Xbox turns 20!

On the 15th of November 2001, the original Xbox launched in the United States. That makes today the 20th anniversary of the console and Microsoft’s gaming brand, so I thought we should mark the occasion with a look back! I haven’t yet had the chance to play on an Xbox Series S or X, but I’ve owned an original Xbox, an Xbox 360, and an Xbox One at different points over the past couple of decades so I like to think I’m qualified to comment on the brand!

It’s hard to remember now, especially for younger folks who’ve quite literally grown up with the games industry looking the way it does, but the Xbox was a massive risk for Microsoft in 2001. The games industry at the turn of the millennium felt settled – Nintendo and Sega were the “big boys” and PlayStation had been the new kid on the block, shaking things up as the world of gaming moved from 2D to 3D titles.

Xbox turns 20 today!

For practically all of the 1990s, it had been Japanese games companies – Sega, Nintendo, and Sony – that had dominated the video game hardware market. Challengers from the ’80s like Atari and Commodore represented American manufacturers, but they’d fallen away by the end of the decade leaving the worldwide video game hardware market the sole domain of the Japanese.

I remember reading more than one article in 2001 promising that the Xbox would be an expensive failure for Microsoft, arguing that “no one” was looking for a new console manufacturer at that time. It would be impossible to enter a market where things were already stable, and even with Microsoft’s money, challenging the mighty Sega, Nintendo, and PlayStation was just going to be a waste of time. How wrong is it possible to be, eh? We should all remember articles like those before making big predictions!

Bill Gates unveiled the Xbox and showed the console to the world for the first time in 2001.

The video games industry was far less settled in 2001 than anyone seemed to realise, of course. Sega’s Dreamcast would prove to be such a significant flop that the company ended up shutting down their hardware business altogether, and Nintendo’s GameCube – which also launched in November 2001 – would struggle to compete with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox in terms of sales.

So the market was definitely more receptive to a new entrant than a lot of folks at the time were predicting! But that isn’t why the Xbox succeeded. It helped, of course, that the console was created at a time when Sega was getting out of the way and Nintendo had uncharacteristically faltered. But those external factors weren’t key to the success of the Xbox, and anyone who claims otherwise is doing the console a disservice.

The original Xbox logo.

The Xbox was a great machine. Microsoft had decades of experience in software and plenty of money to boot – they were one of the world’s richest companies even then. Bringing their considerable experience and financial resources to bear led to the creation of a truly world-class machine, one that massively outperformed two of its three competitors in terms of raw processing power and graphical fidelity.

All of those stats would have been meaningless, though, had the console not had a killer lineup of games – and Microsoft delivered there too. Though Microsoft had made some games of their own before 2001, like Age of Empires for example, they didn’t have as much game development experience as the likes of Nintendo and Sony. While development of the Xbox was ongoing, Microsoft worked with a number of third-party developers, signing exclusive contracts and having games built for their new machine from the ground up.

The Xbox was Microsoft’s first video game console.

We can’t talk about the Xbox without talking about its “killer app” – Halo: Combat Evolved. After GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 had proven that first-person shooters could work well on home consoles, Halo honed the console shooter genre to near-perfection. It was the must-have game of 2001 and 2002, one of the most talked-about and debated titles of the day. Nintendo and PlayStation simply didn’t have anything in reply, and Halo absolutely dominated the conversation going into 2002.

It wasn’t only the first-person shooter genre where Microsoft invested heavily. They contracted a studio called Bizarre Creations – who’d developed a racing game called Metropolis Street Racer for the Dreamcast – to work on an Xbox-exclusive racer: Project Gotham Racing. The game played differently to other racing games at the time – with an emphasis on “kudos” points rather than just winning the race. Project Gotham Racing didn’t quite succeed at eclipsing the likes of the Gran Turismo series on the PlayStation 2, but it was a fun romp nevertheless.

Halo: Combat Evolved was the console’s big launch title.

My personal experience with the original Xbox came in the wake of the Dreamcast’s demise. I’d invested in a Dreamcast as a replacement for my Nintendo 64, but when Sega announced in early 2001 – scarcely a year after its launch – that the Dreamcast would be discontinued and development would cease I knew I’d have to find a new machine again! The Dreamcast was a great console in its own way, but it felt iterative rather than transformative. When I was finally able to upgrade to an Xbox in early 2002 I was blown away by how modern-feeling the machine was.

The control pad – affectionately known as the “Duke” – was the first thing I noticed that was so much better. The addition of a second analogue stick made controlling all kinds of games so much easier and smoother, whether they were racers, shooters, or third-person adventure titles. The black and white buttons were a solid addition too, giving games more options than older control pads on other hardware. The Duke wasn’t wildly popular, though, due to its large size making it heavy and unwieldy for a lot of players. Within a matter of months, Xbox had released the S-controller as an alternative, and that design has stuck. The popular Xbox 360 control pad was based on the S-controller, and the design has remained more or less unchanged since.

The S-controller replaced the Duke – and its design has been honed and refined in the years since.

Some of my favourite gaming experiences of all time took place on the Xbox. I played my first true open-world games on the platform, with titles like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind showing off the console’s power through the size, scale, and density of their worlds – something completely unprecedented at the time. Knights of the Old Republic completely blew me away with its story, and at one point I can vividly remember sitting with the control pad in my hand, mouth open in shock at the way that game’s story unfolded. That’s a moment in gaming – and a moment as a Star Wars fan – that I will never forget!

The Dreamcast had shown me the first game that I felt was genuinely cinematic; a title that would’ve felt at home on the big screen: Shenmue. But that console still had its limitations, and relatively few Dreamcast titles came close to reaching the high bar set by Shenmue. The Xbox feels – at least to me – like the first modern video games console; the first machine to bring together all of the foundational elements of 21st Century gaming.

Knights of the Old Republic was a fantastic Xbox exclusive.

The launch of the Xbox marked a sea change in the video games industry. Sega was getting out of the market, and Microsoft jumped in. Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox would go on to be the two big powerhouses of gaming in the 2000s, settling their status as the decade wore on. It was also around this time that Nintendo stopped focusing on trying to compete with PlayStation and Xbox in terms of raw power and began looking at different ways to play – culminating in the launch of the Wii a few years later.

Twenty years ago the Xbox was seen as a risk. Now, as we look back on two decades of Microsoft’s gaming hardware, it’s patently obvious that it’s a risk that paid off – and then some! As we stumble into another new console generation, Xbox feels like a safe, solid bet. And the brand is, in many ways, just getting started. Xbox Game Pass offers fantastic value as a subscription service right now, and as Microsoft looks to harmonise their console and PC players in a single conjoined system, things are definitely changing for the better for Xbox as a brand. There have been some bumps in the road over the past couple of decades – the rocky launch of the Xbox One and the failure of Kinect being a couple of big ones – but overall, it’s been a success for Microsoft. I knew a lot of people in 2001 who would never have expected to see Xbox as one of the top two gaming platforms twenty years later.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer, studio, and/or publisher. Xbox and all associated properties are the copyright of Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Two Microsoft products – a controller and a keyboard

By sheer coincidence, I replaced both my keyboard and game controller in August. And also by coincidence – or at least, not by design – both of my replacements came from the Microsoft Store. This short review will detail my experience with each of them; rolling two items into one article is certainly a rare example of efficiency from me!

First let’s look at the controller. This one, I have to admit, is a bit of a luxury. I’d had an Xbox One controller for years – it may have been the one I got when I bought an Xbox One at launch in 2013. Now that was a bad decision if there ever was one – the console may have improved somewhat in the years since, but at launch it was bad value and offered precious little to play! But we’re off-topic already; you can read more about my Xbox One experience by clicking or tapping here. I decided that it was time to replace the controller – one of the thumbsticks was loose, making it harder to make very precise movements in some games, and in addition its vibration/rumble function didn’t seem to be working right. It still vibrates, but it does so in a much more clunky way than it used to.

I considered a few different controller options, including the Hyperkin Duke, which is a reimagining of the classic Xbox controller from 2001. That controller was one I greatly enjoyed using during the original Xbox era, but unfortunately the new version is difficult to get hold of here in the UK. I found one on Amazon, but at quite a mark-up. So I decided to check out Xbox’s Design Labs website, where Microsoft sell customised controllers. I went with an all-blue design, with a metallic D-pad, black Start and Select buttons, and black A, B, X, and Y buttons with the proper colours for the letters. I’m sure some people feel that removing the coloured letters and replacing them with a grey or black design looks more sleek, but the colours can be a great visual reference when it comes to things like quick-time events or any other occasion where split-second button presses are required.

My new controller.

Microsoft stated when I bought the controller that it could take up to a month to arrive, so I wasn’t expecting it much before the beginning of September. To my pleasant surprise, though, it arrived much sooner – on the same day as my keyboard, no less! The design was just what I’d chosen – which it should have been, of course – and so far I’m satisfied with it. Was it worth the extra money to get a different colour compared to buying a standard controller? I don’t play that many games any more, so I guess you could argue that it wasn’t. The control pad is fundamentally no different from a standard Xbox One controller; unlike the Xbox One elite controller it doesn’t have swappable parts or extra buttons, and its construction is wholly plastic instead of the “rubberised” feel of the elite. But the elite controllers are twice the price! For around £20 more than a standard controller, Xbox Design Labs offer a huge range of colours, and different areas of the controller can be different colours. They brag about millions of colour combinations – most of which you’d never want, of course – but all of the main colours are there, and they have a couple of “fades” and “camo” options too.

Controllers can also be engraved – though to be honest, that’s a pretty impressive-sounding term for what seems to be just laser printing. But for someone who wants their gamertag on their controller – or to make a fun gag gift, perhaps – it’s nice that the option exists.

The Xbox One controller was very similar to the Xbox 360 controller, which was itself not massively different from the second iteration of the original Xbox controller. So I’m not really reviewing the controller from that perspective. I already know I like it as I’ve been using something similar for years! The Design Labs experience was solid. There were a number of options, the website worked smoothly and was well laid-out, and the colours on screen match perfectly with the product I received. Add to that the quicker than expected delivery and it’s hard to find fault.

The Xbox S controller from 2002 or 2003. The “S” may have originally meant “small”.

As someone who has never really been a “PlayStation guy”, I think I’ll always prefer Xbox’s controllers than those made for the rival console. They feel chunkier and more substantial in my (admittedly oversized) hands, but at the end of the day once you get used to a particular design you want to stick with it. That’s presumably why the Xbox Series X’s controller won’t be a significant departure from the current design.

Up next we have the keyboard.

I write almost every day, not just for this website but for other projects that I have on the go, as well as typing messages to friends and the like. For the last three years or so, I’ve been using a Corsair Strafe mechanical keyboard. The variant I have has a red backlight and Cherry MX blue mechanical switches – the “clicky” kind. I bought this keyboard on the recommendation of several tech reviewers who said that the blue switches were great for typing.

The Corsair Strafe.

This keyboard has been fine. It was interesting at first to go back to a keyboard that, for all its modern aesthetic, had a very retro feel and sound. It reminded me of the kind of keyboards I first learned to type on when I was very young. I actually remember the first time I ever used a computer, being concerned that the keyboard only had capital letters when I wanted to type something in lowercase! That was when I was at school, and the “computer” in those days was little more than a word processor. And of course there was no internet. How things have changed, eh?

Although the typing experience has been good overall with the Corsair, after very long typing sessions it can get a little tiring on my old fingertips. The space bar in particular has a strange, almost rough texture to it, and I often find that my thumb – which I use to hit the spacebar almost all of the time – can start to not exactly sting, but rather notice this texture in an unpleasant way after longer typing sessions. The mechanical keyboard has also proved a nightmare to keep clean, with deep chasms in between the keys that seem to attract dust and cat hair like magnets! Finally, several of the keys have started to wear down, and the backlight shows through on the edges of several of them now. Perhaps that’s simply the result of heavy use, but for something I haven’t owned that long it seems like it shouldn’t have happened so quickly. Regardless, the keyboard doesn’t look as nice as it once did, and while it does still work I thought I’d try out a replacement.

I don’t need backlighting on a keyboard, as I can type from muscle memory – something that will happen as you spend more time hunched over your computer! And my computer setup is in a well-lit room, so on the occasions where I need to look down to see what I’m doing I don’t need the keyboard to be its own light source. The keyboard I ultimately bought as a replacement is not backlit, and I don’t consider that to be a problem at all.

After looking at several options, both mechanical and non-mechanical, I opted for the Microsoft Surface bluetooth keyboard. I’ve used a Microsoft mouse in the past (though my current daily driver is a white Logitech G305 wireless mouse) and I’ve always considered Microsoft’s hardware products to be solid and of decent quality. After ruling out a few other options for a variety of reasons, I chose the Microsoft Surface.

The Microsoft Surface bluetooth keyboard.

Initial impressions were good. The packaging was premium – as the Xbox controller’s had been too – and I was very impressed with the look and feel of the keyboard. It has almost no give to it when pressure is applied; it’s very solid. The keys, despite being low profile, have a satisfying press, and unlike the loud “click” of the Corsair, are relatively quiet.

The keyboard also has a full number pad, which is important to me as I often use the right Enter key when writing. It takes AAA batteries instead of being rechargeable via USB, which for some people may be offputting, but it’s a feature I really wanted to have. AA or AAA batteries last ages in devices like mice and keyboards. I used to use a Logitech MX Master mouse, and that thing needed to be charged every few days, which was incredibly annoying. In comparison, a mouse I have in my bedroom which takes AAs has been using the same pair of batteries for at least a year – probably longer. And since I replaced the MX Master with the G305 I’ve gone through precisely one battery. Why anyone would favour rechargeable devices that have such a short battery life over devices that take AA or AAA batteries that last months or years is beyond me. But we’re off-topic again! The battery cover is magnetic, which was a very neat feature. The magnet seems strong enough to keep the battery compartment closed, which is important for obvious reasons, and I like the modern touch it offers over an older-style plastic latch.

I did have an issue with the keyboard – but it’s one that seems almost unique to me that anyone with a modern setup should be able to avoid. The keyboard connects via bluetooth. Duh, right? It’s in the name. But my PC doesn’t have bluetooth connectivity built in, as several years ago I didn’t see any need to spend extra money on that additional feature. Most wireless keyboards come with a dongle so you can plug them into your PC, but presumably Microsoft’s expectation is that the Surface keyboard will be paired with a Surface PC – which must all come with bluetooth as standard. Like I said, this is a minor gripe that probably won’t affect anyone else who buys this product, but if your PC lacks bluetooth connectivity like mine, you’ll need to buy a separate dongle to be able to use the keyboard.

As with many things I’ve accumulated over the years, I could have sworn I owned a USB bluetooth dongle – but I haven’t the faintest idea where it is. I had to get a replacement on Amazon – not a big deal as they aren’t expensive, but it meant waiting an extra couple of days after the keyboard arrived before I could use it! It reminded me of the Christmas where I got a Nintendo 64 – I was all set to play with my new console when there was a power cut! The N64 sat in its box for what seemed like an eternity, unable to be played because the electric was out. Decades later and I’m back in that position. Life is funny like that sometimes.

Ah, memories.

When the dongle finally arrived, pairing the keyboard was easy. From the settings menu in Windows 10 – for which the keyboard has a designated button – it’s possible to see the device’s battery status. The keyboard is also in the standard UK layout – which means that a few symbols are in different places than on a US layout keyboard – which is obviously important to me as that’s how I’m used to typing. I’m on Windows 10, but the keyboard should be compatible with Windows 8.1 – or indeed any device capable of using bluetooth.

The typing experience is pleasant. As mentioned, the keys have a satisfying press, and they also have a slightly soft feel that’s definitely nicer than the hard plastic keycaps of the Corsair that I’d been using. It feels closer to typing on a laptop – a premium, high-end laptop – than any desktop keyboard I’ve ever used. Microsoft promises a whopping five million presses per key over the lifespan of the keyboard – so let’s put that to the test over the next few months and years! Unlike in the picture above, the Return/Enter key is full-size, which is something else I greatly appreciate. A single press of the Function button switches between the F-keys (F1 for help, F5 for refreshing web pages, etc) and a variety of other functions. The aforementioned settings button is one, and there are also keys to control the volume, media player keys to play, pause, etc. and even screen brightness controls. I don’t use such keys that often, but the additional functionality is nice, and not having to hold down a second key to use them is also a neat feature.

Of all the “premium” keyboards I looked at, the Microsoft Surface seemed like the best option for me at this point. I was ready for a change from the clicky mechanical switches I’d been using for the past few years, and as someone who does a lot of typing I wanted something I’d be comfortable with. So far, the Surface has accomplished that and I’m happy with my purchase.

It’s hard to make product recommendations, because I don’t know your circumstances. If you have a spare £20 burning a hole in your pocket and you like customised things, get the Design Labs controller and show off your unique style. But if you’re on a budget, skip that and just get a standard controller. Or better yet, find a pre-owned one or a 360 controller and save even more money.

Likewise for the keyboard. If you write as much as I do on a daily basis and want something solid and premium, the Surface could be a good option if you don’t want a mechanical keyboard. But it’s impossible to deny that you can get a perfectly functional keyboard with a number pad – wired or wireless – for a fraction of the price. I just looked on Amazon, and one of the top results was a Microsoft wired keyboard for £10 – a full £80 less than I paid for the Surface. So the question is – what do you want from a keyboard? If you don’t type a lot – or even if you do but are on a tight budget – save your money. Nothing the Surface does is essential and you could get identical functionality far cheaper.

Speaking for myself, though, I’m happy with what I got. Sometimes it’s worth spending the extra money on a higher-end product, and sometimes it’s worth splurging a little on a cool-looking or custom product just for the fun of it. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what best suits your setup and where you want to invest your money.

The Xbox and Surface brands are the copyright of Microsoft. No sponsorship was involved; these are products I purchased for myself with my own money and the article comprises my genuine impressions regarding them. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.