I was thinking about starting today's article with "in space, no-one can hear you repeatedly dump quarters into an arcade machine," but then I thought about it and realised that, like, we're always in space, man. Instead, I'll say hey, did you sort of enjoy the movie Aliens but thought it could have done with being more colourful and featuring more super-special xenomorphs with a variety of bizarre powers, like a terrifying version of the X-Men who procreate through chest explosions? If so, then boy do I have the game for you - and a rolled-up newspaper to whack you with if you ever publicly voice those terrible opinions - with Konami's 1990 arcade they're-coming-outta-the-god-damn-walls-em-up Aliens!
There's no franchise that I've investigated more thoroughly in my years writing VGJunk than the Alien universe, and they have been a wildly inconsistent bunch of game so far, ranging from the truly excellent to the simply mediocre to the utterly bizarre. We'll see about the gameplay as we go along, but that first paragraph should have clued you in that Konami's Aliens arcade game is not going to the the most faithful adaptation of the source material.
I trust we're all familiar with the source material, yes? It's the story of a species of acid-bleeding, human-impregnating, double-mouthed space monsters and the unfathomably stupid corporation that wants desperately to catch them, sacrificing dozens of innocent lives in their twisted take on the antics of Dastardly and Muttley. It's also the story of Ellen Ripley, mid-level officer aboard a commercial mining vessel and top-level badass who gets into all kinds of wacky scrapes with the xenomorph menace. I don't know why I'm telling you all this, though, because the Alien franchise is still hugely popular today and has been parodied and referenced a hundred thousand times. I mean, it came within a hair's breadth of getting its own kid's cartoon, for pity's sake (and that might come up again later). All you really need to know is that this game is based on Aliens, the second movie in the series. That's the one where lots of aliens kill a bunch of people, as opposed to one of the films where one alien kills a bunch of people.
The game starts with a scene that's almost like one from the movie, with the Colonial Marines landing on LV-426 to investigate the planet's doomed colony. The major differences are that everyone involved is fully aware that the place is crawling with aliens before they've even opened the front door, and that the special marine task force is comprised of two people, one of whom isn't a marine. Those Smart Guns must be really smart if they just hand them out to civilians with no combat training.
The game begins, and it's in the run-n-gun genre, although that title suggests more haste than is apparent in Ripley's fairly measured pace. A walk-n-gun game, then, where the Konami's commitment to the "gun" part of that equation extends to having two fire buttons. One makes you fire in the direction you're facing, and the other makes you fire in the direction you're facing while crouching. You can move while you shoot, but other than that Ripley's movements are limited to climbing the occasional ladder - no jumping or combat rolling in this one, just a left-to-right saunter through a horde of xenomorphs so densely packed it implies that the colony of Hadley's Hope had a population roughly equal to metropolitan Tokyo.
Right from the word go, it's clear that things are a little off with Konami's take on the world of Aliens, as though the designers has it explained to them by someone who'd watched an edited version of the movie during a boozy transatlantic flight a long time ago. It's just little things, at first: Ripley is blonde now, presumably so the headset she's wearing stands out a bit better. The aliens in this first stage are fuschia-coloured and shiny, as though they were carved from Turkish Delight, a far less menacing look than their usual dark colouring. You can see Newt, only survivor of the colony and owner of a scream so painful and high-pitched you could use it to drill through solid rock, in the background. Newt is carrying a toy rabbit, despite the movie containing several scenes showing that her preferred companion through this litany of nightmares is a severed doll's head. It is perhaps a indication that I have seen Aliens too many times that I know that doll's head is called Casey. I think I might end up getting more aggravated by the changes from the movie than the average person, which is a shame because there's a lot of them.
Those of you who aren't fully paid-up members of the Aliens Nerd Brigade need not feel left out, though, because soon enough there are such wild deviations from the (ugh) "canon" that even a casual viewer will notice them. For example, here are some aliens being birthed from grotesque and veiny amniotic sacs. You know, just like how aliens aren't born. The xenomorphs have a very specific life cycle: a facehugger latches onto a host's head and slams it's ovipositor down their through without so much as buying them a drink first. It lays an alien embryo in the hosts's chest, the baby alien jumps out of the host's chest, causing irreparable shirt damage and certain death. Ta dah, one new xenomorph. This horrific forced insemination is kind of the alien's whole deal, so to replace it with these boil-in-the-bag space monsters feels more than a little pointless.
There are facehuggers in the game, mind you, and plenty of them. Here they have formed a sort of honour guard welcoming me to the first boss fight. The thing is, the facehuggers can't hug your face. All they can do is scuttle through your feet. Well, they're not called foothuggers, are they? Sure, you lose a bit of health if a facehugger runs over your toes but it's better than unplanned parenthood.
Then the boss shows up, and if it wasn't clear before that Konami were going to take xenomorph design in bold new directions then this end-of-stage encounter makes it clear. It's a big purple... thing. An alien, I guess? I was going to call it a Super Facehugger or something but on closer inspection is has very little in common with a facehugger. It doesn't have much in common with anything. I am at a complete loss to describe it, other than to say that despite it's deviation from the usual xenomorph body plan it keeps the phallic aspects of their physiology with it's stretchy pink neck and eyeless head. That's how it attacks, by poking Ripley with it's engorged head. It's kinda gross.
You might have noticed that the gameplay has changed from a horizontal to a vertical layout, but what does that mean for you, the player? Bugger all, really. You have one less plane you can walk in because you can only move left and right, and once the boss takes some damage and switches to firing balls of energy at you, you might as well be playing Space Invaders. So, not the most engaging boss fight in videogame history, but this is only stage one so there's plenty of time for things to improve.
I can't stop to chat now, though - my ride is here! I don't know how it got here when the intro clearly showed Ripley leaving it parked outside, and if it managed to drive this far into the colony then it seems terribly reckless to have gone through the first stage on foot, Maybe Ripley just wanted to break in her admittedly very cool new shoes.
Stage two sees Ripley standing atop the APC as it thunders down one of the colony's tunnels, shooting the massed aliens with her Smart Gun rather than using the ruddy great cannons attached to the front of the vehicle. There's a point where these things go from "badass" to "deeply stupid," Ripley. The APC is driving towards Newt, who has managed to get to the other end of this tunnel without dying somehow, a task I couldn't manage even with a gun in my hand and a military vehicle under my feet. You can see how close you are to your destination by looking at the bar at the top of the screen. Newt seems to be eyeing the oncoming APC with a degree of trepidation, as though she is unconvinced by the viability of a rescue effort involving a woman with no military experience surfing an armoured personnel carrier.
Newt is right to be wary, because just as Ripley reaches her a flying alien swoops and and steals her away, causing Ripley's sprite to do a "shocked" motion that makes it looks as though she's slow-dancing with the invisible man.
Stage three begins with Ripley entering the air ducts, where the movie's iconic motion tracker comes into play. Unfortunately, the motion tracker is completely useless. It shows which direction the alien threat is coming from and when they'll be close enough to shoot, but because you're in a narrow vent and the alien attacks are constant, you already know the answer to those questions - they're coming from the left or the right, all the time, making Aliens' motion tracker the most pointless piece of equipment in the franchise since the stun-rods from the first movie that never get used.
We're on an express elevator to hell, going down. That's a quote from the movie, you see. It's not hugely relevant here because this elevator is far from being an express, trundling slowly into the bowels of the colony while aliens leap onto it from all sides. I brought in Corporal Hicks, the player 2 character, here, both so that you get a chance to see him and also to serve as an expendable distraction while Ripley concentrates on shooting the aliens that have climbed to the top of the elevator and are trying to snap through the cables. If they manage to sever all three cables, the elevator falls to the ground and your character immediately loses a life. Of course, this being an arcade shooter you can return to life in the spot where you fell, although I have to admit in this situation it felt even less reasonable than usual. I'm not sure why - being slaughtered by a xenomorph and then immediately carrying on from where you died is equally ludicrous on the face of it, but there was just something about seeing Ripley fall five storeys, crash into the ground at a fatal velocity and then spring back to her feet that made me stop and think, "huh, that looks weird, even for this game."
A plus point in Aliens' favour - incinerating the aliens once you've picked up a flamethrower is intensely satisfying, thanks to their detailed "burning to a crisp" sprites. Say what you like about the weird xenomorph designs and the inappropriate colour scheme, but there is no denying that this alien is definitely, one hundred percent on fire.
There are a few other weapons to pick up along the way thanks to the occasional power-up object that cycles through the available firepower options, allowing you to pick which weapons you'd like to use. The power-ups always cycle in a set order, however, so as you shoot them out of their containers and dash forwards to collect them you are much more likely to end up with the homing rockets than any other weapon, because they're the first power-up in the queue. That's not such a bad thing, though, because the homing rockets are probably the best weapon, allowing you to keep moving forwards without having to turn around constantly to shoot the aliens sneaking up behind you. The other available weapons are a three-way spread gun that isn't much cop thanks to the narrowness of most of the game's play areas, and a rocket launcher that doesn't home in but which is still preferable to the basic Smart Gun.
This boss is an alien who has evolved two combat adaptations of wildly differing usefulness. On the one hand, it has grown a coating of bulletproof plates all over its body, allowing it to curl up into an impenetrable ball and roll around the screen like a deadly pill bug with a well-used gym membership and a deep hatred of humanity. On the other hand, it's projectile attack is to release fluffy little cotton wool balls. If you crouch, I don't think the cotton wool can even hurt you. This makes figuring out tactics for the fight a breeze: move away when it's in ball mode, crouch and fire while it's pollinating the area dandelion-style. It's not a difficult fight, and it does rather bring to mind the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" when it comes to alien physiology.
As if the aliens weren't bad enough, now I've got humans trying to kill me. That one up the top even has the twin advantages of possessing both a gun and the bottom half of his body, making him something of a priority target.
These "possessed human" type enemies pop up in a fair few Aliens games, although I'm never really sure why. There's no precedence for them in the Alien movies, and if I wanted to shoot humans with guns I'd play any other shooter. I'd say it's an effort to introduce more diversity into the pool of things you're killing, presenting the player with an enemy that can fire projectiles back at you, but the xenomorph in Aliens are such a varied bunch that it seems unnecessary to include these poor unfortunates at all.
Then Ripley falls into the sewer - trust me, she's behind that explosion somewhere - because even in deep space you can't get away from sewer levels. The floating corpses are a nice touch, as chestbursters leap out of them when you get close, but the spider-aliens populating the top of the screen look more like something out of The Thing or, appropriately enough, the Aliens toy line. In 1992, toy manufacturer Kenner decided that the extremely violent, nightmare-inducing Alien universe would be a great basis for a collection of children's toys and honestly they were not entirely wrong - I had a lot of them as a kid and I loved them (and I still have the Power Loader and Bull Alien within ten feet of me as I write this). They were apparently intended to tie in with an Aliens-based kid's cartoon, of all the wonderful, mind-boggling things. The cartoon never surfaced but the toys did, and a lot of the aliens in the line feel like they could have taken some inspiration from this very game. One of the toys featured an alien "parasite" that was just a xenomorph head with little wings, much like the enemies in this game that attack you in the air ducts. There was an Arachnid Alien that bore some similarity to the first boss, as well as a flying alien kinda like the one that abducts Newt. I don't think there was any cross-over of inspiration between this game and the Kenner's toy line - the toys were mostly "what animal can we make a xenomorph version of?" including a Mantis Alien that must have started out as one teeny-tiny facehugger - but it's interesting that even in the early nineties, the aliens were losing a lot of their horrific mystique.
And then bang, out of nowhere you get to ride in the Power Loader, smashing aliens with your big metal claws and making mechanical whirring noises with your mouth as you do so. Well, you do that last bit if you're me, at least. So far Aliens has been a thoroughly generic side-scrolling action game that's trying to cruise by on the strength of it's movie license and a few half-arsed and feebly-implemented twists to the formula like the motion tracker and the APC stage, but giving me the opportunity to stomp around in a Power Loader means it's sins are all but forgiven, sins such as making some of the xenomorphs bright orange and giving them face tentacles. If the xenomorphs take on some of the characteristics of the host they emerge from, then these freaks must have impregnated and hatched from the cast of a children's TV show like Sesame Street. It'd explain the garish colours and occasional fuzzy aliens.
Ripley wades through the alien hive. There are colonists cocooned in the walls. Ripley knows full well that this means they are doomed to an agonizing end coupled with the disturbing knowledge that their death means one more xenomorph in the world. Ripley completely ignores these poor souls, not even taking a moment to grant them a quick death. Good work, Ripley. Real neighbourly.
Once again, words fail me as I try to describe one of Aliens' bosses. It's the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 in a biomechanical skirt, it's a xenomorph whose arms were replaced by stretchy tendrils that boop Ripley on the head rather than clawing her to death, it's head can be retracted into an unpleasantly anal-looking sphincter, it's, it's... oh, I don't know. It's in my way, that's what it is, so I have to shoot it a lot before I can move on to the next area. The regular side-scrolling parts of the game aren't up to much but these vertically-oriented ones are even less interesting, limiting the player to two possible actions, like a stripped-down version of the similar parts of Contra. That's actually what Aliens feels like more than anything else: an inferior version of a Contra game with none of the fluid movement or exciting boss battles.
Another APC-based stage now, where as well as the aliens Ripley must also be wary of fly-tipping. There are boxes of junk along the path and you have to shoot them out of the way lest they bounce up and hit you in the face, a problem that could easily be solved by, oh, I don't know, riding inside the armoured vehicle? I know I'm belabouring this point, but come on.
If you really don't like the APC sections - and no-one would judge you harshly if that's the case - then I suggest you play the Japanese release of Aliens because they were completely removed for that version, or possibly added in to bulk up the overseas versions. There are a few other changes in the Japanese version, too - some things are different colours, each stage has a title shown before it starts and the final boss has a couple of different moves - but the lack of the APC sections (and the complete removal of Newt from the game) is the biggest, and it cuts down an already-short game to something you can finish in fifteen minutes.
Konami really put a lot of effort into capturing Newt's likeness, huh? "Yeah, yeah, I watched the film. The kid? Yeah, I can draw her. She looks like every other kid in the world! Blank, smooth skin for a face with two black dots roughly where their eyes should be. What do you mean? That's what my kids look like, pal. Are you saying my kids are ugly?"
After the second and thankfully final APC ride, there's an extremely short stage to negotiate, and by "negotiate" I mean "run through as quickly as possible." Having played through Aliens a few times now, I have learned that the easiest and most hassle-free way to get through the game is to move right as fast as as you can while holding down the fire button, especially if you've managed to collect the homing missiles. It speaks to the game's lack of quality that forging ahead, only veering off course to walk around the occasional facehugger, is a completely valid tactic, because it allows you to both clear out the aliens ahead of you before they can get themselves set while also allowing you to just walk away from the stragglers, who soon get bored and lose interest.
I'm going to say that this boss' mass is supposed to be mostly brain, because if science fiction has taught me one thing it's that having a massive brain means powerful psychic abilities and telekinesis is my explanation for how this xenomorph is controlling the facehugger-filled bubbles that surround him. The facehuggers don't pop out of the bubbles and attack you or anything, they just get in the way, making it difficult to shoot the boss itself. My solution to this, a solution that I admit was partly born of a growing sense of boredom with the game, was to park Ripley right inside the boss and keep firing. She'll take damage, she might even lose a life, but it's by far the fastest way of killing the boss and you'd probably take the same amount of damage if you tried to fight it "properly" anyway.
Another stage, mostly the same as the others. I'm showing this otherwise uninteresting screenshot because if you look in the background there's a little poster depicting a Moai head, the sometime Konami mascot. Also in this screenshot: the alien looks like it's getting ready to give Ripley a boost, possibly as part of an ill-advised gymnastics routine.
Sometimes in Aliens you get the choice of walking along an upper or lower level, although once you drop down to the bottom you usually can't climb back up. My advice to you is to take the top route wherever possible. I think this screenshot provides a good visual aid as to why this is the best course of action. I don't think it'd be in-character for Ripley to say "so long, suckers," but by god that's what I'm imagining her saying.
By the way, notice there are genuine alien eggs down there. So what the hell was with those flesh-sacs that the fully-grown xenomorphs were popping out of earlier? Were they actually sleeping bags, and the aliens near the colony entrance were fast asleep when Ripley arrived?
A boss with the power of rudeness now, as these leaping aliens refuse to look Ripley in the eye even as she's shooting them. That's just bad manners. Okay, so their real power is that they start off small (like the one standing on the floor) and keep getting bigger and bigger as you shoot them. Of all the weird alien abilities in this game it's the one that I can most easily accept, given that the aliens in the movies go from chestbusters to full-grown warriors very quickly without ever seeming to stop for a snack. The problem I do have with this fight is: how did Ripley know that the aliens were going to stop growing? She starts shooting and they start getting bigger, so she shoots them so more and they get bigger still. Eventually they do explode and die, but there must have been a moment during the battle when Ripley thought to herself "hang on, I think I might just be making more problems for myself here" as visions of four skyscraper-sized aliens pop into her head.
Despite their gimmick, these aliens don't pose much of challenge. The stages themselves being harder than the bosses is a bit of a theme in Aliens, and the difficulty curve in general is all out of wonk: aside from the final one I think the first boss is the most difficult, and because the difficulty of each stages is mainly based on how short it is there's no consistent gradient of challenge.
Oh look, a platter of delicious health-giving meat laying on the floor of a sewer and within clawing distance of an alien who thinks he's hidden underneath the floor but who is, in fact, easily visible. You know what, I think I'll skip that particular meal, all the same. I don't trust any videogame meat that I didn't find under a dustbin or hidden inside a castle wall.
I've been giving Aliens some stick for it's aesthetics, but I do honestly like the look of some of these later areas. While they may not bear much resemblance to an official Weyland-Yutani-constructed colony, they've got that "arcadey" feel to them, and especially now that I've reached the colony roof the aliens have more license to scuttle up walls and along ceilings like any self-respecting xenomorph should be doing.
Roll up, roll up, come one and all to witness the miraculous powers of the Electrical Alien Brothers! Gasp in amazement as Ripley shoots they while they pass 50,000 volts between their weird furry heads! Shriek in delight as their attacks are easily avoided through the tactic of not standing right between them you big idiot! Demand your money back as one of them dies and the other just sort of stands around doing nothing!
Okay, between the spider aliens, the gargoyle-looking aliens and this electrical double act I have come to the conclusion that Konami got their wires crossed and thought they were working on a Gremlins 2 game before realising their error and hurriedly altering the graphics.
In the depths of the infested colony, there is an alien queen. I'm sure you are not surprised to learn this, as an Aliens game without an alien queen is like a civilised discussion on an anonymous internet forum - I think it may have happened once, but it's vanishingly rare. Queenie herself isn't much of a threat, tethered as she is to her pulsating egg sac, which is the target you should be aiming for. It's segmented, and each time you do her enough damage one of the segments falls off so it acts as a disgusting, monster-spawning health bar, which is pretty neat. The real danger here comes from all the eggs and the facehuggers they produce. You can't even clear out the eggs, because as fast as you destroy them they are replenished. Not by the queen laying them - she has egg shyness and can't deposit her genetic material while someone's looking at her - but by other aliens who carry the eggs into the chamber like skeletal butlers. You'd think they'd want to take a more direct approach in dealing with the woman shooting their matriarch, but they must not be getting paid enough to take those kinds of risks and so you're free to plunk away at Her Highness until her egg sac explodes, something which I'm sure has definitely killed the queen once and for all and we won't be seeing her again, say, at the very end of the game.
Wow, look at that cyberpunk megalopolis down there. Those colonists must have been damn hard workers. Seems a shame that it's all going to blown up soon. Normally I'd call this the usual Konami Ending, but that is what happens in the film so for once it makes sense.
By coincidence (I wasn't expecting to get it for Christmas), I've been playing Alien: Isolation recently, and it makes for an interesting contrast with Aliens. In twenty-four years we've gone from an overly-familiar action game with a xenomorphic coat of paint and none of the elements that made the movie great to a fastidiously accurate recreation of the Alien universe that tries it's utmost to restore the alien's terrifying reputation. I don't have any deep or insightful comments into what this means, beyond the obvious observations on the advances in gaming technology and possibly that videogames are "maturing" ever so slightly. I just think it's fascinating, is all, especially as I've been playing videogames long enough to see both ends of the spectrum.
Before you can finish this stage, there's a boss fight against the same big-brained, orb-carrying boss that you fought before. It's just as tedious as it was the first time around, but I thought I should mention that just before that rematch you can see the queen walking past in the background, eliminating any chance of the final fight taking you by surprise. It's not like the suspense was killing me or anything. but really?
This is final fight, by the way. Konami stuck pretty closely to the queen's movie design for this sprite, so it's no surprise that it's the best-looking creature in the whole game. Why, I was so busy admiring it that I neglected to move away from her deadly tail attacks. I tried a few more times, and while I was managing to shoot the queen it didn't seem to bother her much and she kept killing me. What I need, I thought to myself, is a big yellow friend.
Yes, that'll do nicely, and thus the queen versus Power Loader fight from the movie is recreated. If I'm being honest, this is not a good boss battle. It's pretty terrible, actually - it seems impossible to tell when the queen's attacks are going to hurt you and the Power Loader is too slow to dodge them anyway, so the fight devolves into tapping the fire buttons to swing the Loader's arms around until the queen gets bashed enough times for you to win. The thing is, I don't care. I'm in a Power Loader, fighting the alien queen, and sometimes that's all you want out of life. The arcade cabinet could shoot a live hornet up my trouser leg every time I pressed attack and I'd still be enjoying myself, especially when the queen is low enough on health for you to pick her up, carry her to the airlock and chuck her out into space like a huge robot bouncer minding the doors of the worst nightclub in the Solar System.
There she goes now, falling into the vacuum of space. Let's hope she burns up on re-entry when she drifts close enough to a planet to be caught by its gravity. Imagine how pissed off she'll be if she survives the trip.
I don't know what an alien's flung is - a specially adapted lung that allows them to breathe in hostile environments, perhaps - but whatever it is it's in timeless space now and Aliens: The Movie: The Videogame is over. I'm kinda glad it's over, because I was just getting more and more disappointed as it went on, Power Loader sections excluded. Take away the Aliens-flavoured coating and you're left with a sub-standard - especially by the standards of what Konami could produce in the arcades at this time - run-n-gun game that half-heartedly tries a couple of gimmicks that don't work very well. The whole thing feels like a rush job, a licensed product that Konami carelessly knocked out so they could get back to work on better titles. The graphics are okay but not amazing, the alien designs are strange but not in an especially interesting way and even the music - something that Konami coin-ops can normally be relied upon for excellence - is underwhelming. It's not a bad soundtrack per se, but it's not nearly as good as something like the Turtles games.
I can still just about recommend it, though, especially if you are an Aliens fan. It's a very short game that doesn't demand much attention, so if you're after a brainless shooter to knock through in twenty minutes, it's not too bad a bet. Just try to to waste too much time trying to figure out what animal those electric aliens must have hatched from in order to give them both lightning powers and a mop-top hairdo.