It's the beginning of the end for the Xbox, Microsoft's ugly, bulky, extremely powerful first salvo in the near-legendary Great Console Wars Of The Last Few Years, and the very definition of a qualified success. The Japanese market never embraced it, which denied the Xbox's game library about half the world's best game designers. Many of the rest of those designers signed early exclusivity deals with Sony or Nintendo, and in spite of the transcendent launch-title majesty of Halo, poor little Microsoft never achieved the overdog status it so badly wanted. Yes, the great titles eventually came, but too late to save the world's ugliest console from second-class citizenship. Now, a mere year after the console finally began turning a profit, its loss-leader replacement, Xbox 360, has hit store shelves and immediately been whisked back off; until supply again rises to meet demand, you can only get one if you're rich, stupid, and impatient. If you're two or less of those things, be aware that a new Xbox is $149, that many truly great titles can be found for $30 or less, and that for the MSRP of the 360, you can have months of fun while waiting for the 360 to become affordable. With that in mind, here's our list of games representing your best bet for enjoying the Xbox's sunset years.
The Halo franchise (Bungie)
It's all been said before, and it's all true. Halo and Halo 2 are the best first-person shooters available for any console. Cinematic, action-packed, silky-smooth, and even emotionally involving when played alone, Halo was arguably the only thing that kept the Xbox launch from being a total bust. Almost spiritually satisfying when played against others, Halo 2 has taken up the mantle of the Xbox's "killer app." Of all the great FPS titles out there, only Doom and Half-Life give you Halo's feeling of actually being someone else, and being the enhanced cyborg Master Chief who bats right, throws left, and wipes his ass with an entire alien military coalition is simply one of the best experiences in gaming.
Morrowind: Game Of The Year Edition (Bethesda Softworks)
While Fable is the role-playing game that made all the noise, it was much smaller, shorter, and more linear than Morrowind, which to be fair is uglier, tougher, slower to get going, and clunkier. But it's bigger. Sweet merciful God, is it ever bigger—the box says a hundred hours of gameplay, and frankly, the box is just being coy. Morrowind carries on a hallowed RPG tradition that goes back to dice-and-paper games: If you want, it can be your second life. The map is huge, the skill and magic system is deep enough to be almost bottomless, the story is intricate, and character progression is gradual but unlimited. Pick this one up only if you're willing to put in the time—say, eight hours to figure out what you're supposed to do first, and 18 months after that. The original game is half-price, but get the Game Of The Year edition for the addition of two extra huge areas, enemy life bars, and lycanthropy.
Ninja Gaiden: Black (Tecmo)
There are the ninja of legend and the Tenchu games, who sneak around and strike from the shadows. Then there are the ninja of Ninja Scroll, the Internet, and Ninja Gaiden, who flip out and kill people. It takes all kinds to make a world, but the Ninja Gaiden types are the most fun, hands down. And the toughest: This is one badass hard game. The A.V. Club freely admits that it has not unlocked everything, and probably never will. Who cares? It's the kind of game where, upon finally pulling off a difficult, powerful enemy-flaying sword technique, you just stop playing for a split second because the game's so damn beautiful. At which point your poor alter ego Ryu Hayabusa is rendered down to a greasy fat-slick on a castle floor, because the game's also so damn fast.
Mercenaries: Playground Of Destruction (LucasArts)
No, we aren't going to drop it: This is the best game that no one played in the last two years. Sure, you could just pick up the Grand Theft Auto trilogy, but the drive-bys suck with the Xbox controller, and killing all those people is murder and therefore immoral. This is war, so it's okay! Blasting your way across North Korea as a lethally competent mercenary, balancing politics against necessities, playing one side against another, and calling in dramatic airstrike after airstrike on, for instance, children's museums—this is what sandbox games were meant to be. The first time you lock up the Xbox by putting a dozen bricks of C4 on a jeep, calling for a fuel-air bomb strike, and detonating the explosives just as the ordnance hits, you'll know what free-roam nirvana really is.
The Grand Theft Auto trilogy (Rockstar)
Okay, we know what we said above. But these games are Scarface, commercial radio, automotive culture, gun nuttery, American male empowerment, and British humor all rolled into one epic package. They're still some of the most ambitious, most complete, and most fun titles out there. So what if the drive-bys suck? You can make your own soundtrack on the Xbox version. That makes up for the control issues. And Rockstar should be rewarded for making video games for adults—you never have to beat up hookers if you don't want to, after all. Yes, these games are ugly; yes, they're juvenile; yes, they're funny; yes, they're gaming masterpieces. If we were honest about ourselves, these games would go out in the next Voyager spacecraft for aliens to find. We'd never survive the ensuing intergalactic war, but we'd have provided the most concise look at our culture possible.
The Knights Of The Old Republic series (LucasArts)
Too much tourism has ruined the Star Wars universe, possibly forever. But that isn't any reason to avoid this RPG series. No other game out there makes the player feel more Jedi-like—believe us, we tried everything else—and the story beats what we got in the last three movies. Screw faint praise: The plot is great, especially in the first installment, which features the rare sort of provocative dialogue and insight that makes players suspect they aren't wasting their time with these silly games. And for old-schoolers, there's a true d20 system running under this game's hood; you can pause the turn-based action and peek at the die-rolls yourself if you like.
Forza Motorsport (Microsoft Game Studios)
If you must have a driving game—and about half of gamers out there must—this is the one. Good driving-physics engine, good car list, good difficulty increase system, good customization and tuning options, good racetracks. Add the excellent and truly nerdy replay options, and it's the driving game to have. On top of that, man alive, is it pretty.
And with that, you're out the door. Shop well, look for used bins, trade in all seasons of Buffy after the fourth, and you could easily spend much less for all this than the $500-plus a new 360 and two games would run you. You might even have enough left over to get a copy of whatever sports game you favor. And don't worry about further temptation: Our release calendar indicates that nothing worthwhile is coming out for the big, bulky box, possibly until the end of time.