I can’t speak for anyone else on the GamesBeat staff, but I’ve definitely bought a ticket on Sega’s hypetrain for Alien: Isolation.
Like riding any form of high-speed transportation, however, in the back of my mind lies the fear that this ride will end in a public display of disastrous calamity. That the locomotive, fueled with a potent mix of my naivety and high expectations will smash into a brick wall of disappointment, leaving a mushroom cloud of first world outrage that will be seen for miles around the crash site.
For Part 1 on the worst, the canceled, and the weirdly cool games in the Alien series, click here.
What is keeping me from tucking-and-rolling out of the nearest emergency exit on the Alien: Isolation excitement express? Despite that I just wrapped up an article highlighting canceled, off, and horrible titles that used the Alien license, the franchise has not been completely plagued by bad games.
Today, I’m going to discuss the great Alien games that I stumbled across. If you’re a fan of 20th Century Fox’s space monster, everything in this list is worth at least a few minutes of your time. At worst, these games at least make me feel more secure in my anticipation for Alien: Isolation.
Alien Trilogy (PlayStation/Saturn/PC, 1996)
Developer: Probe Entertainment
You ever have a piece of pop media that haunts your conversations? Some piece of B-level entertainment that seems to randomly leap into discussions like a ghost that follows you from one group of people to another group of completely unrelated people. Except the screeching sound of screams is replaced by a lot of “Oh, yeah! Oh, my GAWD! That was awesome!”
Alien Trilogy is my conversational specter. And I now understand why it spooks my discussions.
Alien Trilogy was released during the tail end of the 2.5D era of first-person shooters. This means it has a lot of switch–pulling and key-hunting clichés to deal with. To be fair, it isn’t as if those objectives have radically changed in today’s single-player first person shooters. It’s just hidden by a lot more flair and hand-holding when you get lost.
This version of LV-426’s terraforming colony also includes the ’90’s era monster closets, storing vicious cardboard cut-outs of xenomorphs, facehuggers, and androids run amok. Some people may not have the patience for these antiquated design tropes, of which there are 30 levels of them to plow through (10 for each Alien movie of the time), but under the right frame of mind it all comes off charming. It’s like an extremely polished Aliens themed modification of Doom (technically, if it isn’t, I’ll eat my imaginary hat). This brings everything full circle when I consider the movie Aliens was a major influence for id Software.
Alien vs. Predator (arcade, 1997)
Someone with a lot of vision saw a franchise about gun-blazing space marines in a setting of claustrophobic psychological horror and thought, “What this theme needs is an Alien invasion of Los Angeles … and more fists in the face!”
Who that guy is, we’ll likely never know. What I do know is that someone at Capcom listened to that magnificent bastard and put their best squad of beat-’em-up developers to work. What emerged is one of the coolest entries in the genre.
The battle system in particular contains an uncanny level of depth. The combo system is vast for a beat-’em-up of its time, providing a lot of ground and air mix-ups that you can perform on multiple enemies at once. You can also perform some co-operative combos if your partner is equally skilled at kicking xenomorphs in the back of the head.
There’s also a clever meter management mechanic and an impressive move list for each of the four characters. This includes fighting game-like special moves, complete with charge execution.
The presentation in Alien vs. Predator benefits greatly from Capcom’s slick-as-hell CPS-2 era art direction. One of the several reasons Capcom gained popularity in the ’90s arcade scene was its carefully crafted 2D art department, which was arguably the strongest in the industry at the time. Famous artists such as Akiman, Bengus, and Ikeno (just to name a very few) all put in their time at the company during this time. You can definitely see the incredibly talent that was working there, as it is reflected in the incredible sprite work and inspiration concept art for Alien vs. Predator.
Aliens vs. Predator (PC, 1999)
Publisher: Fox Interactive
Like Alien Trilogy, playing Rebellion’s 1999 version of Aliens vs. Predator is like cracking the seal on a time capsule of first-person shooter-design tropes. In this case, we are definitely catching whiffs of the arena-shooter craze of the turn of the century.
You see, the late ’90s were a time when Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament dominated shooters. They were games designed to cater around extremely fast multiplayer modes that pushed a player’s physical reaction skills. Because of this, the player pool was conditioned to having their twitch reactions tested by opponents that required millisecond accurate movement, aiming, and shooting to defeat.
This makes the action in this version of Aliens vs. Predator slippery compared to modern titles. Xenomorph adversaries in the marine campaign are especially quick and frightening. A blip on the outskirts of the motion tracker means you have a split second, at best, to clock your target and start firing before it is right on top of you.
If you have the misfortune of running into two or three Aliens at once, the display is going to be a spinning blur of polygons while you try to evade, leap, and eventually bear down on an Alien target before it massacres you.
Adding to the stress level is the well-done lighting and effects system. The lighting techniques are simple by today’s standards, but they remain effective, mimicking the hazy glow of the hazard lights and random bursts of steam from the movies. It provides the right visual flavor to an intense situation.
As a bonus, the multiplayer mode is legendary in some corners of the gaming community. In fact, it was considered the game’s primary mode of play during its prime. It’s too bad that finding enough people interested in playing a 15-year-old online game is nearly impossible.
Aliens: Infestation (Nintendo DS, 2009)
Developer: WayForward/Gearbox Software
Tossing the Aliens franchise into a Metroid-structured 2D game is one of those ideas that is so obvious that it should’ve happened in 1989, not 2009. Yet it took the industry 20 agonizing years to finally put the two together, and we can thank WayForward and Gearbox Software for getting off their asses and making it happen.
In Aliens: Infestation, players manage a squad of four Colonial Marines investigating the decimated compound on LV-426. After their brief mission at the colony is complete, they return to the USS Sulaco (the gun-shaped ship that carried the characters in Aliens) to find that xenomorphs have overrun the place.
While exterminating the pest problem onboard, you find additional marines that represent a wide-range of cultural stereotypes scattered throughout the ship. You can recruit each newly found soldier to take the place of one of your original group of four (or replace any that have been killed). Every character has their own backstory and motivation for being on the USS Sulaco and wanting to see the Alien threat destroyed. This teases my OCD tendencies, which make me want to replay it repeatedly just so I can beat the game with every character.
The visuals are also top notch. The details in the environmental set pieces create a charming dollhouse sense of 2D claustrophobia.
I only have two constructive critiques to throw out there. The marine and squad mechanic could have been amazing if the different soldiers had their own gameplay strengths and weaknesses. The design structure and visual cues give the impression early on that this is the case, but in the end it is an elaborate way of handling extra lives.
The other issue is that killing Aliens yields no benefits. This doesn’t become a big deal until you backtrack. Another Metroid-inspired game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, rewarded players with a leveling system, experience points, and items. If someone is pitching Sega on doing a sequel to this otherwise awesome rat-in-a-maze title (and if not, why not?), hopefully they keep these little tweaks in mind.
Alien 3 (Genesis, 1993)
Developer: Probe Entertainment
This is one of those games that I see people bashing a lot on the Internet. In fact, I expect some “Alien 3? Is this prick serious?!?” comments for adding it to the list.
Well, guess what, Internet? I am serious. And you’re wrong on this one. Some of you have been going at this underrated gem of the Sega Genesis library with the wrong perspective.
Part of the problem may be that any products tied to the Alien 3 film carry with it the baggage of, well, being associated with Alien 3. I won’t analyze the issue much further than this. This is where the brunt of the dislike for this game lies. But here’s the thing about Alien 3 for the Sega Genesis, it’s a side-scrolling homage to another respected Sega arcade classic: Alien Syndrome.
The premise is that Ripley spawns on the Fiorina “Fury” 161 prison planet from the movie, equipped with a bunch of weapons not from the movie. Xeno-impregnated prisoners lurk throughout the prison complex, and it is Ripley’s task to search for and rescue these poor schmucks.
Obviously, Aliens creep around the facility ready to ambush her. Adding to Ripley’s problems is a tight time limit to each level, which requires that she both find all of the prisoners and reach the escape route before the clock runs out. If you enjoy the Alien Syndrome formula, you have no excuse to not give this cartridge a try.
I’m even more impressed by it when I consider that this was a 90’s tie-in for a large budget summer movie. This was an era where a movie’s marketing budget campaign likely put “video game” in the same tier of importance as the Slurpee cup promotion. This could’ve easily been shovelware, but we get something much better.
Alien (Commodore 64, 1984)
Developer: Argus Press Software LTD
Publisher: Concept Software LTD
James Cameron’s vision of the Alien universe is well represented in video games. Space marines gunning down waves of ferocious monsters is a natural fit for the medium. But what about something a bit more psychological? A game playing more toward Ridley Scott’s “5 Little Indians” version? After climbing tall, leaning towers of Alien game cartridges, discs, and jewel cases, I finally found something that fit: Alien for the Commodore 64.
In Concept Software’s take on Alien, you take the role of a commander giving orders to the crew of the Nostromo, who are dealing with a xenomorph infestation. Right away, one of the characters are killed off at random in order to play host to the Alien parasite. Throwing another screwball at the player, the game also randomly assigns droid status to one of the crew members. The droid will subtly try to sabotage your progress without giving itself away.
Getting the human crew members to successfully complete tasks, or even listen to your requests, depend on their personalities and mood swings. Putting someone into a stressful situation that they can’t handle alone and they may be too frightened to do anything. Put too many people into a vent to hunt the Alien and everyone begins suffering from claustrophobia. It’s impressive that these little design details were being explored in 1984.
The only hiccup with Alien for the Commodore 64 is that modern gamers are going to find the UI design cumbersome. Interaction boils down to slow early 80’s menu navigation with no hot key shortcuts, which can be frustrating when a high stress situation occurs.
Aliens: Extermination (arcade, 2006)
Developer: Global VR
Publisher: Global VR
The Western coin-op industry may be a functional corpse compared to its former self, but companies like GlobalVR are still giving arcade operators new equipment to put on location. In 2006, one of those chunks of quarter sucking amusements is a simple, yet enjoyable, light gun game, Aliens: Extermination.
Extermination takes place in — and stop me if you’ve been here before — the colony on LV-426. Players are a part of a Colonial Marine deployment that investigates the other Colonial Marine deployment that has gone missing, which happened to be investigating why the colonists had gone missing. It’s like investigating why planes go missing in the Bermuda Triangle by sending in more planes.
Yet while playing Extermination, I understand why these marines keep going missing. The xenomorphs are fucking tanks.
It takes a distressing amount of ammo to take down an Alien in this game, and you never face just one at a time. Making things a lot more difficult are the cliché bag of dirty design tricks peppered throughout the experience. Stuff like incredibly quick sneak attacks just off-screen that are difficult to react to and making the odds against the player at certain points overwhelming just enough so an attack will squeeze in last second. These techniques are understandable given that the game is there to steal your pocket change, but I’m dying in the first few minutes. So either I suck at light gun games or this machine is difficult.
Aliens: Roguelike (PC, 2007)
Developer: Kornel Kisielewicz
If the screenshot above has you confused as hell, let me introduce you to the cool little genre known as roguelikes. Such games have several characteristics, such as being top-down, turn-based dungeon-crawlers that are often tough. But the most traditional aspect of roguelikes are the graphics. Well, no graphics in the traditional sense of sprites and polygons. Everything in the game world is built out of ASCII text.
This may sound lame at first, but with a setting like Aliens, the ASCII presentation really comes alive. Your imagination generates LV-426’s dark, acid-drenched corridors and chaos-torn rooms for your mind’s eye. Green and blue As become terrifying creatures that stalk the metallic halls of the compound.
Aliens: Roguelike is incredibly atmospheric and uses the ASCII text to great effect. Adding fuel to your brain’s imagination engine, this roguelike also provides a great audio package that features a moody soundtrack, whistling winds, Alien hisses, and the gut-punching thud of pulse-rifle fire.
In an age that bombards us with visual information every waking moment, it’s refreshing to shock the brain into drawing pictures internally. You can find this roguelike for free on the developer’s website.
Alien 3: The Gun (arcade, 1993)
I’m convinced that the title of this game is self-referencing irony. Think about it for a second. It’s the early ’90s. Some poor designer is approached by a man in a suit, who tells the developer to make a light gun game using the Alien 3 license … a movie about pacifist space convicts on a weaponless prison planet.
What I read when I see the words “Alien 3: The Gun” isn’t, “Alien 3: The Gun” — I see “Alien 3: Screw it! We’re shooting Aliens! Stop tripping about it not following the movie. We’re going to have fun.”
And it is fun.
Alien 3: Screw it! … I mean, Alien 3: The Gun, is the richer experience between the two light gun games featured in this list. The the pacing is quicker, and buckets of Aliens pour on the screen to shoot down, splattering like acid-filled balloons.
All of the cheap tricks I complain about with Aliens: Extermination are here, but the intensity of the shooting and the satisfaction of downing larger waves of targets make up for it.
What finally pushed me to place Alien 3: The Gun on the list, however, is the underground chase level. This section mimics the scene in the film where the prisoners must run through corridors to bait-and-trap the creature. The difference here is that you’re running through the maze armed to the teeth and all the convicts are high-tailing it away from roaming stampedes of Aliens while you lay down cover fire. It’s an example of the “don’t shoot the bystander” cliché in light gun games, but it’s executed in a clever way.
Aliens (arcade, 1989)
Several years after creating the 8-bit homage to the James Cameron movie with Contra, Konami finally snagged an official license for the Aliens franchise in the late ’80s. In the summer of 1990, it released an arcade-platform shooter titled, well, Aliens.
A 16-bit Ripley is running and gunning her way through LV-426. Out of all of the games on the list, this is the one with the widest range of Alien types. Bat Aliens. Gargoyle Aliens. Aliens that have turned humans into zombies. It’s got a lot of creative license with the here.
Konami’s Aliens is a solid, if not extremely safe, arcade title. It’s competent and entertaining for a quarter sucker, but it lacks the creative push in gameplay found in other entries on this list. I was hoping for something more than adequate from the company that released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a year earlier.
Konami is going through the motions here, it just so happens that their teams were talented enough to push out something enjoyable while being so run-of-the-mill about it.
Alien vs. Predator (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2010)
Developer: Rebellion ”
Two years before Aliens: Colonial Marines turned everyone off of Sega’s handling of the franchise, the publisher put out a fantastic big-budget release that no one seems to remember: Aliens vs. Predator.
Rebellion was on an eight-year long hiatus from developing a first-person shooter based off of the interspecies franchise that propelled the studio to greatness (although it had a slight blip of activity in 2007, where it worked on a low-tier PSP tie-in for the criminally abysmal Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem). The narrative bait attracting us into another round of interspecies hostility is a distress call from a sketchy undocumented planet somewhere in deep space. A Weyland Yutani Corp. research facility on the surface has gone apeshit. Depending on your genetic leaning, this can be taken one of three ways. If you’re an Alien, it’s like a gigantic free buffet just opened up. If you’re a Predator, it means you’re going on a fishing holiday. If you’re a human, you’re screwed.
If you find the 1999 version of the Aliens vs. Predator first-person shooter too old-fashioned (or its action too quick), this chapter’s slower, more modern-paced take may be a better fit. The marine campaign in particular is an enjoyably atmospheric set-piece experience, which concludes sooner than I wanted it to. That’s a good sign that I was having a fun time.
The Aliens campaign follows the sickening tumbler-dryer control scheme of the previous titles, where you’re snagging walls and ceilings while plotting out human assassinations like a sadist. Predators have a clearer defined gameplay identity here as well. They play less like a powered-up Colonial Marine and more like a hulky bystander of the Aliens and Human conflict. Stealth and picking the right time to pounce on humans, while bagging a bunch of Aliens, is a key mechanic to their gameplay.
All three campaigns are enjoyable, if too short.
I’m conflicted between Rebellion’s 1999 and 2010 releases. Like two children asking which one I love more, I can’t possibly choose. Just play both.
Aliens vs. Predator (Jaguar, 1994)
Rebellion’s three decade run with the Aliens vs. Predator franchise would take place on the most unfortunate platforms during the 16-bit console wars: the Atari Jaguar.
Atari’s console was crushed as a minor innocent bystander of the monstrous Nintendo vs. Sega rivalry. By association, Rebellion’s Aliens vs. Predator shares the Jaguar’s fate as an oddity of a game enthusiast’s collection. And if you don’t have a high tolerance for ’90s first-person shooters, you may think it deserves to be locked away in obscurity.
Out of all of the antiquated first-person shooters on this list, this version of Aliens vs. Predator has aged the worst. Even Alien Trilogy, which begs modern audiences to keep in mind what era it comes from, doesn’t have the awkward Atari Jaguar controller to deal with, the visually confusing level layout, and situations where you have no choice but to take damage (kill a xenomorph in a ventilation shaft to see what I mean).
What it has going for it is an incredibly creepy atmosphere, which sees the (lack of) audio doing all of the heavy lifting. I’ll also give it props for introducing a multifaceted design to FPSes by providing three different playable characters, all with different styles of gameplay. Hell, I’ll even admit it is one of the Atari Jaguar’s killer apps (next to Tempest 2000), but that may not be saying much.
It’s old-school clunky without the overwhelming charm required to come off endearing today. Like seeing your grandparents during a family reunion, give it respect … and then go hang out with the more enjoyable relatives.
Aliens (Commodore 64, 1987)
Developer: Software Studios
Publisher: Electric Dreams Software
No, I’m not having a stroke. Yes, I know I already mentioned an Aliens game for the Commodore 64 in the previous article. James Cameron’s action blockbuster and the “computer for the masses, not the classes” were hot in the ’80s. And wherever you find something hot, someone’s always ready to invest in putting a couple different types of jugs of it on store shelves.
Set on LV-426, players control the squad of Colonial Marines that stormed the terraforming compound from the movie. The play design is an extremely early example of a strategic first-person shooter. Players manipulate a UI that resembles the monitor banks in the APC vehicle in the movie, which show each character’s helmet cam and vital statistics. Switching from one character to another changes the viewpoint of the main monitor, which in turn enables the player to fire that characters weapon and move them from room to room.
Since you can only handle one character at any given time, moving through the compound calls for strategic planning and creative manipulation of the UI. If you spread the group too thin, you risk a micro-management nightmare if multiple characters wind up in trouble. If you stay too tight, moving through the compound can take forever.
It may lack the audio/visual punch of Activision’s Aliens game (see previous article), but the gameplay is more tightly defined and is forward-thinking for its time. If you’re capable of putting yourself in the mindset of an ’80s gamer, you’ll appreciate giving this one a try.
If you don’t have the old-school hardware to run this, check out the free Windows OS friendly remake of Aliens called LV-426. The core of the Commodore 64 game is still there, just with updated graphics and sounds, the ability to build out your squad from a wider variety of characters, and a new map layout.