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Xenon 2: Megablast (Genesis) artwork

Xenon 2: Megablast (Genesis) review

"I respect Xenon 2 for the envelopes it pushed, but this doesn’t qualify it for a free pass; it doesn’t excuse its mistakes. Remember its innovations fondly, if you like, just don’t revisit them. There’s no reason to; no reward for your efforts. Just one final note from Bitmap Brothers saying “By the way? We know you cheated to get this far, and we hate you.”"

Xenon 2: Megablast is a scrolling shooter noteworthy for a lot of things. It first saw the light of day back on the humble Amiga in 1989 and did what we game reviewers accuse 50% of all games of doing: changing the landscape of everything yet to come. It produced a lot of eye opening features, such as giving you limited control over how the screen scrolled around your plodding ship, letting you back out of dead ends and hitting reverse to create the illusion of freedom when fighting multi-screen boss fights. It took a hip-hop/techno single from Bomb The Bass, digitalised it quite brilliantly, then had it play throughout the entirety of the game. For its time, it was a revolution in many ways.

“For its time“, though, is a dangerous phrase. Xenon 2 will always be worth remembering for what it did at the end of the 80’s when scrolling shooters were just starting to find their feet. Let’s keep in mind that Irem had only really cemented the genre two years previously with R-Type and people were falling over themselves in droves to mimic that. Bitmap Brothers weren’t that type of company and thrived instead on pushing the envelope further. That they did. And, should you happen to find some weird space/time rift that hurls you back to the early nineties, wiping any memory you have of modern times along the way, you’ll be impressed with the innovation, the complex soundtrack and the unapologetic difficulty scale.

It’s silly to pretend that will happen outside of soft sci-fi flicks. It‘s just hit 2011, and nostalgia can only tip gin down the throat of common sense to a certain degree. More than perhaps any other shooter on the market, Xenon 2 has aged horribly.

The difficulty the title was once so famed for is brought into sharp focus; unlike R-Type which owed its challenge mainly to sadistic level design that scaled your chances of survival down to the bare minimal then fired a bevy of extra lasers at you for kicks, the second Xenon‘s biggest threat is the lethargic pace everything you do is forced to undertake. Your ship crawls vertically up the screen like an elderly pensioner navigating a treacherously icy slope, but offers less offence. Your minimalist starting weapon of an obligatory pea shooter slithers up the screen, in no hurry to get anywhere.

Xenon 2 plods. Your gun fires slowly enough for foes to dance in between the gaps while the sentient tea cups and flying cuttlefish that serve as part of the first level’s assault fly rings around you. The borders are jagged, sculptured with alien flora that all look very similar, but vie to get in the way. Odd plants protrude from this, spitting out missiles of their own close enough to give your unmanoeuvrable craft little chance of survival -- and this is the first level of five, the one meant to ease you in.

Sadly, compared to the rest, it may as well have been labelled a tutorial. The first stage has you take on a rainfall of hostile wildlife, including airborne bugs and moths. From the craggy borders of the screen, plants spit explosive pollen at you while segmented worms spawn from hollowed rock and fling themselves at you recklessly. Without a care in the world, your craft picks its way up the screen lackadaisically, unresponsive and sluggish. Still, aided by the mid-level stop-off in a shop and a diminishing life bar rather than the expected one-hit death, the first stage can be seen off. The last boss, an asteroid-sized shrimp, flicks a roaming tongue around the screen, spewing out shell fragments.

The ability to absorb several blows before you die helps, but the shop and the power-ups you can collect along the way are the real key to victory. Obtaining multifire bursts or grafting laser and/or missile launchers onto your craft do not vanish upon death and are only removed if you sell them or overwrite them with hardier wares. With a sturdy ship constantly on the permanent upgrade, the slow pace doesn’t stop you blazing a path through anything, bulldozing with force where manoeuvrability falls flat. The simple landscapes and the weak selection of enemies lets you think you stand a chance. It lets you think you have all the tools you need.

It tricks you.

The second level starts off simply enough. A curving corridor of red fungus guides you in a criss-crossing path while giant flies snap at your heels. A clever pilot would have used his earlier stops at the shop to buy a side-shooter, which makes short work of the stalked eyeballs poking from the walls, blinking fireballs at you. The stage will throw smaller, faster enemies at you, harder to track and more willing to work their way into your defences. You’re not fast enough to stop them. Soon, you’ll find the mid-boss; a rotting island of flesh spitting out tapeworms that you’ll need to complete laps of to gain access to all its weak points. Set your offence up right and you’ll come out on top. Another trip to the shop awaits.

By now, it’s clear your ship is struggling against the upgraded foes. Smaller, quicker foes may not cause the damage their bulkier brethren do, but they literally fly rings around you. Splitting seeds and small bronze orbs start to make up the bulk of your targets while creeping sprouts sneak up the sides. Soon, bulbous red orbs lined with teeth will explode from the sides of the screen, ushering in destroyable filaments stretched across the screen and a hulking spider you’ll need to abuse the screen-shifting mechanics around to complete the stage.

By the time you hit the shop, you’ll have enough funds to graft the big missiles or lasers to your sides. Maybe you’ll feel that’s enough. In stage three, snakes piledrive out of the stone walls when you draw near. It’s a cheap way of plummeting your health bar; you have no way to dodge. Odd H.G Gigor Alien-inspired tadpoles stalk you from atop the screen before mercilessly bullrushing you. Acid-lobbing leeches are everywhere. Then the level architect joins in on kicking your arse. And now, you’re doomed.

Level 3’s layout makes the sadistic bastards at R-Type’s Irem look like volunteer workers at a kitten sanctuary. Walls narrow in so you ship can barely squeeze through, then cut in alcoves and tunnels so there’s still something shooting at you. They split the screen into numerous corridors, often leading to dead ends you need to reverse out of, always under constant fire and all at the relevant speed of a drifting continent. Flying plasma eels dial up the cheapness by surging from the bottom of the screen and, when you do find a patch of open space, a floating crab is waiting for you. It’s a highlight, despite the elongated claws and the tumbling missile blasts, because, once it’s dead, it’s back to the corridors.

I could end here; you’ll never see past this part of the game regardless of your skill because, here, Xenon 2 decides it’s time to redefine cheapness. The claustrophobic conditions mean that your struggling ship has no room to lurch problematically in, and the placement of plasma-spitting bugs and plants are, of course, always positioned behind you. The eels surge from behind in smug numbers while reptilian beasts fire spikes in star formations, covering the screen in projectiles you have neither the speed nor room to dodge. Ironically, obtain enough small miracles to see your way through this labyrinth, and you’ll find the easiest end-of-level boss in the game.

By now, though, old niggling annoyances are starting to blossom into full-blown game wreckers. The ship’s ability to do little more than plod in the face of hardier, faster foes destroys the game’s ‘challenging’ moniker and replaces it instead with ’cheap’. The adventuresome “Bomb the Bass” soundtrack is the only thing you ever hear and, as such, overrides its noteworthy achievements the second it starts to drown in repetitiveness. Even so, play the Mega Drive version, and this track takes a huge nosedive in quality. The in-game track is vastly simplified and wholly synthesized. The vocalised version that introduces the game on the Amiga had no chance of surviving the console port.

It’s not all that doesn’t make it onto the 16-bit port: Xenon 2 loses the entire last level which would be more damning if you ever stood a chance of making it that far. Level 4 serves conclusion instead, a crystallised stage that features swooping pterodactyls and fleshy T-Rex heads sprouting from the sides. In open ascents, leggy lizards sprint down the walls, firing missiles before vanishing from view forever. A huge waggy-tailed brontosaurus, small, sprouting volcanoes and angry bats make up the rest of this slog before you drag your broken and weary sprit over the finishing line.

Beat the game -- you won’t without enabling an invincibility cheat, but we’ll pretend you can -- and you’ll find yourself back in the shop. The friendly shopkeeper, who looks like an industrious version of the Predator race Schwarzenegger and Glover had a beef with, thanks you for your time, tells you he hopes that what preceded his pep talk was good enough for you, and reminds you to shut off your TV before you go. Then the screen goes blank.

Jump through flaming hoops while wearing concrete boots, demands Xenon 2. Ignore how badly I’ve aged, ignore how we flood you with cheap deaths then claim it was your incompetence. Do all this because of what we did right twenty years ago, and we’ll reward you with the biggest slap-in-the-face ending we can think of. And Bitmap can think low; they can think right down in the dank gutters of human imagination where mortals dare tread. They proved it. Remember Level 3?


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (January 23, 2011)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Felix_Arabia posted January 23, 2011:

Good review, Gary. I enjoy a good schmup read. On a side note, when you talk about the asteroid-size shrimp, was that an attempt at self-awareness?
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EmP posted January 23, 2011:

I am a big fan of self promotion.

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JoeTheDestroyer posted January 23, 2011:

Indeed. I dug it.

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