Posted October 23, 2019 by Peter in EGX

EGX: Hands on – Ex-Zodiac

Ex-Zodiac logo
Ex-Zodiac logo

The important thing, when making a nostalgic love letter to an old game, is to not let nostalgia get in the way. For every great memory you might have of a title from decades ago, there are also the decades of progress in what makes a game accessible, makes a game stand out, and most of all makes a game fun. So I tip my hat to developer Ben Hickling, whose game Ex-Zodiac is very heavily influenced by 1993′s SNES legend Star Fox, and has produced something that feels fun in a way that nostalgic gamers swear games only used to be.

It was on display at EGX in the Leftfield Collection – nominally a space for those game ideas that make you go “… what?! Why?!”, and always worth a look – but arguably has the sort of straightforward approach that would have suited almost anywhere else in the indie-focused Rezzed sections.

Ex-Zodiac screenThe core idea is as straightforward as you could hope for – alien invasion force on a planet, chopping down trees, with you dropped into a powerful fighter ship to stop them. Viewed from behind, you blast your way into the screen, dodging incoming fire, fixed objects, and occasionally firing the thrusters to get a speed boost if something is about to fall on you.

There isn’t much in the way of subtlety on display, as robot walkers explode and upgrade pods write “missile” or “laser” in the sky ahead of you. But it doesn’t need to be subtle, just enjoyable.

I will admit that, on first seeing the flat world running into the horizon, my thoughts went back further than Star Fox, remembering Sega’s Space Harrier, and I think that’s because of how smoothly everything moves. Because to get back to that thought about nostalgia, Star Fox was a product of its time – no fault to be offered to the gameplay, but the technology of the day cannot compete with the frame rates, polygon counts, and resolutions of today. Ex-Zodiac flies along quickly, its low-polygon modelled world feeling solid and colourful.

Ex-Zodiac screenThere are a few things in here to stop it being just a clone, perhaps the main one being the targeting crosshair for an idea of where you’re going to hit. This goes for both shooting and collisions, and was the main reason I needed a couple of goes to get my head around things – with a crosshair on screen, logic says “up for up”, moving to the targets as you see them… except the ship follows the crosshair, so when you find yourself facing a closing door to fit through, years of flight sim games have trained muscle memory to say “up for down”. Are you controlling the ship, or controlling the targeting cursor? Well, both. My first run was spent deciding which of those I wanted more, and for the record it ended with me in flames. A second run was done with inverted controls and focus on the ship, and was seen to the explosive end of the scorpion-robot boss.

The other perk of having a crosshair is the ability to lock on – hold the attack button over an enemy (or group – you can lock onto several at once), release the button and watch missiles start homing in on whichever attack robot caused your displeasure. Mechanically it feels like a different on-rails shooter, Panzer Dragoon, and works nicely, avoiding the risk of being overpowered thanks to limited numbers of lock-ons and simply not being as quick as shooting lasers in a lot of cases.

Ex-Zodiac is fun, being a pure old-school shooter, just as simple as that. It taps into what made the games of the 90s so much fun – and I haven’t even gone into the soundtrack, which carries more a feeling of Thunderforce than Star Fox but fits the spirit of the game well. It is how we want to remember these old games being, without seeing how technology has left them behind. Nostalgic, without nostalgia getting in the way.

Ex-Zodiac is due to have a demo “soon”; for more, see developer Ben Hickling’s Twitter profile or the game’s page on itch.io


Peter can be described as an old, hairy gamer, a survivor of the console wars of the 1990s, and a part-time MMO addict. He has an especial fondness for retro gaming and observing the progressions in long running gaming series. When scandalously not caught gaming, he can also be found reading comics and fantasy fiction, or practising terrible photography.