Thursday, December 27, 2012

At Random: Xevious (NES, 1988)

Another random grab comes up with a somewhat prescient NES cartridge -- toy company Bandai published this 8-bit console adaptation of video game developer Namco's 1982 coin-op, Xevious, nearly 25 years before the two companies merged to form today's Namco Bandai.  The North American packaging insisted on calling the game Xevious The Avenger, but the game itself has no truck with such hogwash:

Xevious' biggest innovation at the time of its release was its newfangled graphics hardware that allowed display of a detailed scrolling background independent of the sprites, on a separate plane that created a convincing illusion of above-the-ground depth.  This is something we take for granted today, and it could be taken for granted on the 8-bit Famicom, so this port didn't push the hardware too seriously.  But in 1982 arcades, it was quite an impressive sight to see roads and hills of the world below in a space shoot-'em-up, rather than the customary empty or sparsely star-speckled vacuum of space.

Xevious ports fairly smoothly to the Nintendo Entertainment System -- the music sounds fine, though the sound effects aren't as rich; whether it's a plus or not, the simple music cuts out when certain sound effects are playing, just like the coin-op original.  The background looks just a little bit chunkier than the coin-op, shoehorning the original graphic layouts into the NES' more limited tile palette.  The sprites come over with some loss of color but good detail and minimal flicker, and the two buttons on the controller satisfy the arcade game's need for separate shoot and bomb buttons.  Unlike some NES versions of arcade games, this is a straightforward replication of the coin-op, with no added storylines or features, and just like the coin-op there's really no end to it -- the landscape just recycles at a higher level of difficulty if we manage to make it all the way through.

I had no hope it making it all the way through, or anywhere close.  I've quite honestly never been very good at Xevious, or Dragon Spirit, or any other Namco shooter that involves bombing and shooting simultaneously -- I tend to ignore the ground based targets unless they're shooting at me, treating them as innocuous background imagery, and when I finally turn my attention to bombing ground targets I start running smack into airborne enemies.  So I tend not to get very far at all before I reach the inevitable:

Even with a Game Genie code granting infinite lives, the game remains challenging, as we don't pick up immediately where we left off with a new life -- we are set back to a checkpoint, and must successfully fight our way to the next invisible boundary to make progress.  I did manage to get to the first mothership with such a cheat, though I didn't fare particularly well -- I managed to bomb the mothership's central port, expecting the incoming missiles to cease, which they did not.  I include this screenshot of my imminent demise because the largeish (albeit immobile) enemy is one of Xevious' trademark images, and because the blocky road system near the bottom of the screen clearly depicts the tile-mapping challenge in fitting this onto the NES:

Xevious' advancements were largely audiovisual in 1982 -- the gameplay is challenging but not particularly adventurous, and as a result it doesn't hold up nearly as well as Galaga or even Space Invaders today.  Later games like the Raiden series presented similar ideas with more pizzazz, making Xevious feel like a necessary but dated technology step.

But it must have been popular in its time, as Nintendo released an emulated version for the Game Boy Advance as part of an NES Classics series, and has also made this NES port available on the Wii's Virtual Console.  It's a little odd when one considers the original arcade coin-op game would run just as well on these platforms, but nostalgia has its appeal, and it seems more people played Xevious on the NES than in the arcade.


  1. For reference, this port actually came out in 1984.

    Xevious doesn't really seem "dated"... it's more interesting and has WAY more to it than little old Space Invaders (that's why Galaxian and Galaga exist), at least. Besides, there's always Xevious 3D/G.

    Xevious was a HUGE deal in Japan, and sadly a very small one elsewhere. This FC port was also a very big deal in Japan, and you might actually be right that more people ended up playing it than even the arcade version. Masanobu Endoh, who also designed The Tower of Druaga, is often put on the same pedestal as current famous game designers like Yu Suzuki and Shinji Mikami.

    Fun fact: Raiden is a not-quite-as-good direct ripoff of the works of Toaplan. An ever enduring ripoff maybe, but like the obsession with 1978 Space Invaders that's not necessarily a good thing.

    1. I may have just missed the window on Xevious -- I loved the alien invaders games, and Galaga remains a favorite, but I ended up jumping forward to Capcom's 1941 and Namco's own Dragon Spirit before I ever got around to seriously playing Xevious. I do remember seeing magazine ads for Atari's US release of it around the time of the North American video game industry crash, and I think I even saw it in an arcade. But it just never grabbed me, for whatever reason. Thanks for the information!