This is the ninety-sixth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

That’s right, it’s time for another random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The random number generators have picked Xenogunner, by Clickteam. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

Blast your way past a large variety of bosses in this intense boss-focused ru…

I don’t need to see past that truncation to know that there’s going to be a lot of bosses, and a lot of blasting. Perhaps with some sort of… xenogun?

I didn’t realize until I started writing this post that Xenogunner is made by Clickteam. They’re more famous for creating a suite of game-making tools, starting way back in the 90s with Klik & Play (before they were Clickteam), which then evolved into Click & Create and The Games Factory, and finally Multimedia Fusion, which in turn evolved into the current Clickteam Fusion. All of these emphasize ease of use, targeting creators who do not have prior programming experience. In retrospect it’s not surprising that Clickteam would also make their own games using these tools (Xenogunner is made with Clickteam Fusion), but I’d never heard of any. They have several other games available on their page, some as demonstrations of Clickteam Fusion features, others just as games. Xenogunner was apparently made for a game jam, and was then polished up and expanded afterwards.

As the tagline suggests, Xenogunner is a run and gun platformer, with a heavy focus on fighting challenging bosses. It’s not quite a boss rush game, because it does have short stages with some weaker enemies. But those start short and only get shorter as the game goes on, eventually disappearing entirely as the game embraces its boss rush aspirations. With big, colorful pixel art and a lot of influence from the shoot ’em up genre (for more on shoot ’em ups, check out the Scratching That Itch entry for Zenodyne R), Clickteam claim inspiration from classic Sega Genesis games, in particular Alien Soldier by Treasure. I’ve never played a Treasure game but I’ve heard of them. They have something of a cult following, known for making fun and quirky action games, and if Xenogunner is at all like their games, I can see why.

There are two playable characters in Xenogunner: King Zeta, who is the main protagonist, and his sister Delta, whose story comes after Zeta’s. There’s a surprising amount of story in the game, in fact, told via cutscenes before and after each of the three playable acts. King Zeta rules benevolently from his orbital castle, using his Xenonature powers for the good of his people, until the mysterious Xenogunner attacks and imprisons him. At the start of the first act, Zeta has just broken free of his cell and aims to take back the castle, at which point the story starts to go off the rails. There’s a whole lot of weird stuff going on, but I enjoyed the silly, tongue in cheek tone. I also came to like many of the characters, like the loyal and pragmatic Captain Aegis, who constantly tries to keep Zeta from running headlong into danger without considering the consequences. Given that the story can feel like an afterthought in many action-focused games, it was refreshing to have so much here, even if it rarely makes much sense.

During play, the keyboard is used for movement and the mouse for aiming and firing. This called to mind Bleed 2, which appeared earlier in this series, and the two games do share some basic similarities. But Xenogunner feels quite distinct to play. First of all, it’s much harder (or at least, harder than the default difficulty setting in Bleed 2; that game has two more higher settings). Where Bleed 2 tended to create dense patterns of slow-moving bullets to weave through, Xenogunner is more about fast attacks that require equally fast evasion. Zeta and Delta can double jump, but the key move in their arsenal is the dash, a lightning-fast blip left or right that can phase right through enemies and projectiles. It reminded me of a similar move in Furi. Mapped by default to the right mouse button, I used the dash constantly. Some attacks, such as screen-spanning energy beams or lightning bolts, can only be evaded by dashing through them, and dashing is useful for escaping regular bullets too, since Zeta and Delta have pretty big hitboxes that make it difficult to fit through openings in the firing patterns. It’s even possible to end a dash early, lest our heroes fly too far and end up in the path of another attack.

Which is something I did a lot. In the beginning, I found the controls awkward and hard to get used to. I repeatedly missed double jumps, as it seemed Zeta refused to respond to my second press of the space bar (movement is mapped to WASD with jumping on the space bar, as per standard first-person shooter controls, which is fitting since the player’s other hand will be on the mouse for aiming, firing and dashing). Eventually I realized that I was not releasing the space bar enough between presses, but this hadn’t been a problem in other games; it seemed Xenogunner just responds differently to what I expected. It also took me a while to get the hang of jumping and dashing, and early on I tended to only use one or the other. Dashing was more useful, so I fought off some bosses without jumping at all, just dashing back and forth while I traded fire with the enemy. Even then, I often found myself accidentally dashing in the wrong direction. I would hit the dash button just a hair before the directional key, so it would simply dash in the same direction as my last dash, ignoring my directional input. The current dash direction is displayed under the hero’s health in the top left corner, but who has time to look at that when there’s so much going on? I would have preferred if dashes required direction input every time and were more forgiving on the timing of the two buttons.

I found shooting a little weird too, although it’s less complex than movement. Zeta has three weapons he can switch between. The default fires a standard rapid fire stream of projectiles, great for chewing through enemies in the short stages, but doing unimpressive damage against bosses. He can switch to boomerang-style projectiles, which are basically useless except for grabbing the occasional health pickup that’s out of reach, or to a powerful but slow-firing cannon. This last weapon is what I used almost exclusively against the many bosses, since it takes their health bars down much faster than the other weapons. But no matter what weapon Zeta uses, there’s little strategy other than putting the mouse cursor on the boss and clicking. Typically I wasn’t even looking at the boss, focusing entirely on dashing and dodging and trusting that my shots would find their mark. Using the slow cannon did add some rhythm to combat, however, since I couldn’t just hold down my mouse button, I had to specifically fire at certain intervals. Shoot, dash, shoot, jump, dash, shoot… I was soon alternating my moves like this for each new boss, and started to enjoy learning their patterns.

If you’d asked me my opinion of Xenogunner at the end of the first act, I’d have been full of complaints about the responsiveness of the controls and the steep difficulty. But as I continued to play, I finally started to get the hang of it, and began to have fun. Make no mistake, Xenogunner is tough, but it also provides as many lives as players need to face its challenges, and passwords (or just choosing a chapter from the menu) for continuing partway through an act. There’s also a suite of accessibility options that can make aspects of the game easier. If you like this type of game at all, it’s worth sticking with Xenogunner for a bit until you start to learn its foibles. The third act is the hardest by far, yet I had the most fun tackling its boss gauntlet, because at that point I was dashing through bullet patterns and landing blasts on the bosses like a pro (a pro who still died countless times along the way). When I reached the glorious and silly ending, I had a big smile on my face.

After finishing Zeta’s story, players can play through the three acts as Delta, with a new story layer added on top. Delta’s movements are the same as Zeta’s but her attacks are different. By default, she only has a short-range melee attack, but she can pick up powerups during play that add different projectiles to her attack (or double down on an extra powerful melee). The trick with Delta is that even when she’s nabbed powerups, she does much more damage up close with her melee. That’s risky, but highly rewarding as she can really chew through boss health bars faster than Zeta can. It was cathartic to go back through the game and eliminate bosses in much less time, both because I’d gotten better at the game and because Delta’s attacks let me leverage that skill in a highly effective way.

There’s also a silly, extra bonus act that doesn’t have much to do with the main story, and a few easter eggs to find that unlock other random stuff. All things considered, there’s a good chunk of game here, and I wonder how much of it could have been made during a short game jam. Perhaps that version only had the first act? For those curious, the game jam build is also offered, along with the updated game. If you have any interest in run and gun platformers or challenging action games, Xenogunner is worth checking out.

And I’d be remiss if I ended this post without mentioning the music, which is fantastic. I’m not sure how faithful it is to the capabilities of the fabled YM2612 sound chip from the Sega Genesis, but it certainly embraces the same musical style of classic games from that system, reveling in layers of FM synths and sporting some energetic and catchy melodies. Even if you find the many bosses in Xenogunner too challenging, you’ll enjoy taking a break to listen to the wonderful score. If you missed Xenogunner in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $14.99, and there’s a free demo available as well as the original game jam version if you want to try before you buy.

That’s 96 down, and only 1645 to go!