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Retro Let's Play: Xenon 2: Megablast

Discussion in 'Retro & Arcade' started by Grant, Dec 23, 2019.

  1. Grant

    Grant Member

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    Didn't know which thread to post this in, there's a few that'd suit*. This is a "what have you been playing", but I've been all over the place the past few months and haven't gotten around to posting about it. Now that I am, it got a bit long, so I got the OK from elvis to post this as a Let's Play article.

    Growing up, my family had an Amiga 500, and eventually the A570 CD-ROM add-on for it. This makes it compatible with CDTV games, with one or two minor caveats. One of the games we had was Xenon II: Megablast, by the Bitmap Brothers.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenon_2_Megablast
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]



    The longplay above is for the regular Amiga version that came on floppy disks. It's pretty impressive, and the music is pretty good even by Amiga standards. As the Wikipedia article goes into, the "Megablast" in the title was actually a tie-in with Bomb the Bass, who had a song with the same name. The Amiga tracked music that was included in the floppy version was a faithful recreation taking samples from the instrumental version of the song and resequencing them for the Amiga to play.

    The CDTV version included the original track, a remix, and several versions of the rap version. Pre-game, there's a menu to set up different tracks as BGM for each level.


    There's also better sound, and the shopkeeper you see throughout the game has voice samples for everything he says.

    Anyway, white Aussie nerdy kid me had no idea what the British hip-hop scene was, but injecting it into my brain in 44kHz stereo during a video game was a great way to inadvertently broaden my music tastes. I had the rap (well, the bits I could make out) basically memorised.

    The game itself is a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up, with an upgradable ship that can eventually shoot a framerate-killing number of bullets. A controller with autofire is pretty much mandatory, there's a purchasable powerup that gives you autofire in all of the shops, but it's not as fast as the game allows (and what autofire controllers can do).

    I never finished the game, so set out to do so this year. Not out of the blue, but after a bunch of work trying to just really play the game with the various retro Amiga setups I've now acquired.

    My Playthrough
    First attempt was with the CD32. The A500+CDROM was basically a CDTV, the CD32 is more like an A1200+CDROM. Totally compatible, so the game booted and ran just fine, until halfway through the first level when you first enter the shop. After a brief CD loading delay, Colin the shopkeeper would ask "What do you want to sell me?", and enter the "sell" menu. Closing that, the "buy" menu would open, and the associated speech sample was "Okay, what do you want to buy?". Here, the CD would just spin with a "busy" light, Colin would flip between a couple of frames as he usually did, but this would go on forever - the game was frozen.

    This was repeatable, it was always on the "Okay, what do you want to buy?" sample. I tried a few things: cleaning the disc, trying a burnt copy, re-authoring the disc to maybe rearrange where the samples were on the ISO filesystem, cleaning the laser lens. Emulation had no problems with either real discs or disc images, all voice samples would load instantly.

    Eventually, I came across this 4-hour Youtube video on the CD32 drive circuit and adjustment

    And spent a few more actually adjusting my CD32. It was actually pretty good to start with, and by the end of it was reading burnt discs better than ever, but every copy of Megablast failed in the same way.

    When I saw an A570 come up for sale, I bought it. It didn't have the same issue, and the Level 1 "buy" sample loaded like any other. I had a few goes at it, but was playing other games on my backlog so parked it for a bit. During this time I saw @rt here with his hardware CD32 drive error counter, and had some mild bursts of post-traumatic stress...

    Getting back into it, I still had problems. Learning the game only took a few goes at each section, the whole game is fairly scripted and deterministic (the only randomness coming from enemy bullets I think, maybe not even that). But the CD32 bug seemed to be a symptom of other bugginess in the game: as I was consistently getting to Levels 3 and 4 (out of 5), the game would eventually freeze on loading the next level. It did this most often loading level 4, and there were some symptoms around the shopkeeper's voice samples that suggested the next level wasn't going to load. Sometimes the voice samples would be garbled completely, sometimes one of the samples would "overwrite" all of the others. They'd play for their normal length, but the voice sample for "That will cost..." would play instead, looping if the intended sample was longer than the "That will cost..." sample.

    It was pretty frustrating, but I couldn't just play it in an emulator because of retro snobbinessrose-tinted glasses, and the sunk-cost fallacy of having invested in real hardware. I was having fun with my short stints of blasting through biological eras listening to 80's hip-hop though.

    Eventually, I was pointed at the release notes for the WHDLoad version of the game, which featured "some access faults removed" (tl;dr WHDLoad executes games from the desktop by suspending the desktop and running the game from HDD as if it had been booted from disk, but the memory magic that it involves allows patches to be easily loaded). At that point I'd heard of other reproductions of the bugs I'd faced, so this was hardly surprising.

    The CDTV version was supported, but I couldn't play it, because:
    • It didn't allow CD music to be controlled through the game (like early PCs, CD audio on the CDTV/A570 was done in hardware on the drive unit, and the analogue sound from the Amiga was mixed with the analogue output from the drive). What was I going to do, play the songs myself in time with the game? Ha!
    • It changed one difficulty rule of the game (being unable to carry money past a shop) to make it easier, and that feature couldn't be turned off. I was going for maximum purism here.

    So it seemed like I'd have to learn Amiga assembly, and make a patch for the game that contained only the fixes from the WHDLoad loader for the game. Despite my best intentions, I didn't get that far.

    I started using an emulator to practice the game, the idea being that I'd learn the last 2 levels, then just hammer the A500+A570 combo enough that one day I'd complete the game on original hardware as intended by sheer luck of not hitting any bugs. Unfortunately, most of the emulation setups I used had noticeable lag, and actually made the game noticeably harder and less fun. It was playable on a high-powered PC, but not as good as I was used to.

    So I started playing with the WHDLoad setup on a few different Amigas, the physical ones all had CF card "HDDs" via IDE interfaces. Yes, for each of these I used and audio splitter and played the soundtrack along with the game... :upset:

    Different Amiga versions
    Amiga 1200 with ACA1233 (68030 CPU)
    Pretty much perfect. The game played smoothly without any bugs, and the HDD loading of samples meant even the brief loading pause for them was eliminated.

    MiSTer "minimig" core
    I don't have analogue video out of my MiSTer, I have enough old consoles that this one is better used for retro on LCD monitors. The Mega CD core is going to change that though - I have real Mega CD but it's got a busted drive lift mechanism (FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU). Had a weird issue where, when the Amiga was accessing the HDD (level loads, sound sample loads), the HDMI output would black out. Still playable because it didn't do any loads during gameplay, and I haven't tested on a newer core.

    Performance was good, but there were some slowdowns during busy sections. Lag wasn't an issue for me on a good low-latency LCD monitor.

    CD32
    I recently got a TF328 upgrade for the CD32 that pretty much makes it the perfect WHDLoad machine. It adds:
    - RGB (DE23) output
    - PS2 keyboard
    - 32MB RAM (for WHDLoad, you need enough RAM for the game, plus some more for the suspended desktop. 32MB is heaps)
    - IDE interface for a CF card

    Performance was about as good as MiSTer (MiSTer implements up to a 68020 CPU, which is what the CD32 has).

    A500+A570 ("CDTV")
    During all of this, I still had my Amiga 500 with A570 hooked up, and that was convenient to play, so I'd occasionally give it a go to see where it would freeze "this time". The goal was still to beat the game on this setup, and at this point I was pretty good at getting to Level 4 on my first credit (the game gives you 3 credits, which was fine by me, I knew I wouldn't have the patience to do a "1-credit-clear").

    I noticed slowdowns on the faster Amigas, but going back to a 68000 CPU they were significantly worse, especially when things got hectic. Because the game slowed down in proportion to it getting more difficult, I got through the tricky sections in Level 4 pretty easily, and the game didn't freeze after the Level 4 shop, meaning I was at Level 5 for the first time. I had a super-powerful ship, enough cash to buy an extra life or two, and got through the first half of Level 5 due the the same crawl-factor. It kind of felt like cheating, but I thought that if I finished the game here, I'd be done with my personal challenges. The second half of Level 5 loaded without freezing, and I made it through that at about 10FPS in the hard sections too. I was up to the final boss, when this happened:
    [​IMG]

    The game froze during gameplay, something it's never done before on this setup. At that point, the goalposts moved, and I was done with the A500. I wanted:
    - Acceptable speed, CD32 or MiSTer. The 68030 in the A1200 was the best, but my CD32 was more convenient and I was okay with a little assitance in the game :)
    - "some access faults removed", ie. no game-crashing bugs.
    - The altered shop money behaviour at this point was an okay compromise as well. It meant I could end up with a ship that was close to maximum spec, that you could preview with a cheap powerup that gave you 10 seconds (at the start of a level) of "Super Nashwan Power".

    After much battling though, I got there in the end, getting good enough to get through the hectic bits at reasonable speed. And I was right that once I did it once, I wouldn't have the patience to go for a 1CC :)

    This game has less plot than a Quake game
    [​IMG]

    Other versions
    Wikipedia says the game was ported to a bunch of other platforms, but the CDTV version was the only one with full digital audio.

    I played the Mega Drive version for a bit, and it was very close to the Amiga version, except for the fact that side-shot bullets very quickly ate up the hardware sprites available, and the middle of the ship would disappear. It'd be interesting to see if FPGA implementations that increase the number of displayable sprites would fix this. Apparently this version only has 4 levels though.

    For anyone looking to play this game, I strongly recommend the CDTV version first, at least to get a feel for how the music and audio fit together with the action to make this a unique experience.

    For most people, that means using an emulator. It's a fairly twitchy game, so I recommend a modern PC with a low-lag monitor. It's okay for the first few levels if you use a more laggy setup though.

    Versions of the CDTV game I've found online have come as a bin+cue, with MP3-encoded tracks for the CD Audio parts of the image (the soundtrack). This works with WinUAE, but I was using FS-UAE. FS-UAE supports bin+cue, but only with the CD-Audio parts in WAV (maybe also FLAC) format. You can convert the audio files to WAV (in my case I ripped originals from the CD), then edit the .cue file with a text editor to point to the new files.

    If you know how to WHDLoad, then that's a good option too - just make sure to play the original music in the background :leet:

    On MiSTer, make sure you know how to configure Auto Fire if your controller doesn't have it, since the default rate is too slow. In my case it was Left+Start to lower the autofire interval, then Button+Start to enable autofire on that button.

    Closing
    I've played the first couple of levels of this game so much over the years, and had fun using it as a goal for tinkering with retro Amigas. It's only with the holidays this year that I've had time to sit down and write this up, I hope there are other OCAUers who are in the same boat and can cross another one or two classics from the backlog before the decade is out :thumbup:

    * Shmups, What Retro..., Pics of Retro..., Retro Music, Amiga Thread
     
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  2. flain

    flain Member

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    Cue the ST vs Amiga wars :)



    I loved bitmap bros games. Another cool thing is they generally would release on both Atari ST and Amiga at the same time (including Xenon 2). I did manage to clear the game when i was a kid, if i remember the trick was to not miss any bubbles at all on the early levels (ie basically kill almost 100% of all enemies) so that you had enough money to save for the good powerups :)
     
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  3. OP
    OP
    Grant

    Grant Member

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    [​IMG]

    I'm impressed by some of the sounds of the ST version, but gameplay-wise they seem to be on par with each other.

    Here's one of the rap versions of the song (kinda completely different to the instrumental) that was on the CDTV version:
     
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  4. Vanne

    Vanne Member

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    remember this game well, Xenon was the first vertical shooter game i played on my Amiga 500. and i rember the soundtrack!! awesome!!

    awesome write up man! talk about determination! hats off :D
     
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2019
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  5. Pierre32

    Pierre32 Member

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    Great post. What a journey to achieve the playthrough!

    I first experienced this on an XT with PC speaker soundtrack. The most awful version, no contest - but it was the most impressive use of the speaker I'd heard, and it still holds a place in my heart.



    When I heard it on the neighbour's Amiga though...
     
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  6. elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Well I played this first on the Sega Master System, and I care not for your fancy 16 bit powerhouse systems. 8 BIT FOR LYFE!
     
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  7. psoma

    psoma Member

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    First played it on the PC/DOS - serviceable effort emulating polyphony on the PC speaker. Really shone on the Amiga though.
     
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  8. Martyn

    Martyn Member

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    Played it regularly on my Amstrad 1286, loved the music at the time, even though it was only through pc speaker.

    Definitely one of my top 10 x games growing up.
     
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  9. Alby1976

    Alby1976 Member

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    Mate had an Amiga, this is my number #1 game.
    Have the bomb the bass song on usb at work, so the guys hear it at least 3 times a week.
    Mates Amiga was hooked up to an old school boom box at the time, his parents were always onto us about the bass up too high.

    Did I mention I love this game and sound track.
    Never heard the cd32, played on one once, not x2, just doesn't sound right to me, Amiga version is in my blood.
     
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  10. Zee

    Zee Member

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    I remember the first time I booted this up on my ST - the music blew me away.

    Speedball, and Speedball 2 were also fun.

    Z...
     
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  11. Alby1976

    Alby1976 Member

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    Yeh, bitmap brother did well.
     
  12. Jazper

    Jazper Member

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    Few memories of early PCs (including amigas) elicit memories like xenon 2.

    The original Thexder comes to mind in ega/vga.

    Zeliard also comes to mind but few people seem to have heard of it..
     
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  13. elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Cracking game. The remake was interesting - titled "Thexder Neo", for PSP and PS3 only I think. They should bring it out for PC so it can be back on its home platform.
     
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  14. power

    power Member

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    This game.

    Unlike the op I never got too obsessed with finishing it but I always loved firing it up for a quick blast. I still have my copy I bought way back when. I've never experienced the CD based versions and reckon maybe I should now.

    As for the versions. Well there is this pretty decent comparison video that highlights the strengths of each one.

     
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  15. Jazper

    Jazper Member

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    In terms of pc speaker sound, Disc had the best intro track I have ever heard, as a kid I fired up the game just for the music (out of the pc speaker)

    https://www.myabandonware.com/game/disc-vp

    Trying to find a recording but it’s not easy cause of the name
     
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  16. elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Yakumo/RetroCore is a great channel. He used to make videos before YouTube existed, and you'd have to download them one by one off his website.

    His "battle of the ports" series are especially great.
     
  17. power

    power Member

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    My only issue with retro core is that he uses emulation for everything and often shows a shallow knowledge of some ports but those are minor complaints.

    Xenon 2 certainly would be a heck of a lot better with just a little more speed such as in a couple of the versions.
     
  18. power

    power Member

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  19. elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Err what?

    Maybe British micro computer stuff. But his console collection is all original.
     
  20. ShaggyMoose

    ShaggyMoose Member

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    Holy shit that is a lot of work to go through for something I remember just dropping the disk in...

    I remember the music from Gods and Chaos Engine far more than this track strangely.
     

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