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!

Space Quest II review

So, the new MCU movie, Captain Marvel, is on cinemas right now and as far as I remember, Carol Danvers isn’t in any video game whatsoever, so I decided to just review a classic sci-fi game set in space. And why not Space Quest II?

Space Quest II: Chapter II – Vohaul’s Revenge is a graphic adventure made by Sierra and originally released in 1987 for the Apple II, Atari ST and DOS. It was re-released the following year for Amiga, Apple IIgs and Macintosh.

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

242965-space-quest-ii-chapter-ii-vohaul-s-revenge-dos-front-coverAs you can see, the cover is reminiscent of the previous game’s cover, but now featuring an asteroid and some guys in suits inside tubes floating in space (it makes sense when playing the game). And again it features the cool title from the previous game’s cover. It’s not a great cover, but at least the guys in suits do stand out.

But it’s time to boot this space sludge:

The game starts with the now familiar Space Quest theme and a text depicting what happened to our protagonist since the events of the first game, namely, he reaped all the fame he could until he was forgotten by the public and forced to work again as a janitor, but this time, in a space station orbiting his home planet, Xenon. When starting a new game, you can name the main character just like in the previous game. And again, if you leave it blank, the protagonist will be named Roger Wilco (which as we all know, became the protagonist’s canon name).

If you’re played any Sierra AGI graphic adventure, then you know how to play this one. You can use the directional buttons to move Roger and write any commands in the prompt below the main screen. It’s quite simple to use as long you don’t misspell any command. And also don’t forget to write GET OBJECT to grab the several objects you’ll find stashed in certain places or people (an easy mistake to make if you’re not used to this type of graphic adventures).

27396-space-quest-ii-chapter-ii-vohaul-s-revenge-dos-screenshot-start

At the beginning of the game.

The difficulty, however, was rammed all the way up. What do I mean by this? Well, to solve most of the puzzles (some of which are traps BTW), you need to die first in order to figure out what to do, load a previous save state and then use a specific object before encountering said puzzle. For example, you can enter a screen and meet an enemy or a trap that’ll kill you, but you use a determined object before entering that screen, then you can avoid that enemy or trap, but there aren’t any hints before that. But even with this trial-and-error method, the puzzles aren’t too hard to figure out the solution (but you still need to die to figure it out, though). Well, there are two sections, however, that’ll really test your patience.

The reason for this increased difficulty might have been the fact that the game isn’t actually very long with just two major acts. And the story is quite simple but still effective with the trademark humour common to this series with several references and winks to popular sci-fi classics, and even some parodies here and there (although I think the game missed some great opportunities for it near the end).

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Man, five minutes in and your boss is already calling you.

The graphics are okay for an AGI title, nothing special but more or less colourful. The animation is also pretty average although the sprites do look a bit more detailed than in the previous game. The music is spectacular, especially if you’re playing the game on a Tandy computer (or emulating its sound system), although there aren’t many tracks throughout the game. The sound effects, however, are also average. The control system is okay and the directional buttons are responsive.

In conclusion, Space Quest II not might be the worst game in the series but it isn’t the best one either, due to its increased difficulty, trial-and-error puzzles and small length but it also has the same solid gameplay and humour that made the series a classic. So I recommend it, especially for fans of the series or the genre. You can get it here on Steam along with the rest of series, or here on GOG.com along with the first and third titles of the series.

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Better not to ask…

As far as other versions go, the Amiga version is just like the DOS version but the Apple IIgs version has superior sound effects (as in all AGI Sierra titles). And there’s even a VGA fan-made remake, made by Infamous Studios, that features a point-and-click mouse interface, voice over and extra content. You can download it for free here.

Well, I’ve hoped you’ve enjoyed the review. And I know it’s not related to the Captain Marvel movie in anyway (or any other movie for that matter), but I just wanted an excuse to replay this game. Also, I would like to apologize for not making any references to the International Women’s Day. I promise next year to write a special article or review dedicated to it. And for the next review, let’s keep it a bit down to Earth, shall we? Until then, keep on shooting the stars and playing.

Quarantine review

Everybody knows that one of the most influential videogames ever to be released for the PC was Doom. So much so that shortly afterwards a bunch of games with very similar gameplay and graphical engines were released, which became known as “Doom clones”. I’ve already reviewed one of these clones (and one day, I promise to review the original Doom), but today we’re going to take a look at one of the few Doom clones that dared to add something extra. I’m talking about Quarantine.

Quarantine is a FPS/driving simulation game developed by Imagexcel and published by Gametek. It was originally released in 1994 for DOS and the 3DO. In 1996, it was re-released only in Japan for the Playstation (as Hard Rock Cab) and the SEGA Saturn (as Death Throttle: Kakuzetsu Toshi kara no Dasshutsu).

But as always, before looking at the game, let’s look at the cover:

50658-quarantine-dos-front-coverI confess I’m not a big fan of simplistic covers because usually they don’t convey much. But this one I must confess I like. A lot. It’s just a windshield wiper cleaning what appears to be blood (the single drop in the upper part suggest as such). It simply conveys vehicles and violence in a way that intrigues everyone. It’s graphic but not explicitly so. Some versions add the tagline “driving a cab in this town… is murder” which makes said violence slightly more explicit.

But it’s time to boot this sucker:

First, I must confess that I love this intro. It’s so insane and at the same time, it pumps you up for the game. It looks like a sort of dystopian and violent future but you only see the cab, its driver and the passengers (and tons of guns). Then we have a proper exposition that’s further expanded in the manual: you play as Drake Edgewater, a hover cab driver in the dystopian city of Detroi…uhh, KEMO City in the year 2047. Around ten years prior, the city was exposed to a virus that turned its inhabitants into psychotic killers by a company called Omnicorp (whose logo looks suspiciously like the OCP logo from Robocop). Edgewater, who’s immune to the virus, must carry out his job while finding a way to escape the city.

Fortunately, your cab is equipped with a machine gun mounted upfront in the hood and your initial objective is to drive around the city dodging and shooting at other cars, armed pedestrians and mines while picking up passengers and dropping them at specific points of the city within a limited time. But every now and then, you’ll get an assignment to drop a package within the aforementioned time limit and if you succeed, then some mysterious bloke will be impressed by your driving and armed combat skills and promises more undercover missions. Do enough of these missions and you’ll get a code to move to another (and harder) section of the city, where more missions and richer passengers await you.

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Extreme road rage!

The main screen is quite detailed with all the information you need in the upper and lower part of the screen with the main view on the center. I have to say that I’m impressed in how the developers were able to cram every information monitor and counter (like weapons, radar, compass, etc) without sacrificing none of the main view. And you also have two side views (where you can shoot at enemies on your left or right).

With enough money gained from your fares, you can also repair and upgrade your cab with more weapons, shields and other gadgets to make the gameplay easier. And believe me, you’re going to need it because apart from the passengers, everything is gunning for you: crazy, armed people in the middle of the road (which is always a joy to run over), other vehicles, tanks, mines, etc. But the biggest difficulties I’ve encountered while playing were the time limits and the navigation.

250-quarantine-dos-screenshot-deadbeat-fare

Picking up a passenger.

The passengers you pick up are seemingly random (apart from the undercover missions) and entertaining in their own right, but some of them want to be dropped off on some distant spot on the map within a small time limit. And if you drop him/her past the time limit, then the fare they pay is pitiful, especially if you received a lot of damage and said fare isn’t enough to cover the repair. Luckily, you can refuse passengers and/or eject them from your cab if you believe the fare isn’t worth it (the eject option even becomes essential during a story mission). Even with the help of your map (which is probably your best tool), navigating through the city isn’t easy because sometimes you might encounter a narrow passage that you believe it’s possible to go through (and the map confirms as such) but ultimately it isn’t possible.

Controlling the cab can be quite a chore (and the time limits don’t help) and it’s mostly due to the engine used. Imagexcel developed a game engine more towards FPS action than driving simulation (which is why there weren’t many hybrids of the two genres back then) and it shows while playing it. It’s easy to forget you’re controlling a vehicle, until you try to go through a narrow passage that a person on foot could easily go through and other driving related actions. But with time and patience, it’s possible to master the driving controls enough to start enjoying the game.

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Repairing your cab.

The graphics and animations are quite good, especially the design of the city with a dark and industrial colour palette that fits the game’s dystopian aesthetic perfectly. The sound effects are equally good with several digital samples that enhance the action. And I recommend the CD-ROM version just for the cutscenes and the fantastic Alternative Rock themes that, in their majority, fit the dystopian setting and the action quite well. Although the cab can be hard to control, it’s not due to the keyboard controls, that are actually quite responsive.

In conclusion, Quarantine could have been a fantastic game if it wasn’t for its steep learning curve in mastering the driving controls and the repetitive nature of the game. Because everything else in it it’s great. If you have the time and patience to master the game, then I recommend it. But if you’re looking for a simple driving/action game, easy to get into, then I can’t really recommend it. And if you want to try it in your own browser, then go here.

377458-quarantine-dos-screenshot-your-trusty-uzi-for-strafing-psycho

“Die scum!”

Quarantine had some critical acclaim but it was so well received by the public that it became a cult classic, despite its flaws. And although it wasn’t the first of its genre, it was one of the first games that mixed driving simulation and FPS action and therefore, inspired subsequent hybrid games that would surpassed it, like its own sequel, Road Warrior Quarantine II, and the Carmageddon and Twisted Metal series.

So, do you like these types of games? Which is your favorite? Tell me in the comments below or on our social media. Next time, we’re going the final frontier again. Until then, keep on driving and shooting. See ya!