“What if God was one of us,” Joan Osborne famously sang, “just a stranger on the bus?” That’s fine as far a middle-of-the-road Christian rock ballads go, but it doesn’t ask the really important question: namely, “what if God protected his chosen by shooting their enemies with some kind of celestial crossbow?” Fortunately, for this particular theological brainteaser we can turn to the power of videogames with Exidy’s 1983 arcade shooter Crossbow!
What a cheerful rainbow logo! Complete with an unthreatening dragon and a slightly less friendly-looking thing that might be a bat, or a bedraggled bin bag. Looks like we’re going to be having a jolly, pastel-hued adventure with this one, folks. Or maybe not - as a developer, Exidy are probably best remembered for their hyper-gory arcade lightgun shooter Chiller, or possibly the controversial run-people-over-with-a-car-em-up Death Race. They’ve got form, is what I’m saying, and indeed Crossbow is a lightgun shooter. However, it should be mentioned that on the original Crossbow cabinet the gun in question was, well, a crossbow. A realistic, full-sized crossbow. Of course, I’m playing an emulated version of the game, and so I’m not using a crossbow to control it. I’m kind of bitter about this. Not enough to carve my own crossbow out of lumber and gaffer tape it to my mouse, but still.
Here are the rules of Crossbow. Joke’s on you, I don’t have any friends. Also, shoot monsters and such. I reckon I can just about manage that.
The map screen shows the game’s eight locations, and true to the promises of the intro you can select your route. The thing is, it doesn’t actually tell you which option corresponds to which path, so while I did eventually manage to see every stage it was only after quite a lot of what is technically known as “bumbling around.” You can even go back to stages you’ve already cleared if you choose a certain path, which I suppose is good for those of you looking to amass a high score.
The first stage I happened upon was this moonlit village, packed with a menagerie of sinister creatures. There are witches, there are werewolves, there are wizards and, as you can see in that window at the top-right, the terrifying sight of an axe-wielding wereduck. Bitten by a mallard on the night of a full moon, this poor soul is cursed to transform into a half-man half-duck creature, prowling the city streets to satiate his dreadful hunger for breadcrumbs. That’s what the axe is for, he uses it to chop bread. I know it might look more like a toothbrush, but don’t be ridiculous. Ducks don’t even have teeth.
So, Crossbow is all about shooting things, but there’s more to it than that. Or rather, there isn’t more to it but it’s presented in a slightly unusual manner. Your goal is to protect the merry band of adventurers that slowly, oh so slowly, walk across the screen, defending them from harm by shooting the various monsters and projectiles that are thrown their way. You can see that Robin Hood sort is taking the lead with his dwarven companion close behind, and they will do nothing but walk from left to right while the arrayed forces of Hell try to kill them. It’s never made clear if the adventurers even realise that they’re in danger – their unhurried gait and complete refusal to fight back implies that they think they’re doing nothing more dangerous than nipping down to the shops. They’re not easy to babysit, either. It’s often easy to mock the fragility of supposed “heroes” in videogames, but these weaklings take it to a whole new level: they don’t just die if they brush up against absolutely anything, they burst into flames, complete with agonised digitised screaming. This seems like something of an over-reaction, especially when one of the things that can kill them is a goddamn ant.
Forget that, though – look at that cool ghost! You don’t often see a traditional sheet ghost flying sideways, Superman-style, but Crossbow isn’t afraid to buck trends when it comes to monsters. That explains the duck-man, at least.
It quickly becomes apparent that the trick to Crossbow is prioritising targets. The monsters in the windows might look dangerous, but as fragile as the adventurers are even they cannot be killed by a glance from a witch. What you really need to look out for are projectiles, and in this first stage that means either the fireballs thrown by the wizards, which can be stopped by either shooting the fireballs or shooting the wizard before he can shout “fireballus exploderino,” or the bolts of lightning that fall from the sky. You shoot the monsters for points, but stay vigilant in case any projectiles start falling their way or a monster is standing directly in their path. You start with three adventurers, and if all three of them are killed it’s game over: if at least one of them manages to amble across the street / desert / ice cavern unscathed then it’s on to the next stage.
Next up, the bootleg Fellowship of the Ring visited a volcano. The volcano launches so many deadly boulders into the air that I have to assume it has a personal grievance with my rag-tag band of hikers. It’s probably fed up of people chucking ancient rings of power into it, but never fear: I will protect my charges by shooting all the boulders. With a crossbow? Sure, whatever. It’s a magic crossbow, and I am the patron deity of extremely stupid people. That doesn’t mean I’m infallible, however. I totally didn’t realise you have to shoot that large boulder to knock it over, forming a bridge over the lava. In this instance, it was perfectly understandable that the adventurers burst into flames. I figured it out on my second attempt, though, allowing the adventurers to forge onward, clearing the stage and collecting the treasure for a points bonus on the way out.
Of course, the real treasure was the friends we made along the way.
Each new friend works as an extra life, essentially. If you’re good at the game, you can end up with a veritable conga line of shuffling, useless fantasy clichés wandering aimlessly through the kingdom like pensioners at the market.
The desert stage is rather barren, which I guess is what makes it “desert” and not “thriving metropolis.” There are vultures and rabbits to shoot, as well as destructible cacti. I love destructible backgrounds in shooters like this, although you can see that I’ve severed the top of the right-hand cactus and yet it has remained attached. Truly, this is a magical world of mystery. You can also see the afore-mentioned ant about to attack my new friend. Okay, yeah, it’s a lot bigger than a regular ant, but it’s still just an ant. None of this is of any concern to my new friend – who may be a monk, or possibly one of the minions from Phantasm – and he walks forward, swinging his mace in a manner that might be mistaken for carefree joie de vivre in a less deadly situation.
I was going to make a “Bridge Over the River Die” pun, but then I thought “hey, that sounds like the kind of terrible joke I would have already made”, and indeed I have. Oh well, I’ll have to settle for pointing out two monsters. First is that brown thing popping out of the water just underneath the bridge. What is that? I am completely at a loss to describe it, apart from it maybe being part-human. A bloke in an ill-fitting otter costume, auditioning for the role of “Aquaman’s lamest villain”? He’s a goddamn enigma, that’s what he is.
Then there’s the eyeball floating in the sky, with the same heavy-lidded expression of contempt I was wearing whenever one of my friends slowly walked into a deathtrap. If you shoot the eyeball it emits a terrible scream, which is pretty good because hey, digitised speech samples! There’s even a disembodied voice that says “you will die!” when you start the game and boy, is he not kidding. Apparently Crossbow was the first-ever arcade game to include digitised speech, which is an impressive claim, and when it comes to presentation it’s an impressive game all around. Even putting aside the fact you can control it with a life-sized replica crossbow, the graphics are pretty incredible for a game from 1983. For comparison, other big-name arcade games released in 1983 include Gyruss and Donkey Kong 3, so Crossbow’s big, bold and full-colour graphics are a stand-out part of its appeal.
Speaking of Donkey Kong 3, this stage is all about monkeys clambering up and down vines while throwing coconuts at your adventurers. A departure for the previous dungeons-and-dragons-ish aesthetic and into more a Disney cartoon vibe, sure, but it still looks nice. You might think it makes me a terrible person to take pleasure in seeing the apes fall from the trees when you shoot them, but in my defence they started it. I would have been quite happy for my adventurers to walk through this jungle without shooting anything, but someone’s got to protect these dopes from a coconut bombing raid.
This is also where Crossbow starts getting noticeably more difficult. It’s never an easy game – it’s a 1983 arcade game that revolves around shooting tiny moving targets – but the sheer number of monkeys that you need to deal with means you’re making more large aiming adjustments than before, and the apes just keep on comin’ so if you’re a bit late destroying a coconut, that means you’ve got less time to shoot the next threat and so on until your attempts to shoot the monkeys are so frantic that you completely fail to notice your friends walking into a giant carnivorous flower.
You want ice caverns? Well we’ve got ice caverns, by gum! Well, one ice cavern. A yeti of some description peers out from behind a rock, concerned for the state of that poor Amazon woman’s bare feet. Bats on loan from Dracula’s castle fly horizontally across the screen, and they’re just as susceptible to being shot as they are to being whipped. A couple of holes in the ice must be plugged by shooting down the larger icicles, but it’s the constant downpour of smaller icicles that cause all the problems in this stage. No, Crossbow hasn’t gotten any easier since the jungle. Those icicles fall fast, and they’re not big targets, and when it was all bundled together like this I suddenly realised I couldn’t tell whether I was having fun or not. Crossbow is a game about shooting goofy monsters in graphically impressive locations, and that part I’m fine with, but something about it irritates me. I think it’s the concept of protecting the adventurers that sours me on experience. This is strange, because if I think about it logically I know it shouldn’t bother me. Imagine a version of Crossbow where you didn’t have to babysit the adventurers, and you simply had to shoot the various projectiles before they reached the bottom of the screen and caused you to lose a life. That is essentially the exact same game as the "real" Crossbow, and yet seeing these utterly useless and totally defenceless idiots blindly marching towards destruction introduces a constant low hum of annoyance into my gameplay experience. Maybe it’s because you’re so used to directly controlling characters like these in other games that your lack of agency leads to a sort of mental dissonance. Or maybe it’s just me, and I lack the necessary compassion to care whether or not Fake Robin Hood and his band of Merry Morons trundle into a frozen chasm.
Here we see possibly the worst attempt to storm a castle ever recorded in a videogame. So bad, in fact, that my adventurers would have walked straight into the moat had I not shot the chains holding up the drawbridge. You can get away with that kind of behaviour if you’re the goddamn Terminator, but if you’re this character here, who appears to be a bride-to-be who fled to the woods on her wedding day and reverted to a feral state, then you’re not going to have much luck. Still, she’s nearly in the castle now. I can’t see the rest of the adventurers having a problem with it.
Ah. I believe this is what’s referred to as “getting Agincourted.” One crossbow is no match for multiple longbows, and so it proves here. I nearly gave up on Crossbow at this point. Trying to keep this cloud of small, fast-moving projectiles away from the tender flesh of my charges seemed like a bridge too far, especially when the hit detection on the arrows is very fussy. That last part is understandable, at least. It’s difficult to shoot one arrow out of the air with another unless you’re Robin Hood, and I’m not Robin Hood. Neither is my adventurer friend down there, despite his appearance. I’m beginning to suspect he’s actually blind and that’s not a sword he’s carrying, it’s a white cane.
In the end, the only reason I made it through this section is that I realised I could hold the fire button down for rapid fire, which let me keep the number of archers down before they could fire. Granted, I did lose a couple of friends to the occasional predatory pterodactyl – like I didn’t have enough to worry about – but in the end I managed to keep a few friends alive.
It’s a bloody good job I did, too, because this final stage is pretty intense. Swords fall from the ceiling, spears are launched from the wall and a dragon sticks its head into the room every now and then to breathe fireballs into the mix. I feel like the dragon is not really pulling its weight in this situation. If I’m roughly ten times more likely to be killed by a falling sword than a fire-breathing dragon, then the dragon is slacking off. You’re the last line of defence against these treasure thieves, dragon! Have a little pride in your work!
The screen gets a little darker each time you shoot one of the flaming torches, which is fun and has the bonus of making it more difficult to see the infuriating smugness of that wizard’s cocky strut. He did nothing to earn that confidence, nothing.
Oh right, the treasure. You might have noticed that it’s sitting on an extremely suspicious panel in the floor, right in front of a statue of a demon that has spent millennia skipping leg day. Yes, of course it’s a trap door, but surprisingly it’s not a trap. When one of your characters stands on it, the demon’s staff lights up. Shoot the staff and the trap door opens, dropping your character not into the usual spike pit but into a confrontation with the villain behind the horror of Crossbow.
Ooh, the Master of Darkness! I wonder who it is? Maybe it’s the rest of that dragon, having finally decided to get its act together. Or maybe it’s some unseen demon whose dark influence is corrupting the land, a real Sauron type.
Or maybe it’s just some bloke. Okay, it’s the giant floating head of some bloke, but it’s still disappointing that the Master of Darkness has the face of someone who looks like they spend a lot of time performing Shakespeare with their community theatre group. It’s hard to take a villain seriously when he has pretty much the same haircut as I do.
To defeat the Master of Darkness, you must shoot him in the eyes with your crossbow. I find this will defeat most things. The more adventurers you have left the easier it will be, and if you’ve got more than two you can ignore the lightning bolts he fires from his face and plug away at his weak points until he dies.
At least, I assume he dies. All the flesh has fallen from his skull and that’s usually fatal, but he’s also reminding me that I have defeated him and his legions. This must be confusing for the adventurers, who presumably have no idea that I exist and have been protecting them all this time. As far as they know, things just die when they walk past.
I’m having a hard time coming to a conclusion about Crossbow. For starters, in this case playing an emulated version of the game is going to differ significantly from the original experience, and I can’t say with certainty whether it’s a good or a bad game without knowing, for instance, how accurate and easy to use the original crossbow controller was. What I can say is that it looks and sounds great for a game of this vintage, and I’m especially fond of some of the weirder enemy sprites. Shooting bizarro monsters in a fantasy setting is A-OK in my book, and Crossbow mostly puts together a solid gameplay base to make it worth experiencing. It can get frustratingly difficult towards the end, and certain small elements have slightly uncooperative hitboxes, but on the whole the shooting part of the game is fine.
But then there’s the whole “protect these dorks” part of it. I am certain that my aversion to this concept is entirely personal – perhaps as a side-effect of always being crap at Lemmings - and that for most other people it wouldn’t be an issue, but I can’t deny that it winds me up. So, in the end I’ll say that Crossbow is a game that I’m glad I’ve played, but I will almost certainly never play it again. Okay, so I might try that first village stage again, if only to unravel the mystery of the duck-man.
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