A few months back, for my birthday, I received an iCade, a bluetooth controller/stand for the iPad that makes if feasible to play 80s arcade games. There are a lot of these games available for iOS–ports of the actual, original games, not modern remakes–but they are very hard to effectively control via the touchscreen. Anyway, last week I replaced my decrepit, severely challenged first-generation iPad with a new iPad air, so I was finally able to take these games out for a real spin.

Rowan tries his hand at the iCade.

Rowan tries his hand at the iCade.

So one of my favorite games from that golden era of the arcade was Xevious–and that’s the first I sunk my teeth into over the weekend. I have awesome memories of that game, which had astounding graphics, incredible gameplay, and an amazing atmosphere. Or maybe my rearward-looking glasses are heavily rose-tinted?

Nope. That game still rocks. Here’s why.

The graphics may be chunky, but they’re still something to write home about. The designers managed some incredible effects–shimmering, morphing metallic forms out of black, white, and four shades of gray. And amazing glows out of red, black, and an intermediary brown. They used these, along with an interesting array of motions, in really imaginative ways, to create a set of evocative opponents that would make any 21st-century game designer proud.

Check out that gun turret, in particular. Black, white, and four shades of gray. Throw in some motion and some glow effect in the dark areas, and then cast your mind back to 1982. Genius!

In the same way that Numenera’s sweeping vistas are a key to unlocking that game’s profoundly imaginative setting, the importance of Xevious’s graphics can’t be understated. But there are a lot of nuances to gameplay that make this game stand out among others of its era–and hold lessons for designers today.

For example, many (most?) games have respawn points–if you make it past a given point in the game and then die, you start again at that given point. But in Xevious, if you make it more than 70% of the way to that respawn point and then die, you start at the respawn point–you actually jump ahead in the game. This bit of brilliance means that you may still be discovering game content, even at the early stages of the game, many plays into it.

While many games of that era had different opponent types, Xevious had a lot and was somewhat random in the mix of bad guys it threw at you (at least the aerial ones–the ground targets are fixed). They seem to have different rarities, too, so you could play many, many times and still run into things you hadn’t seen before. Or had only seen once or twice, and so had an incomplete understanding of what it could do. The game was (and still is, now that I’m playing again!) constantly giving you something new.

Xevious was the first top-down scroller that played against a meaningful background (as opposed to a starfield or whatever that had no effect on gameplay). In an effort (I imagine) to deal with memory limitations, the background is one giant square of terrain–you scroll all the way up it, and the start again from the bottom, but offset just a bit. (This is seamless within the game.) Each pass overlaps the others, so you get new terrain but with recognizable elements from previous passes. The designers turned this into an advantage, by designing terrain elements larger than the screen width. This gives an incredible sense that the game is larger than the playspace. Flying over a partial Nazca bird figure instills the game setting–which in other games of the era was entirely without context–with real sweep and mystery.

Technology changes (especially in the world of electronic games). Game design itself evolves. But Xevious, now 30 years old, reminds us that truly good game design does not go obsolete.

Now excuse me–I have a game to play!

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