GameSpite Journal 10 | Alien 3

Alien 3 | Dev.: Probe | Pub: Acclaim | Genre: Run ‘N Gun Shooter | Release: May 1993

Aliens was one of the biggest movies of the ‘80s, a post-Star Wars work that brought a grittier, more violent edge to science fiction. Where the original Alien had been a pure entry in the horror genre, wrapping survival terror in the blue-collar perspective of a corporatized spacefaring future, Aliens was Reagan-era action. A troupe of ooh-rah marines (in space!) battled implacable waves of foes, attrition slowly whittling down their numbers to the core cast in classic Hollywood style. It was a hit and instantly inspired countless video games, notably Metroid and Contra?.

Its sequel, Alien 3, returned to the franchise’s horror roots. It was far less influential, its cultural impact weakened by executive meddling that severely compromised the film’s integrity. It wasn’t a terrible film, but it didn’t properly come into its own until a greatly improved director’s cut was released a decade later. Nevertheless, Alien 3 was quickly optioned for video game adaptations despite the fact that movie games of the era were inevitably all-out action affairs -- a poor fit for Alien 3’s claustrophobic tale of prisoners (in space!) desperate to survive as a single unseen terror picked them off.

Probe’s Alien 3 may not have recaptured the essence of the film’s story, but that’s forgivable in light of everything else it did achieve. Rather than focusing on the ragged-edged drama created by a monster-infected woman dropped into the midst of an all-men’s prison -- as heavy-handed an allegory as you could imagine in the age of AIDS -- Alien 3 the game was just Ellen Ripley, a bunch of guns, and even more aliens to slaughter. Faithful? Not at all. But oh so satisfying.

Fittingly, Alien 3 borrowed significantly from the Contra and Metroid series its film counterpart’s predecessor had helped inspire in the first place. It played down the platforming elements of those fan-favorites, with the jump button used primarily to evade foes rather than for navigation, and the progressive power-up mechanics and total free-roaming of Metroid were abandoned in favor of free exploration of medium-sized, self-contained levels.

Still, the influences were unmistakable. Ripley had access to a decent arsenal of guns, including pulse rifles (outfitted with a grenade launcher attachment capable of launching a bounding grenade into a nest of eggs with the same satisfying results seen in Aliens) as well as a relatively rare but marvelously effective napalm thrower. While the overall adventure was divided into half a dozen separate levels, within each of those hard divisions Ripley advanced by accepting missions from a central computer hub and seeking out her objectives within those areas’ otherwise open layouts.

While Alien 3 didn’t bother rendering much of its film source’s substance, only the superficial appearances, it did a bang-up job with those appearances. The dark claustrophobia of David Fincher’s prison planet was eerily recreated in 16-bit form, its rusty corridors and bleak commons areas dripping with alien slime and hiding god-knows-what kind of threats in their shadowy recesses. Alien 3 captured oppressive claustrophobia in a way no other 2D platformer managed -- not even Super Metroid.

The one crippling flaw in Alien 3 was its utter lack of variety. Probe was working with a fairly limited toybox, and once a player had seen the first level or two and cleared out waves of nasties in dingy grey corridors while on a prisoner-rescue mission, they’d seen pretty much the entire game. Subsequent stages simply repeated the same quest objectives, the same environments, and the same bad guys; later aliens hit harder and soaked up more damage, eventually to the point of frustration. But for those first few levels, Alien 3 was the finest video game adaptation of the films ever seen -- faithful to the source or not.

By Jeremy Parish? | Jan. 6, 2012 | Previous: Bubsy | Next: Shadowrun