Pastel Horrors

Alien Syndrome is an Arcade game born in 1987. It's a top-down run and gun game based on the Alien movie. The game itself isn't much to hang in the Yule-tree, but it does have one thing going for it. The art style clashes with the scary alien theme in a humorous way. All the aliens are drawn with happy pastel colors and don't look very scary at all. Unfortunately all the sequels and ports have completely ignored this defining aspect of the game and went for a more serious gritty look instead. What a pity.

Edit: It's possible that the game was darker on a real arcade machine and didn't have a happy pastel look.

The gameplay consists of searching for comrades (other humans) who have been stranded on various space ships. Each spaceship is like a little maze, and you have to find a number of comrades and reach the exit. When you pick up a comrade (by touching) they will just disappear. Maybe they're beamed off the ship. They're also immune to the mean aliens while the player is not. The player can not leave the ship until a number of comrades have been saved. There's a time limit which stresses the player to move along. The aliens just teleport in, and although only a certain number of them can appear on screen at once, there's no shortage of supply.

Certainly, the game is not meant to be realistic. The use of abstractions can be handy when trying to deliver an arcade experience. However when devising an simplified rules of something that is realistic, it's easy to start accumulating exception rules to patch things up. In the case of Alien Syndrome you have infinitely respawning aliens, and the player has infinite ammo. This creates a scoring problem. The player could just stand and accumulate easy points all day (and hog the arcade machine). To patch this problem a timer was introduced (a self-destruct, time bomb or whatever).

Robotron aside, I don't really care for highscores, and a timer not only stresses me, it kills immersion too. It's like something outside of the game is counting and checking up on me. It's a bit like not being able to put on high level boots in an RPG because I'm low level and using the boots too early would break the (poorly devised) game.

If Alien Syndrome had been for a modern PC, a lot of fun stuff could be made. Finite ammo, health and pickups could keep the player moving about looking for loot. If the alien reproduction is integrated into the gameplay then various tactical situations could emerge, such as destroying the queen, food supplies, blocking off paths, etc. The larvae could develop into different things depending on what food they find. Maybe the aliens use smell trails like ants do, and the player could manipulate those. The Comrades could barricade themselves in, engaging in firefights with the aliens, holding until the player arrives. The missions could vary in nature and the solutions could be improvised.

Yeah, well, enough feature creep and brain farts for today. I might post some other stuff soon...


Anonymous said...

I got Alien Syndrome for PSP, but thanks to other matters (coughMegamancough) I haven't played it yet. And word on the timer; that's what makes playing Scurge: Hive so harrowing.

Great art as usual man, and lol at Pipley. ~RADIX

Arne said...

I've been wanting to get my hands on MM Powered Up and the MM Legends ports. I don't have a PSP though. Being a fan of the first games, I'm also excited about the MM 9 announcement. I'll be posting bits of my MM project soon, perhaps. I started to rework it when the MM 9 news hit me.

Hardcore gaming 101 has an article on Alien Syndrome with comparisons of the different ports.

Ian said...

Hey man, you've really been an inspiration for me, artistically as well as with game design. You've gotten me to try a lot of older games that I missed when I was younger.

I'd be honored if you tried out the game my friend and I are making, Gammon Trigger. It's a spacey, Star Flight-esque game, so I hope you'll give it a shot! We've got a playable demo at my website. (

Anyway, sorry to make this sound like an ad, I'm just really interested in what you'd think about our game! Hope to hear from you soon.

Jocke said...

I tried out the Amiga port of Alien Syndrome recently and it didn't even come near my enjoyment of the art style and gameplay of the arcade version.

Arne said...

I played the NES port, and wasn't too impressed... but to be honest the gameplay of the arcade version felt really vanilla too. I think it would be fun if the premise with 'terrible aliens' was taken more seriously in terms of realism in the gameplay. Then I think the clash with the cute graphics would be greater, which would make the game stand out.

I'll see if I can take a look, Ian.

laserbeing said...

The idea of having an alien ecosystem and life cycle is very appealing. It might also be cool to take some aspects from the 1984 "Alien" game for the Commodore 64, where you could give orders to each of your crew members, but they each had morale (you'd feel much more confident crawling through ducts with a flamethrower than with a cat box) and various randomised psychological traits (including randomly deciding which character was secretly an AI saboteur, so you don't know who to trust even if you've seen the movie!). You could do lots of neat stuff too like blow the airlocks or set the ship to self-destruct. It had a very creepy atmosphere but the menu interface was pretty clunky; it'd be interesting to see what it'd be like with simpler, more action-oriented gameplay.

you rock said...

geezus dude you rock