Am I wrong in thinking that the Atari 2600 “Red Box/Red Label” games are some of the most advanced that were made for the system? Yes I know these games were released in the console’s final years as a desperate bid by Atari to play on nostalgia, and squeeze a few more bucks out of the system, and that some were re-releases. Many though were clever, well programmed, highly advanced games that put the aging hardware to the test. Games like Motorodeo, Desert Falcon, Solaris, Midnight Magic, Dark Chambers, and the subject of this review… Xenophobe. It also seems there was a bit of a push with these Red Box games to port arcade, or arcade style, games, with games like Ikari Warriors, KLAX (in Europe), Jr. Pac-Man, Crossbow, and again Xenophobe, amongst others. Despite the reputation the 2600 had for never quite delivering the arcade experience in the home, these games come very close. Thankfully with the miracle that is Venezuela, many of these Red Box titles have flooded the market, greatly lowering the prices, and even though Xenophobe is classified as a 7 on the AA rarity scale, one can easily find factory sealed copies on Ebay for a pittance, 20-25$. What do you get for those twenty-five delicious dollars though? Well, let’s find out!
This game’s graphics, while rather blocky on the exterior, hide true greatness within, and that’s no exaggeration. Let’s start with the really disappointing thing though; there is no simultaneous split-screen multiplayer/co-op, even though the game displays the bottom half of the screen, only one can be played at the same time, but for a Larry Loner like myself it’s really a non-issue. This game actually has cut-scenes, before and after every stage you see your enormous and blocky space ship fly to the different space stations, and depending on whether you secured the base or if it was overrun you’ll get a different cut-scene. So you start the game, you see the title screen, then you see the cut-scene, so you’re already rather impressed, and then when you enter the space station your jaw will hit the floor. Every screen has a complicated and detailed background, which as you likely know, a sticking point for me, is when games have no background at all and is plain black or another solid color, so this game gets major brownie points for the backgrounds. You wouldn’t think elevators could be impressive, but you’re wrong, these elevators are incredible, so incredible I won’t spoil them for you. I do have a few major complaints though, and all of them pertain to the design of the player controlled character, the enemy aliens, and the pickups, they all look like crap. All the items are weird blobs, and I still can’t figure out what over half of them are even after looking through the manual. Enemies are mostly a rather vibrant shade of blue, and have very basic designs, sometimes it feels like I’m battling evil interstellar bowling balls. Then there’s you, why is he so damn round, speaking of bowling balls I think this guy swallowed a couple of ‘em. The player design is just downright ugly, and blocky to boot, thankfully all my complaints with player and enemy design have been addressed in a fan hack “Xenophobe Arcade” by Larry Petit, so if you’re emulating this game I’d recommend using that one instead of the official release based solely off the graphics. Graphics aren’t everything however, the audio is also crucial for the enjoyment of a game, how does this game sound?
I’m rather torn, or well actually, my eardrums are torn from the awful, awful music. The music that plays at the title screen, and during all the cut-scenes, despite being that actual arcade’s music is so dissonant that it hurts my ears; otherwise most of the other sounds aren’t really worth describing in too much detail. Suffice to say most all of the other sounds are bleeps and bloops, which leave very little impact on me, so little that I’ve had to boot the game up three times to even remember any of the other sounds, and already those memories are fading quickly. I think that’s all you really need to know about the sounds, apart from the awful music, not at all memorable.
Since this is a port of an arcade game, the gameplay is quite simple; you must clear eight space stations of alien baddies, using a small selection of weapons you find on the way, repeat infinitely. As you get to the later space stations the difficulty will increase, as most games do. You will encounter several types of enemies on your mission: the mostly harmless Pods, the clinging Critters, the rambunctious Rollerbabys, the stinking Snotterpillars, and the tenacious Tentacles, all of these enemies act differently, Rollerbabies for instance roll up into an indestructible ball if struck from behind, be sure not to make contact with them while they’re rolling or you’ll take damage. That’s really all this game is, move from room to room blasting away any enemies you see, strategy is minimal since you’ll likely avoid the more dangerous enemies and just blast away the Pods and Critters, because you have to kill a certain amount of aliens per station, and enemies constantly respawn, it doesn’t really matter if you leave a few bowling balls behind since they don’t really matter. There is a time limit, you aren’t shown or told that it is there, but if it runs out, the base is overrun and you lose any chance at a point or health bonus. That’s something I really need to mention, your health, it may seem like you have a lot of it but it goes down fast. Snotterpillars can drain half your life bar if they get you in a damage loop, which seems to happen quite often, there are ways to regain your health, for instance you can find hamburgers and flasks in the stations, and they will heal maybe a fourth of your health, and then there is the health bonus after every station, depending on how good you do you get more health back. While there is more to say, I’ll leave the exploring up to you since I don’t want to spoil any potential surprises.
Overall this game is rather enjoyable, at least for a while, eventually monotony sets in and you get, or the game gets too difficult and it gets unfair, the wall for either is around the fourth or fifth space station. I would recommend you play this game, but at the same time I would recommend Larry Petit’s Xenophobe Arcade more, especially if you have a Harmony Cart then this is the only version you should ever play. I will leave the decision up to, no Collector’s Zone today, since this game falls right into that little grey area between playing and collecting.