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X-Out (Amiga) artwork

X-Out (Amiga) review

"An underwater shooter with ridiculous depth"

Used to be a time when reviewing early Ď90s scrolling shooters was a breeze. Ever play seminal 1987 shoot-Ďem-up R-Type? Well, so had the developers of the game you were about to review, and theyíd loved that shit. So, like Irem did before them, theirs was a maze of claustrophobic corridors that painted level design with just as much threat as the assorted villains fiddling around on screen firing blobs of laser at you. They adopted oft-bulbous pod ships that you could collect myriad power-ups from when you blew them up, complete with satellite helpers and overcharge weapons.

And, yes, I get that none of these things were wholly original before R-Type. Itís just that, after R-Type, this pattern became the unshakable foundation for a very long time. Todayís game, X-Out (pronounced Cross-Out) helpfully continues that trend by presenting a very hostile environment, forcing you into tight spaces that rapidly decreases your odds of dodging enemy fire. It places obstacles in your way, forcing you to slalom about the screen or eat a face full of craft-destroying rock. Though, to be fair, that wonít outright kill you in X-Out, as it employs a euro-shooter health bar that lets you absorb a few blows. Also, it takes place underwater, so thatís different as well. And it offers exactly zero power-ups or helper satellites to be picked from the carrion of fallen foes. Or extra lives; youíll earn none of those in the deadly skies murky depths. All your gains will need to be purchased at the shops placed between levels, using your very score as currency.

The point Iím (eventually) making is that X-Out is atypical and unique in ways that, even some thirty years later, still manage to stand out as an oddity. Some of this is just for show; the submersible angle changes relatively little, aside from deaths causing an explosion of bubbles rather than flames. It mainly allows the enemy to take on an aquatic cosmetic, as you sometimes find yourself up against cyborg jellyfish while you dodge floating mines. Itís in the shop and the outfitting of your craft that strikes the most interesting balance, because youíve a lot of choices to make, and any single one of them could damn you to a scuttling. Youíre going to be stuck with the most basic ship and the most basic weaponry to try and forge through the early goings of the game. You start off weak, your offense limited, but if you donít play aggressive and chase points, then youíll never be in the position you need to purchase the juiciest upgrades. On the other hand, play too loose and too fast, and youíll see a very quick game over. Thereís no extra lives on offer; not from hitting X amount of points; not from destroying special bonus enemies. You want an extra craft? Youíve got to buy an extra craft -- and they ainít cheap. So what do you do? Do you buy a fleet of the weaker ships and do what you can with their paltry three weapon max limit so you have extra lives in reserve? Do you save towards the biggest ship in the fleet and slowly build up to its ridiculous twelve weapon outfitting, sitting comfy behind shields while homing missiles and helper satellites wash the screen in enough artillery to destroy most foes before they even scroll on screen? Do this, and you probably canít afford any worthwhile second chances.

X-Out forces you to experiment, delving not only into differing weapon setups, but just how much you plan to gamble on your own twitch skills. Itís not a bullet hell by any means (the 90ís was a more innocent time), but itís far from a cakewalk. The first level swarms you with manta-shaped submarines, swift lobster crafts surging in tight arcs with floor-mounted turrets tucked into inconvenient crevices in the uneven seabed, always spitting bullets. Thereís room to dodge for a while, but soon you have to weave around long forgotten sunken cities and craggy broken rock formations, while the carcasses of razed boats clog up the top of the screen. Before long, youíre assaulted by a mid-boss; a deep-suit clad mech riding a massive robotic eel. The eel will go down suspiciously fast, which frees the mech to take shelter behind a rock column, surging up from his cover with a shield intact. The only way to damage him is after he takes his shot and scrambles back to cover. A clever and unique mechanic that takes you out of your genre comfort zone? Bloody X-Out is full of them.

Hereís another one: Thereís eight stages to play through, but stages double up their aesthetic. So, stages one and two both run through the sunken city setting, sharing a lot of the same enemy types, but mixing the environments up enough so it feels like youíre progressing through one giant stage. With less care, it would have felt more like a lazy pallet swap, but that never happens. As you progress, the ruins become less, well, ruined, and shiny metal platforms start appearing, embedded in the ancient rock. Youíre working towards something -- the first level boss is a bulbous fossil assimilated by alien organics, pulsating organs fused to long dead bone. The second level boss is different; he looks like a repurposed piece of construction equipment. No organics; all metal -- a clear sign that youíre surging away from the wastelands into better developed enemy territory.

Stages three and four are lined with the ribs of rotting scaffolding, long claimed by sickly yellow barnacles, but peppered with repurposed steel and turrets. These levels donít just delight in making you squeeze through the tightest corridors the game has to offer, often bookended by columns of algae you have to destroy before you smash into them, but also gives you multiple paths at points. You can try and fit through that claustrophobic choke-point, if you like, or you can brave an access point with a bit more room, but with dangerous water currents dripping through holes on the cavern roof. If the level does open up, itís a clear warning that something nasty is on its way. A mid level boss looks like a perfectly normal giant enemy craft until you shoot it a couple of times, and it splits off into four sections, chasing you about the screen, then reforms into its dangerous whole to throw a wall of bullets at you. Weird red blobs squiggle in the background but, draw too near, and they coat the front of your ship, absorbing all your offense before eventually exploding. Massive blue robots attack you from the front, spewing walls made from spiked mines behind them you have to shoot your way through, while robot snakes come at you from the rear. They build their own tails endlessly, like that game youíre old enough to remember from your old Nokia phone. You can even best them by tricking them into eating their own rear if youíre feeling nostalgic. One boss is a metallic lobster who casually flings chunks of its carapace at you. Damage it enough, and it turns out its abdomen is constructed of multiple smaller fighter craft who do their best to flee the scene once the main structure is destroyed. Itís entirely possible you could just let them go. Iíve never felt the need to find out.

Five and six are crystal-lined caves where the enemy forces put giant shells on massive missiles to trick you into thinking the stage is alive with harmless house-sized gastropods, before the shells are jettisoned and the ruse is revealed! Shoot them down or die! Thereís this octopus who turns up with a sleepy look on his face that might be cute if it wasnít for the bloody great flamethrower replacing one of its tentacles. But seven and eight is when it gets real. Youíre on the home straight now, delving deeper than ever in lava-soaked depths and X-Out has saved some of its best tricks for last. Angry barracuda bots rocket across the screen at you in a show of speed previously unheard of, forcing you to use the once dangerous nooks of the level layout as temporary save heavens. Massive balls of fire burped up from the bowels of the earth are hard to avoid, but explode into smaller, fiery chunks when destroyed, and thatís usually worse. Stretches of open levels assault you with uni-wheeled cannons, huge robot seahorses and leagues of smaller fighter craft to trick you into changing gears from dodging to engaging firefights to get your points back up, then randomly slip right back to the heady charge of the barracudas again! Level sevenís boss fight with a bizarre underwater dirigible has you pelt it endlessly with no physical signs of damage. You only know youíre hurting it, because the music becomes more and more urgent as its health plummets, and it gets more and more desperate to lock its huge laser cannon onto you.

The last level slows things back down. No suicide fish rush; instead, it makes you navigate through the spine of a dead forest, long since destroyed by the underwater lava, all the while making you dodge constantly spitting flames. This last stage isnít very long, but the end of game boss makes up for that in spades. For better or worse, the boss fights in X-Out are usually quick and desperate affairs. Those early battles against the reanimated fossil and repurposed construction equipment can be completed in seconds. They look the part, but their attack patterns are predictable and thereís plenty of places to retreat into. Youíd rightly expect the difficulty to evolve, but the last few borders uncomfortably close to cheap. One of the last boss fights, a transforming mining train thing, offers part of its cycle where youíre backed into a corner and you canít help but eat a few shots. You have to rely on your euro-shooter shield to hold out long enough to win a desperate war of attrition.

This last boss, though, isn't particularly cheap. Itís worse. It just isnít very interesting. Itís a mobile weapons factory thatís constantly spitting out Gundam-like fighters who walk out of one of two ports in robot form, morph into a fighter plane, then follow one of two easily predicted attack patterns that, if you have a tri-shot upgrade, you rarely need to even adjust yourself to take out. And this is the last level; youíve secured the funds to own a tri-shot laser by now or you just wouldnít be here. The Gundam-lites are on an infinite spawn, and your main target is a laser cannon situated at the bottom of the factory, firing a fixed blast at fixed intervals. You donít need to be Sun Tze to work out a battle plan; wait for the the laser to fire, sneak to the bottom of the screen, plough a few choice shoots into the cannon, then ascend after itís reloaded to dodge the telegraphed attack, shoot a few robot minions, rinse and repeat. Itís a good plan; itís more or less the only plan. Only the station has a ridiculous health reserve and you have no idea who much of it is left at any time. It doesnít clue you in with the dirigible's ingenious use of the background music and it shows no obvious damage.

The station does fall eventually. Eventually. But itís a real (Iíve been waiting all review to break out this pun) damp squib of an ending. The fight goes on for so long, I suspect a lot of would-be ace pilots genuinely believed their game to have glitched and gave up on accessing the humble ending of one splash screen art and a page of text congratulating you for saving humanity, but hinting that youíll never be able to save it from itself. Thatís a bit of a downer, having the hubris of man thrust on you right after youíve spent some five to ten minutes chipping away laboriously at the never-ending boss fight.

But in the case of X-Out the joy is certainly in the journey rather than the destination. Itís such a weird little game filled with weird little ideas, and is an exploratory study case in taking risks and banking on creativity. It would have been easy to not bother with any of the new ideas; it would have been a piece of cake to not bother with the shop and just be like everyone else and, if they had, X-Out would have still been a great shooter. But it dared to be more and, because of that, thereís still nothing out there quite like it.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (December 22, 2020)

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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