It’s been eight years since the Xbox 360 launched in North America. Since then, the system’s digital marketplace – Xbox Live Arcade – has practically erupted with content. The service is now home to approximately 600 games, a vast trove of entertainment just waiting to be explored. The vast majority of those games cost less than fifteen dollars, but unfortunately, the bulk of them are also absolutely terrible. With that much variety, you’d be hard-pressed to pick a winner without a little help. That’s why we’ve whittled down the collection to a manageable list of twelve.
These are the absolute best games that XBLA has to offer:
12. Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine
Monaco is an indie co-op stealth game from Pocketwatch Studios. It’s not much fun when played solo, but in the company of friends, it stands as one of the best multiplayer experiences available on the Xbox 360.
Even with a group of anonymous Xbox Live uses, the title works hard to create a tense and exciting atmosphere. You’ll play each level on the very edge of your seat. It’s a manic, over-saturated take on the underutilized heist genre, one that excels in all the right places. There’s also some charm for good measure. If you’ve ever considered yourself a social gamer, this one was made for you. It’s a digital board game, and it’s way more fun than a pillow fight.
Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine is available for a meager 1200 Microsoft points, the equivalent of $15 USD. You can check out our full review right here.
11. Trials Evolution
Tying together puzzles, racing, and a fantastic physics engine, Trials Evolution is one of the most addicting staples of the Xbox Live marketplace. It’s near impossible to put down, even in the face of staggering, controller-flinging difficulty. As the cliche goes, it’s easy to learn, although you shouldn’t expect to master it any time in the next five years.
Critics have always loved the series’ frantic, precision-based gameplay, and Evolution has done nothing but improve on a practically flawless formula. For all you creative types, there’s also an insanely detailed level editor.
1200 Microsoft points at retail. What’s not to like?
10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game
If you grew up in the eighties or nineties, you’re likely familiar with Konami’s beat-em-up classic: The Simpson’s Arcade Game. It’s one of those four-player sidescrollers where you mash buttons until you run out of quarters, all in the hopes of saving Maggie from Mr. Burns or something. Ubisoft’s Scott Pilgrim game is The Simpson’s long-awaited spiritual successor. It doesn’t quite have the humor of its predecessor, but it manages to compensate in troves.
Expect fun gameplay (whether with friends or alone), a retro aesthetic, fantastic boss fights, multiplayer, and a slew of clever easter eggs. On top of all that, the experience is soundtracked with a killer OST by chiptune maestros Anamanguchi. If you’ve ever read the comics or seen the movie, you’ll definitely appreciate Ubisoft Montreal’s pixel-perfect attention to detail. Even so, you don’t need to be a fan of the franchise to enjoy this one.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game only costs 800 Microsoft points, and the music alone is worth twice that much.
09. Shadow Complex
After years of witnessing the ‘Metroidvania’ genre shoehorning itself into portables and remake collections, something finally changed. A studio called Chair Entertainment brought the goods. They created a game called Shadow Complex, one that decisively moved the genre into the twenty-first century.
The title has you exploring some sort of secret underground terrorist base, all in the hopes of saving the princess and the world. Plotwise, it amounts to a forgettable handful of hours. Yet beneath the callow ‘save your girlfriend’ facade, there’s an incredibly deep, well-crafted game. You could spend hours traversing the setting’s plentiful hallways, air ducts, and caverns. Put succinctly, Shadow Complex features some of the best power-ups and level design of any Xbox title. Even better, it’s supported by a lengthy campaign and droves of replay value. With incredible balancing options, both casual and hardcore players will find plenty to love.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate releases later this year, but if you can’t possibly wait to satiate your ‘Metroidvania’ craving, Shadow Complex will run you $15 on Xbox Live.
08. Super Meat Boy
Some games just aren’t made for the faint of heart. Super Meat Boy is one of those games. It may be blue-collar tough, but it’s also one of the greatest platformers of the past generation. The story revolves around a toothy hunk of meat, but there’s also an evil tuxedo-wearing fetus and a girlfriend made of bandages. Gameplay is practically painful, but with dozens of addicting levels and incredibly tight controls, there’s nothing you’d rather be doing.
Did I mention there’s an evil tuxedo-wearing fetus? If that doesn’t entice you to plunk down fifteen dollars, I don’t know what will.
Action RPGs are often lazy hybrids that pilfer recklessly from the mechanics of both genres. As you might expect from the seventh entry on a ‘best of’ list, though, Bastion doesn’t fall into that trap. The developers have created a standard top-down dungeon crawler, but imbued it with enough soul to lead critics to herald it as advancing the medium as a whole. If your title starts sparking the old ‘games as art’ debate, you know you’re doing something right.
Hell, Bastion does nearly everything right. It provides a strong narrative, excellent art direction, innovative sound design, and plain-old fun gameplay. If you enjoy arcade mechanics or even just RPGs, this is not something to miss.
To reiterate: a stunning exploration of the medium.
Bastion costs 1200 Microsoft points on Xbox Live, but if you’ve got an iOS device or a PC, you can generally get it for a fraction of the price.
06. Castle Crashers
Castle Crashers doesn’t have flashy graphics, great sound design, or even much of a plotline. If there was a game that could be physically modest, this would be it. The Behemoth has crafted an experience that’s simple, rowdy, and fun. If you’re looking for local couch-to-couch multiplayer, this is some of the best you can get.
The game plays like something out of a 90’s arcade cabinet. It’s Scott Pilgrim for all the kids who hate Michael Cera and grew up on Newgrounds. The title’s sidescrolling, beat-em-up action is nearly unparalleled. Even if button-mashing will never appeal to you, it’s almost worth it for the trash talk and easter eggs.
Despite releasing nearly five years ago, It’ll still run you a hefty fifteen dollars. Check the XBLA marketplace for sales and other discounts.
05. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX
At the most basic level, Pac-Man CE is a remake. Yet somehow, impossibly, critics have taken to calling it a masterpiece. It’s a frenzied, chaotic, addictive, and bold trek through Pac-Man’s storied history. It’s an absolute tour-de-force, a masterclass in game design.
Pac-Man CE DX takes no time to learn. It’s the absolute blank check of recommendations. Practically anyone will enjoy this game, and it’s not hard to see why. If you thought playing in an arcade was fun, wait til you get on Xbox Live.
You can’t pay in quarters, and it’ll cost you 800 Microsoft points to download. Trust me, though, it’s worth every cent.
It’s difficult to describe specifically what makes Jonathon Blow’s Braid such a masterpiece. It’s a short-lived puzzle platformer, and that might make the double-digit pricing feel a little heavy. Let me reassure you: this is a title that will one day be heralded as a landmark of contemporary art. From the innovation of the mechanics to the passionate depth of the narrative, Braid stands as a collection of some of the best design the medium has to offer.
Unlike the vast majority of the industry’s output, this is a work that has something to say. Blow has imbued with the game with a voice and personality. At times the game is challenging, in other moments, deviously simple. The sound design is affectingly symphonic. The story, while left artfully open to personal interpretation, speaks boldly to the themes of timing and memory.
At launch, Braid was priced at $15. Five years later, almost nothing has changed. It’s still a steal.
Everyone loves to hate Phil Fish. It doesn’t really matter. His most recent creation, the puzzle platformer Fez, is the Super Mario Galaxy of XBLA. It’s a layered masterpiece that somehow inspires both creativity and cult-like scrutiny. It turns average gamers into zealous conspiracy theorists, usually overnight. Also, it’s fun.
The title’s underlying mechanic is an innovative one – the maneuvering of a 2D perspective to navigate a 3D world. With that foundation alone, the game could’ve soared as an indie classic. Ultimately, though, Phil Fish worked tirelessly to make it more than that. Every small setting and collectable is a piece of a larger, overarching puzzle that only the most feverishly dedicated will solve. Succinctly, it’s brilliant. Verbosely, it’s a vibrant, poetic, and melodic trek through a world built from the history of the medium.
This a masterpiece. It doesn’t matter what it costs.
No one does horror well anymore. All of the biggest franchises (Dead Space, Resident Evil, etc.) have been slowly transfigured into shooters and action games. We’re an industry stuck in publisher-sponsored sequel hell, and some genres are starting to feel the heat. Survival horror, like its cinematic counterpart, requires a detachment from the formulaic design of modern blockbusters. For us to be scared, we can’t know what’s coming. That’s why Limbo – the disturbingly dark sidescroller from PLAYDEAD – caught us off guard. No one ever thought a platformer could send chills down your spine, let alone a $15 download on Xbox Live.
The puzzles, narrative, sound design, and art direction found here are some of the absolute best this generation has to offer. Limbo is chilling, atmospheric, and almost masochistically enjoyable. It may be short, but it’s an experience you’ll likely remember for the rest of your life.
1200 Microsoft points. Go crazy.
01. The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series
Telltale has single-handedly changed the way people will perceive interactive storytelling for years to come. The Walking Dead’s first five episodes (the game’s first ‘season’) stand as an absolute whirlwind of creativity in the digital realm. These writers and developers should be carving their names into the walls of history.
At its heart, the game provides a digital choose-your-own-adventure book. The main draw is in decision-making. Each episode stands as a perfect adaptation of the tone and aesthetics of the comics, simultaneously allowing for player agency and character development. While the gameplay mechanics are always fun and engaging, the title’s protagonists are absolutely unforgettable. They’ll remain etched into the annals of your brain for years to come. All of this was done within the scope of a licensed production. What could’ve been a cash-grubbing tie-in leads as one of the strongest video game narratives of all time. Whether or not you buy into the franchise is irrelevant. This is a game for anyone with a console.
Boston-based writer, artist, designer, critic, loser & storyteller. Focused on the intersection of games, culture, narrative, and art. KillerStrokes on XBL, Steam, PSN. @Wherbit on Twitter. http://willpowerarts.com/