Like so many other video game enthusiasts, I woke up last Tuesday morning anxious to see what the critical consensus was about the hotly anticipated and years-in-development Aliens: Colonial Marines. Trey’s review, as well as pretty much every other one out there, told the tale of a broken and unfinished mess. It’s never fun to see a game from a big developer be released in that state, but the fact that it was based on Aliens just made it that much worse.
Over a week later, the smoke still hasn’t cleared about what went wrong. While there have been conflicting reports about who should bear the majority of responsibility, the bottom line is that this amazing property has once again been mishandled. It’s not all doom and gloom however; for those of you disappointed that once again a shoddy product with the Aliens license has been pooped out to the masses I’ve got some good news for you. As it turns out, there is an amazing game from this series in existence and all you really need is an emulator to give it a try.
Aliens on the Commodore 64.
In circles like these, it’s hardly a radical statement to say you’re an Aliens fan. I can’t think of a single person I know in the video game community who doesn’t have at least a passing interest in the series, and most are big fans. Some prefer Ridley Scott’s original, and some even like David Fincher’s Alien 3. For me, James Cameron’s take on the series is easily in my top five films of all time. I’ll bet I could recite the entire script from memory right now — that’s how much I love it.
When I was 12, I dragged my parents to watch Aliens in the theater because based on the commercials I knew I was going to love it, and nothing was going to stop me from seeing it. Surprisingly, they actually enjoyed it too although I’m sure they were a little concerned about the violence and language… no, they didn’t give a fuck. Later that year, my birthday was fast approaching and I saw that there was a game based on this movie…I would have been willing to give up every other game I owned just to be able to play it. My parents didn’t buy it for me, but I mowed lawns all summer to raise the $60 to pick it up (even back then Activision charged that amount for games). When I got it home from the store, I pretty much sequestered myself in my room for an entire weekend, staying up until 3AM each day playing this… this masterpiece.
After a long story-based prologue, making it to the surface of LV 426 is your first order of business. Essentially, the level consists of flying through a series of rings as you navigate your ‘path’. It sounds easy, but near the end of the level those rings start coming fast. Once you arrive, it’s time for your soldiers to disembark. The next section takes place after the Xenomorph swarm has awoken and your team tries to get back to the transport. It’s a top-down shooter here, so the name of the game is to fight when you can and make a steady retreat. You are also responsible for four soldiers whose status is listed at the bottom of the screen. A green screen means they are safe, black means they are in play, flashing red means they are under attack, solid red means they are being pinned and prepared for implantation, and static means…well, you know what that means. If you can make your way to the pinned ally in time, you can actually save them but it depends on where your soldiers are. This level is in many ways a spiritual precursor to Left 4 Dead, in which you need to make split second decisions about keeping a group together versus leaving someone to his/her fate. When I played as a kid, I tried to keep it as close to the movie as possible and managed to pull it off a few times (sorry Dietrich, Frost, and Crowe).
Next up is the tower defense portion. Armed with a flamethrower, your job is to prevent the aliens from getting past you while Vasquez tries to get a door open. Each time one gets by, one of your team dies (So long, Hudson). Once the door opens, it’s off to the vents you go. This level is basically a Pac Man-style maze. It encompasses a few screens and any backtracking all but guarantees that you’re going to lose at least a couple of soldiers (be strong, Gorman and Vasquez).
At this point in the game, you finally get to take control of Ripley as she loads up and heads back into the facility to save Newt. This level is similar to the one with the soldiers, except here you have a finite amount of ammo and a time limit so there’s no screwing around. One time I used up all my bullets getting to Newt and ended up getting trapped by the Queen on the way back. It’s a frustrating lesson to learn, but learn it I did. I’m sure it’s at least 30% of the reason why I’m a total item hoarder in games nowadays.
For a game made in 1986, the final boss fight is actually pretty impressive. It consists of smacking the Queen with the loader arms until her health bar is depleted. Then, it’s just a matter of gripping her and taking out the trash. Cue final scenes and one of the defining games of my childhood. As far as narrative is concerned, Aliens doesn’t stray from the path and many of the cutscenes contain verbatim dialogue from the movie. It’s not something that would really fly now, but I appreciate the care Activision took in creating an authentic telling of the story in video game form. Graphics were pretty rudimentary back then, but considering the standards at the time, it was not bad at all.
In total, there are about five levels to this game, most of which provide a completely unique gameplay experience. One might look upon that with hindsight and feel that it’s all over the place and fragmented. I would argue that it is full of ideas and sticks to what works best for that particular section. No sequence is particularly lengthy and the whole game can be completed in less than an hour, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. There are a ton of emulators out there which allow you to play old Commodore 64 games. Most of those titles haven’t stood the test of time and, let’s be honest, this one isn’t exactly going to rock your world if you didn’t experience it at the time. I will however leave you with this thought: Even though this game was released in 1986 with all the limitations of the time, Aliens on the Commodore 64 is a better Aliens game than Colonial Marines in 2013.