By Scott Stilphen
This is an excellent port of the arcade game, given the superior graphics of the original and the limitations of the VCS (even with a 16K ROM). There are 8 different stations you must travel to and clear all the xenophobes from. As you move through each station, you can pick up various objects for points or health, and better weapons or grenades. The onscreen copyright is 1990 but the game wasn't available until early 1991 and only directly from Atari. It's unknown who worked on it.
Some of the gameplay elements of the arcade game are missing, such as the 9th space station (New Omaha Shuttle II), choice of characters you can play as, and some types of xenophobes. The ability to set the space station on self-destruct and interact with other station controls is also missing.
The description on the box claims the game offers the same simultaneous 2-player action from the arcade game ("Xenophobe's split-screen allows two players to work together or independently... you can even work on different levels at the same time!"). However, the manual reveals although 2 players can play independently, the players take turns, with the left player occupying the top-half and the right player the bottom-half. I don't fault the programmer's decision to depict a split-screen, since having co-op play wasn't possible likely due to hardware limitations (even with 16K), and having a split-screen is more faithful to the arcade's display, but nonetheless it's a bit confusing for some, especially at a time when games from that time like MotoRodeo, Summer Games, and Winter Games allowed split-screen co-op play.
The box also mentions you can destroy the aliens by blowing up the station ("Just find the secret code and take it to the destruct console."), and that each station contains as many as 5 levels. Neither of these are correct. The manual states if you don't rid a station of xenophobes, you're transported back to the mothership and the station explodes. It also mentions how many levels are on each station, with the most being 4. The maximum time you can spent at each station (or base, as they're referred to in the game) depends on how many levels there are: 1 level = 2 minutes, 2 levels = 5 minutes, 3 levels = 7 minutes, 4 levels = 10 minutes.
Mothership in VCS version (left) and arcade version (right)
Each level has 7 different rooms (plus the elevator room on stations with 2 or more levels). There are 5 different types of xenophobes (pods, critters, rollerbabies, snotterpillars, and tentacles), and the longer you're on a station, the more xenophobes will mutate from the least-dangerous to the most-dangerous. The one thing in your favor (again, thanks to hardware limitations) is there can only be 2 at most in any room. Once you clear all 8 stations, you start back at the first station and repeat the same sequence over (stations aren't cleared or destroyed permanently). There's no ending to the game.
Although the manual doesn't mention it, the 8 stations have names and actually resemble the graphics from the arcade version (as well as they can in low-rez):
Shuttle - Dragon's Planet Shuttle Transportation Center (12 xenophobes, 1 level)
Moonbase - Colin's Rock Starbase No. 12 Transportation Center (24 xenophobes, 2 levels)
Starship - Space Station Transportation Center (36 xenophobes, 3 levels)
Starbase - Colin's Rock Starbase No. 4 Transportation Center (60 xenophobes, 4 levels)
Moon City - Moon City Transportation Center (46 xenophobes, 3 levels)
Star Port - Space Station Transportation Center (31 xenophobes, 2 levels)
Moonport - New Omaha Sub-Station Transport Center (45 xenophobes, 3 levels)
Star City - Star City Transport Center (54 xenophobes, 4 levels)
The strategy for success is to first upgrade your gun as soon as possible. The phaser you start the game with inflicts the least amount of damage to a xenophobe, which is equal to punching one (1 unit per shot). The next step up from that is a laser pistol, which inflicts 2 units of damage. The next is an electric rifle, which inflicts 3 units, but offers you the ability to fire quickly. The poofer gun is the most-powerful (9 units), but your shots are the slowest.
Grenades can also be found, which inflict the most damage - 10 units - and are effective against everything except tentacles. The various guns offer unlimited ammunition, but each grenade has to be found. You can store up grenades, but the maximum number allowed is unknown.
Once you've upgraded to a more-powerful weapon, you want to quickly run through each station and pick up as many objects as you can. Don't worry about the station being overrun, as you should have plenty of time to clear each station out before that happens. Jumping and running offers you the fastest way to move around, but jumping onto more-powerful xenophobes like snotterpillars and tentacles can be damaging to your health and cause your gun to explode. The only real issue you'll run into is with bigger stations, like 4 and 8. Learning with how to deal with snotterpillars is crucial since you'll definitely run into them on those stations, and fighting 2 in the same room is the toughest challenge. Station 4 features the most xenophobes (60), which I found to be the most-challenging one to clear. The implementation for using grenades is somewhat flawed, and often you'll find yourself using one when all you want to do is duck and shoot. See my longplay video below for more playing strategies.
The manual also doesn't mention the game has an undocumented pause feature, by use of the TV Type switch. Flip it twice to turn on/off. More information can be found on the Easter egg page.
VCS Xenophobe definitely deserves a spot in your collection, thanks to the unknown designer(s) who worked on this game.
Longplay videos of the VCS and arcade versions.
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