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Xenophobe (Arcade) artwork

Xenophobe (Arcade) review

"In 1987 Bally Midway engineered Xenophobe, a one-to-three person alien extermination effort with a twist.  While simultaneous cooperative play has roots far deeper in gaming history, perhaps never before had a developer so intuitively envisioned the future of multiplayer.   Xenophobe divides a single arcade monitor into three strips of screen, each player entitled his own.  Each strip initially displays a chamber of an extraterrestrially overrun environment, all of the settings sli..."

In 1987 Bally Midway engineered Xenophobe, a one-to-three person alien extermination effort with a twist.  While simultaneous cooperative play has roots far deeper in gaming history, perhaps never before had a developer so intuitively envisioned the future of multiplayer.   Xenophobe divides a single arcade monitor into three strips of screen, each player entitled his own.  Each strip initially displays a chamber of an extraterrestrially overrun environment, all of the settings slightly different in theme while caught under the same generic term "alien base" (not stale, per se, but lacking variety).  Players can see and interact with each other on each strip, yet one player moving left and right into a different room will not affect other players, with only one of the three displays shifting.  In this way Xenophobe allows for cooperative play, minor strategy in assigning routes, exploratory ventures ("you go on ahead," directed at the healthiest comrade) and zero reason even a novice can't join mid-game and be of assistance.  At a time when most side-scrolling titles chewed the left side of the screen, Xenophobe excels by lifting restrictions that made joint exploration impossible while still remaining undoubtedly action oriented.
Levels are completed when a base stands fully exterminated or a timer expires, the former being especially hard for the single player to accomplish, yet thankfully will not cost lives or impede progress.  Staying alive is key; each quarter buys the player health, and initially armed with the phazer pistol he’s beamed aboard a hostile enemy environment.  Left and right are the two preliminary options, but there are shortcuts to different floors, items and keycards to collect to set detonators, combat predators and seal passageways and a heaping amount of alien scum reaching tentacles out of ventilation ducts, darting hypnotic beams around corners and struggling through the maturation process into warrior drones.  Xenophobe demonstrates a sound psychological approach to game design in not penalizing the player for what he cannot accomplish within the time restriction, but letting him continue on so long as he hasn't made mistakes resulting in his death, which also further facilitates strategic multiplayer approaches.
One of the neat and more interesting things to observe is that the enemy is literally evolving right before you.  Eggs take a single blast to exterminate, but when hatched they become critters, and afterward rollers (resembling temporarily invincible armadillos) and finally warrior Xenos that withstand several bullets, able to disarm player weaponry upon contact.  Warriors spew acid and intermittingly lunge, telegraphed Jurassic Park-style velociraptors on cough syrup made difficult to avoid due to range.  It's best to not leave an egg behind passing through a room, however memory restrictions disrupt the continuity of play (when backtracking, you'll wonder where did these guys come from, especially if a fellow competitor has been vanquishing the opposite route).  Interactive backgrounds contain switches and displays, either opening doors or engaging countdowns or sometimes displaying maps, countdowns to withdrawal time or even the current percentage of the enclosure still overrun.  This may sound like a reviewer harping on unimportant minutia yet for 1987 such detail suggests extra care was taken to make Xenophobe above all one thing: good.
Undoubtedly that is why it provides the slapstick additions and trinkets that will amuse players, and Bally Midway certainly succeeded in making an entertaining if oft-underappreciated game.  Each player has a choice of three unique characters -- making nine total -- which include stalwart space cadets such as the fearless Dr. Kwack, rendered with detail that goes beyond the mere obvious necessities for an astronaut mallard.  Human and alien variety adventurers are available too, if you’d prefer. Despite the assumed restrictions on three separate fields of play, crisp colorful bolded edges and a striking amount of detail are present. Additional weapons can be procured throughout, with laser pistols, lightning rifles, gas guns and grenades better stocking players for roller and warrior showdowns.  If anything the biggest knock against Xenophobe is probably hardware related: one additional button would have eliminated the need for its constantly flux control structure, where one button is mapped to weaponry and two others shift between standing, ducking, jumping, and action commands based on proximity to interactive background switches, stray items and whether grenades are in reserve.  This seems likely to be not the fault of the design team but one of the restrictions placed upon it, to stay within a certain hardware framework necessary for machine modifications so Xenophobe could be substituted for and eventually be replaced by other software.  Still, when attempting to deal with larger enemy groups, play sometimes degenerates to untactful and sloppy exchanges where players are swinging a knife rather than jumping, chucking grenades rather than ducking or pressing switches rather than recollecting lost weaponry. It’s an annoyance, heavy damage sometimes inevitable, with slight backtracking to regain composure highlighting the aforementioned flaw of memory-caused mysteriously spawning bestiary in cleared chambers.
But ending by pointing out a pair of extrapolating flaws, the second minor, rather than the ambition and vision it took to create Xenophobe, much less the additional care visible through subtle displays and accessories, would certainly mislead.  The be-all end-all gist would instead go something like this: despite a hardware restriction that has slightly compromised the end product, it has not obscured the overall vision of several players interacting at once -- both within and game-planning beside the cabinet -- nor detracted from the setting, cast and flair that makes the simple concept of moving left and right clearing hostiles repeatable.  Xenophobe may strike some as middling and average (compared to genre-definers, its player is plodding, its enemy variety weak (more Elevator Action than Contra, for sure)), but keep perspective; for its time its front-and-center multiplayer concept was new, intuitive yet mostly untested on audiences.  To take a stand and move forward with the game, a decade before split screen became the default multiplayer approach and in a genre where split screen wasn't the default, shows foresight and deserves credit and praise.  Had it not been for several lackluster and severely downgraded console ports, perhaps it would be better remembered to this day.


LowerStreetBlues's avatar
Community review by LowerStreetBlues (February 25, 2010)

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bloomer posted February 25, 2010:

A good review putting this game into context of time. I only knew it from MAME, where it was one of those ones that seems too fiddly control-wise to persist with. Ditto Zwackery, which runs on the same hardware I think.

For a second when I started reading this, I was thinking of Xybots, and that made me think maybe there should have been more specific description of how the screen was arranged. But when I remembered what Xeno was, and I see your initial description is totally right. So this paragraph really makes for a redundant story that didn't need telling :)
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LowerStreetBlues posted February 25, 2010:

Good point anyway. I was planning on screenshots clearing that up better, but when I took them I realized they didn't look too good scaled down and with only one of the three strips in use, so I trashed 'em.
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radicaldreamer posted February 26, 2010:

Good to see you submitting again, even though you never responded to my HGmail!
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LowerStreetBlues posted February 26, 2010:

Let's clear this up, because I feel like it's the third time someone has tried to put the screws to me, radicaldreamer, hence why I didn't answer:

Never wrote under another account here. Never been here before September last year, maybe later. Not some old-timer, except in the sense I'm a middle aged adult, and I'm thrown off by the weird vibes around here. Not sure why I have to justify this to you, let alone anyone outside site administration.

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radicaldreamer posted February 26, 2010:

Just curious.
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bloomer posted February 26, 2010:

Not that I think I have at all been part of any weird vibemaking, but if there's been this curiosity about you LSB that you say there has, it probably amounts to a compliment arriving by illogical means :)

When good reviews start materialising out of (relatively!) nowhere, I think a lot of folks around here think 'this person must be an already established reviewer'. Which leads to the next thought 'We must already know them.' And in that mindset, the 2 focus points for good reviewers have been gamefaqs and here. The core reviewing userbase on this site started out almost entirely as the people from the reviewing scene at gamefaqs, who left there variously for the attractions of this site and also because the gamefaqs culture was seen to change.

On top of all that, there's been a history of identity shenanigans - known writers changing IDs or writing other under names, to the extent this kind of thing has happened before, back at gamefaqs. IE - Someone sees a new reviewer and says 'You must be (such and such)...' no matter what protestations. I was guilty of doing this once myself back in more actiony times (like 8 years ago)

I hope this pile of political history maybe helps sort out any weirdness you have experienced and why. You've already said 'Damn your eyes, I am me!' which should be a good enough fob for everyone.
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zigfried posted February 26, 2010:

Great review! This was one of those games that seemed awfully popular back in the day, but has since been forgotten. You do a great job of recapturing the times while keeping an appropriately critical demeanor.

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LowerStreetBlues posted February 26, 2010:

Well that makes sense, but I would think a writer using a different name would have reasons, right to privacy and such. But I guess open speculation is just as much a right too.

I'll take it all as wishful thinking, but for full disclosure, I have been to GameFAQs before. And I even understand the change in culture bit, since I know they're pretty much second fiddle to GameSpot these days. Interesting to know. Apologies for being terse.
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overdrive posted February 26, 2010:

What Bloomer said. I doubt anyone had any intent of being a creepy by-god stalker, but we have had a number of great reviewers either stop or go into semi-retirements where they come back now and then to give more content.

You burst on the scene with one high-caliber retro review after another, so I can see why people would be interested in whether you are an actual newcomer to the site or an old eFriend deciding to make a return.
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radicaldreamer posted February 26, 2010:

I apologize if this inquiry was in any way intrusive, invalidating, or even just annoying. From my perspective I didn't even realize it could be perceived that way.

The community we have here is small and every one knows each other, so when a new person shows up, everyone notices. As Bloomer mentioned, we have had old-timers come back under aliases. When we actually get genuinely new people, they are usually much more rough around the edges than you are. It can be hard to tell because most people who stick around learn a lot and get really good, but I still remember the fairly modest beginnings of long-time writers like Emp, Suskie, or even myself. Since you said this was the "third time," it sounds like I wasn't the only one who had this idea.

My suspicions were even a little more sociologically grounded, so it wasn't just writing skill. We have a bit of an in-group mentality here with our own culture and norms for how we write reviews, how we view games, and even how we express ourselves on the forums, though that's not to say there are no differences between some of us. You seemed to fit right in with that.

Again, apologies. There were no ill intentions from me or anyone else here.

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