There were many occasions through the mid- to late eighties when an arcade game would come along and your jaw would just drop because you knew that graphics were never going to get any better than this. Until the next time, of course! Screenshots of Space Harrier’s first stage dragon or Out Run’s exotic opening immediately spring to mind, but more than anything, the game that got me the most was R-Type in Computer & Video Games magazine’s Arcade Action section, with its iconic, long-tailed skeletal insect-like alien boss taking up a hitherto unimaginable lump of the screen as your powered-up but tiny craft fought back against the hell it was unleashing!
Now and again the same would happen with home computer games too, but far less frequently. The ZX Spectrum version of R-Type would be a good shout for that too though, as well as stuff like The Trap Door or its predecessor, Popeye, or Merlin or Starglider, but I don’t think anything ever jumped off the page of a magazine at me like Exolon did!
What’s even more impressive is that around this time, August 1987, it was still having that kind of impact despite the ongoing bombardment of early Amiga and Atari ST screenshots that were teasing us with what must be the biggest generational graphical jump that we’ve ever seen. It’s a really special looking game even today though – and that’s before we get into seeing those rocket-propelled grenades and subsequent explosions in action! All that said, no one remembers the 16-bit versions of Exolon…
Exolon’s first ports of call were on the Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, care of Hewson, having been developed by Raffaele Cecco; I’m not sure what he’d be best known for today – of his dozen or so game credits, possibly Exolon, but possibly Stormlord or Cybernoid, also both published by Hewson. Looking back though, it was his 1986 space shooter Equinox for Mikro-Gen that gives the best indication of what was to come, playing like Wizball or even Cauldron II, but inside a partially formed, early take on Exolon. The seeds of his unique and groundbreaking graphical style are clearly there though, just missing a bit of polish and the gameplay that would make them properly sing.
That gameplay would eventually evolve into flip-screen horizontal shooting, with you a heavily armed humanoid fighting your way through over a hundred screens of alien mayhem. I’m not sure that why or where or who or anything else is ever explained anywhere, but why would you care? You make your way from left to right, hitting fire quickly for your blaster, which will take out anything organic with ease, and anything armoured with a bit more effort, but that’s where a longer press is going to launch one of those grenades. These will take out the heavily armoured battle machinery like gun emplacements and missile guidance modules, as well as thick walls and rock faces that might offer an easier route through the battle zone. Various screens might have a teleporter for that too, allowing you to avoid something particularly nasty, usually by moving you up to a higher platform – especially useful when you’re confronted by a birth pod that’s going to empty out a swarm of baby aliens if you destroy it; they’re not massively dangerous, but there’s loads of them and taking them out is going to use up loads of ammo. Your blaster has a hundred shots, and youv’e got a maximum of ten grenades, though both are replenished by reasonably regular drops, or simply by dying! A twist is provided on some screens by being able to play as the vulnerable but athletic Vitorc (there you go, we did know “who” after all!) or as the lumbering but powerful hyper-alloy exoskeleton, Exolon. This hydraulic armour allows you to wade through whatever enemy horde is being thrown at you, and will protect you from all but the biggest of alien firepower.
Unlike something like the aforementioned Popeye and Merlin, which look far better in screenshots than in action, Exolon manages both! The rocket-propelled grenade launching from your back with its multicoloured vapour trail preceding its deadly descent never gets old. Without getting too obsessed with vapours, the same can be said when you come across one of the big hovering spaceships too, ominously staring you down from above! The explosions are some of the best you’ll ever see on the Spectrum, with weapon impact resulting in an instantaneous blowing into smithereens, with accurately multicoloured debris flying in all directions off the screen. There’s impressive movement everywhere else you look too, from the laboured walking of your character to the frenetic chaos of the aliens trapped in birth bods, to details like the smaller explosions on every alien death or the recoil on guns or the flourish as you leave one teleporter then return in the next.
Everywhere you look is just the very best of what the Spectrum is capable of showing you, lit by a simple starfield with occasional boldy coloured planets appearing from the black abyss, but you’ll barely notice those for all of the even more boldly coloured action going on in the foreground. There’s colour everywhere! The stoney ground, the metallic structures, the aliens, their weapons, the… In fact, everything except your chunky white character sprite (no doubt to avoid the most colour clash known to man) is a mass of the very best of the Spectrum’s rainbow! You occasionally notice some masking around sprites to avoid colour clash, for example as an alien passes behind a platform, but it’s barely there. And when you throw in the flashing lights on the teleporters or the laser barriers, the whole thing is like some vast 8-bit space disco!
Speaking of which, check out that theme tune on the title screen! Hot stuff coming from the 128K Spectrum’s sonic arsenal at least, with a brief but jaunty melody and bass cleverly at play with each other, though I’m not sure why the militaristic drums at the start make an even more brief appearance before disappearing. Sound channels and other such complicated stuff I guess. Type in ZORBA as your redefined keys and you’ll get a little bonus tune too, signifying another bonus while you’re playing. You’re welcome! Sound effects in-game are mostly variations on white noise for different gun sounds, deaths and so on, but there’s some nice echoing beeps when you pick up more ammo or pass through a teleporter. Those explosions don’t just look good either – some real weight to them!
For all of those good looks though, I never actually saw a great deal of Exolon first time around. I picked it up a bit after launch, probably when it went on sale, and yes, I was, no doubt, blown away by it, but there’s only so blown away you can be by the first few screens! It’s hard, you see. And at the age of fifteen, I wasn’t the best at playing games (except IK+ and Match Day), mainly because I wasn’t the most patient, and certainly wasn’t interested in learning enemy attack patterns – why I still stink at stuff like R-Type! As my interest fairly quickly waned, I enlisted the help of ZORBA and must have got about eighty screens in. Now, I might have had infinite lives, but I was still rubbish and impatient, and it starts getting really hard before long, so when it glitched out after hours of slog despite the cheating, I was done. And anyway, I’d now seen most of what it had to offer, and I also knew I was never going to be good enough to do it without cheating, so that was that – beaten by a bug that didn’t care for cheats… It turns out that this is a known bug involving jumping off of certain high platforms that can cause a crash regardless, which would really suck if you hadn’t cheated to get that far!
Fast forward to late summer 2021 and I’m not sure what prompted me to dig out Exolon again. Possibly coming across a review of Exolon-influenced (to be polite) Yeti in an old copy of Crash magazine. Anyway, since, in my old age, I’ve started to develop a level of patience for learning how to play a game, and I’ve tackled all those vicious Mega Mans and Hollow Knights and Cyber Shadows and the like, there’s been a few things that I’ve had a nagging feeling I should go back and have a serious assault on – little in the way of rhyme or reason, but Exolon is one of them, together with stuff like Joe Blade and Dan Dare. And here we are.
I still haven’t finished it though! But I’ve got pretty deep – loads further than ever before (when I wasn’t cheating) – and I’ve discovered that you can upgrade your weapons, and I’ve paid attention to the end of level bonuses after what I think was every 25 screens (possibly also 128K exclusive though), and learnt about some of the other scoring mechanics (although I’ve just noticed that these are also clearly stated in the instructions too)! There’s also a few neat tricks – the position of the regular aliens that fly in from the right in a kind of sine wave pattern seems to be dictated by your height, so if you’re on a platform or even jumping, that’s where they’ll fly, meaning you can buy yourself some time lower down immediately after they appear. There’s also dead zones where they won’t appear if you get there quick enough, and the same for some of the enemy gun emplacements. Most significantly, I had no idea about that exoskeleton thing that massively increases your resistance to damage as well as your firepower. Didn’t even know it existed. And it’s called Exolon… Should listen to my own advice to others about reading instructions! Anyway, the thing is that you also learn that using it comes at a price – no score bonus after 25 screens if that’s you’re thing. These basic strategic elements, as well as a basic understanding of the instructions and just playing it to learn, for example, whether or not that teleport is worth taking, all combine to add just a bit more depth to Exolon than your average, absolutely glorious-looking horizontal space shooter!
I’ve only had a quick dabble with those other original versions of Exolon. The C64 version looks like a browned-up version of the Spectrum one, and as a result doesn’t quite pull off the same level of atmosphere, though it does sound very nice! The Amstrad port is a very odd-looking thing – imagine what you think the C64 version should look like, then animate it really badly! The 16-bit versions, released in 1989, are exactly what you’d imagine too – we mentioned Dan Dare and Joe Blade earlier, and they got the same treatment, with individual sprites suitably upscaled, a bit of music bunged on the top, but all the soul sucked out of it. That said, it’s always a pleasure to report back when the Atari ST version of anything has better music than the Amiga! Some time later, there was also a Windows remaster, Exolon DX, released in 2005. That appears to be pretty soul-less too, with a big techno soundtrack booming out over a background that looks like one of those old Winamp visualisations, and some even more overly-defined sprites going through the motions out front.
That all adds up to stick with the Spectrum version, which is a good outlook to have about most other games too! It really is up there with the best visuals you’ll find on the system, and they’re backed up by a tough but mostly fair shooter that’s full of atmosphere, variety and a partially hidden depth that will get deeper the more you play it (or read the instructions). Definitely worth another look if you haven’t for a while!