30 April 2013

FWS Forgotten Classics: XENOPHOBE (1987)

Back through the mists of time and space, long before teenagers and young adults were locked in virtual global wars on Xbox Live, there were these mystical places called arcades, where young and old alike plucked in quarters to machines, and enjoyment was had by all...and no game ranks as high in my mind, has 1987's XENOPHOBE. I've been a gamer since 1982, and I was a kid during the apex of arcade popularity, and I spend my hard earned allowance on various arcade games, but none sucked down by quarters more than the MSF alien shoot'em up, Xenophobe. So, sit back and enjoy the read about a lost classic of 1980's MSF video games at its finest.

What is Xenophobe?
The original 1987 arcade game featured a tri-split horizontal screen that allowed three players via nine different characters to combat evolving hostile alien life called xenos with a variety of futuristic weaponry in all manners of science fiction settings. Reaching the goal of clearing the bases, shuttles, ships, and stations of the xenos seems easy, but the aliens make their best attempt at being serious green assholes at every turn. Xenophobe was known for creative, vibrant graphics, addictive gameplay, and some references to ALIENS and Star Trek back in the day. One of the features that differed Xenophobe from the rest of the split-screen games was that a player could pursue their own course of action, not being tied to the screen that their fellow players were on. Each 'level' was timed, if you and your fellow xeno hunters couldn't clear the structure, than the transporter discs from the assault transport ship (one my favorite VG ships!) would whisk you away prior to a self-destructive protocol, and a catalog of your recovered items are entered and points received. Victory was met with a different music, a point bonus, and catalog of the items. There was no end to the arcade game, it would just roll over locations and increases the difficult. I've read on a couple of websites (for what it is worth) that Xenophobe's development was cut short, and rushed into arcades to cash in on the popularity of ALIENS, causing for some of the items in the background not to usable along with the pickup items that are scattered about.

The Story of Xenophobe
This comes from the ATARI Lynx version:
"Terror in Space...a team of space mechanics sent to repair the planets vital space stations sent a frantic signal for help. No one could understand the message. It was thought that they had run out of supplies or air, or maybe that the temperature control system on the space station had failed, resulting in intense heat and bone splitting cold. Until one day, unexpectedly, one of the maintenance transport craft returned, flown by only one man. He was severely wounded. The tale he told was one of terror. He told of strange creatures that took over the space station and began to breed. He described strangle eggs hatching into pods. The pods turned into skin-sucking critters and ultimately into nasty, spitting snotterpillars. When asked about his companions, he could not answer. His face twisted in terror, he collapsed to the floor. With his last breath, he gasped the word everybody on the planet dreaded-Xenos. 
These were the creatures of nightmares. When the planet was first settled, the new colonists were attacked by those hideous creatures from the outer worlds. Only after suffering heavy casualties were the colonists able to fight off the Xenos. Since then, frequent attacks had caused the people of the planet to protect themselves by developing a complex system of space stations to warn of Xeno attacks. But now Xenos have overrun the space stations and the planet is in grave danger. The Xenos could use the artificial climate of the stations to become acclimated to the planet's atmosphere. If the Xenos could successfully adapt for permanent life on the planet, then humankid is in jeopardy. It happened on the old world, Earth, and now it could happen on the new world. An understaffed and ill-equipped group of space gladiators has been dispatched to exterminate the wicked menace. But even if they manage to locate and use the artillery scattered throughtout the space stations, they may not be able to withstand the terror of what they are about to see. The people of the planet may have waited too long. It may be too late". 
Wow...that's the best they could come up with for this game? Have they never seen ALIENS? Game manuals are now a dying art...and I can see why.

The Game Specifics
There are three sets of characters, reds, blues, and yellows, with several being aliens (including a duck with a doctorate!), four guns, and seven types of xenos to kill. The Xenos are represented in a life-cycle chain that leads from an egg-pod to the colony Queen, all the way to the queen-bitch, the Mother Festor. There two stages of egg-pods, one with armor, and one with less armor that is about to burst! This leads to the Critter, a crab-like beastie with the ability to chew on you, but they die easily. The Critter gives away to the Rollerbaby, who are a pain in the ass! These take two forms, one is a fast ground-hugger that looks like the bastards from ALIENS, and when the Rollerbabies caught a look at you, they roll up like an Armadillo, and bashes into you.
Only the Fogger or the impact grenades can destroy the rollerbaby when it is playing a basketball. This form leads to the warrior type, the 'Snotterpillar', who can take the most damage, spit toxic goo, and knock you down with a jumping attack. That brings us to the final two forms, the colony queen or 'festor' that is seen in the shadows of the infested structures, that immobilizes you with eye-zapping powers, then drains your health...nasty little bitch. In the ATARI handheld Lynx version, it was possible to travel to the Xeno homeworld, enter a cave, and there was end game stage boss: the supreme queen-mother of the Xenos, the Mother Festor! I've just read this online, but never seen any Lynx screenshots, or videos to prove this actually happens.
When it comes to the weapons of Xenophobe, you start off with the Phazer, that does the same amount of damage as your fists, but has a longer (barely) range, and is the only gun that the armory-robot brings you if and when your gun is destroyed by a jumping 'pillar. One of the more handy weapons in the entire game comes as the second weapon you can your hands on, often on the first target location: the laser blaster. While it does a little more damage than the Phazer, however, the damn thing nearly shoots across the screen, given the player the ability to empty entire rooms quickly! Much shorter in range,but greater in firepower is the lightning cannon that fires a lightning bolt and easily takes down the 'pillars with a few shots. Even deadlier is the fogger or puffer, also called the 'extermination gas gun'. This oddball weapon puffs out a cloud of deadly smoke that makes the xenos melt away, but your range is basically the same has your fist.

Historical Context of Xenophobe
There were three events going on when Xenophobe was being developed by Bally Midway Manufacturing, the Xenomorph from the ALIEN universe was one of the most common space monster-creatures at the time, and there was no game based on ALIENS in the arcades at the time, and lastly, arcades were still uber-popular. Just one year after the release of ALIENS, Xenophobe was widely launched into the arcades of America in 1987, That was not by chance development...or was it? Some video game historical sites state that Xenophobe was in-development when ALIENS hit the sliverscreens, and the game was rushed into development by Bally Midway  who hoping to cash in on the popularity of that film.
Other sites say that Xenophobe was specifically designed for capitalization of the popularity of ALIENS. This cashing in on the popularity of the ALIEN xenomorph was a common trend at the time, the 1980 Task Force micro-game Intruder that used the basic image of the Xenomorph for a similar setup as the ALIEN movie. Oddly, the Intruder micro-game took place on the space station Prometheus! Unlike arcade titles like I, Robot, Xenophobe was quite common, and the original Xenophobe arcade cabinet are still bought and sold to this day. I nearly bought one when I was single in 1998. My wife would have totally sold once we got married...chicks.

Impact of Xenophobe
Few current gamers know of this alien shoot'em up, and most of the fans of Xenphobe are in their thirtys (just like me), so did Xenophobe have much of impact on the wider world of video games? Not really, save for separating gamers from their cash, and the rash of ports that existed until the early 1990's. The true indirect impact of this game came when I think that  20th Century Fox began to realize the lost revenue stream from not having their own arcade shooter based on the ALIENS universe, which changed in 1990. For the most part, Xenophobe is just a beloved title that has gone on to being loved by its fans for years. One of the more dedicated fans of the game, constructed a 3-D RPG game based around the D&D Expedition to the Barrier Peaks complete with models and custom gaming environments.
Check it out:

The Many Faces of Xenophobe: Porting it to the Home Consoles
The video game industry worked differently in 1987 than today. Home video game consoles of today are incredible powerful, allowing for truly amazing gaming experiences, and most games are solely developed for the home video game market. When I was a kid, the arcade held the majority of premier titles of the world of video games, save for games like Legend of Zelda, and we all wanted to ability to play Double Dragon in our house with our friends. This led to video game companies to port the arcade titles quickly to the home consoles for some cash. Often, these were letdowns in terms of graphic, gameplay, and sound, but it was better than nothing. Back in 1987, Xenophobe was a big hit, with quarters flying into the machines. I often had to wait in long line for a chance at killing Xenos at my local arcade in Bartlesville's Washington Park Mall. From 1988 to 2004, the game would be ported to home consoles, handheld gaming systems, and gaming personal computers, with varying degrees of success on mimicking the arcade hit.

The NES (1988)
The first to get the port was the uber-popular NES 8-bit system, and it made sense. The NES was the most popular home system at the time, and given the popularity of the system and the arcade game, it was win-win...well, until you played it. Xenophobe for the NES is ugly, and is a shadow of itself from the arcade title. Gone where the dense backgrounds, there were only three characters to chose from, odd color scheme, framing issues, and a limited number of locations that randomly appeared. However, the title music was faithfully replicated, unlike many other ports of the time. There was the additional elements of the hovering laser sentry cannon that you could reprogram, or it will shoot at you and the grenade-sentry cannon. Most modern reviewers rate this NES port has 'poor' to 'bad', especially when compared to the ports to computer gaming systems of the time. Despite the low reviews, Xenophobe was hit, and most people I knew with an NES had the game, and it was a hard rental game to get your hands on in '88.

The ATARI 2600 Jr. (1990)
If the NES port of the game was ugly, than this ATARI 2600 Jr. port of Xenophobe is the Momma June of Xenophobe ports! In 1990, the good ole 2600 was redesigned, labeled '2600 Jr.' and made to cosmetically linked to the more expensive 7800 system (which I had). Watching game play on youtube of this port is painful, and only would be acceptable if the game been released in 1983 not 1990! According to the Atari Age website, Xenophobe for the updated  2600 Junior system was a super rare cartridge that I never personally saw back in 1990, save for catalog scans and official ATARI advisement.

The ATARI 7800 (1989)

This is the home port that I have the most experience with, since I had an ATARI 7800 system in 1990, and the game back-in-the-day. I was massively excited about this release, and ordered from Sears, and wait six goddamn weeks to get it. While it was not the ugly mess of the NES port, it was...well...boring. The flat , oddly colored backgrounds, non-existent sound, one character type, and flat gameplay left me switching out games quickly. While the 7800 port was closer to the arcade in some ways, it was still an odd bastard version of my much beloved arcade game.
The ATARI Lynx Handheld (1990)
When the handheld ATARI Lynx 16-bit first full color system came out in 1989, it blew the the Gameboy with its an odd yellow-and-black scheme out of the water, and I knew a few people that had one....oh, and it was expensive. ATARI would redesign it in 1990 to overcome the steer bulk of the Lynx, but it didn't help, the Lynx would be phased out when ATARI poured its final breath into the ATARI Jaguar (which I had). The Lynx port of Xenophobe was much different than any of the others. It allowed a limited multiplayer aspect, along with some new playable characters, including a Xeno and a robot, a different (and very cool) opening animation, a jet-pack, different traveling animation between infested bases, and lastly, the ability to kill the Queen bitch of the Xenos! Despite being confined to a handheld device, the Lynx port looks good and plays closer to the arcade version than most of the home consoles until the PS2/Xbox port of 2004.

The ATARI XE (1989)
Back in the heyday of ATARI, they marketed several computer systems, home video game console games, and other hardware. One of the more 'lost systems' was the XE. Back when the 7800 came out in the late, late 80's, the XE could be seen in the catalogs, and on the shelve, and was an mix of the ATARI PCs and the 8-bit gaming platform. The system sold terribly, and is rare today. Much like all of the ATARI gaming hardware of the day, a 8-bit port of Xenophobe was being developed, and nearly complete, when it was cancelled along with the entire XE system. The website ATARI Age got their hands on the prototype and played it, and while it was similar to the 7800 version, it had odd habit of coloring the Xenos the same color has the background!

The ATARI ST (1989)

The ATARI ST was a home personal computer system that launched in 1985 and lasted until 1993, and is well known for its musical abilities and software. This PC computer port was only for a single player, but featured a number of characters, colorful design, and the basic gameplay of the arcade game. Little is available on the game without me downloading it, but it seems similar to the computer ports of Xenophobe of the day.

The Amiga Home Computer (1989)
The Amiga computer was an off-shoot of the Commandore 64, and was considered the more expensive, and more upgraded PC. While the Commandore 64 was used mostly for games, and some homework and bill paying, the Amiga had upgraded audio and graphic applications. Naturally, the graphics were upgraded for the games on the Amiga when it was released in 1989, same year has the Commandore 64, and even used the same box art. This could be one of the better full-color Xenophobe ports during the initial run.

The Commandore 64 Home Computer (1989)
Anyone who had the badass Commandore 64 home gaming computer system was in a league of their own when it came to the experience of video games in the 1980's. Given its popularity, Xenophobe was ported to the computer system in 1989 on 5.25 disks and was more of a full-color gaming experience than most of the ports, but featured only two players, and some rather cool box art.

The ZX Spectrum (1989)
Most American gamers today are unaware of the 8-bit ZX Spectrum home computer gaming system that arrived in 1982, and disappeared around 1992. This was a British made home computer system similar to the Commandore 64, and the games were played off of cassette tapes or floppy disk! Xenophobe came to the ZX Spectrum in 1989, just like the Commandore 64 port, but was two player, and featured more of the arcade game feel than the console system of the day. The game featured nine characters players, more fluid frame rate, but limited color, and rather flat environments, and the music is played throughout the gameplay, and often drowns out the gameplay soundtrack. BTW: the opening music is nearly epic enough to be sampled by Deadmau5!

The Xbox/PS2 (2004)
We fans of the game finally got our wish fulfilled in 2004 when Xenophobe came to the original Xbox and the PS2 bundled in the Midway Arcade Treasures 2. Undoubtedly,  this was the best home port of the arcade due to the power of these home console systems that allowed for a complete port of the arcade to the Xbox/PS2. three players at one time, just like the original cabinet.  This is still one of the games I held onto for my original Xbox, and still break it out every once and awhile for rekindling memories.

Can You Go to the Xenos Homeworld?
When this game was big in the 1980's, there was a rumor running around my middle school lunchroom at Madison Middle School, that there was end level of the game. It was where the players went to the Xeno homeworld, to kill the Queen Mother. I heard a wild tale of some kids in California operating in teams for days to find the homeworld on the original arcade game. Now, in the era of the internet, I can finally know that rumor was a complete fabrication...the Arcade game would just repeat the levels, increasing the difficulty until you die. It was designed for maximum quarter-pumping, not a campaign.
That was until 1990, when Xenophobe was ported to the handheld color ATARI Lynx system. According to some sites and message boards, the queen mother (the Mother Festor!) appears at Level 23, when you travel to a moon, enter a cave, and square off with the queen mother bitch. However, the final boss wasn't the xeno queens were are used to, according to several sources, it was an organic wall that fired eggs at you, while tons of other xenos in various stages of develop swarmed you. I've not been able to confirm this, nor any screen-captures of the battle or anyone that has done it...after all, the Lynx system was expensive and rare at the time, and even more so now.

Will There Ever Be an Next-Gen Xenophobe?

Will we lovers of this 1980's alien shoot'em up ever see a upgraded Xenophobe shooter on the Xbox 720 or PS4? Could the side-scrolling action be replaced with room-to-room clearing of space stations and moonbases in first-person shooter view? Okay, back in the late 1980's/early 1990's, there was no attempt by Bally Midway to develop a sequel for Xenophobe back when the game was popular, and that the game's last exposure was on the original Xbox and PS2 in 2004, it is highly unlikely. That is a real shame for all of us fans of Xenophobe and ALIENS, because a solid alien shoot'em up descended from this 1987 classic game could be pretty kick ass.  

Email From the Programmer of XENOPHOBE: Howard Shere!
On June 13th, of 2014, I received an email from the programmer of Xenophobe. Here is the email that Mr. Shere allowed me to share:
It was really nice to see such deep coverage of the first game I wrote the software for!
As far as the Aliens license, Bally had recently fought a court battle because of the Alien pinball machine (which they produced without securing the rights) and management went back and forth at the start of the project on if they'd license Aliens. They decided not to and the artist created some great art for the game which is unique, but reminds people of AliensJust before we were about to ship, Bally changed their minds and wanted to license it and we had to fight to keep that from happening because our artwork didn't really look close enough to be an Aliens game, better to look sort of like it than to claim we were the real thing and look wrong. We were also told not to use the system we used for the controls, where the names of the actions changed as you moved in front of things, because Bally had decided that people who played video games didn't want to read. We proved them wrong!
Working on that game was great fun! 
Howard Shere


  1. Actually enjoyed the 7800 version which I got hold of several years ago. Aliens by Electronic Arts on the C64 was a good addition to the genre. Had the C16 version which played just as well.

  2. While on the game note...have you tried Alien Breed series? Personally I think that it's good alas it isn't first person but top down...or Alien Swarm, quite similar. As it has cooperative multiplayer it's good fun with friends.
    Also have you tried Planetside 2 as it seems to have something to offer to MSF fans...

    Anyway keep posting your articles as they're interesting :)


  3. The 7800 port was cool when you played with a friend, and it cured by fever for the game until I was able to get to an arcade for a fix. Recently, I devoted a blogpost to the games of ALIENS, and learned of that, and it looked really cool. Alien Swarm and Alien Breed look very cool, top-down isn't my favorite either, but it is familiar to me as a classic gamer. Planetside 2 has been on my list to play...too many games...too little money. Thanks for the kind words, I was worried that this blogpost would be 'too forgotten' for most of FWS' audience. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Well Planetside 2 is for free, so if you have time and good PC/Internet then surely give it a try ;)

  5. I'm not sure if I've ever actually played this, but I definitely see the NES game in stores from time to time.

  6. It is one of those great games now lost in the sands of time...it was an odd blogpost for FWS, but I just had to cover my favorite arcade game of all time!