Alien: Isolation is the latest computer game to take advantage of the Aliens franchise. But this is by no means the first time the Alien franchise has appeared on a home computer. John remembers a time when games occupied a single cassette tape and took forever to load.
Original games were everywhere in back in the eighties when people weren’t scared to try out new ideas. There were very few long running franchises such as today’s modern classics like Call Of Duty or FIFA.
The larger software companies of the day such as Ocean and Electric Dreams had the money to buy the license to the latest blockbuster films in order to produce a tie-in computer game. Much like the film tie-in games of today, some were good, some were awful.
In 1986, the aforementioned Electric Dreams software released Aliens, based on the film of the same name. I remember purchasing this new premium release game for just under £10, the price of brand new computer games back then. I’d read the novelization, seen pictures but had not seen the film itself as I was under-age for the 18 rated film. This was as close as I was going to get.
Once I got home, I loaded up the game and started the game. I was presented with the following screen.
And that’s pretty much it for the game! As you can see you have six people at your command, Ripley and four marines and the android known as Bishop. The green bar under each name represents that persons health with the person under your current control displayed in the centre of the screen. A multi-coloured bar represents their level of ammunition and also their heart rate is visible.
The top half of the screen represents a view from the helmet camera of the current person in your control. You control their smart gun sights and when they reach the left or right edge of the screen, the view scrolls horizontally to represent them looking around the room. You’d have to shoot open doors (which wastes your ammo quickly) or use it on attacking aliens.
When you did enter a room occupied with an alien, the motion tracker would start beeping and you’d have to quickly pan around the room to find it and shoot it. Missing the alien would mean it would be alerted to your presence and it would turn and head straight for you. If you failed, that person was captured or dead. If you did shoot the alien, there was always a chance it might die in front of a doorway. This would mean loosing health as you stepped over the acid covered body to pass through the doorway.
Here’s a quick example of the gameplay.
Now apart from your gunshots, the game was silent. So if you were playing in a dark quiet room and that motion tracker kicked in, I pretty much jumped out of my seat every time.
I have to admit I was awful at this game and never got very far. The game even included a map to show you where to go and what special rooms there were such as medical rooms to restore health and weapon stores to replenish ammunition. I only ever managed a third of the way of the map, so I lost interest in the game quite quickly.
However, sometime later that same year, the Spectrum magazines mentioned that a game was produced for the US market that was completely different to the UK release.
I wanted to play it but seeing as it was a US release my chances were slim. Fast forward a couple of years and the 8 bit computer scene was dying. Consoles like the Nintendo and the Sega Master system were appearing along with new 16 bit computers like the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST.
To keep interest in the fast dying market, Spectrum gaming magazines were digging up old games and putting them on cover mounted cassettes. Then in February of 1989, ACE Magazine, that covered computer gaming across the 8 and 16 bit home computer scene, gave away the US edition of Aliens free on a cover mounted tape.
I picked up a copy, double checked it was the US version as the contents page used a screen shot of the UK release, purchased the magazine and probably continued on my way to school.
So how different was it? Very. The US release of Aliens was the the whole film represented by several mini games that all played out vital scenes from the film.
The game starts out by re-enacting the conversation between Ripley and the Colonial Marines on the Sulaco before they set out for the planet LV-426. This was done by using a single static picture and a moving speech bubble. After a while the scene is replaced with pages of text on the screen displaying the dialogue. It’s reading the films script straight off your television screen.
This was followed by a strange section where you have to identify the equipment used by the Colonial Marines. Using a pointing finger as a cursor you had to point out items such as a motion tracker, pulse rifle and helmet mounted camera amongst others. If you make the wrong choice don’t worry, there are no consequences. You keep going until everything is correctly identified. Maybe this was originally going to form some part of copy protection and was changed at the last minute.
Back in the day, to deter pirates, games asked for specific words from the enclosed manual, for example, what word is on page 1, paragraph 2, line 4. Anyone wishing to make a copy would have to also make a copy of the entire manual as well!
From here we’re presented with the first real game, flying the Sulaco’s dropship down to the infested planet of LV-426. The screen displayed is the view from the cockpit of the dropship. All you could see were ever increasing circles to create that pseudo three dimensional effect of flying. Your job was to keep the targeting reticle in the centre of the circles and guide the dropship safely down to the planet’s surface.
This was damn near impossible and I don’t think I ever managed to complete this level. In fact it was so hard that Electric Dreams included a cheat code so the level could be skipped. This cheat code was highly publicised and may have even been printed in the games instructions at the back of ACE magazine.
Press play on the tape (yes, a multi load game, all the levels had to be loaded into the computer one at a time as you played.)
Level two has you controlling four marines and your mission is to get them safely to the armoured personnel carrier. The problem is you can only control one at a time. This level is similar to the British design as you can only see one marine at a time as they have become separated. Any marine you’re not watching though is vulnerable to attack. If you manage to pair up two marines together, they’ll be safe as they can watch each others back. If a lone marine was under alien attack when they were not under your control, you had to guide another marine to their location to fight of the aliens and rescue him. An added difficulty to what was a simple maze game.
Depending on how many marines you saved was relevant to the following level. Replicating the action scene from the film when the aliens burst down from the roof, you must control Ripley and hold off the aliens in a kind of horizontal space invaders. Ripley can only move up and down the right edge of the screen, whilst the aliens run in from the left. The bottom of the screen shows the marines in line with the first marine using his gas torch to cut through a locked door. If Ripley misses an alien, they will disappear off the right of the screen and appear at the bottom of the screen and drag away a marine. Run out of marines and its, “Game over man! Game over!”
The next level gave you seventeen minutes to escape the atmosphere processor and if you were brave enough, find the little girl Newt as well who is hiding in the air ducts of the colony. You could drop flares along the way to help you remember where the exit was. According to reviews of the time, it seems you could find your way out to the dropship and not have to worry about finding Newt without any consequences!
The final level was the most impressive and the one I remember the most. Playing in first person perspective, you once again are in control of Ripley as she uses the power loader in the films climatic fight scene. Using the simple up and down controls, you move the power loader’s claws into and out of the screen in another pseudo three dimensional affect (left and right acted as normal). The queen alien is attacking and you must try to avoid her vicious bite, grab her and drop her into the airlock. This was quite impressive with large detailed sprites filling the screen.
So which was the best version? Unfortunately neither in my opinion. The UK version definitely has the most tension but was tedious to play, whereas the US release follows the film more closely but was let down by sub par games and poor graphics.
Its interesting to see that even all those years ago, different games were produced for different markets…and that film tie-ins were still dodgy back then!
Alien: Isolation looks to change all that!
Aliens by Electric Dreams (both UK and US releases) has been denied official distribution even after all these years. It was originally available for ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC464 and Commodore 64.
Alien: Isolation is out now for Xbox360, XboxOne, Playstation 3 & 4 and PC.