23/08/2017

ALIEN STORM (ARCADE)

So, part of the reason that I chose to write about today’s game is because Sonic Mania is out. I haven’t played it, but I’ve watched a bit of other people playing it and even as someone who’s not particularly a Sonic fan I must say it looks very good. Plus, it got me to thinking that I’d like to cover a brightly-coloured action game from Sega, something from a genre you don’t see much these days and one that’s littered with nods to the games of Sega’s past. As a result, here’s a bunch of words about Sega’s 1990 arcade triplicated-fun-em-up Alien Storm!


First things first, that’s a really great logo. Striking typography in a colour that could only be called “Alien Blood Green” it it was a crayon, set into a what appears to be the contents of an alien’s skip during some extensive home remodelling. There’s also an eyeball peering out of the bottom-right corner. If you want to increase the spookiness of your logo, slapping a twitching eyeball on it somewhere never fails.
Interestingly, just before this title screen appears the logos for previous Sega classics Golden Axe, Shinobi and Altered Beast fly past. I presume the intent was to create a “from the creators of such hits as...” feel, as well as firmly establishing that Alien Storm takes pride of place in this famous lineage. Of the three it’s Golden Axe that feels like Alien Storm’s closest ancestor, but we’ll get to that later.


For now, let’s meet the game’s heroes. They’re busy working their day jobs as the owners and staff of the “Alien Burgers” fast food van, because there’s not much funding for intergalactic monster fighters and they have to pay the bills somehow. I think this might be the burger van that used to park outside club nights at the student union, their burgers definitely had something ineffably alien about them.
Anyway, these fine, upstanding folks who I’m sure obey all food safety laws are Gordon and Karla – they run the kitchen – and Scooter, who is a robot, a waiter and, one assumes, a sort of mobile condiment dispenser. When an alien menace threatens the Earth, these three heroes switch from flipping burgers to cracking skulls. Literally flip, in the case of the van’s signage, which flips over to change from “Alien Burgers” to “Alien Busters.”


Here’s a wonderful little touch – if you go into the game’s service menu, you can change the place name on the van’s signboard to read whatever you’d like. Normally it says “Sega World,” but obviously I changed it to VGJunk. How cool is that? Well, let me check the Cool-O-Meter… and it’s a solid nine-out-of-ten! Very cool indeed. Hmm, just out of curiosity, I wonder what’d happen if I put myself through the Cool-O-Meter? Oh. Well, that’s disappointing, but not unexpected.


I really like that the first time you see an alien, it’s standing in a 24-hour convenience store with a human captive tucked under its arm. It gives the impression that the alien was throwing a dinner party but forgot to pick up the main ingredient.


I decided to begin the game as Gordon, for no reason other than he’s the first one highlighted on the character select screen. Gordon’s got a little bit of Elvis about him, especially on his status portrait where the high collar and quiff definitely bring to mind The King during his overweight, jumpsuited phase. One thing Gordon has that Elvis didn’t is high-tech gun that fires short-range bursts of electricity, which is what he’s going to be using to fight these alien slugs that were hiding underneath the bins. The aliens in this game love hiding underneath things, so bear that in mind.


As you begin zapping the hideous creatures, it’s clear that (for now) Alien Storm is a side-scrolling beat-em-up. You walk from left to right, eliminating the aliens by repeatedly tapping the attack button to perform combos in exactly the way you’d expect. You can also run by double tapping the stick or press a button to fling yourself across the screen, a move that’s useful both for avoiding incoming attacks and closing the distance on far-away foes by flying towards them with your fist outstretched like a human cannonball with a grudge against space monsters. The fighting mostly proceeds as you would expect it to in any other side-scrolling brawler, although it does have its quirks.


For one thing, most of the enemies in the game are quite a bit shorter than the player character so you spend a lot of time attacking downwards. Thankfully, all the characters have their own moves to compensate for the slight angle: Gordon, for instance, whips out a rocket launcher to deal with the beasts nibbling at his toes. An extreme response when a hefty boot to the face might be the more expedient solution, but you can’t give this alien scum an inch.
It’s also a bit strange that your characters have projectile weapons, but the projectiles don’t travel very far, leading to the slightly strange sensation that you’re not at the right distance to be landing hits – it feels like you should either be slightly closer or further away. Still, it’s not something that takes much adjusting for, and after this first brief section of xeno-zapping action you should have the gist of it figured out.


Don’t get complacent, though: after a couple of screens, Gordon makes his way into the supermarket from the intro and Alien Storm flips genres. It’s a first-person crosshair shooter now! You control the character’s targeting reticle, aliens appear and you have to shoot them. I hope you like tapping the fire button, because you’re going to be doing it a lot. All told, it’s a very self-explanatory section, being basically a digital carnival game.


It’s an enjoyable area, even if it is a bit basic. Your crosshair moves quickly enough that you can respond to threats, but not so fast that it’s difficult to control. The aliens jump out at you in well-designed waves, so it doesn’t feel too random. However, the absolute best thing about these shooter sections is the way you can blow the shit out of the background. It always warms my heart when a game gives you the opportunity to completely level an area – this is one of the reasons I love the EDF games so much – and in Alien Storm’s shooting gallery every square inch of the background is a viable target, with shredded debris and canned goods flying toward the player as Gordon’s conveniently elongated electro-gun smashes the store to pieces. There’s even a reward for wrecking the joint: many background elements reveal small “Energy” power-ups when destroyed, and you’re going to need those later.


One of the aliens takes slightly more shots to kill than the others, but there’s nothing you’d really consider a “boss” in the shooting stage and soon it’s all over. Gordon leaves the store with the niggling thought that the shop’s owner may have preferred a lingering death in the aliens’ incubation chambers to having to clean up the mess he’s left behind. Then he gets into the ultra-rad Alien Bustersmobile and drives away to the next stage. Just looking at the excellent sprite work on that van is making me sad that there was never an Alien Storm toy line, complete with vehicles and a “Gross-Out Grocery” playset with exploding produce action.


The Sega references come thick and fast during the introduction to mission two, which posits a world where Sega completely dominate the television industry. Altered Beast gets a mention, and I assume the word “Crack” back there is supposed to be the first half of Crack Down, Sega’s top-down arcade shooter. Shinobi’s Joe Musashi makes an appearance at the bottom-left – at least I assume it’s supposed to be Joe, it is a very small image – but best of all is what seems to be a promo for a Golden Axe TV show. Man, I’d love to see a Golden Axe TV show. I’d want it to have the budget and “prestige television” ambitions of Game of Thrones, but each episode is just an hour of three people walking from left to right and beating up skeletons.


Mission two begins with some more street brawling, and I’m very glad I managed to capture a screenshot of Gordon in mid-flight as he uses his rolling attack to pounce, tiger-like, onto a small green gremlin. You can get some real distance on this move, I’d recommend you use it a lot to get out of tricky situations.


However, sometimes rolling isn’t enough. In those situations, you can press the third control button to activate a screen-clearing special move. In Gordon’s case, he summons a hyper-advanced fighter jet to bombard the aliens scum. The fact that the jet says “US Air Force” on it raises some questions, namely “why the hell am I out here in a sleeveless onesie when the US military have hyper-advanced fighter jets?”
Unlike most belt-scrolling brawlers, where using a special move costs some of your health, in Alien Storm you have a supply of “energy” that’s depleted every time you summon the big guns. That’s why it’s so important to destroy everything you can in the shooter stages, because later in the game having a plentiful supply of energy becomes almost mandatory.


Suddenly it’s all change once again as Alien Storm introduces its third and final gameplay style into the mix. It’s run-n-gun action in the most literal sense, with your character sprinting across a scrolling landscape while trying to shoot the alien hordes that appear in front of them. It’s closer to a horizontal shoot-em-up than anything else: you can move up and down, and your weapon now has the ability to fire projectiles all the way across the screen, so while it’s not quite Gradius it’s definitely in the same ballpark.


Is it any fun? Yeah, I’d say so. It’s certainly fast, and aside from a lack of autofire it controls well. There’s enough danger to keep your heart rate up, and I was always happy to see a running segment come up because they’re the easiest gameplay style of the three and a bit of a break is nice every now and then. In the intro, Alien Storm describes itself as “triplicated fun!” and so far, I’d have to agree with that assessment. While the gameplay isn’t anything particularly mind-blowing, what’s there is fun and doesn’t suffer too much from the feeling of spreading itself too thin that so many multi-genre games suffer from. Mind you, it could be a substantially less fun game to play and I’d still be enjoying, thanks in no small part to the absolutely grotesque enemy designs. Some of them seem heavily influenced by The Thing, especially the ones made from spider legs and random organs, but each and every one of them is a precious, hideous lump of biological randomness and it warms my heart to see them. I mean, check out the grey thing above: part bat, part slug, part screaming mound of unsettlingly human faces. That’s my kind of monster design.


I decided to switch to playing as Karla for a while. As a brunette with a shoulder-slung flamethrower who fights space monsters, I have to assume that Ripley from the Alien movies was a big influence on Karla’s design. Speaking of designs, check out that alien child. How wonderful is that thing, with its shorts, its baseball cap and its arm-swinging, carefree gait? I have so many questions about that thing. Was it a human child that’s been somehow infected by the aliens, or is this just what juvenile aliens look like – that is, like bootleg Bart Simpson merchandise created in the tat factories of Zeta Reticuli 5?


She might have a flamethrower rather than an electro-cannon, but Karla fights almost identically to Gordon. In fact, all three characters are pretty interchangeable, much as they were in Golden Axe. I mentioned that Golden Axe is Alien Storm’s closest relative, and obviously that’s mostly true of the beat-em-up sections. The combat feels very much like it’s running on the same engine as Golden Axe, especially rhythm of the attacks in your combo and the running / charging moves. I believe the staff that made Golden Axe did work on Alien Storm as part of Sega’s “Team Shinobi” development arm, (which might have become Sega AM1, but I’m not sure on that,) and overall Alien Storm definitely feels like a pseudo-sequel to Golden Axe, or at least it would if it wasn’t for all the running and first-person shooting segments. It’s strange, actually – I always think of Alien Storm as a side-scrolling beat-em-up, even though that only makes up a third of the gameplay. Maybe that’s because I played the Megadrive port a lot as a kid, that version felt a bit more focused on the hand-to-tentacle combat.


Here’s another shooter section, inside the electronics store from the stage’s intro. As before, aliens are everywhere and will pop up to with swipe at you with their claws or vomit balls of… something at the player. Balls of vomit, I suppose, but deadly alien vomit. It’s all very straightforward. Don’t worry about the civilians in the background, you can’t hurt them. It’s a bloody good job too, a flamethrower is not exactly the weapon of a precise marksman.


After that section, it’s on to mission three: more city streets packed with aliens. In this case, there are immobile sporepods that belch gas at the player, plus these flying creatures with heads like a grim-n-gritty reboot of Pac-Man and giant grabbing hands. You know what they say about aliens with massive hands… that’s right, they’ll pick you up and then drop you on to the concrete. You’d think the flamethrower would make them think twice, but their only purpose in life is aggressive hugging and they will not be dissuaded from their mission. Actually, when I was playing as Karla I did notice that it seemed a little more difficult to hit the aliens with her flamethrower, as though it had a slightly smaller hitbox or something. It might have just been me, but I noticed it happen enough times that I quickly decided to switch to playing as Scooter.


Pictured above: Scooter’s arm, which is also Scooter’s gun. In addition: cars, aliens. Shoot the aliens. Hell, shoot the cars, too, they might have energy inside. Above all, however, I would prioritise shooting the aliens on the ceiling. They’re not the most dangerous, but the fact they look like sentient piles of shit is upsetting me and I’d like them removed post-haste.


Here’s Scooter on the move, both running and gunning. The alien hordes stand no chance against our mechanised friend, and he’s my personal favourite of the three characters. His general build and the circular shape on his abdomen bring to mind beloved metallic fusspot C-3PO, except Scooter is more useful in a fight.


Speaking of fighting, Scooter mostly attacks using an electric whip, something that always makes me think of Lister from Red Dwarf saying “a rather sturdy holowhip” whenever I see it. I assume Scooter’s whip can also mince alien derrières like burger meat, but if that doesn’t work Scooter can fall back on the gun in the sole of his foot or the tiny grenades that pop out of the top of his head.


The pinnacle of Scooter’s combat repertoire, however, is his special attack. He blows himself up, leaving only his head behind. While the enemies are stunned / dead, one of Scooter’s spare robot bodies runs unto the screen, picks up the stray head and affixes it to his shoulder in what is one of the all-time greatest special attacks in retro gaming, even if it does make you wonder how Scooter can ever be defeated by the aliens if he has a supply of spare bodies waiting just off-camera.


After another shooter section, Scooter faces off against a boss. This is unusual, because Alien Storm doesn’t really do bosses, at least not in the traditional beat-em-up manner of having one waiting at the end of each stage. This thing is definitely a boss, though. How can I tell? Because he’s got three forms, that’s how. The first is this bearded electro-slug monstrosity, rendered in a delightful shade of trodden-in bubblegum pink. I had quite a bit of trouble fighting this thing – I never really figured out the best direction to attack it from, and because it can shoot lightning in all directions it never felt safe to go near it.


In the end I just made Scooter blow up a few times, which caused the boss to mutate into an enormous horned creature with hands like mittens and a rarely-seen one-head-two-necks situation. Maybe someone was trying to replicate the xenomorphs from Aliens using a misunderstood description of their two sets of jaws.
This form is much easier to fight, because its attacks aren’t quite so all-encompassing. You still have to watch out for its most dangerous attack, where it creates a fist from the flesh of its pendulous gut and punches you with it, but in general some hit-and-run tactics will see you through.


Finally, the boss morphs into this amazing and deeply unpleasant behemoth. It’s a design that possesses the Lovecraftian notion of a wholly alien biology, while at the same time being extremely goofy. It’s not often you get to fight something that looks like a vengeful spirit summoned by the collective anger of all the world’s doner kebabs.
This form of the boss likes to fire small explosives from the, erm, protuberances around its bottom edge. Let’s call them “trunks,” because any alternative is too unpleasant to contemplate. Once again, hit-and-run tactics are the way to go. I think. I spent most of the fight doing the jump attack through the boss, and that seemed to work.


Once King Kebab is destroyed, it’s on to mission four. The alien’s UFO is in sight, and it’s up to the Alien Busters to track it down and destroy it. It terms of gameplay, it’s more of the same: some shooting, some running, some beating ‘em up. The big boss did mark a noticeable increase in Alien Storm’s difficulty level, and I’ll be honest – from here on out, getting through the stages becomes less engaging and even veers towards becoming a bit of a slog as the coin-munching habits of the arcade make themselves felt. That said, I’m not disappointed. How could I be? There’s a large alien being ridden by two smaller aliens, one of them pointing out the way ahead and presumably barking out orders like “get the big guys in the suits first, they’ve got more biomass to genetically tamper with!” I’d happily play through Rugrats: Totally Angelica again if it showed me scenes like this between stages.


Yes, I think it’s fair to say that Alien Storm’s big draw is that it looks fantastic, both in terms of design and execution. The graphics are pin-sharp and vibrant, the alien designs are unique and joyfully disgusting and there are fun details scattered throughout every scene, like the chickens that appear when you’re fighting in this warehouse. The way they look slightly confused and wander away when you free them from their cages – as you’d expect a chicken to do, even in the midst of an alien invasion – is utterly charming to me.


This mission ends with a running section, where you must chase the UFO and avoid the spiked barriers it drops while shooting it in the arse. I think the alien craft is biological enough for me to describe the back end as its "arse", right?


Okay, now Scooter’s been eaten by a different spaceship. This one definitely has an arse. I mean, it’s got a face on the front, so it stands to reason.


For their final and most dangerous missions, the Alien Busters find themselves deep inside the warm, pulsating innards of the alien mothership. Being trapped inside a nightmarish labyrinth of heaving flesh and dripping ichor means I’m not going to be fooled by the alien hiding under the vending machine, but I appreciate the effort.


On the subject of dripping ichor, this shooter section has more nauseating fluids than a swinger’s club on Free Laxatives day. I have to assume that causing such massive internal damage is hurting the ship, and that’s why it’s set these kangaroo-like aliens after me. Unlike our Earth kangaroos, however, their pouches contain not adorable baby kangaroos but vicious biting parasites that the aliens haul from their pouches and throw at your face.


Having battled through the first wave of the mothership’s defences, the Alien Busters find themselves in the ship’s cratered, wormy rear end. The backside of the ship is where its brain is located, so I guess this ship is also a politician, ha ha ha, thank you, a bit of satirical humour for you there.


The final mission is made up of a few single-screen beat-em-up sections and a rematch against the triple-changing boss, and before long you’ll find yourself at the ultimate showdown. It’s a shooter section, and as you can see above it gets a little hectic. Vast swarms of aliens flood in from all sides of the screen, and it’s nigh-impossible to avoid taking large amounts of damage simply because you can’t shoot all the aliens in time. It can get a bit aggravating, having gone past “challenging” and into “you die now” territory, but you can continue where you left off if you die so it’s not too bad.
Your final target is the brain in the background, Ol’ Squishy itself, the alien mastermind. Hang on, I recognise that eye – this is the same creature that was watching me from behind the title screen logo, right? Whatever it is, it doesn’t do anything, so you’re free to spend the battle desperately struggling to protect yourself from the attacking aliens. If you can survive for long enough, eventually enough of your wayward shots will hit the brain for the alien leader to be defeated and the Alien Busters to emerge victorious.


With the mothership destroyed, our heroes float back to Earth in a convenient space-bubble that comes to their rescue. They drift down to the planet where they will resume their lives as humble burger-flippers, ever alert to the danger from beyond the stars. Fearless, mighty, generous with the fried onions: they are the Alien Busters!


Another thing Alien Storm has in common with Golden Axe is that they both have a wonderfully daft ending that plays after the regular “world saved, good job” ending. In Golden Axe the game’s characters escaped from the arcade machine and into the real world: in Alien Storm, our heroes perform a strange dance reminiscent of Madness’ nutty walk through the vastness of space while enemy sprites fly past, interspersed with flashing images of various scenes from the game. It is a fitting end to a deeply, captivatingly odd game.


The final scores are in, and it looks like Scooter’s in with a good chance of taking home the gold! A couple of tens, and unexpected eight from the notoriously hard-to-please Gilius Thunderhead and only a three from the man in the suit to drag things down. This is because I made that crack about you having the most biomass, isn’t it? A shocking lack of impartiality on the judging panel there, folks.


Well, that was a hell of a ride, wasn’t it? And boy, did I have a good time. I have to split my appraisal of Alien Storm into two halves, I reckon. On one hand, there’s the gameplay. It’s fun, especially in the earlier stages, with each of the three modes adding something a bit different and none of them feeling half-arsed. However, as the game progresses, the number of aliens ramps up and the difficulty level becomes ever more punishing, it does lose some of its appeal. I think the biggest problem is that it starts to feel slow after the three-stage boss, and you’re wading through a morass of mutants where before you were zipping through the action at good clip. It gets a bit bogged down, that’s all.
Then there’s everything else. The presentation, the sense of fun, the overall feeling that the developers were having a great time making a bonkers action game – this is what makes Alien Storm such a pleasure to experience. That’s the best way to think of Alien Storm: as an experience, rather than as a pure gameplay vehicle, and any game starring a whip-wielding, self-destructing robot called Scooter who gets punched by an alien monster’s gut-fist is worth experiencing.

9 comments:

  1. Enjoyed reading that! Loved what I heard about the arcade as a kid and got the dreadful Master System port so I could play it...bad times.

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    1. It looks like a lot of the game wound up on the cutting room floor when it was ported to the Genesis, too. Frustrating.

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    2. I actually liked the master system version. Lack of Karla and two player mode was a poor decision but other than that, It was one of the better 8bit arcade ports.
      Master System version of Golden Axe and especially Shadow Dancer were definitely much, much worse.

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    3. You know, I don't think I've ever played the Master System version. I've played the Megadrive port a bunch, and I still kinda like it - it's even got a few bits that aren't in the arcade version!

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  2. Awesome ^^ I like this game (from what I know of it).
    P.S.:"screenshot of Gordon in mid-flight" repeats right after itself, instead of the screen with the jet described in text.

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    1. Thanks for the heads-up, I've fixed it now.

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  3. I love that final score screen. It's totally surreal, which is something you rarely see anymore.
    Also, kebab is the first thing I saw in the 3rd form of that boss, as well.

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    1. It definitely made me *want* a kebab, that's for sure. Although it doesn't take much to make me want a kebab.

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  4. Scooter looks like a cross between Gundam and C3PO! I also wonder if he's into S&M, given that he uses a whip and is fond of blowing himself up...

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