The twin-stick shooter – originating in games such Robotron: 2084 – has proved to be a perennially popular genre. The fundamentals remain the same, generally, even when the themes differ and gameplay elements are layered on; players must clear a single screen of enemy waves before moving on to the next, controlling their on-screen avatar with the left stick for movement and the right for the direction of fire. The popularity of the genre is likely due to the instantly familiar control scheme, combined with the thrilling, addictive nature of clearing wave after wave of single-minded enemies looking to cause your demise.
Xeno Crisis is – as you may have guessed – a twin-stick shooter. A loving homage to 16-bit games such as Robotron’s spiritual successor, Smash TV, it has a wonderful pixel art style and a superb soundtrack. It’s also – befitting the era it’s inspired by – tough as nails.
Crowdfunded successfully on Kickstarter and reaching its funding target in 40 hours, Xeno Crisis is launching on a variety of platforms, including – perhaps surprisingly – Mega Drive and Dreamcast (with the Mega Drive release also available in a wonderful physical edition, in classic cartridge form). Xeno Crisis has clearly been a real labour of love for the small, UK-based development team, Bitmap Bureau. There’s a level of polish and attention to detail here that’s commendable; though it’s a homage with a number of different influences, the passion and dedication to getting everything feeling just right is clear to see.
Dropped outside Outpost 88 – a scientific research base overrun with various types of hostile aliens – your marine (or marines, plural: the game is playable in co-op mode for two players, too) enter and attempt to clear each room of nasty creatures, sometimes trying to rescue humans and facing off against enormous, challenging bosses in the final room of each stage. With six very tough stages to get through and only three continues, players will definitely have their work cut out for them in trying to reach the end of the game.
Ammo is limited, which is a surprise for a game of this nature. Usually, it’s the case that you can always rely on a default weapon even when a power-up expires; here, even the marine’s basic assault rifle-style weapon has limited ammo. A box of bullets drops into the stage as the weapon’s supply is running low – if it’s not grabbed quickly, it leads to a frantic few seconds where the player can rely only on the even more limited supply of grenades in their inventory or their extremely risky melee attack. It’s an odd choice which felt as if it broke the flow of the game somewhat, though it certainly adds a further layer of challenge to an already testing experience.
There are two difficulty levels available – Easy and Hard – with the game set to Hard by default. Changing the difficulty level doesn’t seem to make a massive difference, however – it’s still a brutally challenging game, but this is definitely appropriate given the game’s influences. The aforementioned co-op mode does give players a bit of an edge, however – if one player dies, the other player can revive them, as long as the surviving player is able to survive the onslaught until the wave ends
The game most closely feels like Smash TV in gameplay terms, albeit with the gameshow elements nowhere to be seen (aside from an announcer, though it's hardly the same as the game show host-esque vibe in Smash TV itself); instead, thematically, there’s much more of an Aliens or Starship Troopers vibe in the overall visual design and story. The pixel art is superb and the animation fantastic; of particular note is the colourful nature of the aliens, in stark contrast to the often less colourful backgrounds of the base and other environments.
Level layouts are procedurally generated – one of the few concessions made to modern game design in a decidedly retro-flavoured experience – and will see players clearing waves before proceeding to the next room, culminating in a final encounter with a boss alien. These bosses are huge monstrosities that offer as stiff a challenge as you'd expect.
Dog tags can be collected throughout stages; at the end of each stage, there's the option of spending these to increase your marine's stats in a wide range of abilities. There are even achievements to unlock too, which is a great addition; trophy hunters aren't particularly well catered for on the Switch, but Bitmap Bureau have taken care of that in Xeno Crisis.
Not only are the visuals and gameplay a wonderful homage to the 16-bit era, the excellent synthwave soundtrack – by Savaged Regime – is another perfect touch that gives Xeno Crisis a brilliantly evocative retro feel.
Being kicked straight back to the beginning of the first stage when out of continues does cause some frustration, however – especially when deeper progress is being made into the game, not to mention the fact that all character power-ups are lost too – but, as mentioned a few times, this fits with the game's retro feel. This is an area of game design that gamers have seen improvements in over the years since the 16-bit era and perhaps it's one that could have seen some concessions at least, given that modern elements such as procedural generation are featured. However, it's worth noting that the six stages provided will put up a challenge for longer than they would if the game were more forgiving in terms of level selects or checkpoints.
Xeno Crisis feels like a lost classic from a bygone era of gaming – a brilliant twin-stick arena shooter which wears its influences on its blood-drenched sleeve. The stern challenge may prove to be off-putting for casual players, but it rewards dedication with some of the most intense and addictive blasting action you can find in the genre. Convince a fellow player to join in and you've got the makings of a co-op classic.