An Alien Retrospective: 1982-2011
You can’t see them, but the motion-tracker detects their presence, it beeps in time to your pounding heart. Beep beep – thud thud. They burst from the shadows, preternaturally sprinting and letting out insectoid screams, you have seconds to act; either shoot straight or be eviscerated. The aliens (also known as xenomorphs) are a well-suited videogame nemesis. H.R. Giger’s magnificent biomechanical specimens have infested the videogame world alongside the cinematic realm. Although dually famous for being pitched against another classic extra terrestrial, the Predator, this article will focus solely on the Alien-only videogames (the AVP game history is another article entirely).
The first videogame to ever feature xenomorphs was the Fox Video Games developed Alien, which came out way back in 1982 for the Atari 2600. It was essentially Pac-Man, re-imagined by someone who’d seen Alien and was fairly psyched about it. The player takes control of a sprightly chap trapped in a maze within the Nostromo – where he must collect flashing dots (apparently alien eggs although possibly some kind of lawsuit-escaping hallucinogens) whilst pursued by gaping-mawed aliens hell-bent on devouring him. The second videogame based on the original film, also named Alien, was released in 1984/5 for most of the contemporary systems of the time. Developed by Amsoft/Argus Press, it also took place aboard the Nostromo from a top-down perspective. As it begins, one of the crew-members was impregnated and soon killed by a chestburster which escaped to transform into a fully-grown xenomorph. Borrowing heavily from the film’s plot, players were given the option to set the ship to self-destruct and could also uncover a traitorous android crew-member.
(Aliens: The Computer Game 1986)
“Pursued by gaping-mawed aliens hell-bent on devouring him”The first videogame based on the film series’ magnificent sequel, Aliens, was Aliens: The Computer Game. Conflicting information exists about the release dates and developers, but there were actually two different videogames released with this title (US/Non-US versions) across multiple platforms (Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Apple IIe, Amstrad CPC) and through various developers (Electric Dreams, Activision, Mr Micro, Software) in 1986/87. In both titles, the player took control of a squad of colonial marines and the series’ heroine, Ripley, and required you to escape from an alien-invested colony on the planet LV-426. Featuring all the creatures from the basic xenomorphs’ life-cycle: eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and also the matriarchal mangler herself, the alien queen – both titles had a screen-filling HUD, but the US version was superior, featuring plenty more action, more atmosphere and lovingly recreated stills from the film.
(Aliens – 1987)
The next release was the 1987 Japan-only Aliens (literally translated as Alien 2) for the MSX, developed by Squaresoft. This was a side-scrolling shooter and the most graphically competent of the Alien game so far, with a wider colour palette besides more weaponry, better gameplay and a tough boss battle with a hulking queen. This was followed in 1990 by Konami’s arcade cabinet Aliens. This title improved upon the Japanese Aliens’ side-scrolling action and was a bona-fide 90’s arcade shoot ‘em up packed with wholesale xenomorph carnage via a deadly arsenal and the commandeering of power loaders (the default weapon was an M56 smart-gun!). This also deserves a special mention as it’s not only the first game, but the first medium entirely in which alien variants were introduced as a way to flesh out the xenomorph species, giving different types wild mutations such as the ability to fire lasers, throw face-huggers and spit acid.
(Aliens – 1990)
“alien variants were introduced as a way to branch out the xenomorph species”The next batch of movie tie-in games were based around David Fincher’s often maligned Alien 3 (brilliantly defended here by Jim Sterling). Alien 3 for the Game Boy was developed by Bits Studio and, from a top-down perspective, featured a panicked Ripley trying to escape from the dog-alien overrun prison planet Fiorina 161. The main Alien 3 game, released across all the major platforms of the time, featured a shaven-headed Ripley battling xenomorphs over platform-laden levels trying to save prisoners before they fell victim to the chestbursters they’d been impregnated with. Just to really put the boot in, the clock was also against you and as Thunderbolt has previously detailed – the game was merciless.
(Alien 3: The Gun – 1993)
The LJN/Konami Snes version of Alien 3 shared a similar difficulty and gameplay elements but was set apart by various elements – particularly a better graphics engine. There was no clock to race against and Ripley used a terminal to obtain various missions (welding factory pipes/destroying items etc.) Her pulse rifle/flamethrower’s firing modes were accessed by different buttons on the pad, allowing it to be used on the fly – which was necessary amongst the tide of respawning facehuggers and aliens. Another cabinet followed in 1993 with Sega’s Alien 3: The Gun, an on-the-rails shooter which gave players the luxury of firing life-sized, juddering pulse rifles to dispatch the relentless xenomorph hordes, flying robots and Weyland Yutani androids that were facing you down. You often left the experience with the distinct sound of the rifle-fire repeating in your ears for hours after.
In 1995 the xeno-blasting action was momentarily shelved in favour of a point and click adventure on the PC for Cryo’s Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure. Here you played an ex-colonial marine commanding a small team of terraformers tasked with answering an invitation to disembowelment, otherwise known as a ‘distress call’. Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure featured some high-end graphics and a degree of tension but the inventory-based puzzles and grid-based combat were often tedious. Still, it was interesting to see xenomorphs regain their fear-inducing deadliness after being reduced to cannon-fodder so often in other outings.
(Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure – 1995)
“answering an invitation to disembowelment, otherwise known as a ‘distress call”Talking of which, the Probe/Sculptured Alien Trilogy followed the next year for the PlayStation, Saturn and PC and put the aliens firmly back in the FPS gun sights. Often seen as Doom meets Aliens, Alien Trilogy received high-praise for its addictive gameplay, but not for its narrative and level design. The PC-only Aliens Online followed in 1998, offering players a fairly basic FPS/RPG experience online until 2000. You could play as either a marine or an alien across six different scenarios and there was a decent ranking system for xenomorph players, allowing them to go from mere facehugger to an ’empress’ (like a queen MKII).
(Alien Trilogy – 1996)
The first xenomorph-based title of the new millennium was Alien Resurrection for the PlayStation. Released in 2000 and developed by Argonaut games, this was another FPS based on the franchise and featured a quality graphics engine – making it the first game with fully-realised 3D aliens as opposed to composite 2D foes. The Game Boy Color got an alien implant in 2001 with Aliens: Thantos Encounter. Developed by Wicked Witch/Crawfish, this was a top-down actioner where players selected a marine and traversed 12 levels whilst fighting xenos, rescuing scientists and obtaining experimental weapons amongst other objectives. Next up was another first for the xenomorphs, as in 2003 they assailed the world of mobile gaming in the form of Sorrent’s Aliens: Unleashed. A simplistic (due to the available tech at the time) FPS, the game took a nice twist by beginning with your marine character training against synthetic aliens and facehuggers which then went haywire and proceeded to lay down the slaughter like Vasquez letting loose in a rock club.
(Aliens: Extermination – 2006)
“Explode into clouds of acid-spraying severed limbs once their gleaming carapace is shattered”After a few years’ gap, in 2006 the aliens returned in Global VR’s arcade cabinet on-the-rails shooter, Aliens: Extermination. Like Alien 3: The Gun, the cabinet had two mounted pulse rifles for players to use against the hordes of chittering fiends. It still looks visually impressive today – fully rendered 3D xenomorphs leap fluidly from suspended platforms, recoil after taking damage and finally explode into clouds of acid-spraying severed limbs once their gleaming carapaces are shattered. 2011 saw the release of the WayForward Technologies’ Aliens: Infestation for the Nintendo DS, a side-scrolling shooter featuring comic-style graphics where you take command of four marines, but unlike the crews of the Nostromo and the USS Sulacco they’re not expendable as once they perish – you’ve lost them for good. It also features a nifty mini-game based on Bishop’s Hudson-terrifying knife trick from Aliens, which is an asset to any Aliens game.
(Aliens: Infestation– 2011)
There you have it – a brief history of xenomorph videogames. Many of these titles successfully utilise the haunted-house-in-space claustrophobia of Alien or the action-carnage of Aliens, which is the least any xenomorph fan can ask for. The aliens are a timeless foe, playing on many of our deepest fears and long may these screeching obsidian engines of destruction continue to unnerve, assail and devour the unaware and unready.