X

Introduction

Gunpei Yokoi’s Game Boy sold millions of units on its launch day in 1989. So great was the popularity of the first handheld console to truly come into its own that the one million units shipped overseas sold out within a few weeks. Three years prior to the Game Boy’s release, a London-based developer named Argonaut Games created Starglider for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. This game, heavily inspired by the vector-based graphics of Atari’s coin-operated Star Wars adaptation was one of the earliest first-person combat flight simulators available for home computers. It wound up being one of the bestselling titles for the platform, and won Crash magazine’s “Game of the Year” award in 1986.

After observing the then-unique mechanics of Starglider, Nintendo sought to create a similar game for their handheld console. This project was slated to be published by Mindscape, a company established in Novato, California under the names Eclipse or Lunar Chase before Nintendo themselves took over the project after becoming interested in the idea of having three-dimensional graphics in a Game Boy title. Helming this project was Yoshio Sakamoto, a Nara Prefecture college graduate who worked under Gunpei Yokoi’s supervision, contributing pixel art for the NES classic, Metroid. Shortly before the game’s release, then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi shortened the title to a single English letter: X. When it was released in 1992, it proved to be a moderate success, providing the Japanese audience with a completely new experience while pushing the technical capabilities of the Game Boy to its absolute limits. Famitsu magazine would go on to list X as one of the Game Boy’s most influential titles, being the first 3D game released for a handheld console in Japan.

Analyzing the Experience

In the space age year of XXXX, humankind is facing a crisis. Overpopulation has reached the point where resources are beginning to drain at an alarming rate. Therefore, interstellar exploration programs have been searching the cosmos for a new place that Earthlings can call home. One day, they stumble upon a planet with a similar environment to that of Earth. Dubbed Tetamus II, humans discovered minerals on this planet known as Power Crystals. This led to the construction of a nuclear silo, wherein they were converted into energy. With a new planet to colonize, the future of humankind looked bright.

This changed one day when an emergency report revealed that a cargo ship loaded with Power Crystals was attacked by alien forces. As it would turn out, the aliens too have an interest in Tetamus II, for they intend to use the planet as a base. They will stop at nothing to seize control of the power crystals in their plans for galactic conquest. To counteract this new threat, the humans have created a new weapon: a space tank named VIXIV. It’s up to you to pilot this tank, and destroy the alien forces before the galaxy can succumb to their oppressive rule.

X is presented in a 3D wireframe view with polygons representing enemies, items, and structures, placing you in the cockpit of the VIXIV. As such, the HUD that frames your view represents your vehicle’s interface. The eight rectangles on the right indicate your tank’s shield level. When you take damage, a rectangle will darken. If the tank is hit when there is no shield protection, you will lose. Just below your view is a compass; the positioning of the letters will tell you which direction you’re facing. Below the compass is a radar. On it, points of interest and enemies will appear as small squares. Flashing squares typically represent issues you must deal with immediately, so it pays to observe it whenever possible. To the right of the radar is a map screen. It shows your current position along with the location of the radar bases.

Your primary weapon is a dual laser that can be fired indefinitely with the “A” button. However, it cannot damage certain enemies. You will know this if you hear a metallic sound when firing at an enemy with the laser. To overcome these foes, you must blast them with a more percussive weapon. This is where missiles come into play. By pressing the “B” button, you can lock onto an enemy. Pressing it a second time will fire a missile at the enemy, dealing greater damage than the lasers. You can hold up to eight missiles at once, and your supply is shown in the bottom-right corner.

“Please try to pass through the squares.”

You control the tank’s speed by pressing up and down on the control pad. The tank has three speeds: low, , and high. By pressing down while the tank is in low speed, it will stop. If you hold down on the control pad while the tank is stopped, it will begin to move in reverse. Conversely, if you hold up while the tank is at its highest normal speed, you will activate its turbo mode. If you approach a slope at full speed, the tank will take flight. While airborne, you can use the meter on the left to gauge the VIXIV’s altitude. You don’t have to worry about sticking the landing, as the tank won’t take damage when it touches the ground. Maintaining turbo mode or flying consumes fuel, so it’s best to save it for when you really need it.

“I am this planet’s commandant. From here on in, I shall explain the current state of affairs to you.”

Rather than featuring different levels, the core game takes place in a single large area on Tetamus II. As you arrive on the planet for the first time, you are greeted by your commanding officer.

“It would appear that the aliens have planted five time bombs on Tetamus II.”

This individual will explain your goals in detail, often giving you visuals so you will know what to look for. When you’re close to your mission goal on the field, a small triangle will appear near the bottom of your view. You’ll know you’re going the right way when it’s in the center of the screen.

“Four remain”

You would do well to accomplish these tasks swiftly, as a majority of the missions are timed. The timer adorns the top of the screen, though it doesn’t always indicate a failure should it elapse; what it’s counting down to depends on the context of the mission itself.

There are four underground tunnels you can utilize in your missions. By entering one of the four tunnel entrances situated in the corners of the world, you will appear at the central junction. Here, you can choose to exit or take another tunnel to reach one of the other three corners. When travelling through the tunnels, there are a few things to keep in mind. To begin with, the tank moves at a set speed. As you go through the passage, there are walls, which are helpfully shaded. If you run into them or a steep slope, you will take damage. The greatest benefit bestowed by these tunnels is that time does not pass when using them. This makes them useful whenever you’re running low on time or simply want to maximize your efficiency.

“Four bombs remain! Seek out the time bombs! –Area Zero.”

If you need a need an update on your mission, you can enter any of the eight radar bases scattered throughout the land. Here, the mission status will be displayed. Moreover, you can use this opportunity to restock on supplies. From each base, you can get one missile, one unit of fuel, and one shield unit. You can also use the opportunity to equip different sub-weapons. “LOCK ON” is the basic missile launcher. The “BOMB” weapon is used to launch an explosive projectile into the air, creating a cylindrical explosion upon impact. At certain points, you will be required by the plot to drop them on certain targets. If the tank gets caught in the blast, it will sustain two units of damage. You can only carry one at a time, so after using it, you will need to equip it again in a radar base. Though not a weapon, the “JETPAC” allows the VIXIV to fly without the use of a slope as long as it’s in turbo mode. At lower speeds, it will cause the tank to jump slightly. Lastly, the “HIGH-EX” weapon is the single strongest attack in the game. Pressing the “B” button will launch this powerful missile, and the resulting explosion will deal heavy damage to any enemy within the radius. Take caution when using this, as it requires having a full supply of missiles to launch, and doing so will unavoidably cause the VIXIV to lose eight shield units.

“However, if you hit [the tanks] with four missiles, you can destroy them.”

It becomes evident after completing the tutorial that quite a lot of thought went into crafting the gameplay. Despite having been released on the Game Boy, it goes a step beyond pioneering first-person games such as Atari’s Battlezone or Vid Kidz’s Blaster. Many such games either placed you in control of a land vehicle or a spaceship. X succeeds in combining the two ideas, giving you a vehicle that’s adapt both on the ground and in the air. The VIXIV is quicker and more maneuverable in the air, yet it consumes fuel. Because of this, the situation may warrant you making do with engaging enemies from the ground at the tank’s fastest non-turbo speed.

Speaking of which, what I admire about this game is how it organically encourages you to be smart with your resources. Expending missiles to destroy a tenacious alien or careering across the planet at turbo speed may seem like the quickest way to accomplish your goals, but doing so will usually leave you without the supplies you need to fulfill your mission. There are eight radar bases, but they only give you a single unit of each resource. Once you’ve taken one, it cannot be used again until you reach the next mission. Alien units can drop resources upon defeat, but as the clock is always ticking, engaging unnecessary enemies may not be the best use of your time. Furthermore, the aliens can destroy the radar bases under certain circumstances. You will be informed when this happens, and its corresponding map marker will vanish. Luckily, if you complete the mission, they will reappear in the next, so you’re not punished too much for failing to defend them. Indeed, in some cases, it’s impossible prevent their destruction.

Unfortunately, even though the concepts in X are sound, and implemented about as well as the technology Mr. Sakamoto and his team worked with allowed, it has not aged gracefully. There are several reasons for this, but to begin with, the graphics aren’t very good. Though there is a ring of truth to the age-old adage that graphics don’t make the game, this is an instance where it actively harms the gameplay. Because Tetamus II has little in the way of identifiable landmarks, the sole reason you would know where you are where you’re going at any given time is due to the map and compass respectively. Otherwise, if you don’t periodically check them, you could travel in the wrong direction for several minutes without even realizing it.

Another aspect that sinks this game’s enjoyably would be the controls. X is the type of game that begs to be controlled with either a keyboard and mouse or a joystick. As it stands, it’s a three-dimensional game that utilizes a two-dimensional directional pad for movement. There are only two modes for a directional pad: depressed and not depressed. Consequently, turning occurs at a set speed rather than how far you would move the hypothetical joystick in the appropriate direction. This makes precise movements much harder to execute.

A similar problem manifests whenever the tank is in flight. Because the VIXIV only moves at one speed in the air, it can be difficult to consistently hit enemies whenever yours proves to be the faster vehicle – even with the ability to lock onto targets. This means that if you lose the enemy, you have to turn around until you find them again, which can be difficult given the indistinct scenery.

One minor issue I have concerns the graphic that guides you towards your objective. It’s somewhat imprecise. There are a few times in which you will think you’re heading in the right direction only for the triangle to leave the screen. The finder is less accurate the further away you are from your goal, and if it happens to be in the air, there is no special graphic to let you know this is the case. Either way, it’s not uncommon for the uninformed to waste time driving around in circles, looking for the mission’s objective.

One of the biggest problems I have with this game concerns its save system. Upon completing a mission, you are given stars based on your performance. You are rewarded them for accomplishments such as defeating extra enemies or successfully defending the radar bases whenever they’re under attack. By itself, this would be a serviceable point system, but they come into play in the event that you fail a mission. Though you can return to any mission you reach upon restarting the game, you need a certain number of stars in order to select them. The amount of stars you need is the mission number minus one. For example, in order to restart mission seven, you need six stars. Selecting the first mission will set your star count to zero. It’s irritating because oftentimes, one has to complete an early mission again and collect extra stars just to have a second chance at one of the later ones. This was likely done to give the game longevity and serve as a consequence for failure. There’s a reason why most games allow players to retry a level with no questions asked; many of these missions are complex to the point where it would realistically require at least a few attempts for most people to clear.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Sophisticated gameplay for its time
  • Excellent music
  • Interesting premise
Cons:

  • Unpolished controls
  • Compass isn’t always accurate
  • Graphics make it difficult to navigate planet
  • Convoluted save system

One unequivocally positive thing which can be said about X is that it manages to be one of the most ambitious games of its day. The Game Boy was for all intents and purposes, a portable, monochrome NES, yet Mr. Sakamoto and his team were attempting to create a 3D game for it. Though its execution was undoubtedly rough around the edges, I feel X represents a turning point. Specifically, it demonstrated to the Japanese fans that portable games were not a mere novelty. That is to say, they didn’t have to settle for being lesser versions of console or PC games; as long as developers had the vision, they could make them work regardless of the platform. Over the next few years, Nintendo would go on to create more classic Game Boy titles such as Donkey Kong, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – all of which several fans claim could stand on even ground with console efforts. Eventually, as the technology became more sophisticated, other companies followed suit, and now portable gaming is its own niche – a far cry from the fad it was often dismissed as in the early nineties.

Even if I have a lot of respect for X and the influence it had on the medium, recommending it is a very tough proposition. At the end of the day, it falls in the same category as Dragon Quest and Metroid in that I appreciate the impact it had on the medium more than actually playing it. If you’re specifically seeking out an early-nineties 3D shooter, Star Fox provides a decidedly more polished take on the type of game X tries to be, as the development team had superior hardware to work with. Otherwise, I feel X is an example of a game that was too ahead of its time. This rising genre needed technology to improve and the medium to subsequently make the 3D leap before it truly had a chance to shine. It’s a shame that Western fans never had a chance to experience it because X had a lot to offer in 1992, but when compared to the games it directly or indirectly inspired, it’s not much of a competition.

Final Score: 4/10

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4 thoughts on “X

  1. I had no idea this game even existed. I’ll keep an eye out for this at RetroWorld Expo next month, as even if it isn’t that great
    it looks like an interesting attempt at bringing vector style games to the handheld.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I definitely give Nintendo an A for effort because it was long before handheld gaming evolved into the force it is now. X was certainly a neat game for 1992. It hasn’t aged well, but I appreciate its place in history nonetheless.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The game boy had a really hard time of it, in it’s early days. It took a while before developers learned to use the system well, and really craft experiences worth their own weight rather than just being a bit of a diversion. Of course, it did require projects like this, experimental failures, to set the knowledge base to get there, but with how many limitations they were working with on the game boy, I’m surprised they made it as far as they did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I had a difficult time playing this game, but in all honesty, that it turned out half as good as it did was a something of a miracle. Looking back, Final Fantasy Adventure was arguably the first Game Boy game that showcased that portable gaming wasn’t a mere novelty, but I think what really sold people on the idea was Gen I Pokémon. When even comparing the best the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color had to offer, it’s quite a noticeable difference – one that would become even more apparent with the Game Boy Advance.

      Even if X is decidedly inaccessible from a modern standpoint, that it was one of the games responsible for this shift earns it a rightful place in history.

      Like

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