Irem's R-Type has become one of the most revered shmups over the years. Its style of gameplay and sheer amount of difficulty, coupled with gorgeous graphics and great music have secured it and its sequels a permanent place in video game history. Many, many shmups have taken cues from R-Type and tried to surpass it, or at least come close to it's greatness. A few have come close - most notably the Neo-Geo shmup Pulstar - however, none have suceeded.
Enter Konami, who themselves created the greatest series of shmups ever (at least, in my opinion): Gradius. They took the basic R-Type formula and created one of the most beautiful, absolutely amazing shmups ever. They didn't quite surpass R-Type, but out of all of the others they certainly came the closest. The year was 1991, and the game was called XEXEX (aka Orius). Just admiring the opening for a minute is enough to let you know that you're in for a treat - a beautifully rendered version of the ship you control, the Flintlock TMF-01, rotates and scales in and out as the ship's specs and blueprints flash on the screen - then, as the ship takes off, the title screen scales in. Nice. The game's graphics were absolutely gorgeous - in fact, words can't describe them. Just check out the screenshots below to see an example. The game controlled a lot like the games in the R-Type series, right down to the ability to shoot out an organic pod called Flint, which acts a lot like the Force pod used by the R-9. There are bits and pieces of XEXEX that are also reminiscent of the Gradius games, but overall the game really does feel like R-Type.
Despite the praise heaped on XEXEX on its release, however, few seem to remember the game, and even fewer have ever even heard of it. Konami never ported it to a home console, and the arcade game apparently had a very limited release (if at all) outside of Japan. Up until recently, it was almost impossible to emulate - although luckily that's changed. I wish I could say I'd played the actual arcade game, but unfortunately I haven't. My first chance to experience the game was through MAME. I do recall seeing pictures of it in EGM way back then, and it was a game I had always wanted to try. I'm glad I finally had the chance to, as like I said before, it's an absolutely incredible shmup. For those of you that never have tried it, I recommend tracking down the ROM, firing it up and then see what you think of it.
Out of all the arcade games Konami made that I wished for home versions of (like The Simpsons, X-Men, G.I. Joe and the incredible Aliens), XEXEX is the one I wish Konami had brought home most of all. Hopefully someday Konami will see fit to release this and some of their other shmups (Lightning Fighters, Thunder Cross, Thunder Cross II and Ajax among them) on some kind of compilation disc. Until then, though, all I have to say is thank god for MAME. ^_^
UPDATE 03/03/03 - Hotaka has some interesting info about XEXEX from the Japanese player's point of view:
XEXEX was released with an advertisement that said "this game was developed by TEAM GRADIUS II!!". It was unpopular, but many people were crazy for the princess. A reviewer said "This is not Shooting, this is Hentai." He is an extremist.
XEXEX a Hentai game? Not that I've seen. Extremist sounds about right for that reviewer. ~shrug~
Screenshots (courtesy of SHMUPS!):