Co-Op Classics: Happy 10th Birthday, Xbox!

11/20/2011 at 8:46 AM

Microsoft's first home console turns ten

This past week marks the tenth anniversary of the release of two co-op consoles. On November 15, 2001, Microsoft entered the video game hardware market with the original Xbox. Just three days later, the veterans at Nintendo released their offering, the GameCube. Besides very similar names, the two systems shared at least one more attribute. They both brought new innovations to our favorite aspect of video gaming: cooperative play. This week, we'll cover the first of these decade-old systems, the original Xbox.

The video game landscape in 2001 was much different than it is today. The hottest console on the market was Sony's Playstation 2, which had been released the previous year. It would go on to become the best-selling console of all time. Sega's futuristic, ill-fated Dreamcast system was only two years old, yet was a commercial failure, having already been discontinued. The solid but aging Nintendo 64 was fading fast, paving the way for the release of it's successor, the Gamecube. Joining Nintendo's purple cube on the console scene was a new challenger: Microsoft's Xbox.

It seems hard to remember now, but Microsoft wasn't always in the home video game console business. The monolithic company was largely known for its software offerigns, thanks to the ubiquitous Windows operating system. But Microsoft was ever eager to become more involved in hardware, and especially devices used in the living room, where competitors had a strong foothold. Seeing the success of Sony's original Playstation, Microsoft began development of a PC-like home video game console in the late 1990s. These plans came to fruition in late 2001 with the release of the Xbox.

From a hardware standpoint, the Xbox was an impressive piece of technology. Graphically, it was superior to the Playstation 2, and was the first console to include a hard drive in every unit, which meant you did not need to worry about pesky memory cards for your save games. DVDs were the new hotness in the home video industry, and the Xbox had a DVD-ROM drive that was compatible with all your favorite movies, in addition to playing Xbox games. In addition to a healthy four controller ports, and perhaps most importantly to fans of co-op, the Xbox had a standard ethernet port for connecting to broadband internet.

Microsoft accurately foresaw the rise of home broadband, and also gamers' desire to play online with their friends, or sometimes even with strangers. Sega's Dreamcast had included online functionality two years earlier, but with a dial-up modem, so slow that it could not easily replicate the seamless couch co-op experience. The Xbox's broadband capabilities, in contrast, could handle much more, and Microsoft used this feature to its advantage when it launched the Xbox Live service in 2002.

The importance and influence of Xbox Live cannot be overstated. Online gaming was not exactly new, especially for PC gamers, but the lack of consistency in joining games was a big problem. Most games had their own unique methods for connecting players to one another. If you consistently played online with a small group of friends, this could be very frustrating. Say you and your buddies picked up a new game. You had to figure out what servers, gateways, or portals you and all your buddies were using in order to connect. It was an inconvenience at best, and could be a co-op killing deal-breaker depending on each person's location, internet provider, or hardware configuration. 

Xbox Live provided a far friendlier method, with much greater ease of connection. Each player had his or her own unique gamertag, and this was the same whether you were playing Halo, Crimson Skies, or Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. All you had to do was keep track of your friends list. A standard method for voice chat was tied into the service, too, and this made it even easier to keep the lines of communication open. You could even download games to the Xbox's hard drive through Xbox Live, though XBLA wouldn't really explode in popularity until the Xbox 360 era. Xbox Live was a huge benefit, and led many to pick up Microsoft's console instead of the competition's.

The Xbox was an excellent system for playing video games, with many features that made it especially popular among the hardcore gamers. The graphics and sound capabilities alone made it great, but it was Xbox Live that really brought something new to the table. Microsoft would expand Xbox Live's capabilities and functionality when it released the Xbox 360 in 2005. Online play, including co-op, has become one of the hallmarks of modern console gaming. Xbox Live undoubtedly the greatest innovation from Microsoft's big, black, box.

Next week, we'll take a close look at the other ten-year old video game console. Nintendo's quirky Gamecube did not have the easy online capabilities of Xbox Live, nor the market penetration and DVD-playback of the Playstation 2. But it did have an amazing pedigree and several unique innovations that led to its revolutionary successor, the Wii. We'll discuss the most co-op friendly of the Gamecube's attributes in the second half of this series.