Playing Xenocider: a belated, brilliant release for Dreamcast

We looked at the bizarrely active Dreamcast homebrew scene a couple of years ago in the pages of Wireframe (issue 7, to be precise) – one title that stood out from the crowd was Xenocider. A fully 3D game made by amateur team Retro Sumus, riffing on the classic Space Harrier and – eventually – releasing in 2021, it’s something a lot of people have been keen on for a long time. Well, ‘a lot’ in so far as the Dreamcast homebrew scene doesn’t exactly have millions of card-carrying members, but you know what I mean.

Duly whet of appetite – after reading our feature of so long ago, naturally – I coolly and calmly set up my Dreamcast. It had been in a drawer for about two weeks, so it wasn’t that hard to remember where everything went. And to playing I did, indeed, get. It wasn’t too long before I’d had my first game over, because Xenocider is a game that just doesn’t want to play nice now, does it?

Expectations adjusted, my second play went much better, but there was still something off. The game is an on-rails shooter – like Space Harrier, of course, or Rez for a more recent example – in which you use the analogue stick to control your targeting reticule and try to blast the dozens of enemies, and final level boss, in each stage. Movement, at least that you have control over, is limited to switching left and right between five different ‘tracks’ – but that’s more than enough to be able to avoid obstacles and incoming projectiles.

It sounds simple – you even set auto-fire on so you only have to worry about targeting, rather than targeting and shooting – but in practice, it needed a bit of time to punch any plasticity into my brain and allow it to get itself around the concepts. There’s a tutorial covering the basics, but the fact is Xenocider is old-school in its approach: it relies on you playing and playing and playing to just get better at things, rather than giving you the world at your fingertips and all the help you could want.

That is to say: it’s refreshing. Jarring initially, but refreshing. Soon enough I had the hang of it, especially after switching to my Retro Fighters Dreamcast controller with its (optional) digital shoulder buttons, which are used to switch between lanes. Sweeping my reticule around the screen, I was able to shepherd threats into more manageable situations and bring some level of control to the chaos that unfolds in every planet-based level.

There was still the feeling, every now and then, that I was being cheated – projectiles heading on a (relatively) horizontal plane when you’re sat in one of the outside lanes are, as far as I could tell, impossible to avoid. And some of the boss fights are frustrating as the big bads have the habit of recharging health along the way to prolong things. But the overall feeling with Xenocider was a faintly nostalgic joy.

There are impressive elements to it outside the main game – actual achievements are in there. Obviously not at a system level, it’s just in the game, but that’s a really neat touch. There are unlockables too, like an into-the-screen Space Invaders-style mode, and – brilliantly – a much more direct take on Space Harrier which sees Xenocider look, control, and, generally, feel pretty much like a modern (well, a 1998-ish) 3D version of Space Harrier.

As far as I’m concerned, Xenocider is up there with the absolute gold standard when it comes to homebrew. It’s taken a while to come out, and that does happen a lot with these amateur productions, but you can see where a lot of that time went. If this had released around the 1999 mark, I don’t think anybody would have been surprised. It might not have got the attention and plaudits it’s been getting in 2021, mind you, but it would have fitted right in with the official, erm… officebrew? games of the Dreamcast’s roster.

The most positive thing I have to say about Xenocider – aside from it making me laugh on finishing the first level and being congratulated for destroying ‘one whole civilisation’ – is that I wanted to play it more. I’d been intrigued simply because of the novelty of the subject: a manageable, but still ambitious project for the Dreamcast, 20 years after the console itself had died. What’s not to be curious about there?

But the reality is this is a solid game – solid both in design terms, and in difficulty terms – and even though I was playing it specifically to write about my experiences with it here, I decided to go back to playing it some more once I’d done writing the previous few paragraphs (then secretly adding these in by the power of magic). It’s not particularly deep or technical or clever, and it has reduced me to more than one bout of furious, dog-scaring swearing as that arse hermit-crab boss fluked a win against me for the fourth time. But for what it is, Xenocider is a great experience, and heartily recommended to all seven of you out there who still own a Dreamcast.

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