Review: XenoCrisis for the Sega Genesis

Xenocrisis is a new Sega Genesis game in 2019

XenoCrisis is a new game released for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, as well as a few other consoles like the Dreamcast, Neo Geo (later), Switch, and Steam. It is a love letter to single screen run'n gun games like Smash TV and Robotron 2084, and is very heavily inspired by the 1986 Aliens movie. These are all good things. It is developed by British independent developer Bitmap Bureau, and was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. As soon as I saw the trailer for the campaign I backed it immediately. There were several options/tiers to back it, and I went for the physical cartridge for the Genesis.

To save us all time and cut to the chase, this game is awesome. It is everything that I hoped it would be and more. Let's start with graphics. The visuals they managed to squeeze out of the Genesis are amazing. Character sprites are detailed despite being smaller. They are expertly designed, well animated, and make the most of the available color palate. When watching the trailer, you forget that this game was made for the Genesis first, and ported to all others after.

While the game takes many visual themes and character inspirations from the Aliens movie, there are of course many original designs as well, all of which work seamlessly together. The enemies are varied, the bosses are unique and interesting, and the stage design fits the concept of the game, that is to shoot everything in a single room. The rooms are randomly generated for each stage, making each play through different from the last. Have you ever heard of a 16-bit game that has randomly generated stages? This definitely increases the replay value.

You land via drop ship, not unlike a certain 1986 movie 
The gameplay is fast and addictive. You must clear the rooms one at a time, and eventually battle a stage boss. You can play alone or with a player two cooperatively. You select which protagonist to play as, noting the advantages/disadvantages of each. The male marine can carry more ammo (yes you need to keep picking up more ammo) but is a tad slower. The female marine is more nimble but can't hold as much ammo. I prefer the male marine, as I tend to bump into things when moving too quickly.

There are two main control schemes, optimized for either a standard 3-button Genesis controller or a 6-button controller. The latter utilizes a button cross pattern for weapon firing up, left, down, and right, whereas the former strafes while holding the one fire button (normally I prefer a twin stick control scheme for a game like this, but that's obviously not possible on the Genesis). I'm split on which control layout I prefer, because I like the simplicity of one-button strafing, but changing direction of fire is not as fluid as the buttons for directional firing.

Your player can roll out of danger with a button press. I keep forgetting about this, but when used correctly, it can be fairly effective is helping to survive longer as you are invulnerable during the roll animation. Speaking about surviving, this game is a serious challenge. Even on easy mode, you really have to be on your toes as you have a certain amount of hits before you die, and three continues. If you continue, you respawn in the same place and time when you died. I had my ass handed to me the first couple of playthroughs, but things settle in once you pickup on enemy spawn patterns, movements, projectile arcs, and so on. Fortunately, medical kits can be picked up to restore hit points.

Your weapon is a standard pulse rifle, which has limited ammo. This is my major gripe with the game, and it is the primary source of stress for me when playing. Perhaps that is the point, to add to the challenge, but it is very against the norm for a game like this. Ammo will appear when your bullet count gets close to zero, but you have to constantly think about how to get to the ammo if its on the far side of the room. You do have a melee attack when you are out of ammo, but that is not too effective in a crowd.

Power ups appear randomly, which have unlimited ammo but are timed. These include rocket launchers, lasers, shotguns, homing shots, spread shot, flamethrower, and others. These vary from strong but short ranged to fast but weak. You also have grenades, which need to be thrown in a specific direction as opposed to a "screen-clearing" bomb. Some rooms have barrels which are explosive, and you can strategically lure enemies to that spot and blow up the barrel to help clear the room.

There will be dog tags dropped here and there which act as a currency for the in between stage shop. Here you can increase your life bars, shot power, buy continues, and other options. I find increasing weapon power to be the most helpful, as further on in the game, enemies require more hits to dispatch them.

You will find prisoners to rescue, and they are all named after initial backers on Kickstarter who backed at a certain level. The names are random, and I think this is a fantastic way of giving back to supporters. I'm afraid that if my name pops up, I'll rescue the prisoner too quickly!

There are cut scenes before the game and in between stages to flesh out the story line. 

The game has six levels, and it will take some practice to see them all. It's a fun challenge, and one of the best Genesis games that I've played in a long time. I will probably pick up the Switch version as well, so that I can play it with twin sticks on the pro controller of 8bitdo SNES30 Pro controller. You can also buy a rom copy of it to play on emulation or on a flashcart with original hardware. To increase the fun factor, play with a friend. This is one of those games where the gameplay experience is multiplied when in co-op mode. James Cameron would be proud. Highly recommended!

Disappointing Arcade To Home Console Ports

Dead or alive, you're coming with me.

In the 80's and 90's, the arcades were a magical place where video games were unlike anything that you could play at home. Arcade games seemed larger than life. The bright visuals, the frenetic on-screen action, the energy and excitement of people beating a stage (of facing off head to head) were all part of a scene that is now all but extinct.

At the time, the graphics on an arcade machine were bigger and better, and sounds effects and music were superior. After a visit to an arcade, there was always a sense of a letdown when returning home to 8 and 16 bit consoles that just couldn't measure up. You wished and wished for home ports to live up to their arcade brethren, but it just couldn't happen. The struggle was real.

I had spent a lot of time in arcades growing up. In junior high school we would get dropped off at one, with five bucks and spend an entire evening there. There were several to choose from. Even in high school, arcades would eventually become part of the weekend. This gave me a wide breadth of games to sample, and I became pretty familiar with many if not most of the arcades released in the late 80's and early 90's. These are some of my favorites that became shells of their former selves once ported to home consoles.

Alien Syndrome Arcade
I loved Alien Syndrome in the arcade. The overhead running and gunning with a sci fi aesthetic appealed to me as the Aliens movie had just been released. There were some not-so-subtle nods to the alien design, but graphics were not exactly high definition back then so I guess there was room for interpretation. You (and a player two) are tasked with rescuing crew members on alien infested ships. Aliens vary from blobs to worms to humanoid aliens. To increase the pressure, there is a timebomb that counts down for some reason.

Master System port
The game was ported to Sega Master System, and the game was well, 8-bit. On paper, the game describes the same way, and the same gameplay elements are in place, but there is a lot lost in translation. Character sprite designs are simplified, movement animations are missing, weapons are less impressive, aliens are stiffer, and the sound is less ominous. At least two-player co-op was preserved, which was not necessarily a given.

Shinobi arcade
Shinobi was an instant classic when released. The side-scrolling run'n gun style game featured a ninja with unlimited shuriken (throwing stars) and ninja magic. The action was tight, and the character design top-notch. All sprite animations looked realistic, from your walking, jumping, and throwing, to the enemy idle animations. The ninja magic was useful in a pinch to clear the screen of enemies and projectiles, and also did respectable damage to bosses. The game had a pace about it that was hard to imitate. You never felt like the game was impossible, or moving too fast, but it definitely moved at a quick clip.  

Master System port
When it was released for the Master System, I had to have it. I spent a good chunk of my birthday money to buy it from Toys 'R Us. Again, the basics were present in this home port. The same characters were present, the same stage design and bosses, and even the music was the same. It was all the same, yet it was not the same. The game played sluggishly. It seemed that you could only throw one shuriken on screen at a time (compared to the arcade's near rapid-fire star throwing). The jumping from lower to upper level seemed like it taxed the console, as all else stopped just for the transition to take place. The home port did feature a life bar, which made it a little easier, but you were not automatically able to use ninja magic unless a certain number of basic enemies were defeated. This also meant that you could not use ninja magic during boss battles!

Double Dragon arcade
Double Dragon was the first arcade game that I really remember co-op play vastly improving the experience (this is true with nearly all beat' em up games, its just more fun to play with a friend). Almost everyone has played some version of Double Dragon. The first time I played it was at my local comic book store, which had one arcade in the center of the room, and it rotated out every six months or so. The game had some wonky hit detection, the sound effects were delayed, and thee was massive slowdown with too many enemies onscreen, but I loved the game regardless. It was brutally difficult, especially when more than one Abobo appears, but once you learn the elbow smash, the game becomes manageable. In what may be a first for beat'em up games, you can attack your partner. This seemed wild at the time, but it makes sense once you get to the end.

NES port
When the game was ported home to the NES, I went with my neighbor and his mom to Toys 'R Us to pick up a copy on release day. Once there, seeing the stacks of them in the cage, I begged my neighbor's mom to buy me a copy and I told her I would pay her back as soon as I could (I did pay her back, it took a month of lawn mowing). We popped that game into the NES, and tried to figure out how to get two players. Once we realized that it was not happening we were distraught, betrayed. How could a game titled "Double Dragon" not have two player co-op? Once we got over it, we started playing by switching off. We played it over and over. The sprites were simplified, almost squished. The characters resembled those from the arcade, but in a more cartoonish way, almost deformed but not super-deformed. The game mechanics were altered as well to adjust to two buttons instead of three. Not all moves were accessible from the start, you had to level up to gain access to those. Disappointingly, the elbow smash was nowhere near as effective as it was in the original arcade, nor was it as cool looking. I understood all of the concessions that were made to the game to get it to run on an 8-bit system, but the grave sin was removal of 2-player.

Robocop arcade
The 1987 film Robocop was a scrappy sci fi film that did better than anyone thought it would. It was a hard-R rated film, as it was definitely the most violent film I had ever seen. I was about ten when I convinced my dad to take me to see it, and I remember him wincing in the theater during the scene where Murphy is killed. Times were different back then, and movie ratings meant nothing as most parents would take you see nearly everything. Anyway, the Data East arcade game based on the movie is a masterpiece. The graphics captured the look and essence of the movie and the characters as well as any 1988 arcade game could. Robocop's iconic gun was your primary weapon, with its rate of fire and aesthetics all on par. There were sound clips from the movie woven into the gameplay, enriching the immersion. ED-209 is featured as well. The bonus stages consisted of firing range challenges, complete with the same green cursor as seen through Robocop's visor.

NES port
The game was ported to the NES, and well, it's just about one of the crappiest conversions I've ever seen. Robocop is seafoam green in color, and walks like he's a flat board. His punch animation looks like an underhand volleyball serve, and when he does fire his gun it is just a pea shooter. For some reason every other enemy is a dog. The music is just the title theme repeated on a short loop. It is too painful to play, and so I just pretended it didn't exist. It was such a waste of a license.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as home ports of arcade games was as commonplace as movies coming home to VHS. What are some of your favorite arcade games that got butchered for home release?