Arcade Flyer


Arcade Flyer


Commodore 64 Cover

By Carlo Savorelli

I'm sure everyone reading is already familiar with the arcade game Xevious. Released by Namco in 1982, it became an instant hit, and in the following years it was ported on many 8-bit home systems. It was designed and programmed by Masanobu "EVEZOO" Endoh, who graduated from Chiba university in 1959. Joining Namco in April 1981, he became one of Japan's most respected game creators, later responsible for the equally successful Tower of Druaga, another Namco classic. He was one of the first programmers to take pride addressing himself as a "game designer".

In the Atari age, programmers used to hide in-game secret messages (the term "Easter Egg" was coined then) to get some much-deserved credit for their work, which otherwise would have gone just to the manufacturer. It's actually a problem the entire industry still struggles with (how many times you hear "What a cool Capcom game!" instead of "What a cool game by Yoshiki Okamoto!"), and also one reason why former Atari employees left to found Activision. Xevious happens to have one of these easter eggs as well: right at the beginning of the game, go to the far right and fire your blaster to reveal the hidden message "NAMCO ORIGINAL program by EVEZOO". Doing the same trick in Super Xevious will bring on the screen "Special thanks for you by game designer EVEZOO".


Masanobu Endoh

In August 1985, Endoh left Namco to found his own company, Game's Studio. Since then he continued to work on Famicom, often in collaboration with Namco, developing successful titles like the Family Circuit racing series or updating his own classic Druaga franchise with Kai's Quest (FC), Tower of Druaga (PCE) and The Blue Crystal Rod (SFC). At Game's Studio Endoh designed Z Gundam Hot Scramble for Bandai, and recently he was involved with the GBC Devil Children spin-offs of Shin Megami Tensei. He was also producer for many Wizardry FC/SFC ports.

Xevious tells the story of the fight between humankind and the supercomputer GAMP, which controls the alien forces of planet Xevious. As the sci-fi cliche dictates, it turns out that the Xevious inhabitants are originally from earth, and GAMP (General Artificial Matrix Producer) is the product of an ancient civilization that prospered on earth an hundred thousands years ago. During this golden age, the "Gamps" were human clones used in heavy labor, until they rebelled to their own creators. In order to survive the upcoming Ice Age, they planned to leave earth and migrate in search of a new homeland. They finally selected seven planets which were likely suitable to human life.

Right before the departure, a group of humans rebelled to them and decided to stay on the earth anyway. It is from here that thousand years after the leaving of Gamps, the brave pilot Mu and his android companion Eve decided to travel to Xevious (literally "the fourth planet") to avoid glaciation. They will not receive a warm welcome from their ancestors, though: captured and imprisoned, they discover that Xevian are actually planning a massive comeback on the earth.

Fast forward to our days: all above the earth's surface, and near the ancient civilization remains, giant artifacts suddenly emerge from the soil and activate: they are SOL towers, buried underground and inactive for eons, now responding to GAMP's orders. The invasion has begun: it is now that, with perfect timing, Mu, Eve and Mio Veetha, a Xevian who opposes to the Gamp's regime and freed our duo from prisoning, are back on the earth (space travel takes all this time, you see) on their Solvalou ship and ready to fight Gamp's army. Meanwhile, archaeologists Susan Meyer and Akira Sayaka discovered that the Nazca lines could be hiding an ancient weapon which may be used to counterattack Gamp's army.

Xevious is often remembered for the many landmarks it introduced to shooters and gaming in general. It was the first vertical scrolling shooter to have backgrounds graphics that weren't a simple starfield. The South American setting, a landscape that eventually opens up to the famous Peruvian Nazca lines, became a classic recurrence in shoot'em ups. The game consists of sixteen areas that play continuously, each separated by a thick forest zone. Xevious does never end (perhaps one its less modern aspects) and loops after the end of Area 16. However, since most of the landscapes are recycled, you'll probably begin to get a sense of deja vu well before reaching the sixteenth area; but, to the early Eighties' gamer, Xevious offered quite a show. Below your Solvalou, forests, rivers, plains took form. These environments actually played a part in the gameplay: you could figure out the pattern of a ground enemy by looking at which narrow path it would follow; destroy giant silos and other mysterious ground structures; not to mention the search for hidden towers and flags.

The bad guys in Xevious belong to two groups: air enemies and ground enemies. Your ship, the Solvalou, comes equipped with two weapons each assigned to a button: the Zapper for air enemies, and the Blaster, which lets you bomb the ground targets with the aid of a lock-on (another feature that created a subgenre by itself, paving the way for games like Twinbee, Layer Section and Soukyugurentai). The game features an impressive army of characters, as there are twenty six enemies whose unique behavior give a distinct personality. Some of them seem conceived to intentionally puzzle the player with unconventional patterns, like the floating mirror Bacura - they are immune to all your weapons, so you can only avoid them. Others were charming for their stunning animation, like the spinning Jara, or the Tarken, whose cockpit rotates while retreating. All these enemies, designed upon geometric shapes, are rendered in shades of gray decorated by pulsing red lights. They looked distinctly like something that could come from outer space. It would have been possible to render each enemy in a different and extravagant color (as in any post-Galaxian shooter), but the overall impact would have been far less striking.

You'll notice that, unlike Galaxian-type games, the air vehicles that attack the Solvalou in formation don't try to ram into you. Instead, they flee on the screen's sides (like the Toroid) or retreat after shooting (the Tarken). This was one of Endoh's ideas to make the game more realistic, as he thought no enemy soldier would behave so recklessly. The ground enemies generally are less of a threat. The Grobda tank (later the protagonist of its own arcade game, in which Endoh was again involved with) for once doesn't even shoot at you. However, it moves rather quickly, and the score changes accordingly to your ability to bomb it.

Some of these targets are motionless installations and can't harm you in any way, so they're there solely to be bombed and earn points. The Zolbak in particular is worth a mention. Also known as "Detector Dome", it's an installation that collects data for the GAMP army. In a fashion that would be later reprised by Compile Zanac series, Xevious is programmed to react to the player's behavior. If you're too proficient at killing a certain kind of enemy, the AI will send other kinds. Similarly, when your score increases, the waves of enemies intensify. Bombing a nearby Zolbak will reduce the enemy forces' aggressiveness for a while, making this otherwise harmless object a priority target for survival. Another fine example of Xevious' well implemented difficulty setting is its sophisticated checkpoint system: if you get through more than 70% of an area and die, you'll start your new life from the next one, thus reducing frustration.

The massive enemy flying fortress Andor Genesis is considered one of the first bosses ever in the history of videogames. It announces its arrival by a rather creepy noise. Unlike any other air target, you will have to use your lock-on Blaster to destroy it: you can aim directly to the core or take out its other sensible spots, which is risky but rewards much more points. Or you can just avoid its bullets and wait for it to flee away, which is cowardly but effective. You will confront it four times before the game loops.

There are plenty of secrets hidden in Xevious. Sometimes your lock-on will turn red as if it were targeting an enemy, even if it seems like there's nothing on the surface below. This indicates the position of an hidden SOL tower: bomb the spot to reveal it. You'll gain 2000 points to raise it above the ground, and another 2000 points for destroying it. Not as puzzling as these ancient artifacts, but far more precious and rare, are the Special Flags (the very same flags from Namco's own Rally X). These are also hidden, only this time your lock-on won't blink when it passes over them. So either you learn their location by playing the game a lot (they are randomly disposed on a set terrain strip) or you're very lucky. Revealing one will add 1000 points to your score, and grabbing it will grant you an extra life or 10.000 points accordingly to the board's settings. The importance of these little secrets can't be stressed enough in videogames. They're often the element that capture the player's attention, thus extending the game's life beyond the initial playthrough. It's certainly not a coincidence that one of the most celebrated vertical shooter in arcade's history, Raiden DX, borrows heavily from Xevious by reprising the same concept of hidden artifacts to increase score.

Xevious Arcade

Xevious Arcade

Xevious Arcade

Xevious Arcade

Xevious Arcade

Xevious Arcade

Xevious Arcade

Xevious - Arcade, NES, Gameboy Advance, others (1983)

Xevious was released in the arcades in 1983. Atari distributed it in the US, and it was the first game to be advertised by a TV commercial (Interestingly enough, Atari advertised it as: "Xevious, the arcade game you can't play at home"). However, the real success bloomed in Japan, when the game became a massive phenomenon. The game loops continuously but the score blocks at 9.999.990. Many players were able to reach this max score, and started competitions to see who could do it the fastest.

It would be extraneous to review here all the ports Xevious received on 8-bit home computers, as there are many. Suffice to say, not all of them could replicate the intricacy of the arcade. Some primitive versions even lack major features like the Andor Genesis. An Atari port of Xevious was planned for both the 2600 and 5200: they were developed (and you can find ROMs out there), but never officially released. Finally a 7800 port was eventually marketed in 1987, and while it's a fine port for the system' standards, it came too late to compete with Namco's own excellent version for the Famicom. Released in 1984, it became a tremendous hit and platinum seller. The game was designed to fit the 4:3 tv screen, and as a result your lock-on is closer to Solvalou than before, which makes things somewhat trickier. Besides this, Namco, which handled the port themselves, really did an excellent job with it. Oddly enough, it was released again in 1990 for the Famicom-Disk. It is also available nowadays for Gameboy Advance, as part of the Famicom Mini / NES Classic series. Keep in mind, the GBA screen ratio is 16:9: despite the good conversion, you're still playing a vertical shooter on a screen which is much wider than tall.

Xevious can also be found on the Xevious 3D/G pack for the PSOne. Alternatively, Xevious can be found in Namco Museum Volume 2, which is also notable for the inclusion of Grobda. Although Namco released their Namco Museum series to a great variety of platforms, Xevious was not among the most rereleased games. For some reason you can unlock the original Xevious in Namco's Starfox Assault for Gamecube. Finally, Xevious is included in the Western version of PSP's Namco Museum Battle Collection, available to be played on the go in its vertical form. Admittedly, I've yet to see how much is comfortable to hold PSP like that.

Xevious NES

Xevious 7800

Super Xevious - Arcade (1984)

As a result of this huge popularity, Namco released Super Xevious in the arcades in 1984. It's basically an expert course for veteran players, with much harder enemy patterns and some new enemies. Bringing the total characters to thirty two, the new entries are, for the most part, human vehicles such as planes or helicopters that you must try to "rescue" for points, instead of shooting them. A couple of Galaxian aliens were added too.

Super Xevious Arcade

Grobda - Arcade (1984)


Grobda


Grobda


Grobda

A single screen overhead shooter game in which you control one of those little harmless tanks you had fun bombing in Xevious. You must fight other tanks in a set of arenas, trying to shoot the enemy as fast as you can and at the same time use the objects on screen to take cover from enemy's fire. It holds your interest mainly because of the wise use you have to do of your limited barrier shield.

Super Xevious: GAMP no Nazo

Super Xevious: GAMP no Nazo - Famicom (1986)


Super Xevious: GAMP no Nazo


Super Xevious: GAMP no Nazo


Super Xevious: GAMP no Nazo

In 1986, after Endoh's defection from Namco (he opposed the idea to give the game a sequel, as he felt it was unnecessary), the company created Super Xevious: GAMP no Nazo ("The Riddle of GAMP"). This is the first proper sequel to the original, released on Famicom. This game has earned a bad reputation - perhaps it was difficult to live up to the arcade with the Famicom, or perhaps it was because Gradius had become the most popular shooter meanwhile. Namco published it in a luxurious plastic box and golden cartridge, but the sales weren't on par with the original, and it was never released outside Japan.

"GAMP no Nazo" is quite original because, true to its name, you must solve riddles in each stage in order to progress. Unless you meet certain criteria (could be bombing all required targets, or finding a hidden spot in the clouds) the stage loops indefinitely, getting harder and harder in the process. The game also introduces some hard-to-catch power ups for the Solvalou, namely a rear shot, a shield, and a bigger lock-on. Unlike the prequel, stages succeed each other in a more traditional way. It also has some cinematic moments, like a speed section where the Solvalou flies slightly above ground and must avoid collisions, which is pretty cool.

Super Xevious: GAMP no Nazo

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