Today’s game is all about those acid-bleeding, multi-mouthed terrors from beyond the stars, the xenomorphs. By my counting this will be the seventh article I’ve written about games related to the Alien franchise, from bonkers lightgun adventures to plodding Game Boy borefests to one of the best beat-em-ups ever made. This time it’s the turn of the Commodore 64, and Activision’s 1986 express-elevator-to-hell-em-up Aliens!
This Aliens is not to be confused with the other C64 Aliens, which was released by Electric Dreams in 1987 and is a completely different game. This one is sometimes referred to as Aliens: The Computer Game, but that doesn’t to much to minimise confusion because I've also seen the Electric Dreams version referred to as, you guessed it, Aliens: The Computer Game.
I’m sure you’ve all seen Aliens before, and if you haven’t then you should probably go and fix that. If you still don’t know about Aliens – maybe you’re offended by internet strangers telling you what to do and are refusing to watch the movie on principle – here’s a quick recap. Ellen Ripley, sole survivor of the first Alien movie, travels back to the planet LV-426 with a squad of colonial marines. The colony on the planet has been overrun with xenomorphs. The marines think they’ll be able to easily defeat the aliens, but the stealthy creatures overwhelm the technologically superior marines for all your “Vietnam war analogy” needs. Ripley fights the alien queen in a glorified forklift and then leaves the planet with the few survivors, including a small girl she found hiding in an air duct. Honestly, I’m not sure why I bothered telling you all that, because the game itself does a fairly thorough job of explaining what’s going on.
Yes, unlike Konami’s arcade version of Aliens, a game that takes the basic premise of the movie and then says “yeah, but what if Ripley was Space Rambo and we just made up a load of new mutant aliens?” this game sticks very closely to the plot and dialogue of the movie. So closely, in fact, that this opening text is copied directly from the film’s script. “The stars shine like the love of God” wasn’t the game’s programmers getting poetic in an effort to jazz up the intro, that’s a line from the script’s opening paragraph. Actually, the line in the script is “The stars shine like the love of God – cold and remote.” I wonder why they left that bit out? For space reasons, or an attempt to avoid offending religious sensibilities? Maybe they just thought it was a bit too flowery. If you’re the person responsible, please get in touch.
Before the game begins, you’re treated to this low-res recreation of the scene from Aliens where Ripley briefs the marines on the xenomorph threat, with the dialogue taken word-for-word from the script. The image is at once ugly and charming in its simplicity, although even with the blockiness it’s still immediately recognisable as the scene it’s supposed to be. I instantly heard Hudson’s lines in Bill Paxton’s voice with perfect clarity, I know that much. As much I have enjoyed some of the wilder takes on the universe in other Aliens game – I can’t imagine there’s anyone who wouldn’t be enamoured of Capcom’s decision to give Arnold Schwarzenegger a giant robot arm in AvP – it’s nice to have a game that sticks so faithfully to the source material. I cannot express enough my genuine love for the first three Alien movies and the universe they created, which is one of my all-time favourite fictional worlds. I’ve seen the movies dozens of times, as a kid I read the novelizations almost every week, I had the toys, played the games and literally bought the t-shirt. My point is, you should probably expect a hefty portion of bias in this article.
Here we see a fine selection of the colonial marines’ arsenal. Not pictured: nukes, knives, sharp sticks. Like an anxious parter on the eve of an overseas holiday, Aliens: One of the Computer Games Called Aliens tasks you with making sure you know where everything is before you depart on your mission. The name of a piece of equipment appears, you click on the corresponding item, then repeat until you’ve identified them all. It’s very straightforward, and you can puzzle them out even if you’ve never seen Aliens before. Of course, being the youthful Aliens dork that I was, I had a copy of the Colonial Marines Technical Manual so I’m more than prepared for this minigame. I think this might be the fastest I’ve ever cleared any section of any videogame, honestly, and that includes entering my name on high-score tables. Well, in that situation there’s the tough decision to make between BUM and POO, isn’t there?
The first “proper” action of the game sees you piloting the dropship from the USS Sulaco down to the planet’s surface. To do so, you have to fly through a course made of floating rings: fly outside the rings and the compliance meter drops, and if the meter hits red you fail and have to try again. The course itself is very twisty-turny, which is strange. Like, there’s a clue in the word “dropship.” I shouldn’t need to do this much piloting just to fall straight downwards. The lack of any visuals other than the rings is disappointing, but the “3D” effect on the rings themselves, the sense that you’re flying “into” the screen, is actually quite impressive.
Going back to the Colonial Marine Technical Manual for a moment, I remember that in said book the fully-loaded dropship is described as “handling like a drunken cow,” and while it’s not quite that bad in this game it does feel very heavy. You need to start turning well before the next bend and towards the end, when your route would resemble spaghetti in a blender if you mapped it out, learning the course becomes almost mandatory. It’s a surprisingly difficult start to the action. In fact, it’s probably the hardest part of the whole game, so try not to be too discouraged if your first few attempts at flying the dropship prove deadlier to the marines than any amount of xenomorphs.
Landing accomplished! Ooh-rah, and so forth. The entrance to the colony of Hadley’s Hope might look a little more “futuristic parking garage” than “futuristic space colony,” but that fits with the bleak industrial setting of the movie. The marines are indeed deployed, but sadly there’s no scene where you get to drive the Armoured Personnel Carrier around.
In fact, the game skips forward to the marines’ first contact with the aliens. As you can tell by this text, it doesn’t go particularly well for them. Please, no swearing in the Commodore 64 version of Aliens. There might be children present. Now, while in the movie the aliens tear through the marines like a combine harvester careening through a puppy farm, the game gives you a chance to save the marines during the next gameplay segment.
You see the tiny man in the upper-left corner of the screen? The one with the brown overalls and what appears to be Princess Leia’s haircut? That’s you, that is. Well, it’s the marine you’re controlling, anyway, and the aim of this stage is to make your way through the maze-like colony and back to the safety of the APC.
There’s the APC now. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it’s such a safe haven that you don’t even need to climb aboard in order to be protected, you just have to be on the same screen and you’re safe from harm. Of course, getting to the APC isn’t so easy. For starters, you have control over four different marines, each of them located in a different part of the maze after everyone got separated when the spurting acid hit the metaphorical fan. You switch between them with the function keys, and the more marines you guide to safety the more lives you’ll have in the later stages. The things to keep an eye on are the monitors at the bottom of the screen: if they start flashing red, that means a marine is in danger.
Oh no, Corporal Dietrich has been ambushed by some slightly unconvincing aliens! Once the xenomorphs appear, you can’t leave the screen until you’ve fought them all off in a simple wave-shooter section that you could say is like Smash TV, if you were feeling extremely generous and Smash TV was a much more mediocre game. You press the fire button to fire your gun, quelle surprise, and you can move around while firing in a fixed direction if you hold the button down. The aliens attack from all angles, their usual lightning pace slowed to an arthritic hobble by the power of the C64, and your goal is to mow them down without letting them touch you. It works about as well as you'd expect, with the real problems coming when an alien appears at a diagonal to your current position. You can only fire in the four cardinal directions and the aliens move at about the same speed as your marine, so lining yourself up for a shot without getting grabbed can be difficult, and I sometimes ended up with a veritable conga line of skeletal star-beasts following me around as I tried to get into a good firing position. It’d help if you knew what directions the aliens were going to come from, which makes it a damn shame that your motion tracker does bugger all except provide a bit more atmosphere.
Here, Private Frost is being attacked by two aliens at once, but in their boundless exuberance they’ve run head-first into each other like an especially dark scene from a Chuckle Brothers show. Ha ha, no, I’m kidding, Frost is being dragged away to act as an incubator for a chestburster. That’s how the aliens operate, but there is a way to prevent this terrible fate: the xenomorphs will only attack a marine who’s on their own, preferring as they do to pick off their targets one at a time. Thus, one way to get through this section is to try to keep all the marines as close together as possible while they move through the maze. That way if a red “aliens are coming to ruin your day” warning starts blinking, one of the other marines can quickly dash to the same screen and prevent the attack. It’s an interesting set-up, and while it can be slow going as you inch each marine forward in turn that’s preferable to them all dying. There’s a surprising amount of tension to it as well, with the threat of a new alien ambush increasing with each screen you traverse, forcing you to gamble on whether or not to make a dash for the APC.
Also, I feel like I should mention that Frost is black in the movie but in this game he’s got the same pink skin tone as the other marines. It feels like a real oversight in a game that’s otherwise so accurate to the source material, but perhaps I’m asking too much of a movie tie-in on the C64.
The next gameplay section is completely different. I mean it plays differently, it’s still about a marine trying not to be killed by aliens, it’s not like you're suddenly thrust into the dark world of political machinations in fifteenth century Venice or anything. How this one works is that you control the lone marine on the right of the screen. The aliens move in from the left, and you have to move up and down so that you’re on the same plane as the onrushing aliens and then fry them with your flamethrower. If an alien gets past you, it kills one of the other marines. You can see the other marines at the bottom of the screen, patiently queueing up as though they’re waiting for a bus rather than a horrifying death via extreme pregnancy. The aliens start off at a pace you might describe as “dawdling” in another, less terrifying species, but gradually increase their speed until they’re setting new land speed records, and it all gets terribly frantic. One nice touch is that if the aliens get right up to you, they actually back off because they’re scared of the flamethrower’s pilot light, but more than anything it feels like a Game and Watch game. I could very easily see this as an LCD game from Tiger Electronics, possibly contained within an incredibly uncomfortable-to-hold plastic case shaped like a xenomorph’s head.
Oh hey, would you look at that. I got the shape of the unit wrong and you shoot vertically rather than horizontally, but otherwise I was pretty close. I’m not sure if this LCD game was ever released: it’s based on the cancelled Operation: Aliens kid’s cartoon (which I’ll never get tired of mentioning, because it was a kid’s cartoon based on Aliens) and was supposedly never released as a result, but the instruction manual can be found online, so who knows? All I know is that I want one.
After the simplistic but entertaining early stages, Aliens: The Computer Game rather shits the bed with the next level. It’s a maze, presumably intended to depict the remaining survivors making their way through the air vents. The white square is Ripley and the marines, the red dots are aliens and it’s so visually boring that it’s difficult to actually look at without your eyes swivelling around just to give themselves something to do. The gameplay’s not any better, either: there’s only one way out of the maze, so once you’ve learned the route the entire stage becomes trivial. Until then, it’s a tedious tip-toe through the ductwork, with lots of waiting for nearby aliens to wander off somewhere else, because the restrictive nature of the tunnels means you can’t go around them. If an alien grabs you – by which I mean if your white dot touches a red dot – you can order one of the marines to blow themselves up with a grenade, taking out the alien and giving you a chance to escape. This is why you need to keep as many of them alive in the early stages as possible – so you can use them as ambulatory land mines.
Next up, it’s Ripley’s turn to get in on the xeno-blasting action (I think she might have had xeno-blasting action in the Aliens toy line, come to think of it) as she heads deep into the aliens’ nest to rescue Newt. It’s pretty much the same as the “get the marines to the APC” stage, although it has a couple of quirks that make it much more difficult. For starters, Ripley’s pulse rifle only has 99 rounds of ammo, which is frankly not enough. Luckily you can leg it past a lot of the aliens, and you’ll have to because Ripley couldn’t find room in her pockets for a few extra magazines. She doesn’t even have a flamethrower gaffer-taped to her pulse rifle like she does in the movie, so I’m deducting some Authenticity Points. There’s also a time limit now. It says seventeen minutes, but it runs faster than real time so it’s more like ten minutes.
The most challenging new aspect, however, is that you’ve got to find Newt and then get back to the elevator you started at. This is not easy when the aliens’ nest is a vast grey labyrinth of identical corridors, but there is one thing you have that can help: pressing space makes Ripley drop a flare on the ground. Do not forget to do this regularly. I did forget. Look, I was being harassed by deadly space creatures, forgive me if this Hansel and Gretel shit slipped my mind.
Ah ha, I must be getting close – I’ve found the room where the aliens store all the bishop’s mitres they’ve collected.
Oh good, I found Newt. Having a tracking device that tells me how close I am to Newt certainly made that a lot less painful then it could have been. Now I’ve just got to retrace my steps. Okay, sure, my brain was determined not to remind me to drop flares, but I’m sure I can remember which way I came.
I’m fairly certain the queen alien wasn’t here before. That’s the kind of thing you would remember. You know what? I think I’ll find a different route. Sorry to disturb you, your highness.
So I did find a different route, and I managed to guide Newt to safety by running past all of the aliens I saw and praying they wouldn’t realise my gun was drier than Stewart Lee doing stand-up in the Gobi Desert. Of course, those of you who’ve seen Aliens will know that’s not the end of the story, and there’s one final confrontation left.
In the wild, a feral powerloader will often spread its arms as wide as possible in order to create a larger, more intimidating silhouette. Coupled with its vocal warning cries, this is often enough to scare away predators. However, this does not always work, and in this case a battle for survival ensues.
That’s right, it’s Aliens’ climactic final scene, where Ripley climbs into a powerloader and wrestles with the alien queen. The queen’s sprite is mostly decent – it could have done with a bit more colour – but it’s very difficult not to be distracted by the face. The weird, boxy face. It has very prominent eyes, which is odd because one of the defining features of the xenomorphs’ design is that they don’t have eyes, and especially not ones that look as though they could do double duty as letterboxes. Standards of verisimilitude are slipping, but it’s hard to care when I’m fighting the alien queen in a powerloader.
Oh yeah, the fighting. Well, you control the powerloader’s claws, and you can move them up or down and side-to-side. If you move one claw up, the other one moves down, and when you’ve got a claw extended it’s a simple matter of bashing the queen over the head with it. I found the easiest way to do this was to wait until the queen was between the edge of the screen and the “outside” of your claw. Once you’re in that position you can repeatedly slap the queen with the back of your giant metal hand.
After enough slaps, the queen’s health will be depleted and you can grab her with the powerloader’s claw, dropping her out of the airlock and into space. Is the queen dead? Probably not, but she’s someone else’s problem now and that’s all that matters. And so, Aliens: The Computer Game is complete.
Thanks, Bishop. I’m proud to have exceeded your expectations vis-a-vis the capability of a human to destroy the universe’s most fearsome killing machine. Now crawl over there and fetch your legs, they’re making the place look untidy.
The game ends with Ripley and Newt settling down for a well-deserved hypersleep. I’m not sure why Ripley shaved off most of Newt’s hair before they got into bed, but I’m sure it’s a vital step in the cryogenic process.
As yet another game that’s a compilation of smaller, underdeveloped games, Aliens suffers from the same problem as always: it spreads itself too thin rather than expanding on the interesting stuff. Most of the games aren’t bad, the pipe maze being the exception, but the levels where you’re exploring the colony are easily the most interesting and so you’re left wondering what could have been if they were more fleshed-out. An entire game about controlling a squad of marines, one that ramps up the tension already found in those section as you struggle to keep everyone alive, could have been a very interesting experience. That’s sort of what the other C64 Aliens game is like, except that one’s a first-person shooter. But that’s enough of dreams and maybes: this is the game that exists, and it’s pretty okay. Perhaps a little too limited to be really enjoyable in the modern age and it leans a little too hard on memorisation at points, but it’s not the worst Aliens game I’ve ever played and it’s buoyed by its faithfulness to the source material. Plus I got to control a powerloader. That’s all I really wanted. Honestly, I think that’s all I’ve really wanted since I was about 12.
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