In 1987, Xenophobe was a fairly popular arcade game from the Midway company. The title was soon ported onto various consoles and other systems, which would include a version on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, an effort headed by developer Sunsoft. Would it compare to the cabinet original? Spoiler alert: No.
Xenophobe has no scrolling, nor even any platforming. It takes place on half the screen, where the player (or two at once, which makes the whole concept a bit more fun) can choose one of three characters to begin eradicating Xenos from inside a space station. The Xenos are various types of aliens and robotic enemies, and are dispatched via gunshots and bombs.
Each floor of a stage has eight rooms to travel between, left and right, while the eight levels in total also progressively gain more floors altogether, until the maximum of five floors on the last area. Each room begins with a foe or two, and once all are beaten, more continue to regularly spawn, each typically taking a handful of shots to kill and potentially dropping an item.
Many of the pick-ups just increase the player's score, but there are also different types of health refills and even more powerful weapons to gain. Both of these are of utmost importance. Xenophobe is a challenging game, giving the player 1000 health points to start, but some enemies are capable of gouging 50 or 100 at a time by touch or projectile attack. Meanwhile, more powerfuls guns are going to be very desirable, since the pea shooter the player starts out with is horribly weak and slow-firing.
The levels have a vague time limit, during which the player must kill a certain number of aliens in order to advance to the next stage. There is no on-screen readout of ether the remaining kills or remaining time, however, with only a flashing screen given as a warning that the self-destruct sequence is activated.
The control scheme is demonstrably flawed. For example: Rather than just press down to crouch, the player must press down and A, and then up and A to return to a standing position. Jumping works with the A button just fine, while the B button shoots, but the idea of togging between crouching and standing takes some getting used to, especially since some enemies can knock the player down to a seated position.
The alien foes have other cheap tricks, too: Some are capable of being in a position where they cannot be fired upon, and there are some invincible traps spread throughout the stages as well, needlessly adding to the difficulty of an already-tough game. A password feature would have been pleasant, but even more sorely lacking is the simple capacity to keep gun upgrades to the next level, a simple idea that is woefully missing. In the arcade original, at least the starting gun could be fired at a decently rapid pace; not so in this NES iteration, which will have the player feeling outgunned and outnumbers at every turn, even as enemies push the player through unwanted doorways.
In the arcade game, the screen was split into thirds, in order to better organize the visuals for cooperative play for a trio. On the NES, the screen is split in half, and while the artists should be commended for getting those decent alien designs on-screen, the presentation suffers. That being said, the science fiction planet backgrounds are pretty, and perhaps the smaller sizing works to make the corridors feel even more frighteningly claustrophobic. Overall, though, other Sunsoft cartridges show off their graphics chops to much better effect.
What does it say about this game that the best musical theme, by far, is the Game Over screen? Otherwise, the soundtrack falls prey to the dreaded NES tendency of sci-fi titles to rely on overproduced chaos, where the notes sound as though they were randomly chosen and hardly bother with aiming for any sense of rhythm, melody, or appeal. See also: Rad Gravity, Dash Galaxy.
Strangely, most of the gameplay does not have any background music whatsoever. While this can be interesting in a space setting, potentially to offer an enhanced sense of seclusion and isolation for example, the setting has to at least be backed by solid sound effects for this to work. Unfortunately, the effects in Xenophobe are rather generic, sounding like Sunsoft just borrowed a few files from a conglomerate producer.
Xenophobe has its fans, likely some due to its distinctiveness, but probably not nearly as many for the 8-bit version. While some will enjoy the steep challenge of a game not quite like any other, it just never seems like this was a good choice for a home conversion. At best, Xenophobe can be thought of as an early shade of survival horror genre on the NES, and an interesting exhibit among its early offerings. At worst, Xenophobe on NES is tedious, unfairly hard, and rife with either poor design choices or unassailable hardware limitations.