A blaring chorus of trumpets signifies the launch of your Solvalou fighter, followed by an endless loop of piano keys. And so begins Xevious, one of the best and most important shoot ’em ups of all time.
Xevious is actually quite different from some of its predecessors. Previous efforts from Namco, such as Galaxian and Galaga, were similar to Space Invaders. They gave the player very limited freedom of movement and a slow ass little laser, a put them against wall after wall of foes. Xevious is a very early example of the modern ‘schmup. You can fly in any direction on the bottom half of the screen (albeit slowly). Enemies also begin to use more modern tactics. Rather than relying on sheer numbers to overpower you, they use speed and firepower. Enemies are on the field for only a few seconds, enough time to squeeze off a few shots or simply to distract you. You now have to avoid a near constant spray of bullets and enemy craft in addition to aiming your own shots. While there are no insane bullet patterns to memorize and navigate through, Xevious still manages to create the sense of chaos and entropy that makes this genre so thrilling.
So we have some decent difficulty and a nice little jingle in a somewhat primitive shooter. Big deal. What makes Xevious one of the Greatest Games Ever is the fact that it was incredibly ahead of its time, despite the fact that there was hardly any competition. While there are no powerups to speak of, the game requires you to take out both aerial and ground targets with lasers and bombs respectively. This duality adds some welcome complexity and strategy to the game, and foreshadows brilliant games like Ikaruga that the genre would later spawn.
Just as important are the visuals, which often seem too good to be true for a 1982 arcade game. While the terrain itself isn’t amazing by any means, each stretch of the game has been carefully laid out, so that no area looks the same as the last. This isn’t just nice from a cosmetic standpoint; it also gives veteran players a sense of place, so they know what to expect in the next area. What is truly astonishing are the pseudo 3d effects given to some of the enemies. Xevious uses a little assembly language trick called palette swapping (no, not the RPG kind), that allows the game to change certain colors on the fly for very little CPU power. By using various shades of black, white and grey, some enemies are given the appearance of spinning through the air with an actual sense of size and depth. While this has no impact on the gameplay, such early graphical trickery is still very impressive. Oh, and that giant sunbird in the ground is a pointless but awesome little addition.
For longtime fans of the shooter genre, Xevious probably isn’t terribly exciting. It isn’t that hard, even for a rookie like me (except for those Motherships. They never want to die). I think that’s why I enjoy it so much. You don’t need to memorize boss patterns or figure out the best combinations of powerups for any given level. I can just jump right in and start shooting everything that moves, getting as far as I can on one credit and trying to get more kills than the last time. It has a sense of purity and innocence, the feeling of a game made long before the genre got complicated and entrenched. It is the soul of the old arcade, when both the rookie who died after a minute, and the vet trying to beat the high score both felt like it was a quarter well spent.
Even when you aren’t playing with real quarters, it still feels like time well spent. It takes a special game to have that timeless playability, and here Xevious succeeds wildly. Great visuals, great sound, and some groundbreaking gameplay put Xevious at the top of its class, and makes for a shooter that’s still fun to play now. The only question left is how they got Cold War era Soviets to design the Solvalou.