A game publishing label from the late '80s, responsible for three bizarre and brilliant computer games. Also the name of a fictitious god.

Before we get to Exxos, though, let's go back a bit, to ERE Informatique, the company that Exxos sprung from:

ERE Informatique was a very successful French computer game developer, started in 1984 by Philippe Ulrich and Emmanuel Viau. They had some major hits, most notable of which was Remi Herbulot's pinball simulator/construction set, Macadam Bumper, which was the first French game to achieve real success outside of its home country. Philippe Ulrich, enigmatic genius at the head of the company, was always on the lookout for new talent to add to his small team, and in 1987, he recruited a very talented and somewhat impoverished artist called Didier Bouchon. The two men quickly struck up a rapport, and, after Bouchon taught himself assembler on an Atari ST that Ulrich had given him, and began to produce amazing displays utilising fractal graphics, the germ of a grand game design was born. Ulrich and Bouchon shared an obsessive love of science fiction art, movies and writing, and began to formulate a wildly original game idea. It was to become Captain Blood (French title: L'Arche du Capitaine Blood). Ulrich provided the scenario, and Bouchon coded the game and provided the rather awesome graphics.

Released in early 1988, Captain Blood sent a shockwave through the computer gaming world. While most other companies were turning out generic shooters and platform games, here was something that dared to be different. Very different, in fact. Nothing about Captain Blood had been done before. It not only sported the best graphics so far seen in a game (beautiful, Giger-esque artwork by Bouchon, as well as the groundbreaking fractally-generated planets, with their mountains and ravines to desperately fly through) and the best sound (sampled music from Jean Michel Jarre and a complete alien language on the Atari ST version) - It just had a totally wacked-out scenario, full of aliens, spacefish, exploding planets, hyperspace warps, clones, cyborgs and yes, scantily clad babes. The game cast you as Bob Morlok, aka. Captain Blood, a down-on-his-luck computer game programmer who somehow gets sucked into his own game universe and finds himself piloting a vast bio-mechanical spaceship called The Ark. Due to a small malfunction in the ship's hyperdrive shortly after Morlok/Blood's arrival in the universe he created, he gets cloned, and finds that he is degenerating. His only chance of survival is to track down and disintegrate the rogue clones of himself, thus regaining his 'vital fluid' from them. All the time, The Ark's systems are grafting bits of metal and tubing onto his body to replace the bits that are failing. Blood has to track down and waste those clones before he dies...or worse...becomes a robot. The whole game is presented from a first-person perspective, and you control Blood's diseased-looking cybernetic arm, pressing buttons in the ship, zipping around the Hydra galaxy (where the final five clones are hiding), going to planets and sending remote-piloted spacefish (called OORXX) down to planets to talk to any inhabitants and get clues to the clones' locations. The game is all about talking to the various different alien races, all of whom have very different personalities, and trying to get the information you need, in any way you can. You can try and be nice, and do various tasks for the aliens you meet, or you can be nasty, intimidating people or blowing up their friends' planets. It's up to you. There are multiple paths through the game, and it can be completed with huge amounts of violence on your part, or with almost none at all. The communication in the game is handled via a unique icon-based system called the UPCOM (Universal Protocol/COMmunication), composed of 120 different icons, all representing specific words or concepts. You'll have to do some shrewd detective work and snappy talking to locate your clones, and you're playing against the clock: If you don't disintegrate your first clone in about two hours of game time, your onscreen hand will begin to shake. At first, the shaking is not so bad, happening sporadically and leaving you still basically able to pilot the ship and talk to people, but as the minutes tick away it becomes worse and worse, until the game is uncontrollable. The only solution is to pop one of those clones in your ship's fridgitorium and disintegrate the little pest! Each disintegrated clone gives you a bit more of your vital fluid and a shake-free further hour of gameplay.
To say that Captain Blood is a difficult game is an understatement. But it is so mysterious and compelling that you have to keep on playing. For me, it became a bit of an obsession and I played it, off and on, across various different computer systems, for something like six years before completing it! Back in 1988 (and still, today, actually) that is some serious long-term gameplay value. This was not a disposable arcade game - It was a deep and complicated adventure.

Captain Blood was the first Exxos game, although the first several thousand copies sold did not bear the Exxos logo. However, as the game became a worldwide smash hit and wowed all who saw it, more and more copies were manufactured, and the Exxos logo appears on the later editions.

Exxos was the brainchild of Philippe Ulrich, now something of a minor superstar after the amazing success of Captain Blood. He came up with the idea of a 'god', who would guide the elite group of programmers, designers and artists in their work. On June 12th, 1988, in a mysterious ceremony held at Studio 102 on the Champs Elysées, Exxos was unveiled to the world. Ulrich stood before the assembled members of the press and solemnly intoned:
"Mesdames and Messrs, the decision was not easy, but all the same, we have agreed to reveal to you the secret of our dynamism and the creativity which makes ERE Informatique a success.
"If there are sensitive people in the room, I ask them to be strong. They have nothing to fear if their vibrations are positive; the telluric forces will save them...
"My friends, the inspiration does not fall from the sky, the genius is not the fruit of chance...
"The inspirer and the genius which designed Macadam Bumper, that is not the fabulous Remi Herbulot or the marvellous Michel Rho...the inspirer and the genius which generated Captain Blood, it is not the inextinguishable Didier Bouchon and even less your servant.
"It is Him! Him who has been in our offices for months... He who comes from outside the Universe. He that we reveal today to the world, because the hour has come. I name Exxos.
"I ask you to say after me some magic sentences which point out his country to him: ATA ATA hoglo hulu, ATA ATA hoglo hulu..."

The press were in awe, and several papers dedicated numerous pages to Ulrich and the great god Exxos. From now on the Exxos chant of 'ATA ATA hoglo hulu', the Exxos logo (a bizarre, grinning face, designed by Didier Bouchon) and the slogan 'Exxos is good for you!' would be an intrinsic part of French gaming culture.

The second game on the Exxos label was Purple Saturn Day. It was written by Remi Herbulot, with graphics by Didier Bouchon and came out in October of 1988. Again, Ulrich organised a delirious ceremony for the benefit of the press. This time, he told the crowd that a sacrifice was going to be made to Exxos, to thank Him for inspiring Herbulot to create this latest gaming masterpiece. He then proceeded to take a hammer and destroy a giant model of an Amstrad CPC computer. He handed out pieces of the broken machine to everyone who was present.
"Exxos, thankyou!", Ulrich cried, resplendent in mirrored shades and with dyed green hair.
"ATA ATA hoglo hulu!", the faithful replied.

In an interview shortly after this, Ulrich declared, "Exxos is raising computer gaming to the noble stature of art, and will bring this artistic expression to all the inhabitants of the galaxy". His enthusiasm was infectious, and, looking at Exxos' games, it was hard to argue with him.

Purple Saturn Day was not as groundbreaking as Captain Blood, but was still extremely well-received. It was a future sports game, set in 2500, with four different events, including the weird 'Brain Bowler' and the psychedelic 'Time Jump'. You (playing as the human contender) competed against a wide range of alien races, in an attempt to win the contest and thus also win the ultimate prize, a kiss from the Saturn Queen (as the manual states, 'a prize highly valued by all life forms for its universally euphorious sensation'). The game continued the Exxos tradition of being completely strange and quirky, and it was certainly very amusing watching the other alien races receiving their winning smoochies from the tempting Queen. The game was also quite difficult (at least, I thought so) and I don't think I ever managed to get to the top of the podium, myself. Another luscious part of Exxos was in their game manuals. Captain Blood had come with a 35-page novella, detailing the back story to the game in a hilarious and fully surreal fashion. Purple Saturn Day, in turn, came with lots of added goodness in its manual, including a set of 'practical recipes', a 'list of forbidden substances and rituals' and the 'Grand Purple Saturn Day Ceremony Speech, given with the benediction of Exxos himself, in person.' This last section even included a full version of the Exxos chant, for the fans! Characters and races were carried over between games. Bob Morlok (Captain Blood) and even his father were mentioned in PSD's manual, and the stupid, constantly warring Croolis race made a reappearance as one of PSD's competing species.

Captain Blood, meanwhile, was still receiving praise and selling like a hot, weird-looking but very attractive, cake and now, with the end of 1988, it was picking up all kinds of 'Game of the Year' awards. Which was nice. However, despite all this, not all was rosy in the Exxos camp. ERE Informatique had, some time ago, been sold to Infogrames, who were handling its finances very badly, and while the dedicated young heroes at Exxos worked on their third game, they were still waiting on hundreds of thousands of francs in unpaid royalties. Behind the public bravado displayed by Ulrich and his colleagues, things were a lot darker.

Nevertheless, the third Exxos title, Kult (later released in the U.S. as Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess) arrived in April 1989. At the unveiling ceremony (this time held in ERE's basement), Ulrich took an axe to a large latex-covered model of an extra-terrestrial and once again, distributed hacked off pieces to journalists.

Kult (written by the surely-pseudonymous Arbeit von Spacekraft, programmed by Patrick Dublanchet and with graphics by Michel Rho) was a post-apocalyptic point-and-click graphic adventure, great for its time, with a very slick interface and just as much weirdness as you'd expect from Exxos. It told the tale of Raven, a 'Tuner' (psionic mutant), infiltrating the mountain temple of the Protozorqs, a physically mutated group of religious zealots who are currently awaiting the imminent return of their great god Zorq, and are busy burning the villages of the 'Normals' and stealing people to sacrifice, in His honour. Raven's friend, Sci Fi was captured by the Protozorqs and he has gone into the temple to get her back. The gameplay features your typical inventory-based adventure game puzzles but focuses largely on completing a set of 'Ordeals' within the temple. Although rather too short, the game is extremely compelling, and, in keeping with Exxos' design traditions, there is more than one way to do things. Raven's psionic powers are the biggest innovation in the game. Using these, he can control minds, levitate objects, climb walls and see in the dark, to list but a few of his abilities. Playing around with the different psi-powers and trying them out in different places is one of the most fun parts of the game. As usual, Kult is accompanied by a manual that tells the story in often hilarious detail.

"Keep the Spawnomatik as a sign. But touch it not."

And Zorq and his familiar, Qriich, did disappear into the sky in their flying appliance.

The situation with Infogrames got worse and worse, however, and Kult was to be the last game on the wonderful Exxos label. 1989 saw the end of Exxos and the end of ERE Informatique. Their games had sold better than Infogrames' own titles and Captain Blood was one of the biggest-selling games ever, but in the end, they couldn't go on.

But all was not lost! Ulrich, Bouchon, Herbulot, Dublanchet, Rho and many other members of the Exxos team left Infogrames behind and swiftly started up a new company: Cryo Interactive Entertainment. Their first game was quite low-key. It was called Extase, and was a full game based on the 'Brain Bowler' event from Purple Saturn Day. Their next game, however, was to be a massive hit and would once again prove that they were at the forefront of technology and gaming art. The game was Dune, based on Frank Herbert's novel and David Lynch's film. The initial disk-based version was soon followed by a CD-ROM version which featured the most amazing rendered graphics, digitised video (taken from the movie) and music (by Exxos regular, Stephane Picq). The game sold by the truckload, as did later games, including the CD-ROM extravaganza, Megarace. In 1994, Cryo followed up the all-time Exxos classic, Captain Blood, with a sequel, Commander Blood, again taking full advantage of the emerging CD-ROM technology to create an all-encompassing experience that was as much art as game. A second sequel, Big Bug Bang, followed in 1996.

The three Exxos games will always have a special place in my heart. They display, in my opinion, an absolute genius; a unique flavour that cannot be found elsewhere. From the distinctive packaging, to the surreal writing in the manuals to the games themselves, with their wonderful graphics and brilliant ideas bursting out from everywhere, these games stand apart from anything anyone else has done, or will ever do.

Here's a little hint from the Purple Saturn Day manual:

All your ideas gone? Your brain has turned to sticky garbage? Chances are you've been smoking too many TROMP tails! Why not think of EXXOS? EXXOS is good for you!

Lots of juicy background info here was sourced from Daniel Ichbiah's excellent book, La saga des jeux vidéo. The book is only available in French, so I hope my translation of P. Ulrich's words wasn't too bad!

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