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.

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.

METAL GEAR?!? PART 4 – METAL GEAR SOLID 3: SNAKE EATER

As the title implies, This is the fourth part in an ongoing, ever complex series of blogs as I replay all the Metal Gear games to date. You can check out part one here, part two here and part three here.

Obviously these blogs are full of spoilers for the game in question, but this one also includes spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 4…so…pre warned yeah?


 

METAL GEAR SOLID 3: SNake Eater

2610319-9444033863-MGS3_Atop a wind-swept Russian mountain range crouches a figure, one the finest soldiers of his generation, camouflaged into the rocks. He waits. A guard walks into the sights of his pistol and with a ‘thwap’, he lets fly a tranquilizer dart. The dart misses and hits a nearby eagle, the squawk it emits alerts the guard who spots him with ease since he’s now spinning on the spot, repeatedly crouching and standing up forgetting which button makes him go prone.

“Control!! I’ve spotted the enemy…send reinforcements!”

*Cue 10 minutes of hiding until the alert phase is over*

That’s me playing Snake Eater in a nutshell. I’m not great at stealth, my patience tends to wear thin fast, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying this absolute masterpiece of a game.

Stripped clean of the twists, heavy social commentary and (most) pretentions of the previous game, this is pure Metal Gear, streamlined, heated up and injected right into your gaping eyeball. Sneaking and how you go about it is the main focus, with the camouflage system at the heart of it. As tedious as menu hopping can be, there’s something oddly satisfying in watching the little camouflage percentage increasing as you change fatigues.  Adding in the big change (and the one that freaked me out when I first played), the lack of radar, and the pace of the gameplay has massively changed too. Relying on brief uses of Sonar and short-distance motion detectors, you really have to take your time, scan the area and use the environment to your advantage if you don’t want to get spotted. And this is the main reason I love it so much, instead of simply waiting behind a wall for a guard to pass, you’ve now got to think about the environment, where can you hide next? Can you get to that last patch of grass before the guard sees you? Given the ‘open world-lite’ nature of the game, it makes the go between sections just as intense as sneaking around a heavily guarded weapons lab.

But other than this and the addition of the ‘cure’ mechanic (sorely missed from following games for me), it’s business as usual for ya boy Snake (of the Naked variety in this one). So what makes this game stand gargantuan above the rest?

Her:

Cate Blanchett is PISSED.

Though you play as him, it’s really not Snake’s story this time round. This is the story of The Boss and her personal sacrifice and it is just brilliant, eye-wateringly so in those final few moments. You’re probably bored of the numerous articles shouting at you about how The Boss is The Best Female Character Ever™ and she is, but I’d argue that she’s one of the best characters period. Her story is one of loss in order to do what is right, sacrifice for the greater good, loyalty and honour; one that resonates with the later games in the series, particularly strong with the story outline for The Phantom Pain too. It also echoes the Father/Son metaphors that run heavy in the series. Cementing this is a really believable relationship between her and Snake. You really feel the care and love she has for him in the few conversations they share. Even the way Snake seizes up when he’s asked about he betrayal speaks volumes for what she means to him. Creating a character that can stand up to the future Big Boss couldn’t have been easy, but in The Boss, Kojima created a character that not only appears as resolutely strong as Snake, but also more human than him, vulnerable and full of regret. Listen to the voice acting as she tells her story in those final cutscenes, the strength in her voice is standing on a very thin layer of humanity that occasionally cracks through her tough surface.

‘There is nothing left inside me now, nothing at all’

Give that a skip to the 7:20 mark and enjoy/cry

It’s her story that starts and ends the Metal Gear series, her ideals that Big Boss carries with him as he goes from hero to villain, her gravestone being the location of Snake & Big Boss’ final meeting. A mother to not only Ocelot, but to Big Boss, to Outer Haven, to Snake, to Liquid, Raiden, Vamp, ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ Rex and Rey…it all started with The Boss’ seeming double cross of her country and the fallout of her choice.

“I raised you, I loved you, I’ve given you weapons, taught you techniques, endowed you with knowledge, there is nothing more for me to give you.  All that’s left for you to take…is my life”

And on the flip side of that, we come to the big weak point for me: David Hayter.

I know it’s kinda in vogue to say he’s no good since the recasting affair for Ground Zeroes, but here is where I start to agree with those naysayers. Snake in this is better written than his Son ever was; done away with the Gruff Veteran stereotype that hampered the character previous and given an actual arc to follow, we finally get to see something resembling a real person, wracked heavy with the burden of his mission: Kill his mentor or risk all out war. The voice acting never really conveys this, each line is delivered with the same flat tone, whether he’s being tortured or going into exquisite detail about a gun…he just sounds the same. Even when the mo cap actor portrays little nuanced movements to show him being uneasy, or afraid, the voice never changes. I get that maybe this Snake is a little emotionally stunted, having his entire life focused on The Boss, but he’s on a mission to kill her, surely a little emotion would be required? It’s no more than a little gripe though, it by no means ruins the game; just a shame when the rest of the cast is strong.

A big problem I had with MGS2 was the bosses and it’s one that’s fixed here with the brilliantly over-the-top Cobra Unit. Each one as weird as the last, from the bee controlling The Pain, to the frog-spider-man-thing, The Fear; they all bring their own variety to the fights that stop them from being the ‘run around some boxes and hope to get a shot in’ of the previous games. It does occasionally feel (especially with The Fear) that they’re trying desperately hard to out-Vamp Vamp in the supernatural villain stakes, but you can look a little deeper into the symbolism (in a Metal Gear game?!) and view these bosses as Snake’s feelings and emotions as he progresses with his mission…The Fear, The Pain, The Sorrow…it’s easy to see where that theory comes from. There’s also a school of thought that says the events of this game are a ‘dreamlike’ retelling of the events of the mission as an explanation of these strange characters (this article by Christopher Willings goes into a lot of great detail about the fantasy v reality of the series).

Cobra Unit in full inky-effect

All the reasons and theories aside, this game features two of the best boss fights of not only the series, but of all goddamn time with the best sniper battle ever (The End, which I always skip by killing him earlier on…) and the non-fight-trip-out-weirdness that comes from meeting The Sorrow after Snake does his best ‘Harrison Ford in The Fugitive’ impression off a waterfall. Both of these could only come from the mind of Kojima, a man who is always looking to out-do himself, but also out-do your expectations.

Unless your expectations were 'shoots bees at you'

Unless your expectations were ‘shoots bees at you’

But like the series overall, the game keeps circling back to The Boss and the final fight with her. Narratively, it’s brilliant done as we’ve seen her repeatedly beat Snake at numerous points, but with each one he starts holding his own and gets a little closer to winning so by the time we get to this final meeting, you know Snake is ready; The Boss has given him all her tools and in calling in a bombing run on the area, forces Snake to use them to defeat her. The camouflage gimmick back onto you here too with The Boss’ white sneaking suit blending perfectly into a field of white flowers surrounded by dying trees, she seemingly comes out of nowhere with a quick CQC flurry that you have to dodge and retaliate in kind with your own attack. The battle feels incredibly raw, with bullets and tranq darts of almost no use, just two soldiers at their most bare, master verses pupil, the foundations of Metal Gear laid out in front of us. Another little slice of symbolism comes in the form of The Boss passing over not only her title, but her gun, a Patriot to Snake, she’s literally giving away her patriotism as her legend goes into history as a traitor. Honestly, if you didn’t pause for a while and struggle to pull the trigger at the end, you’re a monster.

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For me, it’s from here on that the series starts to get a little lost and the capabilities of the hardware begin to be able to create almost anything Kojima’s massive imagination can conjure which starts to overtake the need to create a solid experience, but in this game we were given a perfect slice of Metal Gear, the story, the characters, the setting (that jungle environment…) the music (best of the series, especially the alert music, which I heard a lot… ) all forming a fantastic game from the opening to that final, tear filled (and inducing) salute.

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I’m not crying…there’s just…tears…in my eye…

NEXXXXXXT!!! …I’m not sure. I’ve been playing the Ac!d series, so I might do a little side post on those. Mainly ’cause Destiny is coming out and I doubt I’ll have time to replay MGS4 for a while. Look, I’m lazy, Ok?