Monday 24 August 2020

Exolon (Hewson Consultants, 1987)

Designed and written by Rafaele Cecco for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC. Spectrum sounds by Nick Jones. Loading screen by Nigel Brownjohn. Both SPE and CPC versions also available on Enterprise 128.

Converted for the Commodore 64 by Nick Jones, with loading screen for the Rack-It re-release by Stephen "Sir'88" Robertson.

Remade for the Atari ST by Martin J. Bysh, with graphics by Gary P. Helix and music and sound effects by J. Dave Rogers. Released by Hewson in 1988.

Converted from the Atari ST version for the Commodore Amiga by Guido Henkel for Linel/Dragonware. Released by Hewson in 1989.

Two (unofficial?) conversions for the Sharp MZ-800 written by Midos and Datelsoft in 1989.



Rafaele Cecco's games all have a certain kind of a quality, that make them all feel most at home on the Spectrum and Amstrad for some reason, but I've always thought Exolon to be one of the games that was almost equally good on every 8-bit. The 16-bit versions I never even knew of until I started doing the research for this entry, so it'll be something new to look forward to, at least for me. Exolon also has a certain amount of randomness about it, that makes it impossible to feel completely comfortable about it at any given time, and perhaps for that reason, it has never been one of my favourites, but that hasn't stopped everyone else from liking it.

At the time of starting to write this entry, at World of Spectrum, Exolon's current rating is a rather impressive 8.46 from 384 votes, which already could give it a certain advantage of bias. At Lemon64, the C64 version has a score of 6.6 from 61 votes, making it the lowest community score from the 8-bits. At CPC-Power, the Amstrad version score is 16.55 from 20.00, and at CPC Game Reviews, the score is 8 out of 10. On the 16-bit front, the LemonAmiga rating is a surprisingly low 2.74 from 27 votes, while the ST version has a 7.4 score from 14 votes at AtariMania. An interesting start, I'd say, but we have no available scores for the Enterprise and MZ-800 versions, which shouldn't surprise anyone, although regarding the E128 version, since it's able to play both the Spectrum and the Amstrad versions, you can consider their scores applicable for the Enterprise.



Exolon, as a word, is not documented to be anything, but I'm guessing it's a shortened version of sorts of the word "exoskeleton", pointing to the protagonist's armored spacesuit. The exoskeleton plays an important part here, too. Basically, Exolon is a flip-screen platforming shooter with some puzzle elements. Your mission is to trudge across several extra-terrestrial areas, destroy lots of enemy equipment and get your reward for the job well done. Bonus rewards will be given for getting through each level without taking advantage of the possibility to upgrade your exoskeleton at pods somewhere in the middle of a level. In many ways, Exolon is heavily reminiscent of Cecco's next classic called Cybernoid, which has also been featured on this blog a long time ago.

I got introduced to Exolon on the C64, probably around 1989-1990, from one of my friends' turbo tapes, as was usual at the time. For a long time, I didn't really get into the game, but there was something oddly obsessing about it that kept me coming back to it every now and then. This actually still holds true - I still don't really understand the game's appeal to full extent, but there is something haunting about it that after a few tries might easily become an obsession. To me, Exolon's biggest problem is its predictable unpredictability - there are times when it's impossible to get past enemies if they move in a way that you cannot destroy them, but a collision is imminent, and there are also times when you need to walk through a randomly timed trap. Once again, luck is a factor, when it shouldn't be, but it's one of the things that might give any game that "one more go" element. It's not a traditional platforming shooter by any means, and it's even rather awkward compared to many of its peer, so I find it a bit difficult to recommend it to anyone. Still, it is a classic for a reason.



Due to the existence of 16-bit versions, we shall postpone the loading screens until the graphics section and start from the important stuff. Customarily, the 8-bit Exolon's title screen features a fair amount of control options, which includes joysticks and redefinable keyboard options, as well as the somewhat unnecessary "Start Game" option, which you actually do need to do by pressing the "1" key, instead of just by normally pushing the designated fire button. A slight annoyance, but this is one of those games, that was obviously designed with concern for gamers who might not have a joystick in their possession. The AMSTRAD version doesn't offer a straight joystick option, but you can redefine your keys to use the joystick. The AMIGA and ATARI ST versions only utilise a joystick, so the title screen offers no control options, and the game starts more traditionally by pressing the fire button.

The controls are simple: left and right make your fellow walk left and right, up jumps straight up and activates things, diagonal-ups jump in the pointed directions, and down makes you duck. A short push of the fire button makes you fire your primary rifle-like laser weapon, and pushing the fire button down longer makes you launch a grenade. For preserving regular ammunition when in need of destroying many things with grenades on the same screen, it is advisable to keep your fire button pressed down for as long as you need to keep launching consecutive grenades; a new grenade is launched only after the previous has blown up. You do need to keep an eye on your ammunition and grenades, since you only have 99 laser bullets and 10 grenades at maximum. Happily, new ammunition and grenades can be picked up quite often as you make progress, and they also reset to maximum after every death.

Exolon has five stages on the 8-bits and four on the 16-bits, and each stage has, if I remember correctly, and if the 16-bit versions correlate to the 8-bits in this manner, 25 screens in it. The 16-bits have a completely different level design, you see, and the game is brutally, and frankly, unfairly difficult on the 16-bits, which is why I haven't bothered to find out further than getting to the end of stage 1. The level design alone makes the 16-bit versions much less playable than the 8-bits, more often having unfair situtations than even somewhat navigable. What I mean by this, is that enemies can spawn right outside of the screen even when you're standing at the very edge of it, making it impossible to dodge or even shoot the spawning enemies, so you can actually die just as you're about to flip to the next screen. On the 8-bits, this problem has been somewhat eliminated by having an invisible point on the right edge of each screen, after which your having crossed it, you're in a safe zone. However, that doesn't mean the 8-bit versions are all that much fairer to play, because once you get past the first screen in level 2, the game forces you to perform in a very specific manner for you to be able to make progress, which means plenty of trial and error.

The problem is, the enemy behaviour is what makes Exolon so unfair. All across the stages, you will find stationary weapons, which will shoot at you at random intervals, sometimes so that two bullets might get shot in the same instant instead of one, making it necessary for you to shoot some extra bullets just in case. Some stationaries can be destroyed by launching grenades at them - one will be enough, when they're hit; some stationaries cannot be destroyed at all, and the only way to navigate by them is to keep shooting at them and making steady, but careful progress towards it, until you have passed such a stationary. The non-stationary enemies are mostly such that will spawn from outside the right edge of the screen and will float in a few different manners towards the left, targeted at you either from the go, or by homing at you, and some will increase their movement speed after a certain point on the screen. You also need to destroy round containers, that will release a swarm of little circular floaty things that you will also need to shoot. Sometimes, you can see uncontained swarms of these small floaty things. Even the smallest touch at any enemy will make you lose a life.

While the game has no timer, nor a pause mode, it does have a sanction for stalling on one screen for longer than necessary (i.e. after all the non-spawning things have been destroyed), by launching an indestructible rocket-like thing at you, which you cannot avoid getting killed by. This applies to all versions of the game.

Regarding the structural elements: you will occasionally come across some sorts of plungers or whatever, coming out of the floor all of a sudden in a random fashion, and then slowly retreating back into the floor. In most versions, any small contact with these will result in a death, while in the ATARI ST version, they're just structural foreground elements that you need not care about. I'm suspecting this has been made deliberately so, because the ST version is otherwise difficult enough to give nightmares to anyone without the trouble those things would cause additionally. The AMIGA version, while being an otherwise straight port of the ST version, has the floor plunger things reinstated as random killing machines, probably because it wasn't brutal enough on the ST.

Happily, there are some structural elements that will not kill you, such as teleports (that will only teleport you to another teleport on the same screen) and weapon upgrade booths, which only make an appearance once in every stage. Activating either of these happens by pushing upwards. Every other structural element needs to be either avoided or destroyed. Entering the level exit happens simply by walking into it.

Losing a life results in an initially funny, but increasingly annoying animation of your astronaut jumping in place, in the position of falling on his rear end, even when taking a hit while jumping forwards or backwards. Although that doesn't directly affect the gameplay, the annoyance of it, having to witness it at least 9 times before the game is over makes it feel less funny on consecutive viewings. But that Cecco had the sense to give the player nine lives to begin with only goes to show that he knew that the game was so unfair, that a more traditional 3 or 5 lives wouldn't have helped you get anywhere. Since the levels are so long - 25 screens each - a passcode system for each level would have been nice, since you're not going to keep any collected weapon upgrades after a completed level anyway. If you don't collect the weapon upgrades and still manage to complete a level, you are given bonus points for bravery, which at least gives Exolon some replay value after you have managed to complete it with the weapon upgrades - a feat which I'm still far from achieving.

In the end, as far as the gameplay mechanics are concerned, the 8-bit versions are pretty much equal to each other, apart from the other MZ-800 version, which is a bit slower and oddly jittery on a default setup compared to the others, but still close enough; and the 16-bit versions take the second place. Speaking of which, it should be pointed out that the 16-bit versions load each level from the disk, instead of all at once, if that really matters to anyone at this point.




Since we skipped the loading section altogether this time, now's a good time to rewind back to that. Note that there is no actual loading screen for the C64 version, since the original tape only uses flashing rainbow bars for the entire loading sequence, and the disk version isn't much better, since it doesn't give you any actual graphics.

Exolon loading screens. Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Sharp MZ-800.
Bottom row: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64 (Rack-It).

So, you might ask, what is that C64 screen in the set above? Well, it is an unused pixelation of the cover art by Stephen "SIR'88" Robertson, which was supposed to be used for the Rack-It budget release, which seems to have been lost without a trace. Someone at the Lemon64 forum suggests to have seen it many years ago, so it's possible that there was a Rack-It re-release of the C64 Exolon, but the only proof we have of it is the loading picture taken from the Lemon64 archive. It's a nice enough picture, but probably won't be taken into account here, since loading screens are rarely taken into account anyway. However, considering the nature of the game, I might as well make an exception, because there are enough differences between the official loading screens to make it an interesting add, but let's see.

The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD loading screens can only be told apart from the lack of colours and the higher loading counter time in the AMSTRAD screen. I'm not entirely sure, whether the SHARP loading screen is actually a loading screen or not, due to the odd emulation and filing system for the machine - I still have no experience of a real-life Sharp MZ-800, so if anyone of you readers know this screen to be an actual loading screen on the MZ-800, please throw a comment in the designated section. The ATARI ST and AMIGA loading screens try to replicate the cover art in their own specific manners; in the AMIGA screen, the slightly tilted point-of-view is correct, but the colours and details are much closer to the source on the ST screen.

Title screens. Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Bottom row: Atari ST, Commodore Amiga (cracked), Sharp MZ-800 v.1 and v.2.

In the title screen, we see a good basis for the graphics comparison. The SPECTRUM and the second SHARP versions look exactly alike, apart from some necessary changes to the text, and the first SHARP version is a low-budget version of the original SPECTRUM version, with no animated random stars in the background. It should be pointed out, however, that if you play the SPECTRUM version on a 48k Speccy, you will see no stars in the background until the theme song has finished, but if you play it on a 128k Speccy, you will get both music and stars simultaneously.

At this point, both the AMSTRAD and C64 versions seem to head for a lo-res multicolour look, and the former is the only one to feature red stars instead of white, as well as a blue game logo instead of yellow - on the 8-bits, that is. The ATARI ST and AMIGA versions have a red logo with a metal plate behind it, but the only real difference between those two is the amount of text and the colouring of the credits.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.

I admit, since I learned about Exolon first on my C64, for a long time I really hadn't thought the game anything particularly spectacular, because it looked like an approximation of a Spectrum game. Later on, I realized that the SPECTRUM version actually was kind of a big deal back in the day, due to how it dealt with getting around the infamous colour clash problem. Well, to be fair, the background graphics in Exolon don't give much of a chance for colour/attribute clash to happen, since it's mostly black with some stars scattered around. The area in which you are given the possibility to walk rarely reaches the part of the screen with background planets. Any structures you come across on the ground level are foreground elements, so you walk behind every structural element to minimize the potential colour clash, and when you do get some colour on you, it's mostly due to either collisions with a differently coloured enemy or the multicolour effect used for teleporting.

For a SPECTRUM game, Exolon uses colour and shading fairly imaginatively, and for a space-themed game, it is a pretty one with plenty of imaginative elements. However, apart from our hero's walking, some of the enemies, as well as firey and electric background elements, the game isn't all that animated. Also, being presented in a flip-screen method, the game is restricted to showing only one or two types of moving enemies on the screen simultaneously, and when there are two, the other type is either a homing device or a small round floater. The info panel is seated at the bottom of the screen, and each indicator is given their own specific set of colours. As with Agent X II, I shall not question the game's author's stylistic approach further.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.

The AMSTRAD version is pretty much the polar opposite of the SPECTRUM version in terms of graphics. The hi-res graphics with monochrome sprites have been switched to lo-res multi-colour graphics with a bit more effort put into the animations, particularly our hero's manner of walking. As a technical achievement, it's not necessarily quite as interesting as the SPECTRUM version, but in terms of style and personality, the AMSTRAD version definitely has its own thing going for it. If I have to select one particular thing to grieve over here, it's the lack of colour in the info panel - everything is orange and red in a few shades. It suits the purpose, but it's less of an eye-catcher - for better and for worse.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

Although, as I said, the C64 version always looked to me like an approximation of a Spectrum game, I've come to realize that the only two things that the C64 version has graphically in common with the SPECTRUM version is the flip-screen method of progression, and the hero having a monochrome hi-res sprite, rather than a multi-colour lo-res chunk. To be honest, I have no idea, whether a lo-res sprite would have suited this version more or less, but this is one of those occasions where I can appreciate the C64 palette being called washed out and unappealing. It's all about context, really, and Exolon requires a high-contrast palette and cartoony feel, neither of which the C64 is all that capable of producing. That doesn't mean the graphics have no appeal at all - the background planets look fairly different here than on the other 8-bits; some of the destroyable elements have a different look to them in colour and detail; and the info panel feels much less of a floor colour extension than on the AMSTRAD. But it's still no more than a compromise of both the previous versions.

But, what is noteworthy at this point, is the screen size, which has been kept approximately the same on all three versions so far. So, the level design is the same in all the official 8-bit versions. The only thing that I'm not entirely sure about is the size of the all the elements or the player character, because the collision detection seems slightly less brutal in certain specific screens on the AMSTRAD than on the SPECTRUM and C64 versions. I'm sure there's an Exolon fanatic out there, who can point out some pixel-perfect information, which I just can't be bothered to figure out by myself.

Screenshots from the two Sharp MZ-800 versions.

As close to the originals as the SHARP versions look and feel, I cannot bring myself to call them official ports, because I simply have no clear proof of it. But the first one features grayscale graphics, and requires some sort of a visual RAM expansion to make it work as it should, so I have no idea if that's how it's supposed to look. But I'm sure it shouldn't be slow and jittery, like it is without. The other version looks almost exactly like the SPECTRUM version - only some visual effects are less effective, such as the laser barriers from level 2 onwards give no flashing colours. Apart from that, nothing of real value to report there, and therefore, no further screens from the SHARP versions will be shown.

Screenshots from the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga versions.

The 16-bit Exolon looks almost completely different from its 8-bit counterpart. The graphical design takes the game to a completely different planet altogether, with completely redesigned levels, enemies and other objects. Sure enough, the 16-bit machines allow for the possibility of better graphics by default, but the graphical design is, for the most part, annoyingly rectangular, lacking in colour, unimaginative in detail, and often obtrusive in design. All in all, the 16-bit Exolon feels like it was made by a teenager with a new tool that was required to learn to build the graphics for this game. The only positive thing I can say about this is the animations that have more effort put into than on the 8-bits, but with an otherwise utter lack of charm, even the animations go to waste. Sorry for the sudden brutality, but it is rather appalling.

Level bonus screens, left to right:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum/Sharp MZ-800 v.2, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Commodore Amiga/Atari ST.

Between levels, you get to a bonus lottery screen for collecting possible bonus points. The usual bonus screen features a list of eight possible points you can collect, every other of which gives you zero points, and the randomizing element is an arrow on SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD, and an asterisk on the 16-bits. The C64 version differs by having the collectable scores in a circle, and the randomized bonus selector is a highlight of white numbers among the black ones. That, I have to say, is the most cheerfully different little element on the C64.

Game Over screens. Top row, left to right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Bottom left: Atari ST. Bottom right: Commodore Amiga.

The Game Over screens are basically just the obligatory Game Over text stamped in the middle of the screen you died in. The AMSTRAD and C64 versions feature no framing around the text, while the SPECTRUM and the 16-bit versions do. The 8-bit versions use the same font as you see in the info panel, but the 16-bits use the font from the title screen's credits instead, and have the two words split into two lines. Oddly enough, the ST and AMIGA versions use a different colour for the Game Over text. Even more oddly, the C64 Game Over screen can only be seen, if you don't make it to the high scores table. Otherwise, the game forces you to the screen in which you type in your name at the first possible moment.

"Enter your name" and high score table screens, left to right:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Atari ST/Commodore Amiga.

As you eventually get to enter your name to the high score table, the only new graphical attractions are the framings around the "enter your name" screen and the high score table itself, as well as the scrolling high score table, where available. The C64 and AMSTRAD high score tables have been kept short enough to fill one screen, while the other versions have a stupendously long table, with two pages' worth of entries. The 16-bit high score table looks decidedly different from the rest by not having planets around the high scores, but instead goes for some sort of structural pipes.

Exolon is one of those games that were designed precisely with the characteristics of a certain kind of machine in mind, and it certainly shows in graphical design. But Cecco's design limitations had both the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD in mind, as they're both well in tune with each machine's capabilities. The C64 version is clearly a compromise, and feels like the machine has been under-utilised, yet the visual effects and the amount of action on the screen sometimes slows down the gameplay, which, considering the style of the game, feels a bit sloppy, to say the least. On a good setup, the SHARP versions feel right at home with the SPECTRUM style graphics, only they do have some omissions to make the best out of it. The 16-bit versions, on the other hand, feel completely different, lazily designed and uncomfortable on both machines, so the order is kind of clear here.

4. SHARP v.1



Exolon's soundtrack includes a theme tune, which is played in the title screen, and a Game Over ditty. The theme song is a fairly cheerful march-like tune, and slightly militant in its melody, and the song lasts for about 80 seconds in total. The AY-chip-equipped machines feature some snare drumming in the first part of the melody, but is dropped off the instant the first minor chord enters the song, and remains that way for the rest of the track; the snare drum is replaced with a harmony line for the melody. I found it rather odd, that the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions are played in a different key, but perhaps there is a good reason for that, I don't really know. The 48k SPECTRUM version, rather amazingly, features a bi-tonal rendition of the theme song played on the beeper, and apart from slight tuning problems of certain notes, it doesn't sound too bad, considering that it's coming from a beeper. The sound effects are quite fitting for all setups, but the AY-chips do offer a more complex soundscape than the beeper. The Game Over ditty is a funny little one, in which you get a chromatically descending set of six arpeggios played as triplets, accompanied with a lead bass tone, which lead back to the tonic, from where the ditty started.

On the C64, the theme tune is a bit slower than on the previous two machines, and the instrumentation is completely devoid of a snare drum, which has been replaced with a harmonic line even for the first part of the tune. The latter half of the tune does have a bit more sophisticated harmonics than the AY-renditions, but the overall lack of energy makes it feel less fitting for the game. The Game Over ditty and the sound effects are much as you would expect, with perhaps a little overdone sound effect on the grenades.

From the two SHARP versions, the greyscale one features an approximation of the 48k SPECTRUM soundtrack, with even more notable tuning problems than the Speccy. The colourful version has an approximation of the AY-chip soundtrack, in which the title song's bassline is a bit off occasionally, and the snare drum has been turned into a cowbell or something. However, the sound effects are a bit of a mess in the colourful version, while the greyscale version feels close enough to the original.

For the 16-bits, the theme tune has been completely changed into a new one, and it plays all throughout the game in the AMIGA version, and in the ATARI ST version, the song is only replaced shortly by the Game Over ditty, which also is different from the original one. Neither of them are as bad as you would expect, but compared to the original Exolon theme, rather forgettable and oddly structured. Although the two 16-bits have such differently sounding renditions of their own theme tune, I have to say the ST version wins here, simply because it offers a bit more, but the 16-bit theme tune feels more at home on the ST, as well. But having no sound effects, even as an alternative, is a big letdown.

1. AMSTRAD / SPECTRUM 128k / E128
6. SHARP v.2
7. SHARP v.1



There is a good reason why Rafaele Cecco's games are considered classics, but you would have to examine them on their platforms of conception. I'm still not a big fan of them, mostly due to their brutal difficulty and style of gameplay, but with Exolon, I have come to understand his legacy a bit more. For my money, Exolon is best experienced on an Amstrad, but any of the 8-bits offer pretty much the same gameplay experience. Having an Enterprise 128 would offer you both the Amstrad and the Spectrum versions, which is a nice bonus, but most likely an expensive piece of equipment to hunt down for that reason alone. Stay out of the 16-bits, though.

1. AMSTRAD CPC / SPECTRUM 128k / E.128: Playability 2, Graphics 4, Sounds 7 = TOTAL 13
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 11
3. SPECTRUM 48k: Playability 2, Graphics 4, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
4. SHARP v.2: Playability 2, Graphics 4, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 8
5. ATARI ST: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 8
6. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 7
7. SHARP v.1: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

Screenshots from Exolon DX (RetroSpec, 2005, Windows)

If you're looking for a more modern rendition of Exolon to have a go at, Graham Goring wrote a remake called Exolon DX in 2004-2005, which was released by a well-known retro remaking group called RetroSpec in December 2005. The remake features some altered controls along with a "new millennium" soundtrack and graphics. Sadly, RetroSpec haven't been really active since 2015 (or even 2012, to be honest), but their website and remakes are still available.

Because I was unable to find a fitting comparison video from YouTube, I had to make one myself, which you see above. The SHARP versions, in particular, seem to be unknown to most retrogamers out there, which is understandable, and the 16-bit versions are rarely spoken of in the same context as the original 8-bit versions, for good reasons. Also included is footage from the 2005 remake, just for the sake of completion.

That's it for now - another win for the Amstrad community there! Hope you enjoyed it at least as much as I did, or if not, I hope the comparison was at least fair. Next time, something completely different, whenever that may be. Cheers!

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