A closer look at: Alien

Title: Alien
Platform: Atari Video Computer System
Publisher: Fox Video Games (20th Century Fox)
Year: 1982

In your living room, no one can hear you scream.

Before we dive in here, I’m going to grab some coffee -it’s the only thing good on this ship- and tell you a little bit about what this game has meant to me as a gamer and collector:

I’m a huge fan of the Alien movies.  All of three of them. ( [/tongueincheek] )  By the time I was in 7th grade, in 1996-97, I had seen each of them probably a couple dozen times.  In retrospect, I should be shocked that my parents allowed me to watch these movies -especially the exceptionally violent and vulgar Alien 3- but I think I turned out mostly alright. Mostly.

I’m also a huge fan of video games.  And I’m a huge, huge fan of Aliens video games.  I’d played and loved Alien Trilogy on the Playstation, the excellent Alien 3 ports on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, and of course the Aliens Vs. Predator arcade beat-’em-up (technically that’s a different franchise, but there’s already enough nerdiness on this page without getting into that).  I was even lucky (?) enough to experience Alien 3: The Gun at a local bowling alley.  And I knew a kid at school who had an old copy of a computer game based on the second film, Aliens, probably for the Commodore or Apple.  But I’d never heard of a game based on the original movie.

So you can probably imagine how stoked out of my Surge-addled mind I was when, while feeding my curious adolescent mind information about the game systems of the stone age with help from America Online, Netscape Navigator, and Greg Chance’s website videogames.org, I discovered that the old Atari 2600 had a game for it based on the original Alien.  And that was it; I had to play it.  And to play it, I had to get an Atari (emulation wasn’t really feasible for me at the time).  And on the way to getting an Atari, I got stuff that was like an Atari, such as Odyssey 2 and Intellivision. The jist of the story is that Alien on the Atari VCS helped push me towards collecting vintage video games.  I guess I could have just said that from the start…

But enough of that nonsense – on to the game!  In Alien, you are placed into the air shafts of the Nostromo, the space freighter in which the bulk of the film takes place.  The tunnels are infested with alien eggs, and your mission is to crush all the eggs to clear the ship of the alien menace.  The alien monsters pursuing you can be temporarily destroyed if your human collects a pulsar.  A warp tunnel connects the opposite ends of the screen, and extra points can be earned by collecting a bonus item that periodically appears in the center of the playfield.

If this premise sounds suspiciously similar to that of a certain arcade game that was tremendously popular in 1982, that’s probably because it is.

Alien for the Atari 2600: It’s better than it looks.

Alien is Pac-Man.  I’m not sure which Fox honcho saw Pac-Man in the arcades and said, “Yep, that’s Alien,” but nevertheless, here we are are.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Apart from bearing little resemblance to the Ridley Scott masterpiece, Alien is a very good Pac-alike.  It’s actually one of the better Pac-Man games available for the Atari VCS, in my opinion surpassed only by Atari’s excellent Jr. Pac-Man, which came out about five years later.

It helps to have an imagination.

Alien does have a couple of bells and whistles that set it apart from the rest of the early-’80s Knockoff-Man herd, however.  The coolest of which is the flamethrower.  The coolness of being able to fire an incendiary weapon at the haranguing key-wind chattering teeth aliens is tempered, unfortunately, by the fact that it doesn’t really do anything.  Okay, that’s not totally true; although the flamethrower can’t actually do any damage to the aliens, lighting it off can scare them away momentarily.  It’s not guaranteed to work, and each human (read: extra life) has only a small amount of fuel, but if you’re about to be cornered or worse, at least you have a Hail Mary Pass.

Another of Alien’s distinguishing features is its bonus stage, which can be reached every time the screen is cleared of dots alien eggs.  This stage has your human moving vertically through crossing rows of the pastel-colored alien nasties, a la Freeway, in an attempt to reach the bonus item at the top of the screen.  This isn’t tremendously exciting, but it does provide contrast to a game that could otherwise quickly descend into monotony.  Besides, in a game of high scores such as this, who wouldn’t want a shot at bonus points?

An interesting thing about Alien is that while its connection to the movie is, by and large, contained only in the instruction manual and box description, the game itself actually references other movies.  A few of the bonus items that appear in Alien’s later rounds, analogously to Pac-Man’s various fruits and bells and keys, include what appear to be TIE Fighters and Starship Enterprises. It’s hard to know exactly what these objects are truly supposed to represent, since even the instruction manual refers to them only as “1st Surprise,” “2nd Surprise,” and “3rd Surprise.”  They sure look like TIEs and Enterprises, though.

The back of Alien’s box does give a nod to Tom Skerritt’s character from the movie, however, noting that the game was programmed by “Dallas North” (actually Doug Neubauer, who went on to do the outstanding Solaris, Super Football, and Radar Lock games toward the end of the 2600’s life).  “Dallas” also provides playing tips in the instruction manual.

As if you’d want playing tips from this guy. If you do, you probably didn’t see Alien.

In spite of its idiosyncrasies (and what Atari VCS game is without those?), Alien is one of my favorite Atari games. It’s arguably a better Pac-Man game than Atari’s own 2600 version of Pac-Man, and unquestionably superior to weak “me too” titles like Apollo’s Shark Attack.  It’s got pretty good graphics (by 1982 Atari VCS standards) and effective sounds.  The controls are responsive and tight.  The game is well-designed, and has a good mix of difficulty with four skill levels.  It’s based on the greatest science fiction movie ever made.  And most importantly, it’s fun.  What’s not to like?

If you’re looking to build up your Atari library, or maybe get into collecting, Alien is a pretty easy title to come by and shouldn’t run you much more than $5.00, maybe $10-15 with a box and manual.  I highly recommend picking it up.  There is, however, another version of Alien that is exceptionally rare.  This is the version “released” by Xante.  By “released,” I mean Xante’s cartridges were actually created in kiosks where a customer could select an existing game -licensed from other companies, in this case Fox Games- and download it over a phone line onto an EPROM, creating the cartridge on the spot.

Regular Alien cartridge = $5.00…

…Xante Alien cartridge = $ Crew Expendable

Until next time, this is Jeffery K., last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off!

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

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