By Michael Allen Rose
Arcades have always been about making your childhood dreams come to life in the relative safety of a place supervised by bored, stoned teenagers. From allowing you to race a formula one car, to flying a starship, to mastering the art of karate, to leaping over flaming barrels while chasing a monkey, arcades provided a power fantasy that nothing else could top. It’s no wonder that shooting games have always been ubiquitous at the arcade, allowing children to murder indiscriminately, be called a hero, and not have to dodge actual bullets. Many of these cabinets had actual toy guns attached to them. Everything from a pair of rock-em-sock-em robot red and blue pistols to machine guns with magic buttons that somehow spit grenades were attached to the machines, making them both toy and game at once. But in the 80s, the company Exidy decided that they would go a different way, and installed fucking crossbows. Not only was this a bizarre addition to the concept of arcade shooters, but it led to some weird-ass games. Today, we’re taking a look at the flagship game itself: Exidy’s Crossbow.
Crossbow takes place in a fantasy world of elves, sorcerers, and monsters. All the typical fantasy tropes are present, and you must help your party of adventurers to cross the dangerous lands of yore and kill the evil bad guy. As party leader, you might think your job is to stick with your band of adventurers, leading them to victory. Instead, you’re basically hiding over the crest of a distant hill, shooting your crossbow at your friends, as far away from the actual danger as possible. This cowardly attitude technically makes you a pretty good leader, since there’s nothing in the game that can hurt you. Unfortunately, everything, and I mean everything, in this world, is trying to kill the crap out of your friends.
You start the game with three hearty and hale adventurers: a swordsman, a warrior woman, and an axe-wielding dwarf. All are courageous, healthy, and in the prime of their lives. Don’t worry, that will soon change. The first two biomes from which you can start your adventuring are the town or the desert, and both have their fair share of hazards. In the town, the inns and homes are full up with weirdos having a massive party. A witch pokes her head out of one window. In another, a duck waves an axe over his head. They are bobbing up and down, in and out of these windows, like there’s an orgy in a bouncy castle happening just inside the door. Sometimes, a wizard appears to throw fireballs at your party. Sometimes, lightning comes out of the sky and fries them to a crisp, or a ghost glides down to chill their souls. Sometimes, an eyeball appears in the sky and laughs at you, even though no mouth is present. This is the “Master of Darkness,” according to the game’s lore, and he is a big, dumb jerk for creating all of this. You should shoot him. You should shoot everything. Unless of course you directed your party to the desert. There, they face giant ants, scorpions, vultures, and the occasional bunny rabbit, all of which want to kill them until they are dead from it. Also, the Master of Darkness shows up again, with his laughing eyeball. You should shoot all of those things as well.
The only things that shouldn’t be shot in this game are your friends and the treasure they’re picking up along the way. If you shoot your friends (with a fucking crossbow!) the game reminds you “DON’T SHOOT YOUR FRIENDS!” If you ignore this perfectly reasonable advice, and shoot them a second time, they immediately begin walking slower. This is somewhat odd. You would think if someone was shooting at you with a crossbow, you’d move a hell of a lot faster. A third hit kills them, making you an ally to the scary eyeball man in the sky. If somehow, all of your current party members survive an entire screen, and they pick up that glistening treasure, you sometimes gain a new friend. This is a cause for celebration, because every environment is full of instant kills, and your dudes are less safe than the kids in the Final Destination movies. They’ll walk by an erupting, active volcano, spewing fire and rocks everywhere. Don’t neglect to shoot the precariously balanced boulder while you’re trying to shoot down the sky filled with death, though. If you do, your pals will walk right off the cliff and into the lava, bringing your adventure to a crispy end. They’ll wander through a jungle, where every monkey in the treetops suddenly snaps and rains down coconuts and unenthused toucans upon their heads.
Your adventure continues. At the bridge, angry birds fly at your peoples’ faces. Nature thrives here, as your adventurers are surrounded by everything from fish, frogs and owls to pterodactyls. Also, what looks like the smiling head and torso of a sasquatch pops up from the water sometimes, so he can wave “hello.” At one point, some unseen force (probably the eyeball) drops a large rock. In the cave, bats swoop for faces, and dozens of glistening stalactites fall constantly, like the cave is holding a massive rave one floor above you. The floor is uneven and full of holes, and you need to make trick shots to knock debris into the pits so nobody falls in. Where is this cave’s safety inspector? He should be shot with a crossbow.
At the castle, enemy archers fire arrows while our old pal the sasquatch and some alligators briefly pop their heads up out of the moat. They don’t attack or anything, they just pop up to say hi, but you should shoot them anyway. You have a crossbow. If they survive the castle, they fall through a trapdoor and you finally come face to face with the master. Shoot him in the eyes. You’ve seen them plenty—they keep showing up everywhere—you have plenty of practice. Shoot him in the eyes until his face falls off and he dares you and your party to try again, sending you back to the map. It doesn’t matter where you direct your friends to go; nature hates them. Animals. Rocks. The undead. Flying eyeballs. Other humans. Everything wants to bring your friends a swift and uncompromising death.
And yes, in the end, all this death is your fault. You and your crossbow make the plan. Before each level, it’s time to choose your path forward. Instead of meeting up with your party and discussing your mission rationally, you just shoot the map. Probably right out of the wizard’s hand. Like a psychopath. There’s no rhyme or reason to your choices either, you just arbitrarily shoot a colored block on the map that corresponds to some intricate plan that only the spirits are privy to, and off everybody goes, to face their doom in some other godforsaken hellhole. Sometimes you go back to where you were just before. Sometimes you go off to a new place. Sometimes you shoot the barbarian in the face. Who cares? What are they going to do, complain? Not when your party’s HR department is a fucking crossbow.
Michael Allen Rose is a writer, musician, editor and performance artist based in Chicago, Illinois. His stories have been published in such periodicals and anthologies as the Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Heavy Feather Review, and Tales From The Crust. He has published several books including Embry: Hard Boiled (Eraserhead Press), Rock And Roll Death Patrol (Rooster Republic Press), The Indifference Of Heaven (Omnium Gatherum) and more. In Spring of 2021, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing will release Michael’s newest book, Jurassichrist. He is the host of the annual Ultimate Bizarro Showdown at Bizarro Con in Portland, OR. Michael also releases industrial music under the name Flood Damage. He lives with an awesome cat, helps his girlfriend make internet porn, and enjoys good tea.