As Microsoft's initial foray into the world of consoles, the Xbox was impressive. It was comparable to a high-end PC, except only at a fraction of its price. Weighing in at a hefty ten pounds, this large rectangular beast housed a 10 GB hard disk, making it the first console to have an internal hard drive.
The system also boasted four controller ports, support for high-definition video, and the best graphics of its generation. While its graphics were only slightly better than those of the Playstation 2 (PS2), Xbox games exhibited faster load times, and the hard disk eliminated the need for expensive memory cards.
Like the PS2, the Xbox could play DVDs but this was less of a selling point in 2001 than it was during the PS2 launch the year before. Initially the Xbox was shipped with extra-large controllers with beady, rounded buttons. Microsoft would soon switch over to the "Controller-S" model which more closely resembled the Playstation 2 controller design.
As it jockeyed for position with the PS2 and GameCube, the Xbox began to gain momentum. With more games appearing on multiple consoles, many consumers opted for the superior Xbox versions. Microsoft also excelled online, offering quality services that went far beyond anything available for other consoles. While the Xbox never caught up to the Playstation juggernaut, it did manage to position itself into second place (barely ahead of Nintendo's GameCube), making Microsoft a legimate player in the video game industry.
Console design: B. The Xbox is bulky but functional and has that proper high-tech look. A molded "X" extends across the top of the system, with a green logo in the center. The front panel boasts four controller ports, power and open buttons, and a motorized disk tray. The system offers DVD playback functionality, but this requires buying a separate (and cheap-looking) remote control.
Console durability: D. For its first several years the Xbox consoles exhibited few problems and seemed very durable. In the long term however the systems have gradually tended to experience "red ring" issues similar to those that plagued the Xbox 360 system. I've gone through a few myself.
Graphics: A. While not a dramatic improvement over the Playstation 2, the Xbox boasted the best graphics of its generation. It was also the only system of its time to run all of its games in progressive scan mode, making it a better fit for the wave of high-definition televisions coming down the pike.
Controllers: C/B. Microsoft made a tactical error when they designed an oversized controller that didn't feel comfortable to many gamers. While I personally liked the way the controller molded to my hands, I must admit that the rounded buttons feel uncomfortable and are bunched too closely together. Within a few months Microsoft released the replacement "Controller-S", sporting a more compact design and conventional button configuration. Some gamers still affectionately refer to the large, original Xbox controller as "the Duke".
Xbox controllers feature four "action" buttons, a black button, a white button, two triggers, a start button, and a back button. That's a lot of buttons. Its dual analog thumbsticks are ideally positioned to feel comfortable when used with first-person shooters such as Halo. The less-than-intuitive black and white buttons were probably a bad idea, as they crowd the face of the controller and serve no obvious purpose.
A pair of slots on top of the controller can accommodate a memory card or two, in case a player wants to exchange data between two Xbox machines. Vibration capabilities were built-in. One fine innovation is "break-off" wires, which incorporates an extra link in the controller cord that disconnects should it get yanked or kicked. This eliminates the possibility of having your entire console pulled onto the floor if someone trips over a controller wire.
Media: A. Like the PS2, Microsoft wisely went with the DVD format which provided enough space to handle any game of its generation.
Packaging: A. Xbox games came packaged in standard DVD cases, except they are molded in a distinct light green plastic to help them stand out from PS2 and Gamecube titles.
Pack-In Game: None.
Launch Titles: A. The 19-game lineup for the Xbox launch was hard to beat, with titles that seemed more sophisticated than those for the PS2 or GameCube. Racing fans enjoyed the realism of Project Gotham Racer and fighting fans loved the high-kicking babes of Dead or Alive. But the crown jewel was clearly Halo - a groundbreaking first-person shooter that could keep any Xbox owner happy for a very long time.
Library: B+. Many industry analysts predicted the Xbox would be flooded with PC ports but this never materialized. After a slow start, the Xbox library grew by leaps and bounds, especially as publishers began producing games for multiple platforms. While many of its games are PS2 ports, the Xbox versions have the advantage of quicker load times, slightly improved graphics, and better online support.
The Xbox did have a few key exclusive titles including Halo (1 and 2), Project Gotham, Crimson Skies, and Ninja Gaiden. Doom 3 was one of the first third-party titles only made available for the Xbox, allegedly because no other system could handle its demanding graphical requirements. Despite its substantial library of games, the Xbox was definitely geared toward the mature gamer, resulting in a dearth of kid-friendly games for the system.
Collectability: B+. There are plenty of games available for the Xbox, but fewer than the PS2, and less high-profile titles. Still, Xbox versions of games tend to be the best of their kind and don't require memory cards. Obviously their once-impressive online features are no longer supported.
Innovations: Built-in hard disk, controller break-off cords, broadband online services, progressive scan video
Pros and Cons:
+ Fast loading and sharp graphics
+ Best versions of most games
+ Four controller ports
- Few exclusive titles
- Few kid-friendly games