Don’t laugh. He looks like Pac Man with little more than a naked stick body and a screwy mouth, but he’s packing major heat. You’ve never seen weapons like these before: ice projectiles, colourful spreads, flamethrowers–okay, so you have seen weapons like these before. But! You’ve not seen little Pac Man-headed aliens carrying them! Right then. And should an unfriendly get too close to our alien friend, look out! He’ll slash foes in half. He’ll roll under oncoming bullets, and carjack innocent human drivers for their sport compacts and big rigs alike. He’ll dig underground when he wants to get defensive, and pull unlucky souls beneath the soil with him for permanent dirt naps to let them know he’s on the offense, even when on the defense. And most gruesome of all–! This unassuming little invader can mount the shoulders of even the most seasoned FBI operative… and bite his head off.
Read that again, and return to this point when you’re finished.
Welcome back. Yes, this little terror can decapitate America’s finest intelligence officers and then pick his teeth. If he’s feeling kinder, he can toss a mounted agent instead of getting brains on his wrinkly lips, but then, what’s the fun in that?
You’ll be wondering how the FBI figures into this in the first place. The story goes thusly: the Hominid has his ship shot down by Earth’s Fearless Defenders, and after agents swipe his ship, they move in to capture him, only to be eviscerated in short order. It’s up to us to take control of this unlikely hero and get his ship back. But really our purpose is to properly focus our repugnance for authority by turning as many agents as we can into toasty simulated pork chops.
AH looks wacky, and that’s probably half the reason a small army of fans bought into it when it debuted on the Net in simpler form, as a Flash game. The AH phenomenon gathered so much steam that its creators, Newgrounds, started selling merchandise by the armful to help pay for the development of their yellow son’s coming of age, here on the PS2. It’s hard not to appreciate a story like that: of independent developer funding its own from-the-ground-up project featuring pure old school action, and in unpopular 2D to boot! And no apologies are made for programming in the second dimension either; you won’t bear witness to any half-ass panning around the flatness, or zooming into the flatness effects–’learning aids’ found in other old school games to help acclimatize sadly drooling 3D-loving gamers.
Two-player simultaneous action is another reason to rejoice. AH really feels like a bittersweet leftover from Olde Times with its instant pick-up-and-play appeal inviting you and a pal to get busy with pounding the fire button. And so that your mind won’t get as numb as that trigger finger is bound to, the aforementioned melee combat options are available to make the disc-changer in your skull switch discs every now and then.
Aside from the intentionally sloppy artwork, which screams cult following, AH’s greatest draw will be all the innovative bits that the game is thick with. You’ll get to try the highway stage early on, featuring the Hominid tossing people bodily out of their speeding vehicles, ramming other vehicles, leaping from one to the next in quick succession as they take damage from agents in flanking FBI vans. Your carjacking must be swift and sure. Another stage has you reclaim ownership of your spacecraft, subsequently using its tractor beam to lift and drop agents in a wood chipper. ( There’s more to be done with the tractor beam at that particular juncture, but I won’t spoil that.) Before the charming final cutscene rolls, you’ll have driven a tank against helicopters, bulldozed a fish stand with–you guessed it–a bulldozer, and reassembled your spaceship (the FBI likes to break things) for battle with choppers and a sky dark and messy with jetpacking agents.
But, as they say, it ain’t all good. And that’s unfortunate, because a lot of effort from some earnest, creative minds went into this venture. Their hearts were in the right place, but not everything in the game is. Those same cool-looking alien melee moves are almost useless in the course of action. The problem is that enemies come rushing relentlessly, and their constant flow makes melee combat a poor choice in nearly every situation. Picking up an enemy and throwing him at a few oncoming others, for example, is akin to cranking out a difficult Street Fighter II move for use against a single foe in a game of Kung Fu. It’s far easier to just keep tapping that attack button while moving ahead as expeditiously as possible.
Indeed, it actually feels like a stoppage in play to effect these more stylish techniques, and in the end they’ll just be moves you try a few times for yourself and wow your pals with, before you get back to the real business at hand: of bashing the fire button and running rightward.
The conversation will go like this:
“Check this out, cool eh! Dude, that was his head!” CHOMP! GURGLE
“You fool, I thought you were covering me? Just keep shooting!”
And while your Hominid responds smoothly to your every input, the commands themselves seem to be lacking one function in particular. There’s no diagonal shooting. Yes, that’s a big deal. The creators of this game were inspired by classics such as Contra–a game that is over a decade old, and yet still shares the run-and-gun crown with its younger sibling, Super C. Those games allowed diagonal shooting. Those games are 8-bit. AH most certainly isn’t, even though it looks as if it could have been pulled off on a Super NES.
This unnecessary, unacceptable concession evokes both feelings of sadness and disgust when you’re piloting your little yellow dude through floods of scorpions in the desert, and giant vultures begin to target you and you realize that you can’t fire at them unless you’re directly beneath them. Why the hell not?
It’s no secret that allowing diagonally firing would make the game a lot easier, but that’s no excuse. Contra is harder than Alien Hominid, and it includes the diagonal shooting function. Better level design would have allowed for our character to have this excruciatingly simple ability while keeping decent challenge intact. More platforming action too, would have cranked up that difficulty, and would have provided a nice break from the inexorable task of blazing enemies to hell (since the stylish moves generally fail in that regard). As it stands, AH won’t kill you with any jumps. In fact, it won’t challenge you with environmental challenges of any kind.
Instead, the main cause of death will be fast moving, hard to see bullets, which are too often emitted from the gun of a paratrooper landing very near to our alien hero. Too near, in fact, to be fair. It’s a regular phenomenon to be running along murdering happily, only to have something that just crept on screen behind you fire a bullet you can barely trace, at what seems like the absolute exact moment the culprit appears. Exacerbating this annoyance is the fact that your window of invincibility is extremely small. On many occasion, I’ve died, and lost myself while re-spawning in the colourful cartoon backdrop, only to die again right away.
The most disappointing thing here is that in an ancient relic like Contra, we were afforded all the luxuries that have been limited or omitted outright in this newer game: the diagonal shooting, a fair invincibility period, easy to track bullets–and yet, that game manages to be more challenging. Annoyances such as the lack of a clear distinction between your Hominid and your buddy’s in two-player mode (they’re both yellow, but you can give a hat to one, duh!), and the length of the adventure (it’s got only about sixteen stages on offer and a few negligible mini-game distractions), seal AH within the wanting realm of pretty-good-but-not-great.
In brief, Alien Hominid probably has more than its share of quirky memorable moments, and the “cool” factor is very high, which is precisely why it attracted so many downloads and merchandise sales in the first place. But on the PS2 platform, we’ve left the world of free downloads and entered the world of high-powered hardware and similarly high expectations. And AH doesn’t quite live fit comfortably into the ‘great shooter’ garb I’ve seen it masquerade about in on the net–those clothes fit noticeably loose. Still, it’s fun with a friend, a decent way to spend a few frantic hours, and one can’t help but appreciate what was attempted here. The publishing guys at Behemoth show potential for greatness; their first flawed, but fresh effort falls only just short of the mark.