In our previous looks at some of the hardest games ever made for their respective consoles, we were ultimately just rounding up the usual suspects and trying to order them in a way that made sense. When it comes to the hardest Xbox games ever made, though, the process is a little bit…different.
While there are some Xbox games that are infamously and indisputably difficult, many of the more notable games for Microsoft’s first console just didn’t emphasize overwhelming difficulty in the same way that some PlayStation 2 and GameCube games did. There are various reasons why that seemed to be the case, but what you’re left with is a much more interesting debate about what the most difficult Xbox games truly were.
So, let’s start that debate. Here are our selections for the hardest Xbox games ever made.
15. Thief: Deadly Shadows
Deadly Shadows isn’t the hardest (or best) game in the Thief series, but it does a fairly good job of representing what makes the best games in this series so good and occasionally quite challenging.
There are definitely levels in Deadly Shadows that emphasize that “trial and error” style of stealth game design to the point of arguable absurdity. While there’s at least one other stealth game for the Xbox that better represents that style of difficult game design, Deadly Shadows is certainly an appropriately challenging example of this genre.
14. Doom 3
Various Doom 3 mods released over the years, as well as the game’s BFG Edition, have made it easy to forget just what the base Doom 3 experience was actually like. Fortunately (depending on your perspective), the Xbox version of the game is always there to remind you why this game was so controversial and surprisingly challenging.
Doom 3‘s odd blend of FPS action and survival-horror mechanics means that it’s basically a Doom game where you have to consider previously foreign concepts like ammo management (as well as the game’s infamous flashlight, which, in this version, remains unattached to the guns). It’s a generally challenging game that becomes especially brutal at higher difficulty settings.
13. Full Spectrum Warrior
Full Spectrum Warrior is a strange little strategy action game that almost feels like a blend of the earlier Rainbow Six titles and the later XCOM games. It sees you control two squads of troops and coordinate their movements in such a way that allows you to effectively outflank the game’s various enemies.
Full Spectrum Warrior‘s somewhat strange gameplay is certainly part of the reason it’s challenging, but this is another example of that kind of trial and error style gameplay that really forces you to make mistakes in order to find the best path forward. It’s (obviously) not the most difficult Xbox experience, but it does offer a rather unique kind of challenge.
12. Jet Set Radio Future
The Jet Set Radio games dared to be different at a time when most other “extreme sports” titles were trying to be Tony Hawk. They were bold, beautiful, often brilliant, and, for our purposes today, surprisingly difficult.
Jet Set Radio Future‘s unique design means that you’re not necessarily going to be good at it just because you’re good at other extreme sports titles of its era. It’s not long before the game requires you to effectively master its strange navigation and map mastery mechanics, and even those who eventually “figure this game out” may struggle to ever really be good at it.
11. TimeSplitters 2
TimeSplitters 2 is one of those strange, slightly more modern games that aren’t actually noticeably difficult until you decide to explore its higher difficulty settings. Even then, the early stages of this game aren’t necessarily a nightmare.
However, there are difficult spikes in this game that are just absurd. Some of the levels in this game will leave you wondering whether something went horribly wrong during the development process, and I honestly think that might actually be what happened. It’s not the most consistently difficult game, but it definitely has its moments.
10. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon
Many of the earlier Tom Clancy games attempted to emphasize a very specific style of tactical gameplay that we’ll call “realistic” for the purposes of saving time. Well, Ghost Recon is arguably one of the last representatives of that particular style before Ubisoft decided to loosen up just a bit.
Ghost Recon‘s methodical style of tactical action harkens back to the original games in the Rainbow Six franchise while adding a few ingredients to that formula that will throw off even veteran fans of that series. This style of gameplay is certainly an acquired taste, and I’ve never begrudged anyone who can’t stand just how punishing Ghost Recon can be.
9. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
I think it’s safe to say that few people consider Warrior Within to be the best game in this franchise, but many people certainly consider it to be the series’ most difficult hour.
Warrior Within emphasizes combat in a way that other Prince of Persia games simply did not, which quickly proves to be kind of a problem given that the developers seemed to struggle to find ways to really balance this game’s combat with its challenging puzzle and platform elements. This game is much “slower” than it initially appears to be, and it’s easy to forget the way it expects you to play it.
8. Steel Battalion
Steel Batallion is best known for its absurdly large and incredibly expensive controller, and it certainly has to be said that the prospect of controlling a “realistic” mech via a controller with 44 inputs, two joysticks, and a few dials and switches is indeed as difficult as you might think it would be.
Steel Battalion may ultimately be kind of a gimmick, but the gimmick of being forced to learn how to control this incredibly complicated machine is undoubtedly fascinating. Managing to do even the simplest maneuvers in this game is a thrill in its own right, and this game’s most advanced maneuvers will probably never be seen by the majority of gamers.
Breakdown is one of those incredibly difficult games that is honestly challenging largely because it’s not very good. This game is burdened by bad controls and questionable design decisions that make the whole thing harder than it was arguably meant to be.
Having said that, this game is just nearly impossible at higher difficulty settings. It’s just so incredibly frustrating to try to play this game and come anywhere close to mastering its blend of FPS action and melee combat mechanics. There’s an almost Dark Souls-like quality to the way this game makes you methodically approach nearly every encounter.
Morrowind remains a somewhat divisive game for many, but it must be said that many of the qualities that make this game so divisive (its slower pace, its lack of clear direction, and its many mechanics) are also the qualities that make it an especially challenging RPG.
Nothing comes easy in Morrowind. Even the most detailed guides only make it slightly easier to even figure out where you’re supposed to go during even the most basic quests. I think that there’s a better way to do what Bethesda was going for here, but there’s no denying that the way Morrowind makes you struggle for every achievement does enhance the thrill of finally feeling like a powerful character in this world.
5. Panzer Dragoon Orta
Don’t let Orta‘s “on-rail” status fool you. This is absolutely one of the most difficult “arcade-like” experiences that the original Xbox has to offer.
I wouldn’t say Orta ever goes full bullet hell, but it might just come closer to translating the experience of a 2D bullet hell game to a 3D environment than I’ve ever seen before. The way this game demands reflexes we typically associate with 2D games while also asking you to navigate a 3D environment (even if it is a somewhat limited 3D environment) means that it will likely challenge even the most experienced fans of difficult games.
4. Armed and Dangerous
Armed and Dangerous doesn’t get a lot of love these days, but this Xbox action game really emphasizes that kind of silly fun that we saw in a lot of third-person shooters from this era.
It’s also quite difficult. The thing that really throws you off about this one is the way it presents itself as an over-the-top, fast-paced shooter but is actually a surprisingly nuanced take on this genre that really makes you consider every available strategy as well as explore some truly unusual solutions. Whether that works out best for the game is debatable, but it’s certainly a fascinating way to increase the natural difficultly level of this style of game.
3. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell
It’s kind of a toss-up between this and Pandora Tomorrow for this particular spot, but I ultimately give the nod to the original Splinter Cell for the way it so boldly challenged quite a few unsuspecting gamers.
Splinter Cell was once seen as a kind of companion/alternative to the Metal Gear Solid series, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know if there’s ever been another game that captures the feeling of being an elite operative who relies on stealth quite as well as this one from a pure gameplay perspective. That being said, I’m halfway convinced it’s easier to break into actual military compounds than it is to beat some of this game’s nightmarish stealth challenges.
2. Halo 2 (Legendary Mode)
The original Halo is undoubtedly challenging on Legendary mode, but I do not think we have enough conversations about how Halo 2‘s Legendary mode may just be one of the most devious video game challenges ever constructed.
From the Jackal snipers that can pick you off across the map in one shot to the absurd amount of damage even the average enemy can take, Halo 2‘s Legendary mode is arguably the ultimate example of that kind of trial-and-error gameplay that we saw in a lot of difficult games of this era. Every single step in this game can lead to your sudden death, and the way that this mode keeps finding new ways to drain your health in a couple of seconds is arguably impressive.
1. Ninja Gaiden Black
Ninja Gaiden Black‘s difficulty is nearly legendary in certain circles, and I’m here to tell you that this is just one of those times when a game’s reputation is not only well-earned but arguably often fails to really sells the actual experience.
The thing that separates this game from equally difficult 3D action games like the Devil May Cry series is its much more deliberate style of combat that makes it incredibly difficult to recover from the mistakes you will almost certainly make. A single missed swing can spell your doom in this game, and the way it keeps throwing new kinds of challenges at you means that you never reach this point where you’re just able to focus on massive combos and style points.
There’s certainly a debate to be had about most of the spots on this list, but I struggle to think of another title that comes close to matching Ninja Gaiden Black‘s relentless gameplay.