Everyone should play Exolon. It’s slick, challenging, fun and it’s one of those games that I can’t really imagine anyone with any sort of interest in videogaming disliking. Exolon was far from Cecco’s first game, but it was his first real critical hit and it turned him into a “big name” programmer, someone whose association with a title alone was enough to spark interest from both the gaming press and the kids who bought games. He paid back on that interest (I think I’ve just accidentally created some kind of banking pun, I apologise) more than enough as well; look at earlier articles in this series for details.
Even before Exolon was published there was a certain amount of excitement building-up about the forthcoming title. Previewing the game in their July 1987 issue, CRASH magazine declared “everyone in the office enjoyed playing the preview copy, and now we can’t wait for a production version.”. When they got their hands on the finished game a month later, the reviewers heaped praise upon it and awarded it the famous ‘CRASH Smash’. Other magazines were just as enthusiastic: Your Sinclair awarded it a ‘Megagame’ and Sinclair User gave it their rather strangely-monickered ‘Classic’ award.
Playing Exolon now, it’s easy to see why reviewers in the ’80s got so excited about it. For a start, it’s a beautiful-looking game making excellent use of the Sinclair machine’s bright colours and avoiding its notorious attribute clash. But that’s not the main attraction, Exolon‘s strength lies in the fact that this is a shoot-em-up with, at the time, a difference since it plays screen-by-screen with each screen presenting a different challenge for the player to overcome. Some just require Vitorc (the player-character, described in the instructions as a “heavily-armed humanoid”) to destroy a couple of obstacles using grenades whilst taking-down flying aliens whilst others need the player to tackle problems such as obstructive pods and the aliens which swarm from them once the grenade does its business, homing missiles and ‘crushers’ which, despite the name, actually rise up out of the ground. The game is split into several levels and on each level there is a sort of futuristic gazebo which Vitorc can enter to don the Exolon battle armour – with this his task will become easier (it has twin cannons and protects him from mines and crushers) but if he finishes a level without it he gets a juicy 10,000 points bonus.
Exolon therefore is not merely a screen-by-screen run and gun game, it actually has small elements of strategy and a risk-reward balance; the latter applies not only to the Exolon suit but also teleporters which can be used to ‘sneak’ past some enemies on one screen but places Vitorc on a different elevation which might mean his task on the next screen is more difficult. Although it feels very different, there are the beginnings here of the gameplay ideas which Cecco developed further in the Cybernoid games.
Although this game was converted to numerous platforms, the ZX Spectrum version remains the definitive one. The Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC ports are okay but they lack the attractive look of the Spectrum version and are a bit blocky. Avoid avoid avoid the fuck-awful (that expletive is justified) Amiga and Atari ST version, though, which aren’t worthy of the name.
And, if you still complain about the ‘new’ 5p pieces and have, similarly, no time for ‘fiddly’ emulators, why not try the rather-good Windows and Mac OS port by Retrospec which you can find here? Happy Exoloning.
I didn’t even do the “it’s an Exolont game!” pun, neither.