An Incomplete History of ‘Aliens’ (and ‘Predator’) in Video Games: A Personal Journey
I’m an adult. Got a job and a car and children and everything. And like many people in my age group I play video games. Having been born in 1980 I was part of the generation who saw the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry during its infancy. We went to friends houses to play Atari, lined up at shopping centres to try a NES, got excited to see The Wizard, saw the Virtua-Boy hit shelves, took sides in the Nintendo/Sega war and debated polygon graphics vs sprites.
Throughout every era of home gaming we’ve had only a few franchises turn up time and time again. Mario, Zelda and the like are restricted to one brand, quickly forgotten when we became a Playstation house. From my Celeco-Vision days onwards many things have faded away but the Aliens keep turning up. It’s time to revisit that.
1982 – Atari 2600
It should be worth noting that most of these early games were released when my age was a single digit number, and I wasn’t allowed to watch the Alien movie series until I was older. When I saw this number in action it was quickly dismissed as a Pac-Man clone.
Which it obviously was. And a shitty one at that. Even shittier than Pac-Man on Atari, which is saying something. Moving on.
1986 – Commodore 64
When this rudimentary (and way ahead of it’s time) first person survival horror arrived in our home I had an awareness of a movie called Aliens – there were posters everywhere, it was hugely popular and I wasn’t allowed to watch it. With this game I first learned a bit about it – what the aliens looked like, what a ‘Face Hugger’ was, there was a girl called Newt and a Queen. I also learned some of the characters names. Ripley was the one from the poster, and we assumed Vasquez knew karate because of what appeared be a Daniel-San headband on her image. My older brother did say that he (sic) was a karate expert in the movie.
Random sidenote on that clearly false piece of trivia. My older brother always thought of himself as an authority of all things even if he had to make stuff up to sell it. As we all know Vasquez wasn’t a karate master, or even male. He also claimed that the aliens seen in this game were ‘warriors’ because of the ‘spears’ being carried on their back (the protrusions that make up their exoskeleton. He also claimed that John Hurt in Spaceballs had an alien in him because he’d accidentally eaten an alien egg in the diner. My brother is quite a tit.
Back to this game though – it was pretty innovative. You could switch between the six characters at will and explore different parts of the colony, you could move from room to room at will and some of the environments were destructible. With decent graphics and music it was pretty creepy to see an alien coming towards your screen. The only problem was that every room looked near identical, so getting lost was an ongoing frustration. Never did get to the end. If there was one.
1984 – Commodore 64
This one came out before the aforementioned Aliens on the same system, but I’m going in the order I played them. This one was surprisingly innovated and complex, adhering closely to movie concept of there being one alien and little defence. You have the crew of the Nostromo at your disposal, and you move them in a turn based system. You can explore different rooms and open grilles to access the air ducts of the ship. You have a limited amount of time to trap the alien and destroy it before the ship returns to Earth and causes an outbreak.
Even though the presentation was incredibly simple the game was and remains a very tense experience. Anyone who played it remembers jumping clear of their skin when the green, bleeping alien suddenly appeared on their screen, leaving them scrambling at the keyboard trying to attack it. The human characters had a small degree of self-reliance and would move around independently, but one of them would be a traitorous android. Who the android is changes every playthrough, adding further unpredictability.
Due to it’s simple presentation and reliance on mechanics and atmosphere Alien holds up better than most games from the era. Bloody impossible to beat though.
1987 – Commodore 64
In the same stash of games we found Alien in was a copy of Predator. In a weird inconsistency of my childhood I wasn’t allowed to watch the mostly suspenseful and horror based Alien but had a copy of the blood and gore splattered violence-fest Predator on VHS from age 8.
This game is not on par with the previous two, nit by a long shot. Innovation did not play a large role. You begin as Arnie jumping from a helicopter and cycling through his crew as each of them get bumped off (although they all look and function in basically the same way). You walk from left to right, occasionally shooting enemy soldiers but mostly walking to long stretches of jungle while random glowing eyes appeared in the background or the screen turned into heat vision mode. Admittedly this was pretty rad.
As you progress you find each team mater lying dead on the ground (as above), each characterised by the shape of their gun. It’s a very easy game and you’ll have no trouble getting to the end, wherein the Predator would walk onto the screen, punch you a few times (or laser you if you open fire) and then walk away. Repeat until you’re dead. Supposedly the way to win was to somehow interact with the black rope against the black background to drop a log of the beastie, but we couldn’t work out how to make it happen and gave up out of frustration.
1990 – Arcade
If someone can collect up all the side-scrolling fighting games from the 90s – like Final Fight, X-Men, The Avengers, etc. – into a downloadable package for modern consoles they could charge all the money. This genre of action games was the highlight of visits to Timezone until Street-Fighter II ushered in the golden age of tournament fighters. Although it wasn’t seen often, this precursor to the more famous Aliens vs Predator arcade fighter was pretty solid. Playing as a strangely blonde Ripley, players were equipped with a default Smart Gun (hell yeah!) and could pick up flame throwers, grenades and more to fight the hordes of aliens in levels based on the movie sequel.
As well as walking and shooting there were sequences of riding on the back of the APC, taking the controls of a power loading to punch up the enemies and boss fights that put you at the bottom of the screen Contra style. Konami expanded the standard alien, face-hugger, queen trifecta with a range of colourful variations that could fly, spit acid and shoot electricity, and early example of the Aliens marketing boom that occurred later in the decade with kid friendly action figures.
Amiga – 1992
When Alien 3 came out it chose not to follow James Cameron’s shift to an action heavy take on the material and wind back Ridley Scott’s single monster and helpless victims motif. It wasn’t a bad idea. Unfortunately Alien 3 had plenty of other bad ideas, including this game. When the commissioned developers looked at the source material and pondered the ways they could make it into a strategic, innovative survival horror they settled on ‘fuck it’. Crew cut Ripley is facing down a horde of aliens rather than one, and comes packing everything from a pulse rifle to a flamethrower, grenades and the classic radar. Basically it’s Aliens done in the style of Alien 3. Ripley is tasked with exploring each level to find and free incubated prisoners before the chest bursters do their thing.
As a game it wasn’t bad, sluggish controls and frustrating inability to get on or off a ladder unless at ground level aside. The limited ammo and art design makes it creepy enough, and the aliens are well animated in the 2D environment. The level design was pretty imaginative with varied settings and good use of the air ducts (also lifted from Aliens). It could’ve been great but being a rushed out game license stymied the experience. Also, cutting down the prisoners renders the chest bursters void?
Alien 3: The Gun
Arcade – 1993
Meanwhile, at the arcades, game developers were still doing their best to ignore the fact that Alien 3 wasn’t an action movie. The rail shooter, very much an arcade staple that has all but died out, always brought players because you get to hold a cool plastic gun and shoot things on the screen. Swapping out the usual terrorists and bank robbers with aliens was fine by us, and the half-size plasma rifles mounted on the game cabinet had cool factor. There’s not much to say though, I always walked away from these games feeling like I’d wasted my money.
Aliens vs Predator
Arcade – 1994
Aw, hell yes! Everyone loved this game! Taking it’s cues from the comic series and mixing things up with a Japanese anime art style left the game free to play fast and loose with the alien lore and canon. Players team up as a hunter or warrior Predator (although they have the names and designed mixed up, pretty sure that the one from the original Predator movie was a hunter), a robot arm wielding Arnie and an original cyborg character who packed a katana and laser pistol. Armed to the teeth and with plenty of weapons to find on the way, you travel from left to right battling hundreds and hundreds of aliens.
Some of the designs are pretty cool even if they don’t make sense, such as the armadillo aliens, and how Arnie’s character turned up in the future with a robot arm is a mystery (a Terminator? Actually that makes sense). But such quibbles didn’t matter because the game was bloody awesome! Bright, colourful and packed with action, the massive hordes of easily killed enemies make you feel completely badass. You go through these things like a spade through soft sand and it’s immensely satisfying. Even if you don’t make it through the first level (those boss monsters balanced the field) you still walked away happy.
Aliens vs Predator
Jaguar – 1994
Another early example of the cross-over comic series making it’s way into other media, released the same year as the above arcade actioner. Although this game doesn’t hold up well today due to the limitations in technology (one of the last major FPS releases to use 2D sprite on a 2D plane) it created the template for the future series. You can play as the alien, predator or marine, each with their own goals and play styles. Some of it was pretty clever, like the alien being unable to heal itself instead capturing humans in cocoons and turning them into restart points.
One of the biggest limitations proved to be the biggest contributor to the highly praised atmosphere. None of the enemies made any noise when they moved around, so the only way to know if an alien was creepy up behind you was when the motion detector started blinging…by then it was to late. It was a decent title for the time, but not even this could save the Atari Jaguar.
Aliens vs Predator & Aliens vs Predator 2
PC – 1999/2001
Beginning to see a pattern here? In between film releases there wan’t much to market the duel franchises on other than beating the mucus out of each other. This home computer release provided an update on the Jaguar concept with three FPS campaigns, each focused on a different faction in the galactic war. What made the game impressive was how varied each campaign felt, with the stealth based, wall crawling aliens being the polar opposite of the straight forward, gun toting marines. The Predator sat somewhere in the middle, being able to turn invisible and use heat vision (to a limited degree) while packing immensely powerful weapons tempered by a battery pack.
Multiplayer really stepped things up for players, with a range of awesome modes to keep things interesting. Deathmatch was the most popular, but for less boring people there’s Last Man Standing, which saw one alien player enter a map with a number of marine players. When a marine gets killed they respawn as an alien, seeing the balance of power slowly shift from the marines to aliens. These games were very well designed and clearly made by fans of the series.
Aliens vs Predator
PC/PS3/XBOX360 – 2010
And here we go again…I guess the big difference between this one and the previous ones is that it’s desperately trying to emulate the last one. 1999s title was gangbusters and rather than trying to take it to the next level this iteration was trying to recreate the experience with shiny new graphics. Unfortunately it’s a rather bland experience, with the least interesting faction (the humans) taking up most of the campaign time searching for the usual audio logs that seem scattered across all sci-fi worlds these days. The aliens were a pain in the ass to control and the predator only popped up occasionally to fulfil contractual obligations. The game wasn’t bad, but it was astoundingly average.
It’s kind of strange that all the major releases have become part of the Aliens vs Predator franchise. Can’t we get a straight up aliens game any more?
Aliens: Colonial Marines
PC/PS3/XBOX360 – 2013
NO NO I DIDN’T MEAN IT! TAKE IT BACK TAKE IT BACK!
PC/PS4/XBOXONE – 2014
Ok, we’ll give you one more chance. But it better be good!
That’s pretty damn good. Going against the action grain this recent release wound back the clock to set the game in the years following the events of Alien, complete with the old fashioned technology that appeared in the film. As Ripley’s daughter Amanda you’re working as a deep space engineer when you get word that the Nostromo flight logs have been found. When you arrive at the space station holding them you find yourself trapped in a nightmare. An alien has found itself on board and has been picking people off one by one, those that remain have turned into desperate survivors with a kill or be killed mentality. The ships AI isn’t helping either, having sent the store mannequin style androids out to kill the crew in the most creepy way possible.
This game has excellent pacing, astounding atmosphere, a great story and is downright terrifying in a way no other aliens based game has been. Yes, there’s one alien but you’ve got no chance of killing the damned thing – you’ll spend much of the early missions hiding under a desk and weeping softly as the creature lurks around the room trying to sniff you out. This is a fantastic game, made by people who clearly love the source material as much as we do. If you want to experience a real Alien game, this is it. But get comfy, the campaign is loooooong.
And now, a quick run down of the Aliens and Predator games I didn’t play because I had the wrong console or they just looked kinda shit (skipping ports and mobile games).
Aliens 2: Aliens
MSX – 1987
Amiga – 1991
Aliens vs Predator: Last of His Clan
Gameboy – 1993
Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure
PC – 1995
Playstation – 1996
PC – 1998
Playstation – 2000
Aliens vs Predator: Extinction
Playstation 2 – 2003
Predator: Concrete Jungle
Playstation 2/XBOX – 2005
Arcade – 2006
Aliens vs Predator: Requiem
Playstation Portable – 2007
Nintendo DS – 2011