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RELEASE DATE (NA): 1993 GENRE: Platformer
// review by EscapeRouteBritish


Released in 1993 by Epic MegaGames, Xargon is a side-scrolling platformer for DOS. Much in the same vein as the Commander Keen games, Xargon's stages require you to run, jump, shoot things, collect keys and grab useless stuff like TVs and keyboards.

Following the shareware model, the first episode was free to distribute and contained copious amounts of advertising for the second and third parts, and also a fair amount of namedropping for Epic MegaGames and their products. Every other level has the word "EPIC" either written somewhere or as collectible lettered pool balls.

The game focuses on a man named Malvineous Havershim, which is a dumb name and his family should have known better. He is an archaeologist, for some reason. While studying strange ruins in Madagascar, Malvineous loses consciousness and (while probably hallucinating) finds himself in a strange land. He meets a talking eagle named Silvertongue; there's drama, mystery, mystique, mist and missing relevance to anything ever. Also, the bad guy is a dragon named Xargon. That's basically it.

I want to get the good out of the way. Xargon looks incredible when put next to other side-scrollers from the time. The artwork on the character sprites and the enemies are nicely detailed, the environments look quite impressive. The lightning effect in one stage really helped to embellish the visuals. The stages are dotted with features such as ruins and incomplete structures, which help towards significant world-building.

What also really contributes to the game's powerful imagery is the John Carpenter-esque score, with lovely harsh sounding synthesizer grinds that sound so off that they're bang-on right. The soundtrack suits the game impeccably.

Alright, done.

Perhaps Xargon's most blatant problem stems from the controls. While the cramped hand placement would have been fine back in '93 when we didn't know better, the layout of the keys is pretty awful now I've experienced better. Alt to jump and Spacebar to use your weapon — these keys are just awkward. To be fair, the game does natively support joysticks (and therefore, gamepads if you're using DOSBox).

Xargon has this arbitrary in-game shop feature, where pressing a key brings up a menu of health items or weapons that you can buy using the in-game emeralds that you collect. The game's difficulty seems to be based on this and therefore throws harder things at you just as an excuse to make you actually use this feature.

Malvineous loves long hallucinogenic walks on the beach.

The levels are large. This would be great if there was a checkpoint feature of some kind. Imagine you spend five minutes on a stage only to fall into instant-death lava two seconds from the end — back to the start, you have to do everything again. Say, a half-way point, how less painful would that be?

Your weapon sucks. Whether you're shooting "laser bullets" from what looks like your groin, tossing rocks, or launching fireballs, the weapon sucks. Fireballs cut through everything but are far too limited, the rocks have awful trajectory and the laser bullets are slow and ineffective. You can kind of bend the laser bullet shot upwards or downwards by holding the associated direction, but it also moves the camera at the same time, which is annoying!

The map screen is a great idea — it makes the game feel like it is open, with a lot of choice. But that's a false economy, because the levels are pretty much in a pre-determined order for the most part. When you're moving across a tight hallway on the map screen, it basically makes me wonder, "Why even bother?" Episode 1 ended without any kind of conflict. The "boss" (if it can be called that) was a stationary object that couldn't fight back. What a let-down. I just stood in a gap throwing rocks at it until it exploded.

You only have five blocks of health, which go down very quickly in tight areas because Malvineous has no invulnerability period. You know in games like Sonic the Hedgehog where the character flashes, providing them temporary respite to navigate out of a tough spot? No such thing here — all your hard work can be gone in less than a second in any area loaded with spikes.

You're plodding along enjoying yourself, so the last thing you want is the game to halt suddenly to waste your time with useless information, right? RIGHT. So along comes Xargon with its obnoxious game stopping moments, such as "Xargon may be dangerous for your health". No s&@#? I'll tell you what's dangerous for your health: stopping me from playing the game to waste my time with inane twaddle, that's what!

There were red barriers in a later stage that looked like they'd kill me, but they didn't. They don't even seem to serve any purpose. Terrible design.

Compared to its contemporaries, Duke Nukem and Commander Keen, Xargon is more of a messing than a blessing. However, one big positive I can find is that the entire game became freeware in 2003, so it can be downloaded and played for free without feeling guilty about it. And with the source code available, would-be developers can use the game as an example of how to make a game that would piss you off with unnecessary pauses, lack of invulnerability after getting hit, forced item buying, poor weaponry, awful controls, and no checkpoints.

Book 'im Sarge, Xargon is guilty of all these things. But hey, at least it looks and sounds good!

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