The 15 Best XBLA Games
We nominated, we debated, we yelled and we argued. But after much deliberation, the GamePro staff has created the definitive list of downloadable Xbox 360 games on the Micorsoft Xbox Live Arcade service. In this guide to the best of XBLA, we discuss everything from addictive beat-em-ups to stealthy adventure games to some absolutely fantastic platformers. This list will constantly evolve based on new releases, so be sure to check back for the latest updates as new games knock old favorites down the list.
15 | Outland
Enveloped in a story of destiny and the conflict between balance and chaos, Outland is as visually stunning as its story is epic. Running through levels on a 2D plane, the avatar representing the game’s protagonist wanders about worlds saturated in ethereal light, contrasted with dark structures that pop out of the screen like shadows in an antique shop.
Setting the stage for Outland’s digital journey, the nameless hero is a living reincarnation of an ancient hero, one who fought to save the world from the two Sisters of Chaos 30,000 years ago. One sister controlled the light from the Sun and the other controlled Darkness from the moon, and at the moment the ancient hero seals the sisters away in their prison, he perishes. It then becomes the task of the present day hero to recapture the sisters, who have escaped their imprisonment without jailer to keep guard.
Traveling down the Crossroads of the World through four areas: the Jungle, the Underworld, the City, and the Sky, arriving finally at the Temple of Eternity, Outland has an epic story that plays out well with its action-adventure gameplay that occasionally edges on the frontier of “bullet hell” shooters. Our own reviewer of the game, Steve Haske, argues that Outland is “a worthwhile experience waiting to be unearthed for lovers of aesthetics and adventure alike.” For 800 Microsoft Points, or a digital a Hamilton, you can be well on your way to bringing peace to a near-eternal conflict.
14 | Ms. Explosion Man
Despite Ms. Splosion Man's aggravating, non-stop, belligerent references to wretched pop songs and movies -- the sequel to Splosion Man is fantastic. It's a vibrant, hilarious, and well-designed platformer that offers so much variety for a game where you can essentially only do one thing: explode. Thankfully, there's also an option to mute Ms Splosion Man. And for a smaller Xbox Live Arcade game, Ms. Splosion Man certainly doesn't feel small. In fact, you could think of it as a funnier Super Mario Bros. that's even taken some inspiration from franchise juggernauts like God of War. The action-packed opening level, for instance, has you battling a towering robot that's a direct reference to God of War’s trademark boss battles. You don't even need to have played the original to enjoy this awesome game. Twisted Pixel has also ramped up the difficulty considerably in order to provide more of a challenge for players familiar with the original. And for 800 Microsoft Points (or $10 in real world money), you really can’t go wrong with what’s genuinely one of the most enjoyable platformers available on Xbox Live Arcade.
13 | The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
P.B. Winterbottom is a stocky man with a penchant for delicious baked goods. After chasing a pastry through his town, Winterbottom accidentally jumps through space and time, replicating himself ad infinitum. Unabashed by his misfortune, the top-hat sporting gentleman -- along with his seemingly never-ending stream of clones -- set off on an adventure to collect all the stray pies in the land to whet his insatiable appetite. P.B. Winterbottom is a stylish, black and white game inspired by silent films and developed by a team befitting of their moniker, The Odd Gentlemen. It's also one of the most charming, challenging and quirky puzzle games available on Xbox Live Arcade.
12 | Stacking
If you're a long-time follower of Schafer and co., you'll know what to expect from Stacking-- an extremely stylized and humorous game with a unique gameplay premise that might be a little rough around the edges. And that's exactly what you'll get with this new game of brain-benders.
The stylistic mixture of Russian matryoshka dolls with U.S. depression-era characters, music, settings, and cinematics is not something you'd expect to mesh together seamlessly, but the game is all the better for it. And the humor is the exact right mixture of Double Fine's subversive tone with a hint of adult themes. Put it this way -- if Costume Quest was a show like Phineas and Ferb or Spongebob, Stacking would be a show you'd find on Adult Swim. Both can be enjoyed by adults, but one is a bit more aesthetically geared towards older fans.
11 | Toy Soldiers Cold War
Unless you were a really, really cool kid, you probably didn't use your toys to live out a violent fantasy scenario where the Cold War escalated into a full-blown military conflict. Toy Soldiers:Cold War lets you remedy that gaping hole in your childhood.
On the surface, Cold War follows all the tropes of your standard tower defense game: defend your base from wave after wave of relentless attackers. But unlike most of those other games (with the exception of the also excellent Trenched), you don't just upgrade your defenses and sit idly by as they do all the work for you. This game encourages you to get in on the ground-level; you can even play it like an action game, running around as a Rambo-like character manning gunships and calling in nuclear strikes on your enemies.
As Tom Chick says in his review, “If you want a really good action game with some tower defense, some great scoring challenges, some wonderful multiplayer support, some great graphics, and a wonderful sense of humor, you can't go wrong with Toy Soldiers: Cold War. Yee-haw!"
10 | Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2
Widely believed to be the franchise that kick-started the popularity of Xbox Live Arcade, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 takes a near-perfect formula and somehow improves it. At its core, Geometry Wars 2 is the simplest of games: Survive intense waves of attacking enemies--that's it. The Xbox Live Arcade platform has a seemingly endless supply of dual-joystick shooters under its belt, and even if you're tired of the genre, Geometry Wars 2 does a fantastic job of making the genre feel fresh again. Besides reigniting our passion of leaderboard superiority that followed up throughout real-world arcades, Geometry Wars 2 offers some of the most fun to be had on XBLA for $10. You can also pick up the original Geometry Wars on XBLA for half that price.
9 | Costume Quest
A Halloween-themed adventure game seems like it'd be a flash-in-the pan idea, but Costume Quest manages create an experience that works no matter what the season. This mini-RPG is simple and short, but the hilarious dialogue from the studio run by veteran funny man Tim Schafer (famous for his work on Monkey Island and Psychonauts), makes it more than worth the price of admission.
You play the game as a child in search of his kidnapped sister, but unlike typical RPGs, costumes take the place of your standard weapons and armor. Each unique outfit you find bestows both different battle powers and opens up new avenues in the world to explore. And when you go into battle, the power of your characters' imagination changes them from tiny tots decked out in cardboard boxes and bits of string into 50-foot-tall, comically detailed versions of their costumes.
Charming artwork, easy-to-learn gameplay, and a delightful story make Costume Quest a terrific title, whether or not you'd normally call yourself an RPG fan. And if you couldn't get enough trick-or-treating, the game continues in the Grubbins on Ice expansion, which takes the same themes and RPG elements, but sets everything in the North Pole.
8 | Super Meat Boy
Team Meat’s sweet meat-themed indie platformer, Super Meat Boy, is as simple as video games get. As the titular Meat Boy, players navigate their way through over 300 short levels that are riddled with buzz saws and other obstacles hazardous to meat men. Super Meat Boy’s straightforward level design, charming music, and 8-bit inspired visuals all make for one of the best games you can get for $10.
7 | LIMBO
There are a lot of words I can use to describe PlayDead Studios’ LIMBO– genius, eerie, and haunting, for instance—but the more I think about this incredibly crafted game, the more I realize that all those words simply don’t do enough to describe the essence and feel of this Independent Games Festival standout. More than anything else, LIMBO struck me as being wonderfully macabre. It seems almost obsessed with the idea of death, not as a punishment for failure, but as a necessary and inevitable tool I needed to inch forward through each difficult task. In one weekend, I’ve seen the nameless child hero of the game electrocuted, dismembered, ripped to shreds, drowned, and beaten to death, which would almost be funny if it weren’t so unsettling.
It takes a powerful game to cling to your emotions long after you’ve turned the console off and gone about your day-to-day life, and in that respect, LIMBO is indeed mighty. As I played through the game this weekend, I eventually realized that the dark, dreary monochrome world in which LIMBO takes place was actually depressing me. The entire world of LIMBO, and the darkness, violence, and silence it contains, helped make LIMBO a downright chilling experience.
6 | Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Traditional fans of the Lara Croft series may be initially put off by her latest downloadable title, but don't let appearances deceive you, this version of the catacomb exploring heroine is one of her strongest yet. Instead of exploring a third-person, Uncharted-like world, the Guardian of Light takes place from an isometric perspective. You're still solving the same puzzles as always (move this block here, light that thing on fire over there), but this time you're doing it with a partner.
Online and local co-op ensures that you'll always have a tomb exploring buddy to explore the game with. And the puzzles are just as good single-player, since the game adjusts its difficulty (and puzzles) based on how many people are playing. Thing are a lot more arcadey in Guardian of Light as well -- not only is their a bigger focus on gunplay (you'll find an assortment of high-powered weaponry and tons of enemies to mow down), but the game tracks your score as well. It's a mash-up we wouldn't have thought would work, but this arcade-sytle action game is just as much fun as Lara Croft's previous best adventures.
5 | Shadow Complex
Borrowing elements from some of gaming's most beloved side-scrolling action franchises including Contra, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid, Epic's Shadow Complex is one of the finest Xbox Live Arcade-exclusive titles available today. The game is presented in "2.5 D," where you move around in two-dimensional levels with highly-detailed 3D backgrounds and enemies. Shadow Complex's critical and commercial success can be attributed to the creative minds involved in the XBLA project, which include Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski as design consultant, comic book writer Peter David as scriptwriter, and award-winning science fiction author Orson Scott Card who licensed his Empire series for the game's universe and plot.
4 | Bastion
It's difficult to believe that Bastion is Supergiant Games' first title. From the incredibly colorful artwork to the unique storytelling, this indie title has polish that easily rivals that of Braid or LIMBO. But where the game succeeds most is roping you into the story, as it slowly pieces together over time -- just like the titular Bastion itself.
Playing as "The Kid," Bastion drops you into a world that's already come to an end. Although you can't save your friends or the other villagers, you can still put everything back the way it was by rebuilding the Bastion. As you explore the broken world around you, pieces of your background are slowly revealed by the old man softly narrating the story as it happens. Although this gimmick in itself is unique, Bastion also stands out with surprisingly open combat. From revolvers to hammers to machetes, the weapons are fun to mix up, along with the generous handful of gameplay tweaks you can use to make enemies more or less powerful. Add in a soundtrack that'll stick with you well past the game's end, and you have a sleeper hit that's easily worth playing twice.
Chalk up a solid debut for Supergiant Games: Bastion is an excellent balance of story and action, and one of the best XBLA games that's worth your Microsoft Points.
3 | Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
This retro-inspired brawler is a spectacular love letter to beat-‘em-ups of generations long past. Based on Brian Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series of the same name, and released to coincide with Edgar Wright’s outstanding feature film adaptation, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World harkens back to the golden age of side-scrolling action games in all their pixelated splendor. Playing as eponymous slacker Scott Pilgrim, grumpy band-mate Kim Pine, “The Talent” Stephen Stills, or manic-pixie-dream-girlfriend Ramona Flowers, you’ll beat and bash legions of baddies native to the mystical lands of Toronto, Canada across seven varied levels. A must-download, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World also features a stellar soundtrack by 8-bit rock band Anamanaguchi, and some surprisingly in-depth RPG elements.
2 | Braid
While lots of conjecture has been made about the story behind Braid, it all boils down to a common plot often told in video games: you're a man against the world, trying to rescue a princess in a far away land.
However, Braid's special twist comes in the form of time manipulation. As you guide leading man "Tim" through world after world, you'll need to "rewind" time to solve puzzles embedded in every level. Sometimes, you'll need to correct an ill-timed jump off an enemy's head, and other times you'll die by falling into a trap. Luckily, even Tim's death can be fixed by simply turning back the clock a few crucial seconds, and the game quickly becomes more puzzle than platformer.
However, as you play through this wonderfully crafted game -- in several cases, literally turning back time to advance past various obstacles -- it eventually comes clear that the simple story isn't what it seems to be. Is Tim really the hero? What exactly is his relationship with the princess? And why can't Tim remember why he has to rescue her?
1 | Castle Crashers
Castle Crashers is wonderful not just because it's a great multiplayer game to play either on the couch with your friends or online, but because it does everything else pretty damn skillfully too. The basic premise is your standard beat-em-up formula -- a tried and true arcade style that's seen plenty of use over the years. The game deftly mixes in RPG elements (not only can you find stronger weapons, but your characters abilities grow the more you play as well), and you can use those beefed up characters to help you level up your friends as well.
Like a Looney Tunes cartoon, the graphics highlight random, scatalogical, and a little over-the-top violence, but the adorable drawings and helpful woodland creatures who assist your titular knights balance out the gore. And the music, an assortment of chiptunes and high-energy tracks, is good enough to listen to on its own.
Castle Crashers brings the beat-em-up into modern times with style, and if you like the work the developers did here, you should check out their first game, Alien Hominid, and be on the lookout for the upcoming BattleBlock Theatre.