Xenon review

Yes, I know that in my last review I promised to get away from the stars, but I spent the last weekend playing some old arcade titles and thus decided to write a small review that just happen to be of a classic shoot ’em up. Sorry. Anyway, today’s subject is Xenon (the DOS version, obviously).

Xenon is a shoot ’em up developed by The Bitmap Brothers and published by Melbourne House. It was originally released in 1988 for the Commodore Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Arcade, Atari ST, DOS, MSX and ZX Spectrum. It was re-released the following year for the Commodore 64 and in 2013, the Amiga version was ported to the Blackberry.

Xenon is also one of the first games developed by The Bitmap Brothers along with Speedball, which I’ve already reviewed.

But as always, let’s first look at the cover:

129033-xenon-amiga-front-coverI have to say, this is not a bad cover. It features a spaceship shooting a turret atop a pyramid amidst a clearly sci-fi landscape. I particularly like the title. In general, it’s a somewhat average cover, but quite faithful to the game, as you’ll see when I boot it:

As you can see, the intro is nothing to write home about and the only way to learn the backstory is by reading the manual. Actually, the manual goes a long way in describing the game’s background, but the basic gist of it is that you play as Darren (or Darrian, depending on which version of the game you’re playing), a young Federation space pilot, who’s responding a stress call sent by his superior officer, Captain Xod. To save him, Darren has to go through 4 sectors of space occupied by the Xenites, the game’s baddies. And this is all you need to know, although the manual expands upon it.

The game starts with a futuristic-looking tank morphing into a spaceship and travelling from the end of the level to the beginning of it (then what’s the point of crossing said level, I wonder, but I digress) and morphing back to the tank. Then an animation of a man appears on the small right screen saying “Sector 1”. This man is none other than one of the founders of The Bitmap Brothers, Eric Matthews.

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Grab the “P” powerup to increase your weapons’ power.

The main screen is quite big with a small status panel on the right. In this status panel is where you can find all the information needed about your ship. At the top, above the small screen, there’s the score and below it, the number of lives on the left and the number of the sector or level on the right and below it, the altitude bar. Then, below the small screen, there’s the fuel bar, which is basically your ship’s health. Below it, the rate and power bars, which are related to the ship’s weapons and below, all the bonus and weapons you can get in each level.

Now your ship is not just a normal spaceship because it can transform into a tank. The spaceship plays like in every other vertical shoot ’em up: you can move your ship in any direction, while it shoots up and the screen scrolls from bottom to up. But when it transforms into a tank, it also changes its movement: now you can turn and shoot in any direction and the screen stops scrolling. This feature is what makes Xenon stand out among all the other shoot ’em ups of the time.

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And grab this powerup to get 2 wingtips that’ll increase your firepower.

However you can only use the tank in the 1st and 3rd levels and while it’s slower than the ship, the fact that you can shoot in 8 different directions makes it more versatile in combat. But there are some enemies and turrets in higher places that can only be destroyed by the ship, so it’s recommended that you switch between both when needed to destroy all the enemies (and get more points and powerups). Also, when an enemy formation or a turret is destroyed, they leave behind a powerup, which can be a new weapon, attack or an upgrade for your ship, your tank or both. I recommend to grab these in order to upgrade your attacks, even if there isn’t a lot of variety in the powerups available.

But you’ll revert back to your default weapon if you lose a life and/or start a new level, which increases the difficulty. And speaking about the difficulty, Xenon might just be one of the hardest shoot ’em ups I’ve ever played on the PC. It’s one of those games that to counter the fact of having only 4 levels, the developers ramped up the difficulty in order to increase the gameplay length. Quite common in arcade-style games like this one.

Also the level design isn’t bad, although there actually only 2 different designs (the 1st and 3rd levels are very similar, as are the 2nd and 4th levels). The only big difference between the levels are the bosses, which are basically bullet-sponges until they reveal their weak spot. And you face each boss twice, once at the middle of a level and later on at the end.

Now let’s move to the technical aspects. The 16-colour EGA graphics are quite good for the time, with a nice palette and average animation. The sound effects are okay, although using digitised speech samples in the PC speaker is impressive. Too bad that there’s no music whatsoever, which is surely missed in a game like this. The controls are also average, both the keyboard and the gamepad/joystick. In fact, controlling the ship is somewhat easier than controlling the tank due to it being faster.

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Another turret destroyed.

In conclusion, Xenon is not a great shoot ’em up compared with other games of the same genre, but since there weren’t many shoot ’em ups on home computers at the time, it became an instant success. However, it was quickly surpassed by other classic shoot ’em ups, including its vast superior sequel. I can’t really recommend this game, but if you’re a fan of the genre, you own to yourself to give it a shot.

The Amiga version is vastly superior with better graphics, sound (and music!), animation and controls. The original Atari ST version also looks great, although the sound doesn’t compare with the Amiga version. But since I haven’t tried the Atari ST version, I can’t really compare it with the other versions.

So, what do you think of the review? And what’s your favourite shoot ’em up? Let me know below in the comments or on our social media. And next time, I promise to finally move away from the stars and into something more grounded, but not to reality. Until then, keep on flying through the stars and playing. See ya!

Speedball review

One of the most famous developer studios from the late 80s and early 90s was The Bitmap Brothers. If you had a Commodore Amiga, you know what I’m talking about. The Bitmap Brothers is one of those studios that started small but valued quality over quantity which resulted in fantastic games and a rockstar fame among video game companies. Perhaps one day I’ll write a retrospective about them. But today, we’re going to take a look at one of their earliest games: Speedball.

Speedball is a futuristic action/sports game developed by The Bitmap Brothers and published by Image Works. It was originally released in 1988 for the Amiga, DOS and Atari ST and re-released the next year for the Commodore 64. In 1990, it was ported to the Sega Master System and the following year to the NES (as KlashBall). And in 2013, the Amiga version was ported to the BlackBerry.

But as always, let’s first take a look at the covers:

52003-speedball-atari-st-front-coverThis is the European cover and it nails down the futuristic sports imagery perfectly, with the player’s gear full of spikes and the blood splatters all over the stadium field floor. It conveys perfectly what the game’s about, but the artwork could be better.

242973-speedball-dos-front-coverThis is the US cover and I think is a lot better. It conveys the brutal, futuristic sport part even better, but the spikes and the violence are definitely toned down. Still, the quality of the artwork is way better and more colorful.

194416-speedball-nes-front-coverThis is the NES cover and as you can see, they’ve put back some the spikes and a bit of the violence too. It’s also a pretty cool looking cover but I have no idea why they changed the title.

236442-speedball-sega-master-system-front-coverNow this one’s the Sega Master System cover and as you can see, it’s definitely the most brutal one. They’ve doubled the spikes and the blood on this one and it could perfectly be a death metal album cover.

But as always, it’s time to boot this sucker:

As you can see, Speedball features a pretty cool title screen, with the fist coming through the screen and then we have the main menu screen with a fist constantly pounding his own leg, just to reinforce how hardcore this game is. In the menu screen, you have several options: you can either play against a friend or against the AI. The single-player options are League and Knockout. League is your typical league gameplay where you face down against other ten teams for points and you can also choose its duration. The more matches you win, the more points you have. Knockout is more akin to a cup tournament, where you face the other teams in a best out of three matches against each team in direct elimination style (you need to win two matches against each team in order to move on to the next round).

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“Pounding it. Pounding it. Pounding it.” – Jim Sterling

After choosing which mode to play, you then have three teams to choose from along with the portraits of their respective captain and the stats below. There are only three major stats: Stamina, Power and Skill. Stamina is the energy each player has to tackle other players and to shoot the ball. It goes down everytime one of your players is tackled by an opponent; Power is the force each player employs when tackling an opponent, the stronger your player is, the more stamina the other player will lose when tackled; and Skill is used when performing any action, the higher it is, the more chances your player has in performing said action, whether it’s tackling other players or shooting the ball. Power seems to be the most important stat in the game because the AI tends to perform better when controlling teams with high power.

And then we finally get to the match. Speedball is sort of a no-holds-barred handball sport, played in a top down view, with teams of five players. The objective is, of course, to score goals, but you can tackle any other player to get the ball or to avoid them getting the ball (except for the goalies). There are also black bumps randomly distributed throughout the field where the ball can ricochet, as well as the field’s walls. There are even are two openings in the midfield that when the ball is shot through one, it comes out the other one in the opposite side of the wall (like in Pac-Man). With practice, you can make awesome trick shots that’ll dazzle your opponent (especially if you’re playing against a friend).

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There are also bonus items that appear randomly throughout the match that when touched by any player, it’ll have several different effects on the gameplay, from freezing the opponents for a short period of time to electrify the ball, turning it into a throwing weapon, among others. You can also collect coins during the matches and if enough are collected, you can have several choices at the end of each match that’ll affect the next match, from bribing the ref or the official to downgrade the opponents’ stats, among others. It would be better if we had this option at the start of each match, because it’s near impossible to predict if the next opponent will be strong or weak.

Now for the technical aspects, I have to say that the EGA graphics are quite good. Although the game isn’t very colorful, the sprites are however very detailed. The animation is okay, nothing spectacular, but quite serviceable for such a fast-paced game, but the game tends to slow down if there are many players on screen at once. And also the music themes are very good, despite having a PC-speaker quality (press F3 to enable the music), but the sound effects are mediocre. The control scheme is quite simple but it gets a bit used to, whether you’re playing with the keyboard or a joystick (I personally recommend the joystick), but after a while, I didn’t had much problems controlling the players. And like I said before, the AI performs better the stronger the team is, so the difficulty changes a lot from match to match.

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So in conclusion, Speedball is a fun game to play, whether alone or against a friend. Sure, it has its flaws (like the slowdowns or the random difficulty), but I had fun playing it. A difficulty select option would be much appreciated, among some other small tweaks. If you like fast-paced action sports games that are very easy to get into, then I recommend this one. If you want to try it for yourself, then go here to play it in your own browser.

Speedball, according to its devs, was based on the 1975 movie Rollerball (but it’s not an official adaptation of) and it shows, right down to the spikes (but not the roller skates nor the bikes). The Amiga version not only has better graphics but also digitized sound effects and music, although the controls remain the same and the AI’s more polished, resulting in a harder difficulty.

Speedball received critical acclaim and it was very successful among the public (as with almost every Bitmap Brothers’ title). But it was quickly surpassed by its vastly superior sequel (which we’ll review in a later date).

So, do you prefer Speedball or its sequel? Tell me in the comment section below or on our social media. Next time, we’re going to continue exploring the future. Until then, avoid any spikes in your clothes and keep on playing.