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Xevious Review Rewind


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On 03/28/2019 at 09:00 AM by Jamie Alston

A Game Changer
RECOMMENDATION:

While it may be a little too old school for some, the forward-thinking game design can be appreciated by most SHMUP aficionados.

Every time I play Xevious on one of Namco’s "museum" compilations, I can’t help but reminisce about the time when I first discovered the game in 1992 on the Atari 7800 (a system which also familiarized me with other Namco classics outside of Pac-Man). Back then, our family couldn’t afford the Super NES or Sega Genesis. So, in a move of what I think was out of pity, a friend of ours gave us her 7800 with a huge bag full of games. While rummaging through the cartridges, I came across the little oddity known as Xevious. It was probably the first game I had heard of that started with an “X”, and the name intrigued me. I quickly fell in love with the unique enemy designs and mysterious land structures peppered throughout the game.

Over the years, after discovering websites dedicated to retro gaming, I was pretty happy to find out that Xevious was more than just a random title on an Atari system. It was well known by fans everywhere as one of the most innovative arcade games of its time. In a 1985 interview, the game’s designer, Masanobu Endo, said that he wanted to make “a consistent world and setting, create high-quality sprites”, and also “a story that wouldn’t just be some tacked-on extra, but could actually stand on its own merits”. When it was released in arcades in 1983, Xevious went on to become the game that forever changed the landscape of 2D shooters.

 

If you’ve ever read the story elements of this game, then you already know that Xevious spins a tale rife with twists and turns. But I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Basically, a war breaks out between humankind and the bio-computer GAMP (General Artificial Matrix Producer)- a machine capable of mass-producing human clones. The GAMPs grew tired of humans using them for joyless slave labor. So they rebelled, vacated Earth, and traveled to the planet Xevious where they hatched a plot against mankind. Thousands of years and one ice age later, the GAMPs return to Earth to enslave humans and take over the planet. It’s up to you to pilot the Solvalou ship and defend Earth against its would-be conquerors.

The core design elements of Xevious outpaced that of arguably every other shooter that came before it. It went a step further than just blasting the same simplistic set of bug-like creatures off the screen. You had two separate weapons. First, there’s the zapper- dedicated to destroying aerial enemies. You also have the blaster- an unlimited supply of bombs used to take out ground targets with the help of a targeting reticle in front of your ship. Having separate weapons for aerial and ground enemies introduced a new layer of strategy. As attacks from enemies increase, it may not always be advantageous to go after everything on the screen. As a result, players often found themselves having to choose the best course of action under the circumstances.

 

Xevious also brimmed with personality in an unprecedented way. The game was chock-full of quirky nuances that were rarely (if ever) seen in a scrolling shooter at the time. The aerial enemies that invade the screen had some rather intricate designs and impressively realistic attack patterns. Previously in fixed-screen shooters like Space Invaders, enemies marched in the same simplistic pattern. Or in games like Galaxian and Galaga, the space bugs were constantly doing kamikaze dives, attempting to crash into your ship. But in Xevious, enemies will swoop in to fire a quick shot and then retreat away from you. Endoh designed the enemies that way since he figured that real fighter pilots wouldn't want to just collide with the enemy if it could all be avoided. It was a subtle, yet smart design choice that made the action on-screen all the more believable.

In total, there are 16 different sections in the game. Dense forest areas mark the boundary between sections. Some areas culminate into a battle with the Andor Genesis- an imposing giant mothership. It is considered to be one of the earliest examples of an end level boss in a scrolling shooter. It seemed like there was always something new being thrown at you. Whether you’re surrounded by rotating ships (Zoshi), weaving through invincible floating shields, avoiding shrapnel released from exploding bombs, or flying over Nazca lines etched in the ground below, there was plenty to see in Xevious.

This game also introduced a form of artificial intelligence that adapted to your skill. As you get better at destroying enemies, new swarms will appear with increasingly versatile attack patterns. So to an extent, the more aggressively you play, the more the game fights back. It was a unique feature because it created a varied experience that wasn’t completely predictable after playing the game a few times. As you progress further into the game, ground enemies develop behavioral changes. Targets that were previously harmless begin to fire bullets at you. Tanks that were once stationary suddenly become mobile in an attempt to avoid being hit by your blaster bomb.

 

Interestingly enough, there are certain ground targets that pose no immediate threat, but can still be destroyed anyway. Of particular note, is the Zolback ground unit- a small dome with four glowing red stripes around the top of it. While they cause you no harm, they do serve as radar installations that give away your position to the enemy. Failing to destroy the Zolbak radar units result in an increasing number of aerial forces attacking you. On the other hand, if you do destroy them, aggression from the enemy will momentarily lighten. Features like this are what made the game stand out in terms of ingenuity.

This was also one of the first games to have hidden bonuses. By performing a special maneuver at the start of the game, you can unlock a secret message from Namco. The most memorable bonus for me has always been those hidden “S” flags from Rally-X. You can reveal them by bombing the correct areas of the terrain. Collecting one of those flags net you a nifty 1-Up; something you can never have enough of in this game. You can also uncover secret Zol towers strewn about by using the same technique for finding “S” flags. Revealing a Zol tower nets you 2000 points and destroying it awards you with an additional 2000 points to your score. It’s great for quickly gaining points needed for an extra ship.

 

My only real criticism of Xevious is that your ship is a little too slow compared to the enemies’ bullets being fired. It’s really easy to get caught in their crossfire if you’re not mindful of your position on the screen, which can cheapen the joy of gaining an extra life in the first place. Certain enemies have tricky flight patterns. It can be hard to evade them when they attack in swarms while also dodging other hazards as well. It is especially troublesome evading bullets while flying over large bodies of water because the enemy shots tend to blend in with the blue and dots of white used for the water graphics. It’s a real pet peeve of mine because, in those scenarios, I often find myself second-guessing where to position my already-too-slow ship, losing my groove of concentration, and catching a bullet of death as a result. Not my preferred way to go.

The visual style presented in Xevious was something truly unique to the genre. Instead of a mere blank background or simplistic star field, the action takes place over an Earth-like landscape. You can easily tell the difference between grassy, dirt, aquatic, and forest terrain. The character pixels were rendered through the careful use of grey colors and a method called palette-shifting. This resulted in each enemy having smooth, realistic animations with a clarity that was revolutionary for its time.

Arcade games running on the Namco Galaga system hardware were known for delivering high-quality audio and Xevious was no exception. The sounds effects were quite unique for the genre back then also. Destroyed aerial enemies made a noise that I can only describe as tiny glassy objects shattering. A realistic “BOOM” emits from defeated ground targets. The Andor Genesis base eerily hums as it drifts backward firing a hail of bullets at you. The musical score is one of the earliest examples of a consistent tune playing throughout the course of the game. Admittedly, it’s extremely repetitive and outdated by today’s standards, but it still pioneered the idea that later mushroomed into full-blown soundtracks in future arcade shooter titles.

 

The innovative design work that went into Xevious had a profound effect on the shoot ‘em up genre. Many elements of the game would go on to serve as a template for future vertical and side-scrolling shooters that, in turn, would also become major hits for the developers. In some cases, sub-genres would even be born from some of these elements. Konami’s Twinbee series makes liberal use of dedicated buttons air and ground attached respectively. Taito would later use a similar method to even greater effect in its Ray series (replace Xevious’ bombs with awesome swirling lasers). And countless of other shooter series followed Xevious’ lead with the use of familiar Earth locations and scenery.

While the scrolling speed is rather slow, Xevious still a nice game to experience if you’re into the classics. The original arcade version of this game is still fairly easy to find as it’s been included in multiple Namco Museum compilations on nearly every major home console (and handhelds) since the mid-90s, continuing into the present day. It’s a nice piece of gaming history to own.

Special thanks to shmuplations.com for providing the source of the Xevious interview with Masanobu Endo. It’s a fascinating read which you can check out here.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:


All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.


These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.


This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.


Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.


Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.


A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.

Side By Side - The NES version


Xevious went on to be ported to just about every home console known to man well into the late 80s. Suffice it to say, it lived well beyond its introduction to the arcades. Perhaps a little too long in the eyes of Nintendo consumers. Released in 1988, the NES port of Xevious gets a bad rep by and large. Essentially, the functionality was exactly the same as the arcade version-- and that was exactly the problem. By the time found its way over to Nintendo’s home console, other arcade ports like Gradius, Life Force (Salamander in Japan), and 1943 were either released previous to or very soon after Xevious’ arrival. These games featured customizable weapon choices, faster action, and generally deeper gameplay elements.

Truth be told, Xevious was looking a bit dated next to the competition on that system. And the game’s severely reduced visual quality didn’t help much either. Remember-- this was before retro gaming had become a culture phenomenon (at least, not in a form universally acknowledged), and SHMUP fans were still looking forward to the bigger and better shooters out there. At face value, this port of Xevious isn’t a bad game per se, but it could have used a few bells and whistles considering the amount of time that had passed between its original arcade debut and its release on the NES.


 

Comments

KnightDriver

03/28/2019 at 11:40 AM

Xevious was one of my favorite arcade games. I think what captivated me was the visuals and sound. Not many games looked as sharp or had sound that crisp in 1983.

I didn't know about the adaptive AI. I think I'll change my strategy of trying to shoot everything on screen and be more selective.

Just a correction i thought I'd mention: "Endoh designed the enemies that way since he figured that real fighter pilots would [wouldn't] want to just collide with the enemy if it could all be avoided."

Great review! The NES version of Taito's Sky Shark isn't great either. Also, glad you mentioned TwinBee, another favorite of mine.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

03/29/2019 at 07:50 AM

Hey, thanks for the correction!  I can't tell you how many times I proof-read the review and made additional corrections before posting. And yet, sometimes little errors like that still slip through.  LOL!

I'm glad you enjoyed the review. And yeah, Xevious is one my favorties as well.

KnightDriver

03/29/2019 at 12:39 PM

I have the same problem with blogs. It's amazing what I miss sometimes. I wonder what my typing hards are doing on their own. 

I still have vivid memories of playing Xevious in a mall arcade. I would always play that one and Berzerk. Then I'd try new things. 

Cary Woodham

03/29/2019 at 08:41 AM

I've always been fascinated by Xevious for some reason.  Not sure why, since I'm so bad at it.  I guess I've always been a Namco fan, even when I didn't know it.

Have you seen the cabinet for the US version of Xevious by Atari.  It's pretty sweet, and what grabbed me to the game in the first place.

Here's a funny childhood story about Xevious.  You remember dot matrix printer paper, right?  And how it was all connected and you had to rip them out via the preforations?  Well, when I was a kid, I got some of my dad's computer dot matrix printer paper.  I spread it out on the floor from the front door to the back door.  Then I got out my pencils and crayons and made a Xevious map on one side and a Zaxxon map on the other side.  Then I would get out my toy spaceships and play 'pretend Xevious' over the printer paper!  Yeah I was a weird kid I guess.  I did get in a little bit of trouble for wasting so much of my dad's printer paper, though!

I read somewhere that Xevious was the first game to use pre-rendered graphics in the sprites.  I always thought the backgrounds you were flying over looked like a golf course, though.

I think I've played nearly every Xevious game in the series except for Solvalou, which used the StarBlade engine.  I especially like Xevious 3-D/G+, and the music in Xevious Arrangement.  Gotta love all the Xevious cameos in other Namco games, too.  Too many to mention here, though.  Did you know that Grobda is a spinoff to Xevious and uses the tanks from that game?  Also I can't believe how extensive the Xevious story is!  They've written whole volumes of books about it in Japan!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

03/29/2019 at 09:08 AM

Hey Cary! Great story about making Xevious and Zaxxon maps with your dad's printer paper. I can see why that seemed like a great idea back then since dot matrix paper was connected together anyway. My dad probably would have said "Jamie, you're wasting my resources!"...he'd probably laugh about it now though.

I also read the same thing the other day about Xevious being the first game to use pre-rendered graphics. But my review was already written and I didn't have time to really verify it, I decided not to worry about including it in the aritcle.

Yup, I knew about Grobda's (how do you even pronounce that game title?) relation to Xevious because I have all 5 Namco Museum collections on the PlayStation and I believe Grobda is on volume 2. I also have Xevious 3D/G+ (probably since the early 2000s) and I love having several versions of Xevious available to play. It's always intrigued me since playing it on the Atari 7800 al thos years back. Finding hiddle "S" flags was so exciting and made it one of the most exciting SHMUPS aI played back then. I still get that sense of wonder now and then when I play the arcade version.

SanAndreas

03/30/2019 at 05:58 PM

I didn't play Xevious until it came out on Namco Museum on PS1. I had heard of it though through ads for home versions of it on Atari computers. I wasn't too impressed with it when I did play it. I did recognize the little background ditty that it plays that was incorporated into one of the music tracks for Earthbound.

I played a very similar vertical scrolling game, Megazone from Konami. 

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

04/01/2019 at 10:19 AM

There's Xevious background music in EarthBound? Do you remember at what part? I'm currently playin through it alongside a podcast called Square Roots (check them out..they're like book club for RPGs). I'd be really interested to see where they put Xevious music into the game.

SanAndreas

04/02/2019 at 01:49 AM

It's incorporated into the track that plays at the Onett video arcade where you fight the first boss.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

04/02/2019 at 12:42 PM

Ah, okay! You're right...I do remember those sounds when I went into the arcade in Onett. Good ear man.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

03/31/2019 at 09:56 AM

I'm not sure if I've played this, but I've definitely played games inspired by it. 

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