Review: Xenophobe (Atari 7800)

In this review, we give the Atari 7800 game Xenophobe our best shot. We find out how well this side scrolling shooter game plays.

This game was released in 1989. It is a port from an arcade game of the same name.

The game pits you against a massive Xeno infestation. Various space bases have been infested with these hostile aliens. It is up to you to kill all of the aliens before they become overrun (and the auto-destruct sequence is set). The game is split between two skinny screens and allows for two player co-op.

The aliens you face come in many forms. The most common aliens are the ones that evolve through time. They start off as small eggs. They then evolve into larger cracked eggs. In both forms, they are both technically harmless and weakest. After this, they hatch into small crawling aliens. These aliens crawl towards you and latch onto your body, draining your life. The next stage is the larger aliens. These aliens can turn themselves into a rolling ball and knock you down. The final stage is the largest one. These aliens spit acid that can reach half way across the screen. They can also lunge at you, knocking you down. During these last two stages, if you occupy the same space as them, they’ll drain health from you as well.

An additional alien you can encounter is the tentacle. These tentacles hang from the ceiling and sway back and forth. If they grab you, they’ll choke you and cause you to lose health. What’s annoying about them is that you have to wait for them to sway from one direction to another before you have a chance to jump up and shoot them. Unlike the other aliens in the game, these things don’t evolve and stay the same.

When you start, you’ll get a simple pistol. The pistol has a moderate range, but is rather weak. If you get knocked down and lose your weapon, you’ll only have your fist to work with. You can punch your way out of the dire situation, but the range is the shortest and the power is the weakest out of everything.

Along the way, you will encounter more powerful weapons lying on the ground, waiting for you to pick up. The next most powerful weapon is the laser gun. This gun has moderate power and has the longest range out of all weapons. Useful for picking off enemies from a distance.

Next up is the laser cannon. This cannon has a moderate range, but has some punch to it. It is also fairly durable. It is definitely the one weapon I want to have the most in this game.

Finally, there is the gas rifle. It is the most powerful of all the weapons. The mightiest of Xeno’s will fall with a mere two hits. Most other enemies are one hit kill with this thing. The downside is that it has about the same range as the pistol. Even worse is the fact that the weapon seems to break the most easily.

A big factor in this game is weapon durability. You seemingly have unlimited ammo in this game. This, of course, does not mean that every weapon will last forever. In fact, weapons have a habit of exploding after a while. While I can’t be completely curtain what factors into the destruction of a weapon, I do have a theory. Every time you get knocked down and drop your weapon, the weapon takes damage. Sometimes, simply swapping out one weapon for another also causes damage to the weapon. Regardless, if it hits the ground enough times, it will explode. In a room packed with Xeno’s, that’s never a good thing.

One strategy players can employ is to frequently swap out their weapons whenever they see one. Typically a player might want to just keep rotating among the most elite of weapons. Even if the laser cannon is damaged, it isn’t necessarily the greatest plan to swap it out for the tiny pistol. Better to keep the weapon and hope for something better rather than downgrade.

Another big factor is the different stations that you travel to themselves. In total, there are 8 stations waiting for you to visit. Each station grows progressively more complex. If you complete all 8 stations, then the game loops around and forces you to revisit the stations again in the same order. To make matters even more challenging is the fact that the second revisit is more challenging than the first with more aliens to contend with.

Every station has a series of rooms. Each room can house aliens and items. What they all have in common is the fact that they have a door on the left and right. Eventually, you’ll loop around, so it’s like running around in a circle.

What they almost all have in common is an elevator. The floor you are on coincides with a letter in the Greek alphabet. The largest level has 5 levels. Thus, the levels in the station you encounter are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon (always in that order). You first need to call the elevator with one of the black buttons (push up). When the elevator arrives, you can enter and push up or down to determine which floor you want to go to next. The level you start off with isn’t always the same.

The thing with each station is that you need to defeat every alien on it. What helps you is the floor name at the elevator. If it is a red font, that means there are still aliens on that floor for you to take on. If it is blue, then you have successfully cleaned out that floor.

The stations themselves are very good at harboring aliens. While the aliens in the rooms themselves are fairly straight forward to kill off, it’s the traveling aliens that can be a bigger nuisance. They can hide in the doors themselves. The only way you can tell one is coming is if they happen to approach and activate a door. Sometimes, they will fly out at you while others will stick around where you can’t see them. You can still shoot them, but the only two ways to know you’ve gotten them is the sound effect (not always heard) and the score going up (most reliable). A glitch in the game is that an alien can activate a door as you leave. When you approach the elevator, the text will suggest that you cleaned out the level anyway. Odd, but something to keep in mind.

If you successfully cleaned out a whole station, the game will take a moment before warping you out of there. Cleaning out a station completely has a number of benefits. The biggest benefit is that the game will reward you with a handsome 200 health bonus. Also, every item you’ve collected will get re-tallied. Each item will give you an additional 1,000 points. Also, you’ll get a bunch of bonus points for every Xeno you killed as well.

Of course, there is a time limit. If you fail to clean out the station in time, the screen will flash red and an alert will be heard. You only have an extra couple of seconds to try and kill the last Xeno or two, but after that, you’ll get warped out. As a result of this failure, you’ll get no additional health and no bonus points for killing Xeno’s.

The final factor is various items. There are three types of pickups. There is the aforementioned weapons. In addition to that, there is two kinds of health items. Each item gives you a small boost in health. One of those items is the hamburger. The other item is the white flask. Even if it is only a little extra health, it’s always a welcome sight.

The last kind of item is the useful equipment. The only purpose they serve is to reward you with more points. There doesn’t seem to be a difference between these items as far as points are concerned, but it is possible to rack up higher scores with picking them up alone. The useful equipment icons are grenades, the diskette, the knife, the bucket, the rope, the battery (?), and the head.

On a final note, it is possible to use the alternate button to lob grenades. Generally speaking, since the blast radius is small and the lob distance is so great, I don’t generally use them that often.

The first thing I thought of when I got into this game is that I hope this isn’t yet another boring and/or short Atari 7800 game. Lately, I haven’t been finding that many good games on the system and I was hoping something will pop out that will get me excited for this system. This game, while not super amazing by any means, did keep me entertained for a while. In fact, it was a rather pleasant surprise.

Towards the end of the first run through the stations, I started regretting that I selected novice at first because I saw my health reach well above 2,000 and I wasn’t even breaking a sweat. As long as I entered rooms in the crouched position and had a quick trigger finger, conquering rooms, floors, and whole stations started becoming a boring affair. Once I started revisiting the stations, however, that’s when things grew challenging and my interest in the game started to peak again. Granted, I was losing health little by little, but I was trying to see how long I could survive (final station on visit number 3 as it turns out). So, it takes a bit of gameplay before things get interesting, but things do pick up after a while.

As you can sort of gather from my longer explanation of this game, this game has a certain degree of complexity. In some games, that can be a major pitfall. In other games, excessive simplicity makes for a dull experience. This game manages to hit a sort of sweet spot where it is, well, just right. You have enough to work with to formulate strategies. At the same time, you aren’t bogged down by all the details. In fact, it can take a bit of gameplay before a large portion of the details start surfacing. This bodes well for this game.

While the difficulty curve does have a lull in it, it does gradually pick up and keep you challenged. The difficulty is in such a way that you can spend several hours trying to get as far into the game as possible.

One complaint I do have with this game is the fact that it doesn’t feature an ending. You just keep playing until you die. I wished there was some sort of resolution to be had here, but unfortunately, none can be found other than perishing.

Generally speaking, the only real weakness I found in the game is the fact that there is a lull in the difficulty during novice play. As a result, some players may find the gameplay to be a little repetitive for a bit. This feeling does, however, go away after a while. The other issue I have is the fact that there is no ending here. In the mean time, it has a nice sense of complexity to keep things interesting and the learning curve isn’t that steep at all. The variety in the levels also helps a lot. By the time you get to revisiting the stations, you’ve already played this game a great deal.

The graphics were surprisingly good in the game. Each room is manually designed, so it is possible to gain some familiarity with the levels. While some rooms do repeat, this is hardly noticeable. As a result, this game features a great visual journey. My only real complaint here is that the pistol looks like a black splotch and the hamburger isn’t well colored at all. Otherwise, no real complaints here.

The audio is probably the big weak point for this game. There is only a jingle at the beginning of each level. The jingle is extended after you die. Beyond that, all you get is some basic sound effects. The resulting effect is that this game can seem rather bleak at times on the audio front.

Overall, this was a very solid play. The game features some very nice variety in the game. The evolving aliens is a nice touch. The complexity is just right in that you don’t get bogged down in details while at the same time, you don’t really get that sense of this being an excessively simple game. The weapons you can choose from are great, though I wished you could hold onto more than one at a time. the difficulty curve has a lull, but things do pick up once you start revisiting the stations after station 8. The graphics were surprisingly well done with each level being manually designed. The audio is the only real weak spot, making the game have that bleak sensation. Overall, still a solid play. Worth trying.

Furthest point in game:
Novice: 3,730,165 points (dead on the third visit of station 8)
Expert: 454,145 points (forgot what level)

General gameplay: 20/25
Replay value: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Audio: 2/5

Overall rating: 76%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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