What Is It?
Developed and released in 1984 by Concept Software for the home computer market, Alien is one of the early examples of a blockbuster movie getting the video game treatment. It’s not the first Alien game; that honor belongs to the Atari 2600 effort that came out two years prior. But this title — which graced the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC — is the first to portray the franchise with gameplay approaching something sophisticated. And, dare I say it, it might even be one of the first examples of a true survival horror game.
It’s a real-time adventure/strategy game that mirrors the events of the film, and begins shortly after its infamous chest-bursting scene. The Alien has hatched, and your goal is simple: you must move Ripley and the crew around the Nostromo, gather items that can put a stop to the alien, and exterminate it.
But there’s a few twists in store. True to the film, one of your crew is an android determined to thwart your plans and instead help the Alien. And there’s no guarantee who it is. Each game plays differently, nominating a different character per play to be the android, and another to be the victim of the Alien’s chest-burst. Ripley herself could even be either, turning the narrative of the film on its head. Plus, to get a really good score, you also need to get the Nostromo back to Earth. Which also happens to have a depleting oxygen supply. Plus that pesky Alien hell-bent on killing you. All of you.
The game also offers two play modes: Full Scenario which plays as described above, or Short Scenario, which begins with a random half of the crew already dead. You want difficulty? Alien: Isolation has nothing on this.
One of the common beliefs in modern gaming is that 1996’s Resident Evil founded the survival horror genre. This is actually a bit of a falsehood. For certain, Capcom’s classic coined the term ‘survival horror’, but there have been numerous games that have incorporated the genre’s themes long before its release. Alone In The Dark (1992, multiple formats) and Sweet Home (1989, NES) immediately spring to mind — and Resident Evil’s developers have gone on record citing those two games as influences on their own mega-hit. But even before that, certain, more primitive games employed the same theme: the need to escape a deadly situation against unseen, monstrous foes, using whatever items you can find to survive.
Alien most definitely falls into this category. As both an objective-based, item-collecting strategy game and a real-time struggle against an Alien slowly closing in on your crew, it possesses mechanics that still form the basis of many survival horror games today.
A single playthrough reveals that Alien’s gameplay and AI are both staggeringly advanced for their time. As previously mentioned, you control the entire crew, moving them around one by one, as they roam the different chambers of the Nostromo in hope of finding useful weapons and other equipment. Critically, they have to work as a unit if they are to nullify its threat, and there are a number of ways this can be achieved. Taking the film’s route and trying to blow the ship up with the Alien on board is just one option. Sucking it out to space via an airlock is another. Or, you can simply collect as many weapons as you can and make a united stand to take it down.
For a game released in 1984, the variety of paths to victory is surprisingly abundant. With the random setup for different characters at the start (who’s handed the ‘android’ role etc.), this diversity — and the excitement that can result from it — is present from a very start of the game, too. It might be an arbitrary way of ensuring ‘no game plays the same way twice’, but it’s still one that fans of the film can get a kick out of. Did you ever feel like Dallas should have done a better job shuffling around in those air ducts, hunting the Alien down? Do you feel either Kane or Parker deserved a better say in their fates? All of these possible situations can arise (and more), completely re-shaping the film’s original events.
Uncannily, playing the game feels similar in pace to the movie as well. Although a game on Full mode is roughly just twenty minutes, everything still feels dramatically slow at first. Thanks to the controls, it’s also a bit monotonous. Moving your crew is a laborious process of moving the cursor up and down the menu on the right of the screen to determine where they go. All the while, the Alien is creeping around as well. Fortunately it doesn’t reveal itself at all in the first half of play, allowing you to build your arsenal and give yourself a fighting chance. This is a good thing, too — you definitely need every second of this time that you’re given.
Once the Alien does begin to make its move (and hopefully you’ll see it coming if you manage to find the Tracker), the entire flow of the game changes. It will suddenly come at you hard and fast — the previously ambient sound effects replaced by shrieking sirens. To make matters worse, it has a very good habit of getting through half your crew shortly after it emerges. Unless you’re properly tooled up at this point or have a position-based strategy to deal with the alien quickly, your chances of winning are incredibly slim. This is an 80s game, remember! None of those save points or easy modes for the casual these days.
Such a relentless climax is already enough for the game (at least for its time) to possess tension worthy of the film it’s attempting to emulate. But it still finds ways to dial it up even further. You still have the two additional problems of the Nostromo’s oxygen depleting by the second, and that android plotting against you. Specifically, it’s the latter threat that provides the game’s most uncertain — and frustrating — obstacle. Because you never know which crew member they’re masquerading as, you may have a great plan in place, only to have them turn and attack you, rendering it utterly futile. This annoyance is further compounded by the menu system you need to use to issue your crew commands. When the game suddenly demands split-second decisions, it is impossibly cumbersome, giving you little chance to quickly maneuver into a plan B.
Robbing the player of this dexterity in crucial moments is a serious mood killer. For all the complexities Alien can potentially offer, its control scheme can do an awfully good job of rendering them pointless. There are definitely surefire strategies you can employ to make the game ‘easily’ winnable. But figuring them out is often a case of trial and error, where the ‘error’ usually results in your strategy unravelling very quickly while you flounder hopelessly going through menu after menu. On most playthroughs, you’re going to be suffering just as much as the crew did in the original film.
Regardless of difficulty and irritating controls, gamers who also demand certain aesthetic standards might also begin suffering the moment they get to the title screen. Unquestionably, Alien looks pretty awful these days, and may even have done at the time of its launch. The Commodore 64 version reviewed here came out alongside its fellow ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC releases at the same time. Curiously though, it has adopted the same, garish look as those two, despite being on a better hardware platform. It wasn’t graphically fantastic then, and it definitely ain’t now. No amount of the love for retro in today’s gaming culture is going to make these ugly sprites pretty.
Ultimately, all of Alien’s item collecting and cautious planning is done with the aim of meeting the game’s objectives. There isn’t really a Game Over as such. Whether you win or you lose, you’re presented with a final status screen (above) judging your command aptitude over its run. Did you manage to get the Nostromo back to Earth, sans Alien? Did you keep all of your crew alive? Did you manage to rescue Jones the cat too? All of these factors play a part in the overall score you get in the end, and you should be prepared for some pretty harsh grades. Even following the same path of the film will get you a low score. But don’t worry — there’s always the chance to make things right the next time. Where the Alien will likely defeat you again. If it doesn’t, the controls definitely will.
Whatever the case, Alien for the Commodore 64 is an interesting keystone in the development of horror games. It may look and sound hideously dated (despite its creepy, kick-ass title screen theme) and suffer from various flaws. But it still retains an anxious atmosphere worthy of the original film. Whether it’s Alien or android, Ripley or Kane, you simply never know who’s going to turn up to ruin your best-laid plans — or save them. And it’s this knife edge between life and death that the great survival-horror games provide. Alien might not be great, but it definitely does a solid job of nailing that key requirement. And that means it still has the potential to be fun, too.
Like most Commodore 64 games, Alien is absolutely out-of-print in both its cassette or floppy disk formats. Your best bet is to look around online for independent Commodore game sellers, or eBay.
Media utilized in article is property of Concept Software, and Argus Press Software.