Xbox Live Arcade began its life on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 simply enough. When eager gamers bought up Xbox 360s on launch day (November 22, 2005), they found a free copy of Hexic HD pre-loaded on their hard drives. Of course, it was another launch title that secured the platform’s success. Bizarre’s Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved both gave birth to the twin-stick shooter craze and demanded gamers take Xbox Live Arcade, which started in disc form back on the original Xbox, seriously as a digital games platform. Bizarre’s side project paved the way for the enormous variety of retro revivals, HD remakes, original indie projects, major studio releases, free-to-play games and more that have come to call XBLA home in the years since.
Today, we’re approximately one month away from the launch of the Xbox One, which will signal the end of XBLA as we have come to know it these past eight years. While Microsoft’s Xbox line will continue to be home to myriad low-cost downloadable video games, the XBLA moniker will not make the transition to Xbox One. It’s going down with the figurative (and literal) Xbox 360 boat. So what better time than now to count down the best XBLA games to ever grace the Xbox 360?
It wasn’t easy, but our staff has sorted through all of the best XBLA releases over the years and picked the ones that we feel are the true standout stars of the platform. Check back with us throughout the week as we run down five of Xbox Live Arcade’s top games every night. And don’t forget to head to the comments to let us know how much you love (or hate) our picks.
(Editor’s Note: Voting was conducted in early September. No games released post-Summer of Arcade 2013 were considered eligible.)
Nathan Bowring, Reporter — Minecraft’s impact on XBLA has been huge; it’s been beating sales records ever since its release, and it continues to top the Xbox Live activity charts. There’s just something magical about that simple, blocky world that’s hard to resist. Every new, randomly generated world is the start of a new adventure. In Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition, you’ll map out the landscape, explore deep caverns to collect precious diamonds, fight terrifying nocturnal monsters and build to your heart’s desire. The resources you collect may turn into your new house, or maybe you’ll turn them into weapons to fight the Ender Dragon. The only thing that limits the game is your imagination, with every new title update adding so many more possibilities.
Minecraft is one of those games that you can easily play for hours on end and never get bored with it. There’s always something new to collect or some new idea for a creation. No matter how much you play, there’s one thing you can always count on: a feeling of panic whenever you hear the dreaded hiss of a creeper.
Ryan Thompson, Contributor — Braid demonstrates that a game doesn’t need a lot of mechanics, as long as what it does have works well. Braid‘s time travel mechanic was one of the best ideas of the generation, and the puzzles are just hard enough to keep you interested. What makes this good idea into a great game, however, is its postmodern commentary on the state of gaming.
Super Mario Bros. had been around for just shy of 25 years by the time Braid released, and the game makes us painfully aware that in many ways, we are yet to move out of the shadow of its giant footsteps. The obvious riffs on goombas and piranha plants were just the tip of the iceberg; by the time the game reaches its conclusion, players are forced to acknowledge that perhaps those damsel-in-distress plots we are so accustomed to as gamers might be holding us back. Perhaps they’re even dangerous to the future of gaming.
We are all Tim, clinging to our collective gaming past. The game’s final puzzle, a warning against chasing achievements for the sake of completion, serves to remind us that gaming and those of us steeped with the lingering legacy of its 1980s hits have a long journey ahead.
Ryan Thompson, Contributor — Bernard Hermann, composer for Alfred Hitchcock’s films (among others), once said that Hitchcock only created 60 percent of his movies, leaving the rest to Hermann. Along a similar line of thought, some games have a single element so good that it dominates the rest of the experience, leaving you unable to imagine what the game would be like without it. While Bastion is an incredibly polished, beautiful game with an amazing soundtrack, it is the game’s incredible narration that places it far ahead of its peers.
The implementation of Logan Cunningham’s breathtaking performance as Rucks set a new standard for delivering plot to players. Rucks, the game’s narrator, reacts to almost everything you do while playing the game, and not once do his words feel forced or out of place. I had the privilege of presenting on Bastion to a group of college professors at New York’s Music and the Moving Image conference, and seeing the smiles of all the people (ranging from elderly professors to 20-something graduate students) as they watched a video of me playing through bits of the game’s introduction (available at here for readers who haven’t seen the game in action) was one of my favorite moments of graduate school.
2.) The Walking Dead
Brandin Tyrrel, News Editor — In the long list of entries on Xbox Live Arcade, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is a relative newcomer, having only been released in the early months of 2012. Yet in that short time, the story of Lee Everett, his adopted charge Clementine and a revolving door of imperfect characters has earned itself a notable place in the hearts and minds of those who’ve experienced it. With every episode, The Walking Dead challenges its players, forcing uncomfortable dilemmas and tense moments of genuine panic in a story that organically resonates with the player as it evolves in response to their decisions.
From a design perspective, the game masterfully translates the feelings of its cast to the player through time-sensitive dialogue and action prompts. You’ll mash upon the “A” button in an effort to hold a horde of zombies at bay with a flimsy wooden door — and occasionally, in hopeless situations, you’ll never be able to press “A” fast enough. It’s a powerful tool, simply and cleanly designed, and along with its touching and often heartbreaking writing, The Walking Dead has resurrected an ailing adventure genre — serving as a testament to the power of the medium.
1.) Castle Crashers
Nick Santangelo, Features Editor — Crap. The Xbox 360’s best XBLA game entered my life because of crap. Working at GameStop shortly after Castle Crashers’ 2008 release, I overheard a conversation about some completely absurd — and presumably completely disgusting — game that featured excrement-propelled deer as a means of transportation. The conversation then turned to the subject of a bear who, after initially appearing frightening, himself became terrified of some greater beast and, naturally, lost control of his bowels behind a bush. There was no excuse not to try out a game that nonsensical.
To that point, XBLA was little more to me than “that thing you play Geometry Wars on.” Developer The Behemoth changed all of that. Castle Crashers’ addictive multiplayer, excellent beat-em-up combat and numerous weapons and power-ups quickly made it the go-to cooperative game for my friends and I. We weren’t the only ones who recognized its brilliance, either, as XBLA soon experienced a wave of co-op beat-em-ups that still hasn’t crashed (see: August’s Charlie Murder).
When the collective gaming universe was still only on the brink of recognizing “indie” as a movement, one independent San Diego studio made a game (partly) about crap. It was silly, gross, funny and infinitely replayable. And it also turned out to be the Xbox 360’s best XBLA game.
So that’s it. You’ve seen the number-one source for XBLA coverage’s pick for the digital distribution platform’s best game. What’s your number one? Make your case for it in the comments section. Meanwhile, if you’re wondering what the rest of XBLA Fans’ picks for the best Xbox Live Arcade games are, check them all out right here: