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By Ben Heine / November 20, 2006

In 1991 Konami thought it had a surefire hit on its hands. Widely advertised and hyped in magazines such as Gamest, Xexex was set to be the next big thing in the world of arcade shooters, and there were already rumors of ports for the PC Engine Super CD-ROM and the planned Super Famicom CD-ROM upgrade. Developed by the same team that was responsible for the much-lauded technical marvel Gradius II: Gofer No Yabou (1988), the game was going to redeem Konami in the eyes of arcade gamers, after the company had alienated many of them with the inhuman difficulty and cheapness of Gradius III (1989).


Xexex was released near the very height of popularity of the horizontal scrolling shooter and -- drawing heavily on the two flagship series of the subgenre, Gradius and R-Type -- can be seen as a kind of brilliant summation of everything that had been done up to that point. Ironically however, it ultimately served more to mark the beginning of the genre's decline, as it became an unexpected flop. Several months before Capcom had unleashed Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, and arcade gaming had already been irrevocably changed, as the versus fighter would become its dominant genre throughout the rest of the 90s.

Though critically acclaimed, Xexex quickly dropped from sight as arcade operators chose to stock their cabs with the latest Capcom and SNK fighters instead. All plans of a port were abandoned and the game faded into relative obscurity, retaining mythical status only among the most dedicated of shooter fans. Up until now the only other appearance it has made outside of the arcades is in the form of a mini-game in Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shogun Magginesu (1993), which featured only its second stage. After being originally scheduled for release as part of Hamster's Oretachi Geesen-zoku series of retro arcade ports for PS2, Xexex will now instead get its long-deserved port as part of the Salamander Portable pack, to be released by Konami in late January next year. What the game has to do with Salamander (1986) is entirely beyond me, but in any case this is a good time to look at this forgotten classic more closely.


Once again space-bound humanity finds itself in trouble. Princess Irene La Tias of Planet E-Square has been kidnapped by the flamboyant, androgynous evil galactic overlord Klaus Pachel Bell, and the last hope in rescuing her and pushing back his army of bio-cybernetic war machines lies in the experimental fighter Flint Lock, a spacecraft developed from a recently discovered, mysterious life form. This life form -- the Flint -- constitutes the heart of Xexex's gameplay, as it acts similarly to the Force pod from R-Type (1987). Docked to your ship it can serve as an indestructible shield from enemy bullets, whereas once released it will independently seek out enemies and attack them.

The main difference from R-Type's Force is that the Flint does not shoot by itself, but rather attacks with up to three (depending on your power-ups) long tentacles, which are similar in appearance to the ones seen in Irem's X Multiply (1989). Needless to say, controlling the Flint effectively is the key to mastering the game. Sometimes you'll have to unleash it on large foes, so that it latches its tentacles around the pink brain mass that forms their vulnerable cores, and suck all life from them, while other times you will need to deploy it in a certain area, and use its extended tentacles as a larger, free-floating shield, to provide you with cover while you clear out some other part of the screen. Additionally, charging the docked Flint by holding the fire button will emit gigantic energy beams upon release (one per tentacle), whereas pressing the Flint release button in its charged state will shoot it across the screen -- ideal for targeting it at a specific enemy, or for positioning it behind enemy lines.


Additional strategies arise from the six extra weapons which can be equipped as your ship's main shot, as certain parts of the game become infinitely easier if you happen to have the right armament equipped. For example, the triple-beam homing laser is ideal for clearing enemies from the floor and ceiling of the cavernous fourth stage, whereas the search laser works wonders in dispatching the many small ships that swarm the fifth stage. By far the coolest weapon in the game is the shadow laser -- a highly destructive single beam of light, similar to the Gradius laser in that it stays aligned with your ship's movement, but different in that it will also trace an equally deadly silhouette.

As can be expected, the gameplay is heavily based on memorization of stage layout and figuring out exactly when to do what. Although the Flint will occasionally go off and do something you did not intend it to -- such as attacking the wrong enemy -- it can be quickly recalled and redeployed, and overall the A.I. works remarkably well. In fact it seems that the Flint has been programmed to react appropriately in different parts of the game, so that it will actually stay in place and act as a shield when stage design calls for that strategy. At times frustrating, as these games tend to be, Xexex's learning curve is nevertheless smooth enough to keep you motivated and coming back for more, and the overall difficulty is about average for an arcade shooter.


Of course the other aspect that keeps you coming back for more is the amazing art and music, with each stage having its own unique theme. The second stage is particularly memorable -- a sort of molecular model microcosm, with colorful elements floating towards each other, forming chemical bonds, and breaking apart again when you shoot them. Stage five is set in cyberspace, featuring all sorts of primitive pre-rendered objects, and the stage six hyperspace has you blasting in and out of warp speed while the background contorts accordingly. Stage three has the most memorable boss -- a gigantic dragon that looks as if it jumped straight out of a classical Chinese painting. The graphics are simply breathtaking for a game of this period, and raster effects such as scaling and rotation are used almost everywhere. And then each stage is followed by a slightly ecchi anime cut-scene, as the campy supervillain makes his advances on the damsel in distress, laser-blasting her dress to tatters. The score entry screen almost looks like something from Parodius (1988), with a super-deformed version of the Flint appearing from a shrine and drawing an omikuji (random fortunes written on strips of paper at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan).


As can be expected from a Konami shooter, the music is top-notch catchiness, and in fact two soundtracks (original and arranged) were released by the Konami Kukeiha Club. Listen to Crystal Clear (the stage three tune) in the morning, and your day will be off to a great start.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Xexex can be seen as a kind of epitome of 1980s horizontal shooters. It takes elements from some of the best previous examples, and combines them into a unique experience that every fan of classic horizontal shooters will find enjoyable, with the luxurious production only adding to its appeal. If you decide to purchase the PCB make sure you are getting the Japanese version, as the international board includes some changes for the worse (such as a life meter instead of lives and respawning, and several missing weapons), which were presumably designed to maximize quarter suckage, but which will only serve to greatly diminish your enjoyment.