The best backwards compatible Xbox games: What to play on Xbox Series X

The best backwards compatible Xbox games: What to play on Xbox Series X
(Image credit: Konami)

Microsoft claims that the Xbox Series X will be backwards compatible not only with Xbox One titles, but with a variety of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games, too. With that in mind, the Tom's Guide crew decided to comb through the backwards compatible Xbox games that you can play right now and recommend our favorites. 

While you can play all of these titles on an Xbox One, if what Microsoft says is true, they'll work just as well on an Xbox Series X come holiday 2020. Better yet: Some of these titles may receive additional enhancements, including resolutions up to 4K and frame rates up to 120 fps.

If you want to get a head start on your Xbox Series X library, here are some classic titles that you can play right now without having to dig up any old consoles or controllers.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II

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(Image credit: Lucasarts)

While Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II dates all the way back to the original Xbox, the game has a timeless quality that makes it easy to pick up and play all these years later. One of the darker and weirder Star Wars games in the canon, KOTOR2 is an RPG in which you create a Jedi Knight and experience an adventure that takes place 4,000 years before A New Hope. You can customize your appearance and gear, and make important narrative decisions that can change both the game's narrative and your own personal inclination toward the light or dark side.

Where KOTOR2 excels over its predecessor, though, is in exploring a strange cast of characters in a decidedly dark story. You aren't gathering a collection of scrappy misfits to save the galaxy; you're making temporary alliances with a bunch of broken people to confront a war crime so unforgivable, it severed your protagonist from the Force itself. It's arguably the best Star Wars game ever made. Marshall Honorof

Alan Wake

(Image credit: Remedy)

What if Stephen King made a video game? It'd probably look and play a lot like Alan Wake, where the very first line of dialogue in the game is a quote from the beloved horror author. In this action/adventure game, you take control of crime novelist Alan Wake, who retreats to a mountain cabin with his wife in order to get some writing done. But Alan's wife disappears, along with a whole week's worth of his memories. To find her, and the truth about what happened, he'll have to confront the shadowy figures that haunt the mountain, even though they can turn his worst fears into reality.

Despite its setup, Alan Wake isn't really a horror game. It's more of a supernatural thriller. As such, you'll get a fast-paced story with a lot of twists and turns, as well as interesting combat that combines flashlights that weaken enemies with a variety of tools and weapons that can actually harm them. The story continues in the excellent, short Alan Wake: American NIghtmare, but unfortunately, there hasn't been a real sequel. Marshall Honorof

Beyond Good & Evil

The best backwards compatible Xbox games: What to play on Xbox Series X

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Now that Beyond Good & Evil 2 is on its way, it's the perfect time to catch up with one of Ubisoft's strangest and most beloved cult hits. The game stars Jade: a spacefaring journalist who wants to stop the domineering Alpha Section government from grinding down the free people of the planet Hillys.

From a gameplay perspective, Beyond Good & Evil is pretty standard action/adventure fare. You'll use Jade's staff to fight off enemies, and team up with a handful of intriguing sidekicks, each of whom has a unique special ability. You'll also take photos to document the native wildlife, and how Alpha Section has encroached on Hillys. But the big draw of Beyond Good and Evil is its intriguing cast of characters, in conjunction with its gorgeous level design. Beyond Good and Evil is greater than the sum of its parts, and playing it is the perfect way to get ready for the sequel. Marshall Honorof

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

(Image credit: Konami)

The Castlevania series pretty much fell apart shortly after Castlevania: Lords of Shadow came out, but we should remember that Lords of Shadow itself was a great game. In this daring reboot of the Castlevania franchise, we follow Gabriel Belmont: an 11th-century adventurer who confronts the forces of darkness in order to bring his beloved wife back from the dead.

The narrative turns a lot of familiar Castlevania tropes on their heads, and features standout voice performances from Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle. But the game is also fun to play, thanks to big levels with lots of hidden secrets, a variety of upgradeable skills and enormous boss fights that require both smart strategies and twitch reflexes. The next two games in the Castlevania reboot series didn't live up to Lords of Shadow's example, but at least we got one good game out of the mix. Marshall Honorof

Dragon Age Origins 

(Image credit: EA)

Dragon Age Origins was an attempt by Bioware to create an RPG where the main character had more of a backstory than just amnesia or being the chosen one due to some pre-ordained destiny. Each of the six player characters had a proper back story, from a highborn noble having their family slaughtered by a rival, to a dwarf caught up in the equivalent of dwarven mafia and an elf exposed to racial abuse from humans. 

While all these character arcs merge one way or another into the main story that then treads a more traditional save-the-world plot, the characters’ backgrounds affect how various people view them and influence the narrative, sometimes subtly and at other times very obviously. A stellar supporting cast from a bumbling Grey Warden sidekick to a wisecracking sorceress further fleshes out the story; not to mention the myriad of choices. 

Then there’s the combat system, which is a take on dungeons and dragon’s rules that feels faster and more dynamic. Dragon Age Origins stands out as one of the best fantasy RPGs of all time and an example of what Bioware could do at its best. Roland Moore-Colyer

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

The GTA games weren't always massively intimidating attempts to explore the ennui and depression of life in the mafia. Yes, Carl "CJ" Johnson has a lot to deal with and sort out, as his mother's passing brings him back to the fictional San Andreas, but the city doesn't overdose on realism in the way that GTA V has (though it's hard to begrudge that decision, given its success). 

And once you're in San Andreas, you basically get to relive American history through the game's storylines that borrow heavily from the LAPD's terrible history. GTA: San Andreas is also a massive leap forward in the franchise because this is when the game finally added the ability to redesign your look, with trips to the barber shop and car shops. A massive amount of mini games and optional missions weren't just fun, they helped open up the idea of the open-world video game. — Henry T. Casey

Left 4 Dead 2

(Image credit: Valve)

One of the Xbox 360’s defining co-op shooters, Left 4 Dead 2 is still a blast to play today. This multiplayer zombie slaying romp lets you team up with one player locally or up to three online in order to survive a series of undead-infested scenarios. Where the Left 4 Dead series stands out is its spontaneity the game is driven by a custom AI director that adjusts to your performance, meaning no two play sessions will be the same. That means you’ll have to be extra on guard for whichever boss characters, such as the brute Tank and poisonous Spitter, it decides to throw your way. More than a decade later, Left 4 Dead 2 remains one of the finest games around for mowing your way through hordes of zombies with friends. — Mike Andronico

Mass Effect

(Image credit: EA)

Launched back in 2007 as an Xbox 360 exclusive, Mass Effect was not only the start of Commander Shepard’s Milky-Way spanning saga, but also a significant departure from the mold Bioware’s RPGs. Pseudo-turn-based combat was replaced by frenetic shooting and semi-magical ‘biotic’ powers. While written answers for a mute main character were replaced by conversion wheels and fully-voiced that hinted at the tone of fully-voiced responses, ranging from softly-softly answers to pull-no-punches retorts, or at times actual punches. 

By today’s standard, Mass Effect’s combat is a little clunky and its characters aren’t as well rendered or animated as they are in Mass Effect 2 and 3. But it’s still well worth playing, especially if you’ve never played a Mass Effect game. You’ll be exposed to a sci-fi world partially grounded in real-world science (it’s not as realistic as The Expanse, sci-fi fans), which you traverse in the sleek Normandy stealth frigate. And you’ll also be able to plumb the depths of a compelling story that has more than a few twists and turns in it, as well as some properly difficult choices. Mass Effect is the first chapter to one of the best sci-fi game series - and arguably one of the best space operas- of all time. And the 80s-inspired synth soundtrack is thoroughly excellent. Roland Moore-Colyer

Metal Gear Solid HD: 2 & 3

(Image credit: Konami)

When we're all older, Hideo Kojima may only be known for the mind-bending insanity of Death Stranding, and however he chooses to follow up that bizarre courrier game. So it's good to see that we can take a step back in time to get this pair of re-released Metal Gear Solid games, which are bizarre in less shocking ways. This is where Kojima revealed himself as the M. Night Shyamalan of gaming, layering on plot twists that reach the sky. While MGS 2: Sons of Liberty gets a lot of flak for making us play as Raiden and not Snake, MGS 3: Snake Eater is my pick for the pinnacle of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. 

Snake Eater, in terms of gameplay, shows an eye for editing, and doesn't have the quicktime-scene bloat of Metal Gear Solid 4, nor the too-muchness of MGS 5. Instead, you have an excellent, straightforward stealth game that leads you into set piece after set piece, including one of the greatest ladder-climbs of all time. And at the end of it all, Snake Eater brings us back to the basics, with an excellent final boss fight that drills down to the close quarter combat that the franchise was built around. It's a game you will enjoy playing over and over again. — Henry T. Casey

Panzer Dragoon Orta

(Image credit: Sega)

One of Sega's beloved series that had seemingly been put out to pasture until very recently, Panzer Dragoon was an artistic marvel that few experienced in its heyday because it was constrained to the Saturn. After Sega went third party in 2002, the company released Panzer Dragoon Orta — the series' first new entry in five years, developed exclusively for the original Xbox by members of Team Andromeda, who created the first three titles. Fans remember Orta fondly, though it was inaccessible for quite some time until Microsoft added it as a backwards-compatible title on Xbox One in 2018. This is one of those classic Xbox games that has received the full treatment in terms of resolution upscaling and framerate boosting. Orta runs at 4K on Xbox One X, while performance hitches present when running the game on the original hardware have been eliminated, making modern Xbox consoles the best way in which fans can re-experience this cult gem. — Adam Ismail

Portal: Still Alive

(Image credit: Valve)

Backwards compatibility is important for the inner game historian in all of us, and Portal is one puzzler we need to preserve. Its physics-based tricks might take some time to figure out, but everyone should get to experience the joy of puzzle-solving your way out of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center's maze of rooms. Portal is so beloved because it took the run-and-gun genre and flipped it on its head by turning the gun into a device that shoots inter-connected reality-bending portals. 

All the while, you'll be mocked and taunted by the artificial intelligence known as GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), who's written quite cannily. Its mix of action and puzzle dynamics will be looked back upon for years for its influence, and Valve has done its part to help keep the game "alive," as this "Still Alive" re-release that adds on 14 new challenges. — Henry T. Casey

Skate 3

(Image credit: EA)

Excited as we are for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2, there's a growing number of skateboarding fans who pine just as desperately for the return of EA's Skate franchise as the Birdman’s eponymous series that popularized the genre. That's for good reason: Skate reimagined how a skateboarding game should control, with an emphasis on replicating tricks with the right stick, rather than an arbitrary combination of button presses. To this day, the gameplay just feels right, with physicality and tangible satisfaction behind every kickflip. While EA has let Skate languish — and the last entry in the series, Skate 3, was released in 2010 — at least it’s playable on Xbox One. And if you happen to have an Xbox One X, you can even experience it at 4K, with nary a jaggie in sight. — Adam Ismail

Soulcalibur II HD 

(Image credit: Namco Bandai)

2002’s Soulcalibur II remains one of the finest fighting games ever made, which is why we’re very glad that you can still play it on Xbox One (and soon, Xbox Series X). This HD port retains Soulcalibur II’s silky smooth 3D fighting, while delivering crisper 1080p graphics. Better yet, this is the first version of Soulcalibur II to feature both Spawn and Heihachi Mishima in the same game, as they were previously exclusive to Xbox and PS2, respectively (Sorry Nintendo fans, no Link this time around). Between the meaty Weapon Master mode and plenty of online and local multiplayer options, Soulcalibur II is still as great a fighting game today as it was a few decades ago. — Mike Andronico


(Image credit: EA)

Foreign though it may seem today, back in 2003, there was simply no endeavor cooler than snowboarding. And part of what led to this incontrovertible truth was EA's SSX series, which tossed aside the realistic slant of snowboarding games established up to that point in favor of arcadey mechanics and wildly imaginative course design. SSX 3 was the biggest and boldest statement in the franchise’s relatively-short lifespan, with its loosely-interconnected open world strewn across several mountain ranges, varied event types and no shortage of character customization options. SSX's trademark absurd tricks were still present, yet couched in a larger environment with more to do and more to see. It was one of the last great extreme sports titles — making it fortunate that this masterpiece is one of about 70 games that is not only backwards compatible on Xbox One X (and soon Series X), but also runs at 4K resolution and a locked 60 fps. — Adam Ismail

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist 

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Nearly every game in Ubisoft’s excellent Splinter Cell series is playable on Xbox One, but Blacklist is a hidden gem in the franchise you’d be wise to revisit. The most recent core entry in the popular stealth series, Blacklist does a masterful job combining the tense stealth of the early games with the more fluid, action-focused elements of more recent installments. The game’s open-ended missions can be tackled in multiple ways, as you’ll get different rewards for embracing the Ghost (Stealthy), Panther (Stealthy/Aggressive) and Assault (Aggressive) playstyles. Factor in a solid story and the return of the beloved Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer games, and you have one of the best games in the Splinter Cell franchise. — Mike Andronico

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.