Shortly after Alien 3 was released, I was old enough to play it, but not old enough to be any good at it. Looking back, I remember my formative years in gaming as a masochistic pursuit. Sonic, Streets of Rage and Aladdin were all much too difficult and I struggled to pass the opening level in each, but it was Alien 3 that truly revealed my incompetence. Still, it was fun and I felt boyish pride re-enacting Ripley’s antics on the silver screen. The fact that there was only one alien in the movie but hundreds upon hundreds in the game was an inconsistency that evaded me. All I knew was the Ripley came equipped with a pulse rifle and it made a cool sound.
A week ago I came across my trusty Sega Genesis gathering dust in a far-flung corner of my cupboard. It wasn’t alone. Unbelievably, Alien 3 still worked, and the retro music was an evocative reminder of my past, strumming up memories encapsulated in 16-bit gaming. I assumed that being older and wiser I’d finish the campaign in an hour at most and set aside some work to do afterwards, safe in the knowledge that I’m good at contemporary shooters (if I may say so myself). But nothing quite prepared me for Alien 3. Six hours and a drenched brow later, I still hadn’t made it halfway, and the work was left untouched.
“Alien 3 is from a halcyon era where the buttons are simple and the objective is clear.”You see, Alien 3 is from a halcyon era where the buttons are simple and the objective is clear. Levels are presented from an arcade, platform perspective. You can ascend and descend to different reaches of the level, but the goal is to make it to the predefined exit. It’s an obstacle course in the purest sense, but your every move is linked to a ticking clock. Games from this era were obsessed with the concept of “time” and Alien 3 is no different, forcing you to navigate the levels before the clock is up, lest you should face a Gamer Over screen. But get used to failure, because Alien 3 is as uncompromising as games get. Inevitably, the presence of an ever diminishing timer raises the tension and, conversely, sows the first seeds of frustration.
The aliens themselves are the second cause for annoyance. Moving at lighting speeds and often hugging the ground, they’re difficult to shoot and have a penchant for… knocking you over. There’s no gut-wrenching dismemberment here. Ripley doesn’t lose her head, her internal organs or her spleen when she gets too close to a foe. She simply gets knocked to the ground and flashes in that age-old videogame tradition, indicating she’s lost life. To overcome the aliens, being fast on the draw is key, but it’s even more important to recognise when an oncoming alien is hugging low to the ground or standing straight. It necessitates that you correspond with the D pad, either positioning Ripley in a crouch or in the default upright stance.
Pass the razor
As early as 1992, movie tie-ins were being made. Released on the Sega Genesis and NES, Alien 3 stood as the videogame accompaniment of David Fincher’s film. Neither film nor game had much in common, but Ripley’s shaven head survives from celluloid to videogame. Developed by Probe Entertainment (later Acclaim), the British developers also worked on the Mortal Kombat series and Primal Rage.
Face-huggers are a slightly more interesting (or should that be amusing?) proposition in that they attach themselves to our heroine and perform a strange, pseudo-sexual wriggle on her face. Ripley doesn’t take kindly to this sort of embarrassment though and they’ll need to be quelled, much like everything else alien. Aiding your progress are ammo stashes and the ubiquitous motion-tracker, which not only lets you see oncoming enemies, but alerts you to survivors too. Ironically, Alien 3 is still one of the most forward-thinking games when it comes to gender relations. The tough-guy is actually a girl with a shaven head. And the snared victims are all indeed men. A good portion of the experience centres on you finding these trapped survivors and saving them, but it’s no easy task when working against the clock. And yes, you have to find them all, or it’s Game Over. And yes, you have to do it before the time-limit is up. And yes, you still have to kill the aliens that get in your way.
To say Alien 3 is difficult is like labelling a Bugatti Veyron merely competent. Understatements of this magnitude grossly fail to underline what the experience is like. It’s a game that could never exist today. It has no regard for the player. It doesn’t cosset you. Instead, it throws you into a set of labyrinthine levels, like a rabbit down the hole, and then cackles in the corner as you fail to succeed. Die too many times and you’ll exhaust your “tries”. Should this happen, you’ll be forced to restart the game from the beginning. It’s the sort of experience derived from the arcade machines that now merely frequent greasy corner shops. Its quick start-and-stop gameplay. The goal isn’t really to reach the end, but to jump in for a quick blast and, if you’re lucky, actually make it past the first level.
Strangely, this is what makes the game so good. Were it an easy, humdrum arcade shooter, there’d be no point playing it today. Yet, because it’s so damned difficult the experience is worth sampling. It’s gaming kept delightfully simple. Few games today achieve the tension that Alien 3 possesses in bucket-loads. Fewer still can make progression so rewarding.
“It’s the sort of experience derived from the arcade machines that now merely frequent greasy corner shops.”Imagine this scenario: you’ve painstakingly fought your way through all the aliens, you’ve rescued the survivors, and then you hear the timer start to beep. The game is warning you of impending failure. You have 30 seconds left. In a desperate scramble you search for the exit. But the vents are like catacombs, with one section mirroring the next. The ladders all look the same! Where to? Fifteen seconds left and the blood vessels in your forehead are about to explode. Your eyes pop, your heart’s a breathless scramble. Five seconds to go and your heart sinks. The Game Over screen appears and you decide it’s time your controller met the sharp surfaces of your bedside table.
In other instances however you reach sanctity with a second to spare. And it’s in moments like these that you cherish the game. It’s impossible not to laugh like an unhinged madman as you scrape your way through the exit before the timer secures another victory. In a perverse irony, it always seems to come down to the beep, with 30 seconds to go and the exit close at hand. One wrong turn and you lose. But execute your escape perfectly, and you’re rewarded. To appreciate Alien 3, you have to take the good with the bad. Were it a polished, even experience, the highs wouldn’t be as high, the lows wouldn’t be as low. The beauty of Alien 3 is that it’s both awful and wonderful in equal measures.
Recently I invited a pal over. Under the impression he’d be playing a new Xbox 360 title of mine, I led him away from Microsoft’s shining console, over to another room where an old TV stood overlooking the antiquated Sega. Alien 3 was already firmly in place. At first he dismissed the idea of such an arcade form of entertainment. But, as had happened to me, Alien 3’s simple and addictive gameplay took control. It wasn’t long before he was uttering curses, threatening to destroy the game and vowing never to try again. Much to my mirth and the detriment of his mood, he did continue playing however. And that’s just the thing: with its catchy soundtrack and steady progression of levels, it’s an addictive experience: easy to learn, difficult to master.
In a way I wish more games today were like Alien 3. We seem to have lost sight of the crux of gaming in our pursuit of visual fidelity and pretentious ideals. We seem to be asking games to do everything that they weren’t intended to do. If Alien 3 were re-released, it’d be laughed at for its graphics and sound. But in a sense it illustrates the purest form of gaming. It delights, frustrates and amuses. It gives you a gun and an obstacle course, and lets you proceed as you wish. Yes, it’s too difficult, and yes you’ll likely never finish it (bar cheating, of course) but in an age where modern games cosset you, it’s nice to remember a time when games dared to be difficult.
If you overlook the dated presentation, Alien 3 is hardly far removed from contemporary titles either. It has buttons to press and missions to clear. But contemporary games have glossed over this with glossy visuals and lofty goals that often detract from the purity of gaming itself.
And you know what? I still haven’t touched that work.