Genre: Run-‘n-Gun Developer: Bitmap Bureau Publisher: Bitmap Bureau Players: 1-2 Released: 2019
Genesis owners are a fortunate lot, enjoying the bountiful number of games being released since Sega retired the console in 1997. The past decade has been a veritable renaissance for the machine, with publishers bringing translated titles from the past, as well as entirely new games. There have been titles for all genres released, each of varying quality, but one has managed to bring the beloved 16-bit gameplay and aesthetic into the present in unrivaled fashion. Bitmap Bureau’s Xeno Crisis mashes together the great atmosphere of beloved sci-fi films like Aliens with the white-knuckle gameplay of arcade classics like M.E.R.C.S. and Smash T.V. The result is perhaps the most compelling reason to take retro game development seriously, something people seem to be only beginning to do.
I make that assertion based on the industry’s current love of doing thing in the “retro style” but releasing their wares on modern platforms. That’s all well and good, and I love games like Shovel Knight to death; however, there’s been a wonderful rise in efforts by small developers to make new games specifically for older hardware. These talented folks strive to show just how far the technology can still be pushed, and Xeno Crisis has taken the process to another level.
Based in Southampton, England, Bitmap Bureau launched Xeno Crisis on Kickstarter in late 2017 and quickly reached its funding goal. A large part of the campaign’s attraction was its simplicity. Rather than try to be the biggest and most complex title ever released, Xeno Crisis was a simple run-‘n-gun that focused on shooting bad guys and advancing to the next screen. It’s a tried-and-true formula, already perfected by Williams’ legendary arcade game, and it made the product much easier to sell to backers. Guns and aliens are an evergreen combination, and the Xeno Crisis’ basic formula likely made it much more appealing than some of the more elaborate RPG titles other publishers have tackled recently.
The attractiveness of Xeno Crisis’ simple premise got an incredible boost by its great visuals. The character and environmental art was done by sprite artist extraordinaire Henk Nieborg, whose work has graced such titles as The Misadventures of Flink (Genesis & Sega CD), Contra 4 (Nintendo DS), and the Shantae series (Nintendo DS). Nieborg’s ability to create gorgeous, detailed sprites has long been a high watermark for 2D art, and his addition to the development team was a great coup for Bitmap Bureau. The enemies all look menacing, with color schemes that make them easy to track, and their smooth and fluid movements stand out from the backgrounds and from each other. Neiborg’s designs are wonderfully old school, and my one complaint about them is that the screen turns black and white when the game is paused, preventing me from soaking up all that great sprite art whenever I want.
Xeno Crisis takes all this goodness and creates a package that is engrossing from the start. As one of two marines (male or female), one or two players must clear out seven different stages of alien-infested colony as they try to find the source of the contamination and put an end to it. Each level is composed of multiple rooms that are all worth exploring. Many contain helpless colonists – each named after a Kickstarter backer – that offer bonus points and other benefits (nothing dirty!). The stages range from dunes to forests, and each one has its own set of baddies to shoot. The colorful graphics really pop, although players won’t have much time to gawk while aliens pour out of the walls and doors.
It takes a powerful set of weapons to dispatch them before anyone gets to sight-see, and Xeno Crisis brings the firepower in great fashion. For instance, Grenades, a standard part of the marine arsenal, are helpful for breaking up groups of aliens and for dropping boss health bars. They’re not the only tricks up the players’ sleeve, though. Throughout each stage, all manner of badass weaponry can be obtained, including spread guns, flamethrowers, and homing bullets. There are 10 in all, and each upgrade is timed. They frequently appear as enemies are killed, but players can revert back to the main gun with a simple button press if a chosen power-up isn’t working out. Running out of ammunition leaves only a knife for defense, though more bullets eventually appear onscreen. The game only gives three lives and three continues at first, but upgrades can be obtained between stages. Defeated enemies often leave dog tags behind that can be used to purchase things like increases to firepower, bullet and grenade count, maximum health and extra continues.
Gameplay supports both the three- and six-button controllers, but Xeno Crisis truly works best with six buttons. The A, B, X, and Y buttons give players the ability to shoot in four different directions, a mode that functions incredibly well. With action this frantic and fierce, the six-button layout is definitely the most intuitive and responsive. Two configurations may sound sparse, but they’re both highly functional, particularly the six-button one. Besides, who doesn’t have a Genesis six-button controller by now, anyway?
The soundtrack thumps to the action splendidly and is the work of Swedish chiptune composer Savaged Regime. The audio has some great voice samples too. This game is definitely one that should be played with some quality speakers. Bitmap Bureau offers a CD of the music for sale, and I highly recommend picking it up. The score’s multiple themes go well with each level, and Savaged Regime has made the Genesis jump through some amazing audio hoops to create this score. The music also sounds great through headphones. I suggest checking out Savaged Regime’s arrangements for many older Sega titles on his YouTube channel; they’re are quite good. I would be quite interested to see what other types of games he could score for the Genesis.
Xeno Crisis will seem terribly hard at first, and players might be tempted to spam the continue upgrade with their tags, but that’s not really how the game was designed. Bitmap Bureau meant it to hark back to the old school action titles of the ‘80s and ‘90s like Ghouls ‘n Ghosts that were hard to master but gave players that oh-so-satisfying feeling when they hit a rhythm and powered their way to the end. In Xeno Crisis, success depends on making effective use of the roll feature to avoid enemy fire, learning the abilities of enemies in each level and how to anticipate their attacks, and how best to take down each of the massive and fearsome bosses. Some people may not like the learning curve, but to me, this design is what makes the game worth playing. It’s much like mastering a space shooter to the point that it can be cleared on a single credit. I remember doing that with many games back in the day, and it was a great feeling to finally see those credits roll, knowing that all my hard work had paid off.
Of course, Xeno Crisis isn’t about to go down quietly. Besides the hordes of fast-moving, aggressive aliens that it tosses at you, it also used procedural-generated maps. That means that when booted up, the game will randomly create the map layout for each area, along with the room structure. Features within rooms, such as walls and pits, are randomly generated. This technique is another throwback to the 16-bit era, and it appeared in quite a few Genesis titles like Fatal Labyrinth and the great ToeJam & Earl. So, no level memorization is possible. True marines will have to adapt and act on the fly. With easy and hard difficulty levels, players have what they need to become good enough to take down the aliens and achieve the best endings (yes, there are more than one).
If I had to find one flaw – if it can even be called that – it would have to be the game’s length. At only seven stages, Xeno Crisis becomes a much shorter experience once it’s been mastered. Granted, to get that point will take hours of practice and challenge, so I guess that’s not really a knock against the game. Many classic titles that I learned to beat on a single life or credit continued to be highly enjoyable afterward.
Xeno Crisis is available on multiple formats, including all the current consoles and Steam. Physical version have also been released for the Dreamcast and even the Neo Geo AES, meaning that everything short of the N-Gage has a copy ready to be played. While it’s great to see people blasting aliens on any machine, I can’t help but feel that Xeno Crisis was meant to be played on a Genesis. It’s the kind of title the machine excels at: blisteringly-fast action with big bosses and a thumping synth soundtrack. Buy it, master it, revel in it. This is why we still play our old consoles, and I shudder with anticipation at the thought of what Bitmap Bureau will do next, armed with knowledge from this development experience.
SCORE: 9 out of 10