Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Xenon 2 - Megablast

Xenon 2 Megablast

A late 80s eye-opener on the bright future ahead for home gaming? Basically and very effectively: a vibrant nautical Space Invaders.

In this upgraded arcade blaster, aptly named, the landscape around your tiny vessel is immediately scrolling downwards, forcing you through a landscape strange yet familiar. With this greater freedom of movement came also vulnerability from above and below, requiring cannons at the front and behind. 

Clusters of tiny molluscs and other deep sea-inspired forms and fauna had to be negotiated or dealt with quickly. Rolling and spinning fish-like creatures - a vibrant array - threatened you at every moment, or passed by oblivious. They would also react differently under fire, meaning shooting them was not always the best decision (although for cash purposes rewarding later). Such enemies - bursting from the scenery, coral or organic decor - had to be surveyed before blasting. 

But somehow we did blast our way almost out of there on this incredible and over-challenging 2D voyage. Maybe it was by picking up important ‘mods’ drifting occasionally across the cosmos. And by making every hit count towards the chance of souping up - or selling off - these vital enhancements if we reached the next oasis; a sudden arrival in a funky weapons shop. Here, as pilots - breathing a sigh of relief - we were served by some squid-like alien in order to pimp-up our hardy ship or gain credits.

It got harder. The key to the game lay in those relaxing pit-stops, or the drifting mods, that if wrongly selected, or missed, would leave you dangerously under-powered for the next stage. 

And every level burned brighter with more imaginative sea fauna and continually attacking creatures of the spacey nautical deep. 

Then at the end lay waiting a Big Boss like the one-eyed Crustacean, at the end of level 1. But also more elaborate mods or interesting weapons beyond.

Music was specially created by Bomb the Bass (although with a Sound Blaster sound card, which also enhanced explosions beyond the range of the tinny PC speakers)! You could say this was the birth of the lucrative game-music tie-in.

Concentration has never been so focused. By the last levels your ship resembles a titanic war machine laser-beaming everything in its wake, but still being frequently overwhelmed.

How many more games have re-created organic life in such a vivid, immediate and exciting shooter? And there must be so many ocean creatures just waiting to be brought into a game setting again and brought to life. Thank-you Bitmap Brothers.

I am still the Wing Commander

Spaceship cockpits. They’re addictive things. I’ve known my share of them. In fact, I’m still out there in The Vega Sector. And I’m on board the mothership The Tiger’s Claw in a war effort against those insulting feline humanoids, the Kilrathi. The alert will sound at any time for the next briefing. 

It is the pride of the fleet. With some of my co-pilot buddies now dead defending it, it’s up to me to swing the course of the war with my ace space-flying skills and weapons. I will be the hero yet. I will live to see the last star-fighter destroyed in one last dizzying space-raid. We shall win against them or see the end of humanity.

My Scimitar spaceship is boosted out of the launch tunnel and I'm out in space. Shards of debris appear and spin past the cockpit where I check my displays and Nav points. This mission must be achieved. And I alone am responsible for my wingman so must make decisions that will add to the war effort, where every successful mission counts. If that means going straight for the transport ship, or avoiding a taunting ace, or even abandoning my wingman to fight for his life... well, maybe it won't be in vain. Whatever the case, I'm in space and I'm in charge. And no-one needs a dead hero.

What a dynamic to bring to life! Every kid in the 80s had seen the original series of Battlestar Galactica. It was the next Star Wars for sci-fi hungry fans keen to be pilots surrounded by characters in a unique universe. This game from Chris Roberts offered deeper immersion into it all: the action, the spacecraft, the missions and the characters. We too could belong in a brilliant rip-off of those alluring film elements, which is what the best games are most often (See Call of Duty and Saving Private Ryan). 

What came in the box? A booklet Claw Marks with inside info on the characters and space-pilots you would meet, good and bad, from Paladin the Scotsman, Maniac and Spirit to Khajja the Fang and Dakhath. There were details of everyday life on board, news of the enemy and blueprints for the spacecraft you’d be flying and even a Sector Map. It was an elaborate invitation that just drew you in. You would play your own part in the WW2 space effort. 

Greatest of all? The fact that every outcome of a mission (returning in one piece) would influence this war effort. If your mission wasn’t achieved, your next could be tougher; the war would take a different course. This dimension made it seem like you mattered to the game. If you didn’t succeed, or you ejected mid-mission, friends could be lost. Humanity would be forced to withdraw.

The cockpits and graphics style were bright and involving, like the awesome 80s spacecraft we all had on our shelves. There were different types of spacecraft to encounter with different challenges, weaponry and abilities. The spinning discs of the Dralthi and the cannons of the Jalthi still haunt the mind. There were Kilrathi aces we would dogfight head-on and upgraded spacecraft to be earnt in the later stages. 

The explosions of starfighters were proper explosions and we even had communication options to our fellow craft. This meant that we could co-ordinate our wingman in the game, sending him home safely or calling on him for help. We had to navigate or fight inside asteroid belts. We had cut-scenes to illustrate successes and failures. In all, we were masters of our own spaceships and warriors in a war. And we got to chin-wag about it afterwards in the space-bar where we could learn about events and gossip and the general struggle to protect humanity. 

The downside: this game would never run properly for anyone who hadn’t paid a fortune for their early PC. In fact, I played the game recently and it still doesn't run properly. Is there anything more frustrating than promising a world and yet not being able to enter it fully or on somedays… at all? But this game would spawn a whole series including Wing Commander: Privateer, more of a Han Solo approach. It would also force PC builders to build better PCs. 

Such fond memories of that game 'magazine' Claw Marks. It was like receiving a welcome manual all about university life and the characters to meet on-campus before leaving home. Much later there would come a rich open-world game called Bully by Rockstar. But back in these early days before the web you fired up Wing Commander wondering what it might teach you, even if it was just to space dogfight for hours. You can still find a wealth of this material on the Wing Commander Encylopedia

Where are the games these days that make you feel you matter to some war campaign? Where you don’t need to win the mission but you must win the war? Would it be possible to make this original Origin title again, but update it to now? The cartoon look does still exist in games, but I don’t think an update these days would retain any of the original SVGA style!

There could be the single-player campaign, but you could also make a whole universe backdrop of multiplayer, but set in the same conflict. Each stage completed on the single-player mode, could lead you into a multiplayer section where other people were doing missions at this stage of the war. Then the space-bar would be a multi-lingual canteena for sci-fi buffs, playing characters in an all-out multi-galactic space conflict. Star Wars Galaxies springs to mind. Just thought I’d sign off by pinballing the idea. The truth is, such early, innocent games are maturing to a point where they seem very real, where time spent in these worlds can be influential, social and educational to young/old minds.The eternal function of fantasy to reality. You could learn a lot on board some future Tiger's Claw. Maybe skip university altogether!