The Murky World of Alien Videogames: part…erm…4? 5?

Written by Gav Weir. Twitter over here.

Hey! Remember this thing? I almost didn’t until I started messing around with PSOne emulators on my newly purchased Android box and spotted a little game called Alien Resurrection. And yes, I have skipped past Alien Trilogy, I’ll come back to that soon.

So let’s get this out the way: the film this game is based on is a confused, horrid mess that not even a Josh Whedon script could save. The wrong director with the wrong script and the wrong cast all stunted with a redesigned Alien that took a sleek, insect-like killing machine and turned it into a slime-oozing mindless animal.  After the gloriously bleak and brutal finality of Alien 3, it just did not need to exist and anyone who does like it is simply not a good person.
So with that out the way: the game…

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THE MURKY WORLD OF ALIEN VIDEO GAMES – PART THREE

Written by Gav Weir

I know what you’re asking: ‘but Gav, how do you make a game out of the claustrophobic, downbeat, often criminally underrated waking nightmare that is Alien 3?’

Easy: you make one based on Aliens instead.

That’s how the design meeting at Probe went when they planned the Mega Drive version of Alien 3. How do I know? I was there, boy. Now get the fuck off my lawn. Ok I wasn’t there and please, stay on my lawn as long as you want. It’s nice to have company.

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THE MURKY WORLD OF ALIEN VIDEO GAMES – Part TWO

Right. Listen.

I know this has been like…a long time coming, but it’s here now so calm, relax and strap yourself in ’cause we’re on an express elevator to hell; going down.

Yup, it’s an Aliens-centric post. We’re up into the 80’s now and the tie-in games for James Cameron’s endlessly quotable Vietnam metaphor came thick and fast. The most action focused film of the series, pitting a squad of overly confident, technologically advanced but poorly prepared Colonial Marines against not one, but an entire Hive of Aliens. Translating such a premise into a computer game would be an open goal, right? Let’s kick the tires and light the fires big daddy and find out.

Wait. That’s Independence Day…

Aliens: The Computer Game (1987, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Apple II and MSX)

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So to make things a little interesting, there’s two versions of this game, both with the same name but different developers, namely Activision and Electric Dreams. Activision’s version is made up of 6 mini-games: Landing the Dropship at LV-426, making your way through a maze of tunnels to get to the Dropship hanger and some fairly rote action sequences where you control the marines (one at a time) to hunt down Aliens and make it to the exit. It’s…not great. The different game types to portray each set piece of the film is pretty cool, but playing this in the Space Year 2015, it lacks a little magic to grip you. Plus, it looks like piss. But it does give us the first appearance of that iconic Motion Tracker in videogames. Looks pretty accurate too.

I say we grease this rat-fuck sonofabitch right now.

I say we grease this rat-fuck sonofabitch right now.

The Electric Dreams version however, is much, much better. I actually played this one on a real life ZX Spectrum years before seeing the film itself, but that lack of context didn’t stop it leaving a big impression on me. Scanning the environment horizontally, it’s your task to switch between the Marines and navigate your way to the exit, taking out any and all Aliens you encounter. The game plays like a flat version of Space Hulk; tight corridors and instant death if any of your squad should take too long to deal with the Alien/s in the area they’re in, a threat indicated of course by that ever present beeping from your Motion Tracker. Like almost every game that follows this one, it’s the motion tracker that adds all the palm sweating tension that you’d want. Hearing that beeping getting forever more frantic will have you switching between your Marines to see who’s in trouble, scanning corridors to hunt that Alien before it hunts you. A neat gameplay hook that still stands up today. I’d highly recommend trying to play this version of Aliens: The Computer Game, or if you can’t be arsed with emulators, some intrepid fans have worked on a remake called LV-426, check out this clip:

ALIENS (1987 – MSX)

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Made by ya boys Square, this is heading more towards what we can expect going forward from the franchise. Released only in Japan, the game is a straight up platformer with shooty parts, a low budget Metroid and following a trend, it’s not great. Ripley’s jumping leaves a lot to be desired, either too floaty or stunted to the point of not being able to get over the smallest ledge – and then the ‘double jump’ comes into play, which is just AWFUL (you can tell it’s bad cause I had to use caps). So yeah, this game pretty much set the way for future games based on these films: some platform elements and lots of shooting. It will possibly appeal as a curiosity to the die hard Aliens fan, but as it totally fails at being a competent platformer it kills any fun you could’ve had with it. A shame as it includes a fantastic Alien Queen sprite. Behold the glory of all 4 frames of animation:

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Aliens (Arcade, 1990)

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Now this, THIS game is more like it. The first and possibly last good game based on Aliens (again: I’m not counting the AvP games here). Konami had been borrowing from the aesthetic of Aliens for its Contra games, so who better to make this? A side scrolling shoot-em-up in the vein of all those classic Konami arcade games pitting you as either Ripley or Hicks up against a endless horde of Aliens with an impressive arsenal of weaponry: flame throwers, rocket launchers, Smart Guns and of course, the iconic Pulse Rifle (insert Hudson quote about knives and sharp sticks).

Setting aside for the moment that the very concept of Rips ‘n’ Hicks going up against the Alien Hive is utter nonsense after we watch an entire squad of Marines spend the film on the back foot (hell, every developer since has missed that subtle narrative point too…) this game is pretty fun. Enemies constantly pour at you in the form of standard (albeit pink) ‘Warrior’ variations, Face Huggers, Chest Bursters and even some seriously non-cannon alternatives that would look more at home in Kenner’s fantastically license ignoring toy line but thanks to some great death animations, it’s always fun to mow them down.

Pictured here: Your. Mum.

Pictured here: Your. Mum.

Graphically it holds up, too. The environments look like Hadley’s Hope by way of a comic book, all angular corridors and exaggerated colours while the main sprites of Rips ‘n’ Hicks actually resemble the actors (in a pixelated, seeing them from a distance after a few drinks sorta way) and the gun pick ups genuinely do look like the weaponry from the film.

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Alas, this praise comes with a ‘BUT’. As often with this genre, the gameplay is horribly repetitive since you don’t have any other attacks to create your own combos with. You shoot and that’s it. The weapon pick ups change things slightly and you can control a big ‘ol yellow Power Loader and smash some Alien skulls in. There’s even a few vehicle sections that have you travelling into the screen on the back of an APC, gunning down leaping aliens as you go, but as much as these little variations are fun, you still just hold down one button the whole time.

It kinda goes without saying that these games are worth a hunt down if you have an unhealthy obsession with these films (and really, if you’ve made it this far into the post, chances are that you do) so you should probably stop reading my waffling on and grab an emulator or two. They’re by no means classics but each has a little something that’ll raise a smile on your dead, cynical face. Apart from Activision’s Aliens. That really was warm piss.

SOOOOOOOOOOOOON, MAYBE:

It’s time for the glory of the 90’s and those beastly 16-bit machines. The only games out in this period were based on Alien 3, a film with one Alien and no guns…will that stop the developers? Will it fuck mate.

Gav Russell’s Game Of The Year 2014 – Alien Isolation

There’s a moment during one of the closing missions of Creative Assembly’s hide and seek simulator Alien Isolation that reeks of cynical game design. An obvious effort on the part of the developer to stretch the game in order to make it last longer than it needs to. Sneaking around the creaking, self-destructing corridors of the Sevastapol space station you find an important power generator with a bright green status light illuminated on its control panel. You know that this is an important power generator because it’s marked on your map. Yet you can’t do anything with it. It seems to serve no purpose. Yet it’s handily marked as a point of interest. And also looks the same as all the other generators you’ve used in the game so far. Perturbed, you press on; spending 10 minutes moving at a glacial place past corpses, flickering lightbulbs and hissing steam vents until you reach a locked door. The door is locked because it requires power. Suddenly, your quest marker points you back to the generator you just spent 10 minutes creeping away from. Back you go.

This type of moment is not too uncommon during the 20 hours you’ll spend within this world. Yet Alien Isolation is far and above the best game I have played this year, despite its flaws; some major, some minor. Flaws like its previously mentioned enforced backtracking, or its reliance on uninteresting alternative enemies. Or Its insistence on multiple endings when the first climax they reached would have done just fine. Or like how Ripley inexplicably slams doors behind her, creating a deafening racket when all you want to do is stay anonymous. Even with all of those flaws (and the list doesn’t quite stop there; shout out to the terrible script), it’s the most engrossing, fascinating, heart-stopping experience I’ve had with a video game this year. I would play it with lights dimmed and headphones on and it felt like I didn’t blink or exhale for the entire time. I was in there. Even with immersion breaking niggles tugging away at me, Alien Isolation pulled me in and didn’t let me go.

Because the aspects of this game that Creative Assembly get right (and get so right) traps all of these flaws in an air lock and blasts them into deep space. Much has been made of both the dilapidated space station you traverse and the creature that stalks you in it, and for good reason. The Sevastapol itself is a technical marvel; labyrinthine and imposing, drenched in either garish fluorescent light or draped in ominous shadow. It has been meticulously created to represent a realistic, functioning space hub as it enters the death throes of decommision, and while the graffiti that adorns the walls is a little too on the nose, its snapshot of a crumbling civilisation is as scary as the Alien itself.  Some human NPC’s you meet neither help nor hinder you, with one woman I encountered just sitting on a bench muttering in despair. It was a nice touch, being unable to interact with or help her in any way. All I could do was leave her. And let’s just say she wasn’t as …… ‘all together’, when I passed back through later. It’s an extraordinarily bleak place.

And that Alien? He’s certainly no slouch – used sparingly and always to shocking effect, it’s an AI sensation. The developers retained the most fundamental element of that creature that so many others, including directors from within the Alien franchise, can forget – that it’s supposed to be utterly terrifying. Hearing the clatter as it unspools from an air vent and begins thudding down corridors towards you as you hide underneath a hospital gurney, fully aware that you’re literally unable to fight it, creates a tension like nothing else yet..

Its a tension exacerbated by the sublime save system. There’s no handy auto-save here. No sir. You save manually and only by reaching designated wall terminals. In some areas they’re plentiful, providing regular checkpoints as you creep your way through the level, but it’s when they don’t appear for long stretches of time that it really gets your heart racing. And how about when you spot one at the end of dark corridor, with the threat of so much potential death between you and it? Hello, cold sweat.

Its quite common for a videogame that is either adapted from or inspired by a beloved, existing property to miss the mark gloriously. In some extreme cases, it can even sour the taste of the source material. In the case of Alien Isolation, the team at Creative Assembly haven’t just done Ridley Scott’s Alien justice, but they’ve actually enhanced my love for it. They allowed me, for 20 unforgettable hours, to actually experience it first hand.

The murky world of Alien video games

Like almost anyone in their early 30’s/late 20’s, I love the Alien films. Toys, games, t-shirts, books, dvd’s, Blu-Rays, VHS’, patches, posters, statues…you slap the Alien logo on it and I’ll spend stupid amounts of money obtaining it. I’m the guy that will rant at you for 20 solid minutes if you refer to the Alien as a ‘The Xenomorph’ BECAUSE THAT’S NOT IT’S FUCKING NAME.

*clears throat* …sorry.

As I type this, an Alien peers down from the top of my monitor, taunting me whilst I wear a ‘Nostromo’ t-shirt. I’m a walking stereotype that’s one Giger-themed tattoo away from being too far gone.

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“Actually, it’s about ethics in…”

But, like I say, this isn’t an unusual thing, the Alien franchise is a behemoth, a cultural touchstone to thousands of people. A franchise that as you all know has extended into videogames, some of which have been amazing, some have been utter, incomprehensible shite. Spurned on by how good Alien Isolation is, I thought I’d dive into them and as a justification to spend this much time playing games for you, dear reader that I’m going to play EVERY GOD DAMN LAST ONE OF THEM chronologically and write a little about them. A rule I’m setting though: this will purely be just games based on the Alien franchise alone, if it includes the words ‘VS’ or similar, I aint touching it, ya get me? This is mainly because really, everyone knows about the Alien vs Predator games; how the first one is amazing, the second shinier but a little worse and the recent one was utter guff…so you don’t need to hear me bang on about them.

So, enough chatting, here’s the first part:

Alien (1982, Atari 2600, Fox Video Games).

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This game has little or nothing to do with the film. It’s a Pac-Man clone and a really bad one at that. Obviously the power of the 2600 couldnt create a decent render of the Alien, but this looks more like a yawning Moose.

That said, if this was on a t-shirt, I'd wear it in a heartbeat.

That said, if this was on a t-shirt, I’d wear it in a heartbeat.

It also has some weird Frogger-esc levels where you have to cross rows of the Alien-Moose things. I just don’t really know what this is…there’s really nothing to say about it, an odd little curiosity that shows everything it’s got in one screenshot.

Really, it’s awful. Go play Pac-Man instead.

ALIEN – (1984, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum – Amsoft)

This is more like it. Tense and (for a C64 game) atmospheric, starting off with the message ‘Kane is dead’ and it piles on the tension from there on out. it actually shares a lot with Alien: Isolation in that fighting the Alien brings nothing but death- unless you have the right tools to take it out or blast it out of the airlock – so avoiding it until the right time is the main aim of the game…that and rescuing Jones the cat. You flick between each member of the Nostromo’s crew, shown by portraits that actually resemble the cast:

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You can practically hear Lamberts shrill voice

and you can choose to give them simple orders to move or pick up objects, The remarkable thing is the amount of strategy this game manages to employ. Not only is the Alien after you, but one of your crew is also an android, so you need to figure that out (and it’s not always the one you’re currently thinking of), but also; the escape shuttle only holds three crew, so you gotta get thinking about ways of whittling down your team, but leaving enough alive to carry out the mission. Kill too many too early (my favorite method: telling them to go to the airlock and blast them into space…I’m a horrid person) and you might find you can’t get to the shuttle or take the Alien down because Dallas had the net and Dallas is now dead…it’s really, really tense with a thick atmosphere of dread hanging over you at all times…and all this from a few simple green lines and some blips and bloops that the C64 passes off as sound.

And look at this title screen:

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The text actually appears on letter by letter, just like the titles to the film, a lovely little touch, all whilst the filthiest 8-bit dubstep you’ve never wanted to hear slams around in the background.

But, it’s not all great. It took me an age to figure out exactly what the hell I was supposed to be doing…it’s confusing to the point of being obtuse about it, but then the game is 30 years old…maybe all the hand holding games do now has weakened me when it comes to thinking for myself. On the whole though, this is still a great little game once you understand how it plays (I’d suggest grabbing a guide to understand the mechanics), so if like me, you’re a huge Alien fan I’d highly recommend giving it a go.

And that, dear friend is the first part. These were the only two games based around Alien that were released, maybe it was the limitations of the time that stopped people from being able to turn Ridley Scott’s slowly burning dread-filled horror into a game, or that the c64 one nailed it so no one else bothered to try. From here on in we get a little Aliens-centric, for obvious reasons so I’ll be tackling the various riffs on James Cameron’s classic next time.
Until then, can someone just go and print that Moose Alien on a t-shirt so I can stop thinking about it? Cheers.