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.

6951-xenon-dos-screenshot-game-shot

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!

Expendable for PC review

DISCLAIMER: I’ve received a copy of this game through my Steam Curator page, so I won’t blame anyone if this review is taken with a pinch of salt. However, I promise to be as objective as possible.

There are some games that usually pass beneath the radar (or I’ve never heard of), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be featured here on Retro Freak Reviews (and I’m sure you’ve read the disclaimer above). Anyway, today’s feature is Expendable.

Expendable (AKA Millenium Soldier: Expendable in some European countries) is a shoot’em up/action game made by Rage Software and originally released in 1998 for Windows and in 1999 for Dreamcast. It was ported the following year for Playstation and in 2016, it was re-released for Windows and Macintosh in GOG.com and in 2018, in Steam (but only the Windows version).

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

407594-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-front-coverThis is the PC cover featuring a bald soldier guy (with a wicked tattoo on the back of the head) standing with a weapon on his hand in front of a group of aliens. It’s not a bad cover and it shows exactly the type of game it is.

But the former wasn’t the only PC cover in existence:

191467-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-front-coverI won’t deny that the X logo is cool and all that, but honestly, I hate covers just featuring logos or minimal design. It’s  not only impossible to tell the type of game it is, but in my opinion, logo covers are just lazy!

However, the console versions had their own cover:

5998-millennium-soldier-expendable-playstation-front-coverWell, it might not be as stylistic as the PC covers, but it’s without a doubt, more action-packed. It became the most famous cover of the game and it’s easy to see why and I’m kind of torn between this one and the original PC cover.

Anyway, it’s time to boot this sucker and mow down waves of aliens:

And as funny as the intro is, it doesn’t explain the backstory at all. But according to the manual, in the far future, mankind has taken to the stars and colonised several planets, but an hostile alien race started to attack and conquer said colonies. So, an army of clones is created and sent to liberate the colonies from the aliens. With one clone soldier at a time, apparently (or two, if you’re playing with a friend). So, everytime you lose a life, you don’t actually lose it, one of the clones dies and it’s substituted by another, hence the title (I think there would be more sense to just send all them at once or in large groups like, oh I don’t know, AN ACTUAL ARMY?!)

So around 15 levels (without counting the bonus levels), you go around several planets (depicted in the nice waiting screens), collecting several weapons and power-ups and shooting aliens in the face (and in other parts too) until they’re defeated. And that’s about everything you need to know about the game’s backstory. Then again, it’s a run and gun action style game, there isn’t much else needed. And that’s where the problems begin: from the generic looking clones and the equally generic looking aliens (that most of the time, look more like robots) to the level design (that’s not as generic as one would expect, especially in the later levels).

45893-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-screenshot-laser-sight

But although all the weapons are cool (except for the grenade launcher), you can only carry three at a time, and the moment a particular weapon’s ammo ends , it reverts back to your initial weapon (that has infinite ammo but it’s also pretty week). But for me, there are two unforgivable sins that a game of this particular genre should avoid: first, it doesn’t matter how many extra weapons or power-ups you were able to collect, it’ll always revert back to the initial weapon at the beginning of each level without any power-ups; and second, the controls aren’t very good (which is essential in any action game). It doesn’t matter if you’re playing with a gamepad, a joystick or the keyboard; the controls will get from over-sensitive to non-responsive in a matter of seconds (really awful if it occurs during a boss battle). The best control combination is using a mouse along with a WASD keyboard scheme (like in a modern FPS), but it’s still far from perfect.

However, the game still has a few good points. Like I said before, the level design isn’t that bad, with some colors here and there and lot’s of secret areas to discover, the UI ingame is quite helpful, with the clone’s face in the corner changing to a skull as you lose health; the waiting screens look really nice, the weapons are almost all good, the sound effects (especially the explosions) are great and some of the bosses’ designs and battles are actually fun and challenging. The little humor there is, it’s actually funny and if there was more of it, the game might have stood out more instead of looking so generic and bland. The animation is okay as far as later-90s 3D games go, but the soundtrack is almost non-existent. And as far I liked the level design, the fixed camera sometimes changes perspective without notice, which can be a bit disorienting.

45894-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-screenshot-surrounded

In overall, I consider Expendable a pretty average game and if you’re a fan of run-and-gun style shoot’em ups; like Contra, Cannon Fodder or Midnight Resistance, you might want to give it a shot but, otherwise, I can’t really recommend it. Like I said before, it’s too generic and bland. If it had better controls and more humor throughout the game, Rage could have a serious spiritual successor to Contra on their hands.

I haven’t played any of the console versions, so I can’t really compare them with the PC version. You can buy the PC version here at GOG.com or here at Steam. Around 2012, a port of the Dreamcast version called Expendable: Rearmed was released for Android, but it’s no longer available on Google Play.

I know this was a somewhat short review, but then again, there isn’t much to say about this game. But next time, I promise to avenge this with a better and bigger review. Until then, keep on shooting and playing.