7 – Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (2005)
Okay, so this series sorta debuted on the original Xbox as a minigame hidden in Project Gotham 2’s garage, but the influence that Geometry Wars had as a standalone downloadable game exclusive to Xbox Live Arcade is undeniable. When the Xbox 360 launched, the idea of buying a console game that didn’t come on a disc was completely foreign (the underwhelming debut of Xbox Live Arcade on the original Xbox probably didn’t help). That concept changed almost instantaneously on the 360’s launch day thanks to one game; Joust. Just kidding, it was all Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved’s doing, thanks to the simple-yet-addictive gameplay, unique old-school visual style, and the super-cheap $5 price tag. In an era where Steam was just starting to rise, GWRE’s success cannot be understated.
Geometry Wars wasn’t done innovating with its first standalone release, as Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 was chosen to kick off a sorely missed Xbox 360 annual tradition; the Summer of Arcade. Back in the day when Microsoft was attracting indies instead of alienating them, Xbox Live Arcade would debut 4-5 new games every year riding off the hype of E3. Even though the price tag was now double, the near-perfect arcade charms of Retro Evolved 2 was the perfect anchor for a legendary lineup that included Braid, Castle Crashers, and Bionic Commando Rearmed all within a span of 35 days. Between the two Xbox 360 games, Geometry Wars made twin-stick shooters a blockbuster genre, legitimized console downloads, and started the annual block of can’t-miss indie hits. Not bad for a $5 space shooter. – Dave
6 – Castle Crashers (2008)
While Geometry Wars helped kick off XBLA, Castle Crashers was the big hit first Summer of Arcade promotion and proved the online service could be more than a storefront filled with small, digital titles. For several months, Crashers’ 4-player co-op and setpiece-laden levels were the toast of the town, offering a colorful, humorous, and downright delightful beat ’em up romp.
It’s kind of hard to imagine in 2015, but back in ’08 the idea of an online 4-player brawler was still kind of fresh for console players. Being able to invite friends to a game and chat while juggling gorgeous sprites across the screen was fun on its own, but then add all the cute / crude goofiness and unlockable abilities and man, this was an easy game to get friends to buy.
Like a few other titles on this list, Castle Crashers did eventually make its way to other platforms. But for that summer, it (and Braid) were definitely an important part of the 360’s lineup. – Brett
5 – Crackdown (2007)
In a pre-GTA IV, pre-superhero saturated world, Crackdown felt like the ultimate sandbox experience. Not only could you drive across a huge city and cause all kinds of explosive mayhem, you could also leap across rooftops and hurl cars at bad guys from 100 feet in the air. As far as 2007 was concerned, this was pretty close to a “best of both worlds” scenario – a wide open sandbox PLUS a Superman simulator.
This is also the first 360 game I stayed up all night playing. Ol’ Bearhat and I chatted on XBL while grinding through missions, helping each other with Achievements, powering up our agents… next thing we knew, the sun was up and there was still so much game to experiment with. Granted, the story and the actual content of some of the missions fell flat, but damn if it wasn’t fun regardless.
Crackdown 2 sorta fizzled, and who knows if part three will rekindle things, but most of spring 2007 was spent excitedly driving monster trucks up the side of buildings. Oh, it also acted as a Trojan horse for the Halo 3 beta, but luckily the game stood on its own merits. – Brett
4 – Forza (series)
When the original Forza Motorsport launched in 2005, Gran Turismo was 14k Gold King Homer, a massive, jewel encrusted edifice laughing at the rest of the racing genre; it was also fat, complacent, and a little delusional. But just like King Bart vs. Goliath II, Forza was gunning for the big guy.
Developed by Microsoft’s internal Turn 10 Studios, Forza had clearly studied Gran Turismo from top to bottom, as it attempted to recreate the core experience of GT, but with wider appeal. The handling physics were more forgiving, but still strict enough to appeal to sim racers, while the tighter camera and corny-yet-rockin Junkie XL (of Mad Max Fury Road fame) remix soundtrack were direct counters to Gran Turismo’s infamous Brunch Jazz and static gameplay.
While the PS2’s vastly superior install base ensured GT would remain the immediate sales king, Forza would continue to improve, blossoming during the 360 era and eventually eclipsing its rival with Forza 4. By that time, Forza had become “the” console driving experience, putting to rest any thought of them being just another Crazy Vaclav-like startup. – Grimm
And finally, our top three picks!