Retro Rated – Xenon 2

Factfile
Developed by: The Assembly Line
Released: 1989
Format played: Amiga

What Is It?

Ask your average Amiga owner for their top vertical shooters released on the system and it’s likely that this will feature quite highly.

Programmed by The Assembly Line, this was published by the Bitmap Brothers and their usual hallmarks shine through. Graphically this captures that gritty, realistic feel that would become a Bitmap trademark, one that would be refined in games such as Speedball II and Chaos Engine.

The game itself is a sequel to the original Xenon. I never played the first game but I bought this as a kid. It came in an awesome grey box with a picture of weird space fish on the cover. Groovy. As a child of the ’80s I was no doubt drawn in by the reference to Megablast in the title. More on that in a minute.

Gameplay is standard fare for this type of shooter. Waves of enemies come flying at you for dispatch back to whichever realm they came from. They are a suitably weird bunch with disgusting creatures emerging from the walls, space slugs, floating eyeballs and other such delights. Indeed the screen will often be filled with enemies and in tandem with scenery obstacles that push you into dead ends or tight corridors, it soon becomes cluttered with death.

Fortunately then you come well tooled. Your starting ship is fairly cumbersome with just a single, slow repeat blaster out of the front. You soon add some speed boost, followed by an extra shot from the rear of the craft but taking out waves of enemies allows you to collect credits that can be spent in a shop that pops up at the middle and end of each level. Choose your poison from side cannons, lasers, flamethrowers, mines or health boosts amongst other items, then it’s back into the fray to fight for your life. They are satisfyingly meaty upgrades that give the frenetic blasting a sense of weight.

This is brutally hard. You will die repeatedly, cursing the name of any brother Bitmap as you do so. Autofire is your friend here. It’s not helped by the movement of your craft that is at times either sluggish or too nippy, flinging you into enemies. Attacks come from all sides too, often at the same time, meaning that as you panic mid shot and lurch the ship to the right, so another wave appears from below, smashing into the back of you and draining crucial health.

Level design is a double edged sword too. The action continually scrolls up and bits of scenery occasionally appear to corral you along a certain path. Sometimes these paths split and you choose which way to go but annoyingly only one route has an exit and you cannot possibly tell which, only finding out as the screen completes its painfully slow ascent before revealing that you took a wrong turn. This is where one of Xenon 2’s gimmicks kicks in as you ship can fly backwards for a short time, pushing the screen back and allowing you to choose a different way forward.

It seems like a neat addition at first. Indeed I can’t think of any other side or vertical shooters that employ this mechanic. But you soon realise it is artificial. It doesn’t actually add any strategy to the game. It’s not as if you can take multiple routes to discover hidden loot or short cuts. If you luck out and pick the wrong way you simply get stuck and have to go back, which means moving slowly backwards through another batch of enemies that are pot shotting you from the side of the screen before having to go at them head on.

And if things weren’t difficult enough, the game not only chucks end of level bosses at you but mid-level ones too. Taken in isolation they are an interesting set of enemies but with such relentless difficulty they begin to become a grind. And it’s a shame too as the later levels house the most interesting layouts and enemies. If you can survive the early waves and collect enough credits the shop does allow you to really pimp your ride. You soon fill the screen with utter mayhem and that’s without the Super Nashwan power that gives you a 10 second limited blast of ultra death, a real standout, show off moment. It is joyous.

But of course what most of us remember is the soundtrack. As coveredĀ here, in a licensing deal with Tim Simenon and Rhythm King records, Bomb The Bass’ seminal acid house classic Megablast provides both the subtitle to the game as well as the soundtrack throughout. Technical achievement aside (it’s a fantastic and faithful rendition), it provides a thumping baseline to the action, driving you on through the toughest sections. That is when you haven’t got so distracted listening to it that you forget to fire. Whoops. It’s a shame in some respects that they couldn’t squeeze in a couple of other tracks from the Into the Dragon album although it is slightly churlish to expect such from a game running on floppies.

Worth Playing?

Graphically this still holds up, the Bitmap’s gritty art style almost timeless. But in truth this is a game that most gamers will remember more fondly than the experience of actually playing it. A decent game, but one given greater status in our thoughts by the memories of the awesome music.

If we strip that away though the game has to stand on its own merits and here its limitations are apparent. It is never less than competent but without that aural shine, at time this becomes a grinding, frustrating experience with little in the way of variation or standout features to hold your interest.

Still, Bitmap Shades.

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