It’s a concept that’s nearly unheard of now, but there was a brief period in my life where I was the only person I knew with a computer.
I bring this up not to boast or imply any sort of superiority about my upbringing, merely to illustrate a story. My dad is a CAD drafter, and as such has always needed to own really powerful computers in order to handle the 3D modeling software he uses for his job. This resulted, one spring evening, in my parents taking my sister and I to the newly-opened local Best Buy where, amidst the giant Mario and Sonic statues they had on display near a wall of tube TVs straight out of a Kriss Kross video, my family bought our very first PC. It was then that the world of PC gaming was open to me, and for someone who at that point had only seen what the NES, Genesis, and SNES had to offer it was revolutionary.
My time spent with LucasArts adventure games and DOOM could fill a series of blog posts, so for the sake of brevity I’ll get to the point. Early PC gaming brought with it the concept of shareware, an idea popularized by id’s Commander Keen games wherein you give part of your game away for free and make people buy the rest. Sort of like DLC, except you’re actually being given a sizable chunk of a game instead of being forced to pay to unlock fighting game characters or some shit.
A lot of games would cross my desk as a young lad thanks to shareware – the burgeoning PC gaming community meant my dad worked with a lot of dudes just as nerdy as he and I who would gladly make copies of shareware games and pass them around so everyone got to try them. This sort of behavior was encouraged by publishers (hence the name ‘shareware’) and seems almost quaint and naive in retrospect, considering how abhorrent the idea of sharing a game must be to most publishers these days.
Most of my fondest PC gaming memories of those days that weren’t related to LucasArts, id, or whoever made the Magic School Bus PC titles, were shareware versions of games like Hocus Pocus, Duke Nukem II, or One Must Fall: 2097. I treasure these memories and love these games dearly, even if I’m…hesitant to replay any of them. Playing them under shareware, which generally just meant I had the first “episode” of the game, equal to roughly the first 10 or so levels usually, made them so much more…mysterious. Like there’s two whole other chapters to these games that I might never actually see, and it really built them up in my mind to be epic adventures the likes of which I’d never see.
One of them, however, eluded me for years. Amidst the deluge of generally good shareware games my dad would bring home, one of them never quite made the same impression on me – to the point where I couldn’t recall it’s damn name. I knew it had a map screen, I knew you played as some beefy European model, and I knew it was kinda hard and pretty to look at. A friendly NintendoAge user helped me track this mystery game down after some 20-odd years of me not really having given it any thought or effort…and it turned out my white whale’s name was Xargon.
Xargon, sure. Why wouldn’t it be called a made-up word starting with ‘x’?
In attempting to research Xargon after learning its name, it quickly became apparent to me why I didn’t encounter it on the internet with anything near the regularity that other shareware games get mentioned – because apparently nobody else fucking remembers it either.
The Wiki article for this game is both weirdly detailed and completely unhelpful, the coverage on Archive.org basically amounts to “DOS game, played by humans on PCs of the time”. The first several Google results are basically links showing you how to download it (and legally too, since its creator released it as freeware back in 2008) and the easiest-to-find review is from somewhere called Squakenet which seems to be yet another morally gray “abandonware” site which insists on hosting Xargon despite the fact it’s officially freeware.
Given what a non-entity this game turned into, I began to question my own memories, and perhaps even my own sanity (or at least my idea of ‘fun’). Why did I remember Xargon after all this time? Was I just that impressionable as a kid? I found a site online (which I don’t feel good linking to due to its…moral flexibility regarding game downloads) that allowed me to play it in my browser, and I promptly set off to try and see what was worth discussing about Xargon.
You might have guessed by how long it’s taken me to actually get around to describing the game, but the answer is…not a ton.
Released by Epic MegaGames in 1993 (that’s the same Epic that would later turn an entire generation of console games into brown cover-based shooters), Xargon is a totally serviceable action platformer with okay versions of many of the PC gaming tropes of the time, all wrapped together in a basically decent package that neither rules nor sucks.
You play as the improbably named Malvineous Halvershim, a man who claims to be an archaeologist studying strange ruins in Madagascar but is in all likelihood an Austrian underwear model. The ruins you’re studying turn out to have been constructed by someone called The Blue Builders (which adds to the game’s mystery as some of the physical copies call this game Xargon: The Blue Builders even if it isn’t called that anywhere else). Of course, these ruins shoot you off into a mystical land of orcs, magic, and plain old fuckery where you’re eventually instructed by a magic talking eagle (sure) to gather up all the mystical doo dads (sounds good) to stop an evil overlord named Xargon (makes sense) who has been…doing something to the land, and this at one point includes building robots?
Okay, the story is largely unimportant and totally inoffensive. The game is a pretty standard platformer, with a bit more emphasis on exploration even relative to other PC action games of the time. The levels, with a small handful of exceptions, generally require you to locate an item that will either unlock the exit to that level, change something on the world map that connects all the levels, or both, emphasizing the “walk around and find all the things” sort of design that got popular across a lot of genres after DOOM and one that I frankly kind of miss, as it gives you an excuse to see the rest of the level in a way that I could never convince myself to do with games that have a more clearly-defined end goal like a Mario.
Perhaps it was my lack of experience with and fuzzy memories overall of my first brush with the game, but Xargon surprised me in its difficulty. I died…a lot, at least more than I expected to, and they weren’t always my fault either. Xargon falls into that uncomfortable middle ground of difficulty, where sometimes the game is playing fair and you just need to learn its rules, and sometimes it just doesn’t give a fuck.
Malvineous’ hitbox is super wonky and results in you taking damage from stuff you thought you were just far enough away from, and there’s no mercy invincibility so you can find yourself trapped between two bad guys, bouncing around until you die. You get a laser, which is weird and hilarious since nothing in the game indicates you should have a fucking laser beam, but it’s super slow and hard to control unless you find the rare rapid fire abilities. Power ups are hard to come by unless you use the game’s purchase screen which can be accessed at any time (who, exactly, are you buying these hearts from?) but the cost is usually kind of ridiculous since you lose a lot of emeralds (the game’s currency) and progress upon every death. You also can’t go back to the map screen – which is the only time in the game you can save – until you finish the level, so the tougher sections of the game become a forever looping, inescapable nightmare.
Look, I don’t want anyone to think I’m totally shitting all over Xargon, and it does have some charming points worth mentioning. The art still holds up to this day, evoking that beautiful VGA style that most 90s PC games had pre-3D art that recalls sort of a weird stepping stone between console generations, and the sound design is clearly lifted from a sound library, resulting in hilarity like a weird guitar riff every time you pick up a fruit.
And honestly, the gameplay isn’t even that hard or terrible; it controls well, Malvineous goes where he’s supposed to go, and if you die you learn pretty fast what killed you even if it was kind of unfair and bullshitty. There’s just not a lot about Xargon to keep me going back – it lacks the character and fun of Duke Nukem II or Hocus Pocus, nor does it have the frantic pace of something like Jazz Jackrabbit which would hit the scene a few years later.
Am I happy I found and replayed Xargon? Totally. Am I ever gonna play it again? Eh, maybe – I’ve long entertained the idea of spending a weekend playing nothing but PC games released between 1990 and 1995 and this would make the list.
But do I understand why I, and so many others, just…kinda forgot about it? Sadly, yes. Thanks anyway, Xargon. The problem is me – I just built you up into something you weren’t.
Memories have a way of doing that. It’s why I can’t watch Independence Day anymore.