A Look Back: The Alien Franchise in Gaming

In 1979, film director Ridley Scott brought a vision to the cinema screen that would create an enduring legacy that is still going to this day – Alien. The film, written by Dan O’Bannon, would also launch the film career of its star, the unknown Sigourney Weaver, who played the protagonist Ellen Ripley, and would be deemed of such cultural importance that in 2002 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

What followed Alien were many sequels and spinoffs. Some were excellent, others were met with a lukewarm reception, but with each instalment in the cinematic franchise, a legacy was being built. Like any successful franchise other media are always looked at, and Alien’s was no different, and soon that universe went from cinematic to interactive.

In 1982, the first attempt to bring Alien to the videogame industry was made. Alien, for the Atari 2600 made its debut. The game was nothing more than a clone of Pac-Man, with the ghosts being replaced by xenomorphs, but it was a start, a ripple that would cascade out without pause.

Scarier than being chased by a ghost?

The next entry was quite unique considering how early in the development cycle gaming was at this point. Alien for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum was a strategy game where the player was put in charge of the crew of the Nostromo as they hunt their unwelcome guest onboard. The interesting feature in this game was that your crew had emotional responses and their character would react accordingly, someone too scared would be unable to move, or panic would set in. It was an early predecessor to the much-revered Xcom: Enemy Unknown game that stormed the PC scene in the nineties.

In 1986 came James Cameron’s Aliens, a sequel to the original film that was far more action-orientated than its predecessor. It was a fine film, and a very good sequel, but to this day leaves audiences questioning whether Alien or Aliens is the better film (it’s Alien by the way, and I will argue to the death on this), and so with this release came a new bevy of games to release. The first of which, Aliens: The Computer Game, for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum was a series of mini-games tied together with a narrative.

All of this home computer treatment was fine, and then the franchise started to be featured in arcade games. In 1990 Konami released Aliens, a side-scrolling shoot ’em up with some rail-shooting elements involved. The player could choose to play as either Ripley or Hicks and battle their way through wave-after-wave of aliens until they reach the final boss – the Alien Queen. When fighting the Queen, the player would don the exoloader, the same machine Ripley used in the film to toss the Queen out into space. The game received mixed reviews, with some praising its gameplay whilst others dubbing it bland, but the franchise had made the move over into the big time, and coming with it were home consoles.

Alien 3, a game based on the David Fischer film of the same name, chest-burst its way onto every popular home console out at the time. The game was a side-scrolling shooter that followed the narrative of the film, albeit loosely, there was more than one alien in the game, as opposed to the singular alien in the film, but it was enjoyable, and was one of the first games I owned on the Sega Megadrive (Genesis), which meant replayabiliity was a key factor back in the days of pre-digital content. The story of the franchise was to take a turn after this game, as years before they slugged it out on film, they slugged it out on games, I’m talking about Alien vs Predator.

Alien vs Predator was first released, believe it or not, on the SNES, and not the Atari Jaguar that the legendary version of the game appeared on. The game was a side-scrolling beat-’em’-up where the player took on the role of the Predator, and fought wave-after-wave of xenomorphs, before fighting a boss alien at the end of every level. The game also saw an arcade release a year later, but it was the Jaguar version that would become legendary.

Developed by Rebellion Developments, the same studio famous for the Sniper Elite series, Alien vs Predator was a first-person shooter that allowed the player to take control of either a predator, an alien, or a marine, as they battled their way through an intensive single player campaign mode. The game would go on to become the best-selling title for the short-lived Jaguar, and also receive critical acclaim for its graphics, design, and storyline. To render the in-game sprites, the studio used the same technique Midway used for the original Mortal Kombats, digitising real world assets and then manipulating them for the game’s environment. The effect was a success, and for its time, AvP was a shining example of what graphics could actually do if prepared for in the right way. Unfortunately, the Atari Jaguar soon faced a demise, and with it went the sequel.

The game would go on to become the best-selling title for the short-lived Jaguar, and also receive critical acclaim for its graphics, design, and storyline

How’d you like that, huh?

The late nineties saw even more Alien games creeping out from the darkness, Alien Trilogy, another FPS for the Sony PlayStation, let a player weave their way through the storyline of the first three films, whilst Aliens Online was an ambitious online co-op shooter that failed because of the technology available at the time.  More titles followed in the early noughties with a game based on the lukewarm Alien: Resurrection, and then came a follow-up to AvP with the originally titled Alien vs Predator 2. For the next few years it seemed every game that had xenomorphs in it would be accompanied with the Predator. The industry had forgotten that the Alien franchise used to be its own property and became obsessed with Alien(s) vs Predator titles. This came to a head in 2010 when the excellent Aliens vs Predator was released. The game followed the pattern of the original, but had a great multiplayer mode with it. The game didn’t last for too long though, and servers were shut down, ending the multiplayer segment. However, the game’s single-player campaign is still worth a shot.

In 2013 SEGA released one of the most-mauled games in the franchise – Aliens: Colonial Marines. Despite the massive amount of hype that came with the game, what gamers were given was a disappointment. Rumours of the game’s development being outsourced, and cost-cutting exercises being carried out, meant the game was a glitchy mess, and is widely considered one of the worst games of all-time. A savage title to bestow upon a game, that was more of a rushed release than broken from the ground up. Once a game is tainted on release though, there’s little that can be done to salvage it, and the game was quietly abandoned.

The game was a glitchy mess, and is widely considered one of the worst games of all-time

Don’t be fooled by pretty visuals… this game had MASSIVE problems

But all was not lost. In 2015 SEGA released another instalment in the franchise, a little title called Alien: Isolation. The player takes control of Amanda Ripley, Ripley’s daughter as seen in Aliens: The Director’s Cut, as she searches for her missing mother in deep space, unaware that she is in deep hypersleep aboard the escape pod from the Nostromo. However, xenomorphs follow Ripleys around like a fat kid follows an ice-cream truck, and soon she would be having her own battles with the creatures aboard a deserted space station. The game wasn’t action-heavy, and relied on stealth and guile as your main weapons, giving you the option to hide away from the alien when it showed its ugly face. Very little could be done to combat the creature and it really drove home the message just how dangerous these creatures are. A fact that is forgotten when playing a FPS and you have every plasma rifle you could think of hanging off of you. I could actually write an entire article on why Alien: Isolation is such a masterpiece in storytelling, but that would be for another time, but know this, the game went to extreme lengths to recreate the universe of the original Alien film, and with the additional content of the original cast of the first film recording dialogue for the DLC content, it went a long way to make up for the poor releases the franchise had received in the later years. The game was so authentic that it should be included as canon in the Alien franchise timeline.

Saving grace. An Alien game done right!

Despite their peaks and troughs, the Alien franchise has had some interesting releases. From the first Pac-Man copy to the paranoid thriller of Alien: Isolation the series has gone through many different homes, and will likely be seen once again in the home of many more. Whatever the franchise’s future, for now it’s not dead, it’s just in hypersleep.

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