Before I get into this fantastic 1987 game for the Atari 7800, one thing about this title has always struck me as odd. Specifically, it has the "feel" of an old ColecoVision game (don't poke fun now -- I actually like the old ColecoVision even if the controller stinks). Why? Xenophobe was never an extremely popular arcade game, but had enough merits to make a successful leap to a home system. Also, it's a shooter with a few nifty elements to give it a bit of depth. Additionally, the graphics are large and a bit ill-defined at times. Those are all classic elements of a lot of ColecoVision titles (i.e., Mouse Trap, Pepper II, Looping, Venture and a host of others).
But, enough about the ColecoVision. Xenophobe is a fantastic title for the Atari 7800, and the one game my five-year-old son invariably wants to play when he catches me powering up my favorite classic console. The multiplayer elements are fantastic in that a split-screen is used very well. The "green" player takes up one half, while the "purple" takes up the other. So, players are given the option of wisely teaming up and staying together, or wandering around on their own and moving independently of each other. My son chooses the former strategy and clings to ol' Daddyman, so we concentrate our firepower and fight off the aliens as a team. Even if players choose to go off on their own, the split screen is done well enough so that the action never slows as the 7800 processes two completely different action scenes. That's all good.
The single player mode isn't bad, but it just lacks the rampant fun of having two people accept the challenge of killing every alien that moves. There's just something missing as this is a game best played by people following a common strategy and blasting things as quickly as they can.
As for sound, it's not bad. You get the typical explosions, doors whisking open when approached, gun shots, a nasty sound that appears when an alien spits at a player and etc. These are all the typical "bloops" and "blips" one would expect from an arcade game -- information is conveyed through the sounds, and those audio cues help out quite a bit during a game.
The story behind Xenophobe is that nasty aliens have taken over several space stations. The goal, of course, is to either rid each space station of all aliens or to simply blow the thing to bits by finding a self-destruct code and then feeding it into the proper computer. The game takes place through several rooms which the players must explore one at a time. To add to the depth of the game, the space stations have two or more levels and players can explore them by catching elevators. In short, the goal is to kill as many aliens as possible and, typically, to blow up the station. There's only a certain amount of time to either clear the stations of critters or blow them up before the player is transported back to the mothership. If a station isn't cleared or the self-destruct code isn't entered, the aliens overrun the place and assume control of it.
One of the best features of this game is the use of a health meter. Simply put, if a player runs out of health by taking too many shots, getting smacked by too many aliens or by other means, death occurs. Of course, health points can be restored by picking up a burger or flask of some sort of refreshing liquid. If a player dies, is that the end of the game? Not in the two player mode! Simply hit the fire button and jump right back in the same room where the other player is. This can lead to some very long games, and is a great feature for my son -- he's young and still learning to play games effectively, so he gets killed quite often. The ability to hop back in the game keeps it from being frustrating.
Another nice feature has to do with weapons. The player starts with a weak little phaser that does a little bit of damage. The more powerful laser pistol, electric rifle or poofer gun can be found, thus giving shots considerably more punch. The weapons can be destroyed during a particularly vicious alien attack, so the player will have to resort to smacking aliens with a fist unless another weapon is laying on the floor somewhere. Grenades, which kill any alien on contact and hurt players who don't manage to get out of their way, can also be found and thrown at will.
The aliens, too, vary in strength and attacks. Snotterpillars, for example, are strong and shoot phlegm at players while critters try to attach to folks and "leach" health units away from them. Rollerbabies, on the other hand, bunch up into a ball and are immune to attacks unless they pop out and rush players or are hit with a grenade. Variety is good.
And, to make things a bit more interesting, various pieces of hardware are tossed around the base and those can be retrieved for points. Most of this stuff is obvious -- screwdrivers, knives, ropes and the like. Oddly, players can also pick up skulls for points. I don't quite get that at all. Oh, well.
The graphics here look good enough, but are none too sophisticated. The aliens are, for the most part, one color with a few, black lines tossed in for detail. When there's a lot of action on the screen, the aliens tend to flicker a bit as they leap through the air at players. Still, the graphics are serviceable and are good enough to let players know quickly what's going on in each room. That's important at higher levels as aliens get quicker and tend to lunge at players relentlessly.
On the whole, this game is a fair-to-middling title for one player. The
multiplayer elements, however, are pure gold and make this one a great game
to have at parties or, indeed, one to play with your children.