With Aliens: Fireteam Elite's release on August 24 2021 approaching, fans of all things related to the Alien franchise have been given a perfect opportunity to reflect on the very best video games to star H. R. Giger's infamous xenomorph. And, as we collected in this piece from 2019, there have been a few outstanding examples, from the arcade action of Capcom's Alien vs Predator to 2014's Aliens-sequelling Alien Isolation. But there's also something missing from the best of the best: a halfway decent, official Alien/s game from the 1980s.
While 1986's Aliens and its 1979 predecessor did inspire some contemporaneous games of note, such as Metroid and Contra, interactive experiences specifically based on the movies and surrounding official media were in thin supply, and not exactly brilliant. 1982's Alien was a PAC-MAN-like maze effort for the Atari 2600, and immediately forgettable. 1986's Aliens, also known as Aliens: The Computer Game, turned James Cameron's explosive blockbuster into a mulch of mediocre mini-games.
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Later, Konami's 1990 arcade release of Aliens was loosely based on the movie of the same name but featured a blonde Ellen Ripley destroying waves of brightly coloured and highly varied-in-appearance aliens (and, um, zombies) in a classic side-scrolling setting. It's definitely fun, even today, but doesn't really capture the atmosphere of its inspirational cinematic experience. There were other titles that came and went, but none of them, arguably until 1993's Alien 3 on the Super Nintendo, really got Aliens right, in the gaming medium. (Shout out to 1989's proto-survival horror Project Firestart on the Commodore 64, though, for unofficially doing Alien Isolation 25 years early.)
But there was another option, before Probe Software's added-guns take on Alien 3 finally nailed both action and atmosphere in one package. Released for the Commodore Amiga in 1991, and the second game to come from the Wakefield-headquartered Team17 (best known today for the Worms series, and still publishing and developing a wealth of celebrated titles including Overcooked and Narita Boy), Alien Breed was a frankly shameless riff on 1986's Aliens, sending the player - as a member of the Inter-Planetary Corps - into a space station that's stopped all communication with the outside universe. Why have all of these humans gone so quiet, so suddenly? Take one guess - and try not to use any harsh language with it.
It's not colonists or scientists who greet you as you enter this high-security research facility, or any kind of friendly face at all. Instead it's teeth and claws, skittering smaller monsters (I mean, they're face huggers, clearly) and deadly shadows. The game is set over a series of maze-like levels which, funnily enough, are also the levels of the space station - the end of each is a lift to the next, with boss battles against larger beasts thrown in to keep you frosty. Sometimes doors are locked and so require keys, which you can guarantee are hidden beside some nasties, and 'Intex' computer terminals can be accessed to provide tips and information along the way.
While the toothy monster on the box art of Alien Breed isn't a dead ringer for an acid-spitting Giger bug, the in-game creatures, with their reaching arms and elongated, cylindrical heads, are quite obviously taking cues from the non-human, non-corporation antagonists of Alien and Aliens. But what really makes Alien Breed feel like it's more of an Alien series game than any official tie-in title before it is the atmosphere. While the overhead perspective ensures you're rarely surprised by a pair of jaws lurking around a corner, or caught by extraterrestrial fingers from a blind spot, there's nevertheless a palpable impression of fear and foreboding, as sinister clicks and screeches reverberate off the walls and computerised voices warn of low health and impending disaster.
Playing the original 1991 Alien Breed today, on its 30th anniversary - an expanded Special Edition followed a year later - I'm struck by how relentless it is. It's not a long game by any means, beatable in an hour, but it tests you consistently with little break for a breather (barring between-level loading). The first level, the hanger bay, eases you into the moodiness, the menace, with just a few targets to focus your firearm on. But from there it's an express elevator to hell, going down. Your pulse rifle-like starter weapon can repel the aliens when encountered one on one, but all too quickly it's clear that these things move in numbers, and will swarm your position with nary a care for their own preservation. As such, holding your ground and unloading at an oncoming pack simply doesn't work until you get some better protection - you have to keep on your toes, using the top-down perspective to your advantage to dodge the monsters completely when health is low and you need keys and ammo.
In classic Alien-series style, the endgame sees your protagonist racing through the bowels of the station, overrun with alien goo, as a self-destruct warning sears itself into your brain and a countdown ticks away. The only pause is for a final showdown with the 'queen' of the game who, mercifully, does not stowaway with you and subsequently surprise your android pal with a spear-like tail through the torso. Cue: a memorable closing sequence that I will not spoil, but will not disappoint. Or, maybe it will, your interstellar mileage may vary. I found it funny back in the Amiga's glory days, at least.
Alien Breed's critical and commercial success didn't just lead Team17 to release an expanded version - the studio followed it up with 1993's Alien Breed II: The Horror Continues, 1994's less-linear Tower Assault, 1995's DOOM-like FPS title Alien Breed 3D, and a 3D sequel the next year, The Killing Grounds. Not content with letting the franchise disappear, Team17 brought Alien Breed back in 2009 with Alien Breed: Evolution, which opened the airlock for three follow-ups. It's been a while since the last new game came out - 11 years and counting, since Alien Breed 3: Descent - but something tells me we've not seen the last of this one yet. The Alien of silver-screen infamy is one tough bitch to kill off - and Alien Breed's previous revival sets a strong precedent for a future return.
Alien Breed is GAMINGbible's Game of the Month on Antstream Arcade, an online retro and arcade games streaming service where you can play 1,000s of titles for free. Look out for a special 30th anniversary tournament for Alien Breed on Antstream in the coming months. You can check out features on our previous games of the month as follows: Mortal Kombat, Metal Slug, Earthworm Jim, Cannon Fodder.
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