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:
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
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.
Impact of Xenophobe
Check it out:
The Many Faces of Xenophobe: Porting it to the Home Consoles
The NES (1988)
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)
The ATARI XE (1989)
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)
The Xbox/PS2 (2004)
Can You Go to the Xenos Homeworld?
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!
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 Aliens. Just 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!