Everybody knows who the Bitmap Brothers are. Everybody! If you don't, you either have been in solitary confinement or living in Hemel Hempstead for the last three years. They're three geezers who've been allocated their own shelf in the library of computer gaming history, because of titles like Xenon and Speedball - two of the hottest games ever. Now they're back (back back), and likely to earn not just another shelf, but an entire bookcase with their extraordinary new release on the Imageworks label - Xenon II - Megablast.
The scenario is as loopy as ever. Several evil blighters from the future have decided to take up a new terrorist YTS scheme. They've planed several bombs in five crucial periods in Earth's history, hoping to upset evolution and give Darwin something to think about. AND kill the entire human race to boot. You have been picked (being courageous, intelligent, gullible etc.) as the one-man crusader who's got to travel across the five time zones defusing the bombs in an attempt to save the world (again).
Xenon II is basically a standard (but I use this word loosely) vertically shoot 'em up with three levels of parallax scrolling (i.e. there's a real feeling of depth), in which you fly about in a spaceship. The creatures and scenery change with every time zone.
The first level is set in Palaeozoic times, atmospherically daubed with centipede-oranges, snail-yellows and granite-greys. The setting is a rocky catacomb, infested with over-sized creepy crawlies and bugs. The walls of the caverns are lined with deadly polyps, hydras and outgrowths which spit mines at you. Swirls of single-celled nasties continuously swoop down into the screen. The further you progress into the level, the higher the nasties seem to come on the evolutionary scale. Towards the end, trilobites and jellyfish make an appearance, followed by the ultimate confrontation with a massive Nautilus Shellfish, a very deadly crustacean with a cunning mine-spitting tendril - one to be avoided!
Level two is fraught with beetles and insects and earwigs; level three takes a leaf out of FisherMan Fred's Angling Almanac, being literally stuffed with eels and piranha. The next level is populated with dinosaurs; and then after a huge evolutional leap, we're in the future, characterised by the Bitmap's favourite metallic style graphics and spaceships.
Despite having primitive brains, most of the creatures over the levels are actually quite clever (some of them might even be distant ancestors of Bamber Gasgoine). Gone are the simple slowly-descend-down-the-screen beasties, or sedately-slide-infrom-the-side nasties - the Megablast aliens seem to have minds of their own. The flight paths are frighteningly complex and lead on from one another. Just when you're congratulating yourself on escaping wave number one, wave number two tumbles right into you.
LET'S GO SHOPPING
Shooting an entire attack-wave (or a particularly obnoxious end of level shellfish) eaves a bubble on screen. These bubbles serve as dosh, and are needed to buy weapons from the local corner shop, which you get to half way through and at the end of a level.
There's a whole armoury of sixteen add-ons available for the very rich Megablast player, but the poor scumbags (who have only collected three or four bubbles) have to make do with a meagre selection of outdated hardware. However, to whet your appetite, you can buy a 'taster' of the ship equipped with every weapon available - but this only lasts ten seconds, after which you revert to whatever weapons you had before buying it. The shops aren't the only way of obtaining weapons though - occasionally canisters drift across the screen - these must be shot and collected to provide vital upgrades.
Not only are there creatures to fight, there's inertia to grapple with too. When you want to stop moving left or right your ship still drifts. Although the affect is slight, it gives a good 'feel' to playing. Luckily, collision with walls and the various rocky outcrops is not fatal - you just bounce off, pinball style (or get stuck, if you've got a lorry load of add-ons protruding from your side). Another original feature is the retro-rockets option which in an emergency allows you to scroll the screen down to slip under an alien wave.
If points were only to be scored for originality here, then Xenon II might not fare so well - but that isn't really the case. It's implementation that's the name of the game, and what we have here, implementationally speaking (I can't find that one in my dictionary. Ed.), is a game that delivers a technical knockout to all the other contenders in the shoot 'em up genre. With its fab graphics, parallax scrolling, slick power-ups routines and instant addictiveness, it's basically the bees knees. 'Bees knees' - now there's a stupid expression - but you know what I mean.
Macca: A game of Megablast is a great spectator sport. It simply has the best graphics this side of the arcades. They are flawless, incredibly detailed, stylish, technicoloured (and all the over-used bum-licking superlative you can think of). Games like Blood Money spring to mind when you mention good graphics, but where Blood Money's sprites were slightly caricatured, Megablast's are realistic and seriously hateable...
While playing this game, for the first time ever, I actually hated a sprite. In one section I went completely crazy trying to kill the veined orange fungus balls that were attacking me. I loathed them. I despised them. I wanted to rip out their entrails and cook them in a white wine sauce. I wanted to kill them. And I did. Very satisfying it was too.
Speed always seems to be a problem when you're dealing with hyper-detailed, hyper-kinetic graphics. But Bros have settles this problem by having slow scrolling backgrounds and (very) fast nasties. What surprised me was that everything was animated, even the weapons. The laser turret's nozzle rotates, the retro-cannon pumps out bullets, even the extra-energy heart throbs. The attention to detail is superb.
The Amiga soundtrack is nothing short of awesome. Bros have enlisted the services of the maestro, David Whittaker, who has spliced the original record, and squeezed all of it into the Amiga. The entire game is worth buying just for the intro. I sat there and listened to the Bomb The Bass track at least three times before I could bring myself to even begin playing the game.
You can opt either for a funky scaled-down version of the tune to keep your pinkies tapping while you're playing, or the in-game sound effects. Every weapon has its own 'voice': the lasers frazzle, the missiles woosh and the guns bang (That's enough onomatopoeia. Ed). These voices become a cacophony when you try the "Super Nashwan Power" taster.
On the gameplay side, Xenon II is geared more towards playability. Instead of throwing you back to the beginning of the level on dying, you start from roughly where you died; you don't spontaneously combust if you collide into the scenery; instead of being ceremoniously stripped of your weaponry, you keep it. Plus there's the credit and energy bar system to prolong your game whilst increasing its lasting appeal and addictiveness.
After Xenon and Speedball Bros simply could do no wrong in my eyes. But now, after Xenon II, I want to have their babies.
Dunc: The Bitmap Brothers, eh? What a clever little trio of lads they are: Speedball was brill to the power two and Xenon was brill to the power three. The burning question was whether Xenon II would be brill to the power four. And, by cracky, it is. Everything about the game is, well... sheer class! "Slick" is one word that springs to mind. "Stunning" is another. As is "Sellotape" - but as seeing as sellotape's got nothing to do with the review we'll pass on that.
Anyway, as you all know, this game is a vertically scrolling shoot 'em up. The point is, however, what a totally brilliant, amazing, unbelievable (that's enough superlatives - Ed) vertically scrolling shoot 'em up it actually is. It's the crème de la crème. The battle between technical excellence and graphical excellence has resulted in a draw: the artwork is as good as anyone could hope for - and so is the animation.
This sequel takes all the bits out of the original Xenon and er, goes to the toilet on them. Colour is abundant, the three level parallax scrolling gives real depth to the backgrounds - which are a bit of a computer graphic masterpiece all by themselves. The nasties are designed and animated with sheer genius (and, no doubt, a hell of a lot of hard work) and the add-on weapons system is awesome: enabling you to build up from pea-shooter to 'super Nashwan power' (i.e. blast power so extreme that you fry everything before it even gets the chance to scroll down onto the screen).
The Bros seem to have learnt a little bit about addictiveness and playability since the first Xenon as well: most probably from the arcades - and in particular from R-Type. 'Out' is the "Oh brilliant, I've nearly got to the end of level two. Bang. Dead. Oh dear, I've got to start from the beginning of level one again.
Actually I think I'll watch Prisoner Cell Block H instead". 'In' is the staggered restart position system: you only go back to the last 'trigger point' of which there are several per level. 'Out' is the "Lost Three Lives - End Of Game". 'In' is the "Lost Three Lives - Do You Want To Continue Where You Left Off?". This transforms the learning curve from 'too hard too quickly for all but the highly skilled gamesplayer' into one that's tailormade for everybody. Even Ali from EastEnders could make progress, given a few months (Are you sure about that? Ed).
Now we get onto the music: a sampled Bomb The Bass track (.i.e Megablast) on the boot disk which becomes a computer generated mix of said track by David Whittaker in the main game. As all ST owners know, the Amiga has got a better sound chip, and the actual sampled soundtrack is what you get throughout the game. That's the only difference between the versions, but the way I see it is that you can always stick a Bomb The Bass 12 inch on your record deck and just select sound effects (which are rather good, incidentally) when playing. (I personally like to play the game to the wonderful Bermuda Triangle as sung by Barry Manilow, but that's just the sort of person I am).
An 'ironic' little footnote is, however, that Tim Semenon (of Bomb The Bass) actually writes his music with the aid of an ST - so if it wasn't for this wonderful machine the Amiga soundtrack wouldn't be as good as it is. Erm, so there. (Or something).
This bit is especially for those of you who only read the last paragraph of reviews to see the summing up. Firstly, you're a lazy sod. Secondly, Xenon II - Megablast IS as brilliant as you were expecting it to be. Maybe it's even better. Read the review properly.