action right about the time when the Call of Duty series was beginning to lose its way explore alternative game types. Monday Night Combat provided a break from the more intense shooters on the market and was a great go-to title to have a good time with friends.

Top Five

5. Shadow Complex

The developers of Shadow Complex unabashedly state that their title was heavily inspired by, and designed to honor Super Metroid. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that entrance into various areas throughout the game demands that you carry specific equipment. Once in those restricted areas you find more, even better tools that give you access to other previously locked areas. By the end of the game, nothing is locked and no enemy can withstand your incredible arsenal.

In addition to strong gameplay, Shadow Complex is also remarkably beautiful. The lighting is gorgeous and the explosions are a sight to behold. Drawn in 3D with 2D play mechanics not only provides amazing visuals that are as good, if not better than, mainstream, AAA titles; but also allows for interesting wrinkles. A stack of boxes drawn in the foreground may be hiding a nice collectible behind them. This is part of what keeps you coming back to play again. The game compels you to explore and find every piece of gear you can get your hands on. Then, it allows you to challenge yourself to play again using different equipment, or by self imposing limits on what equipment you can use, which adds a whole new variant to the game. Because of the gameplay, richly drawn environments and outstanding visuals, Shadow Complex deserves a spot on this list.

4. Splosion Man

In a secret experiment gone terrifically wrong, you are infused with explosive powers. It is now your job to escape the laboratory by ‘sploding’. In fact, ‘sploding’ is literally all you can do. In order to achieve your goal you can use this power to destroy walls, detonate explosive barrels and kill scientists, which turns them into neatly packaged deli meats. Splosion Man featured imaginative level design that got progressively more inventive and devilishly difficult. Unfortunately, the negative side effect of the accident is that it left you a few fries short of a happy meal. Your in-game persona would constantly spout hilarious and nonsensical things and the game was filled with hilarious references to pop culture. My personal favorite being the achievement for completing the game You’re the Best Around!. Because of the humor, the game transforms from the typical puzzle platformer into a funny and enduring title that rightfully deserves a place on this list.

3. Castle Crashers

The gameplay of Castle Crashers has the ability to provoke memories of some classic games like Final Fight or Streets of Rage. For me, it was a reminder of the NES classic Double Dragon. This is not a bad thing. At its core, Castle Crashers is a beat ‘em up game with a simple story. You play a knight commanded to rescue the King’s daughters that have been kidnapped by the evil wizard. The combat system is also simple with the standard heavy and light attacks, jumping and the use of magic. Finally, the game is rather easy to beat. What makes you play, and keeps you playing are the surprises you find throughout the game. They range from the irreverent (deer powered by expelling excrement and bears literally pooping in the woods), to the hidden characters that can be unlocked by beating the game multiple times. There is also a fairly deep RPG element to the game that has you powering up your character and adding new combo moves to your arsenal as well as a unique armory featuring chainsaws and lollipops. This game is fun, at times funny, and one of the best time sinks in XBLA history.

2. Mark of the Ninja
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Obviously, Mark of the Ninja was not the first side scrolling title. Neither was it the first stealth game. But it was the first title to combine the two ideas and it did so brilliantly. You begin the adventure with basic movements, but as you complete missions you are awarded with medals that can be redeemed for new moves that masterfully pay homage to great games like the Batman: Arkham Series and the Medal Gear Solid Series. Little in gaming is as rewarding as the way this game allows you to reach out from under a cardboard box to grab an unsuspecting target and drag them back under the box without any of his cohorts being anymore the wise. Moreover, the camera zooms in and a spotlight shines on you and your target as you surreptitiously take them out thus highlighting the overall beauty of the game. Other, more sophisticated, stealth games claim that each level is playable using multiple strategies, but few truly achieve to make this claim a reality as well as Mark of the Ninja (Hitman and Medal Gear Solid....I am looking at you). As you play this game it is remarkably easy to forget that you are playing an XBLA title and not some AAA blockbuster thereby making Mark of the Ninja one of the best XBLA titles of all time.

1. Fez
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Fez begins with a catastrophic event that, once the hat is worn, morphs Gomez’s world from 2D to 3D... in a way. The game is presented in 2D but you have the ability to flip to other sides of the world as if the entire universe was a square column and you were jumping from side to side. The object is to jump between these four different 2D views, collect fragmented cubes and restore order to the universe. It seems simple, but it takes a while to orientate yourself and wrap your mind around moving between the four different views of the same 3D world. Plus, some of puzzles were unbelievably frustrating and there is a steep learning curve because the game offers no tutorial help at all. In fact, Dot, your in-game companion, is completely useless and often utters the phrase, “I don’t know what this is.”

It seems complicated and elaborate but those elements serve to further emphasize that Fez completely centers you. No enemies attack you, the environment cannot hurt you and there is no danger of peril or death. The only thing that can slow you down is you. As you play the game you slowly begin realize how this game is beautifully simple. Yet all of this simple complexity gives rise to a masterfully designed and aesthetically stunning game that sinks deep into your brain and will have you pondering how to solve the latest puzzle even while you are away from your console.

The TA Team will be bringing you The TA Top Five every Sunday until we run out of coolness to debate and discuss. If you have an idea for a Top Five you'd like us to do, be sure to let us know in the comments!
Brent Johnson
Written by Brent Johnson
TerraCottaGamer has been gaming since the 1970's with his first memories of gaming being on Pac-Man, Asteroids and Space Invaders arcade machines. His home console gaming began with the Atari 2600 and has included just about every console since; but he regards the Sega Genesis as his favorite console of all time. In his professional life, Reverend Brent A. Johnson (B.A., B.S., M.A., Ph.D.) lives in Kunming, China where he operates his faith-based humanitarian aide organization which he founded over 10 years ago. It focuses on meeting the basic physical and spiritual needs of the Chinese. In his personal life Brent, who grew up in Miami, Florida, is a middle-aged, married, father of 2 teenaged daughters who loves to hang out with his friends, watch sports (Cubs, Cowboys, Canes and Heat) and play games of all kinds. Anyone up for a game of Settlers of Catan?!?