Everyone is familiar with Konami's landmark shooter franchise Gradius. Some are even aware of their lesser-known series's like Parodius, Twinbee, and Salamander. Fewer still know about XEXEX, released back in 1991 though it didn't see a reasonable port until a PSP re-release of the Salamander Collection. To date XEXEX is one of the most visually impressive games I've ever seen and there are numerous moments of wonder and amazement throughout the game's seven stages.
At its core XEXEX is best compared to Irem's R-Type series. The game revolves around using a special pod that can destroy enemies as well as protect the player from bullets. In fact quite a bit of XEXEX's game design takes the best from R-Type. Though the player has options for every situation the chances of survival are highest when the player knows what is coming and they make the best decision to counteract it.
This isn't clear early on as the first couple stages can be handled rather easily just by relying on the player's dodging skills. Stage 3 however is where things take a turn to more trial and error aspects as enemies frequently fire from off-screen and such more firepower flies around that it's impossible to dodge everything for long. To counteract the player must use their pod to its fullest effect. When the pod is attached to the ship it attacks as a frontal shield. Since most attacks come from other angles the usefulness of this is limited. However when the pod is released it grows an arm that waves around. This arm catches bullets very easily and the pod itself will home in on enemies to destroy them. Some pointers to keep in mind however is that the pod doesn't protect from lasers or certain other attacks, plus since it has a mind of its own it can also get itself trapped behind structures, where it can't help the ship.
With this in mind stage 3 & 4 become quite a bit more manageable. By the fifth stage however the proverbial gloves come off and soon the screen is filled with bullets, forcing the player to react quickly to the immediate threats rather than worry about destroying everything. The scoring system in XEXEX is nonexistent so survival is emphasized over all else. Stage 6 is where the trial and error aspects come into play and it becomes quite easy to die if the player doesn't know what's going to happen(expect large ships to appear suddenly from behind). Stage 7 is where the hands come off and reveal claws. This stage is absolutely brutal and even for gamers who have given up on that 1CC and wish to just see the ending more than likely their patience will die long before the final boss.
Just to give an example at one part a near-endless line of enemies rolls in from off-screen. If the player ignores them they will eventually take the player out with all of the bullets they fire. The obvious solution is to use the pod to block them and destroy the enemies as they roll in. However thanks to the way this area is structured the player will be unable to bring their pod back immediately afterward to deal with cannon placements, a small battleship, and really annoying enemy ships that appear from out of nowhere. If the player doesn't block the hole they have a 10% chance of survival at best, with the hole blocked that chance only jumps up to about 25%. Due to the nature of the game and the genre it's not like you get a lot of time to decide either.
The bosses in this game are weak. There's no two ways around that really. They're more like a break the player gets after surviving such a hard stage. Most of the time it comes down to allowing the pod to reach the enemy's weakpoint, and then dodging whatever happens to fly their direction. Since this game uses a checkpoint system the player will probably end up facing the boss with no power-ups. Obviously it's a great thing that the bosses are easy.
Overall the difficulty of this game tends to work against it as unless the player has been through the game several times over all they'll see is their ship scattered to pieces. On subsequent replays they'll find they have little difficulty with earlier sections and may even become slightly bored as there are no methods for scoring extra points or doing things that might better prepare them for the later stages. It's a very situational game in that a lot of what happens is exclusive to a particular stage. Even if you can master the first six stages there's really nothing that can prepare you for the final stage.
Still what it does right is worth mentioning. The mechanics are absolutely solid as the pod proves itself to be an invaluable ally and the various weapons are suitable to multiple play-styles and situations. It's obvious what kills you even when it isn't entirely fair and the ability to hold down the fire button for rapid-fire while the pod is detached is a very nice tough(when the pod is attached the player can use a charge cannon, another R-Type reference).
Unfortunately as it stands the likelihood of seeing a legal non-portable version of this game is rather low. I figure this game would be a good candidate for the X360's Game Room but I believe if it does happen there's a chance it'll be the US version of XEXEX. This is a very very bad thing.
To start off with the US version of XEXEX makes a number of changes. The weapon-system has been dumped in favor of power-ups that merely allow the player to fire more bullets as well as the addition of homing missiles. I have no idea why they did this(were they fearful of being sued by Irem? Yeah having a Spiral Laser compared to R-Type's Ring Laser might be a bit much but c'mon). That isn't the worst of it though as the game institutes an entirely new system of life and death. In XEXEX US there is a health meter. The player only gets one life with this meter and chances are if the player gets hit with something big they'll lose all their health. The US version also triples the amount of enemy firepower which extends to the bosses as well. The player's weapons are either much weaker or everything has gotten a massive hit-point boost as well. This leads to bosses that take forever to kill. Was this kind of thing done to appeal to people who just want to throw away quarters on every other game? I can't imagine it was done for anything else because this version of XEXEX is flat out broken. The brilliant visuals are still intact but US version ruins everything that made the original a good game.
Still if you can get a hold of the original and are willing to tolerate trial and error game design you'll find a lot to love about XEXEX. Personally I could have done without the checkpoint system as I'd rather lose one life and get past the chokepoint over losing 100 lives just to eventually figure it out. Granted the latter is a cop-out response and I apologize for the laziness. I can do at least the first four stages of XEXEX without dying if that accounts for anything but the seventh stage is still a bit of a brick wall to me. At times I sort of wish I could get a health meter too.