Retro Game Review: “Alien Syndrome” (NES, Festival of Dread Special)
Welcome back to the Festival of Dread, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things inhuman and otherworldly.
Halloween is mostly known for ghouls, goblins, and the like, but aliens are sometimes wrapped up in the festivities due to their often frightening portrayal in pop culture and – you know – their propensity for probing.
If any representation of space aliens deserves to be considered “horror” (at least when it comes to retro video games), it’s Alien Syndrome. Originally developed by SEGA for the arcade in 1987, Alien Syndrome is an overhead action game where one or two players must infiltrate six alien-ridden, sci-fi environments to save their imperiled fellow troopers.
Among the several home releases of the game, Tengen (aka Atari) ported the game to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989. How does this particular version stack up after a few decades?
Space Aliens. They’re not just illegal. They’re SPACE illegal.
Your comrades are stranded, and an alien menace is spreading like a virus through the galaxy. It’s up to you to rescue them and defeat the extra-terrestrial evil before it infests every corner of space. Maybe. That story makes just as much sense as anything else.
Players choose between troopers Mary and Ricky, both of whom are primed and ready to annihilate every last one of the the unearthly uglies from six separate areas. The stages scroll in eight directions, and the environments range from space stations to rugged planet surfaces. They all have one thing in common though: a plethora of regenerating alien drones who are continually hounding you, and yes – one hit equals a lost life. There is generally one single enemy type per stage, unless you count the enemy generators, too. These start off as slow and easy to dodge, but as you progress through each area, the enemies and their projectiles become much faster.
The stages aren’t remarkably large by current-day standards, but it can be hard to keep track of where you have and have not explored. This would make finding that last hostage or two a bit of a pain, but every stage also has a few map stations scattered throughout, and these thankfully mark out the location of each remaining hostage.
Mary and Rick are loaded with a standard issue gun – erm, a “space” gun, I guess? You can find various weapon upgrades scattered across each stage, including fireballs (more powerful shots), lasers (can pass through multiple enemies) and flamethrowers (short range but more continuous). All of the weapons have infinite ammunition, so you don’t have to use them sparingly. And it should go without saying that the laser is the best.
Your character controls work well enough, although the NES controller makes traversing diagonally a bit tougher than they are on either the arcade original or the SEGA Master System 8-bit counterpart.
Once you rescue all twelve hostages in a stage, the final door opens and its time to make your way to the big boss fight. These all take place against a solid black screen, but each boss creature is fairly large and some are disturbingly designed, looking to take inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing and the work of H.P. Lovecraft. In other words, they look pretty cool.
But are they very tough? Sort of. Despite being large, they lumber around the screen slowly and it’s honestly easy to avoid both them and their attacks. However, it’s not always easy to land a successful hit on them, and this is where Alien Syndrome’s most dangerous enemy comes into play: the time limit. Every stage has ticking timer before “the bomb” goes off, giving you limited time to rescue all of the hostages, survive the enemy attacks, find the boss door, and then defeat the final stage boss. So if you don’t successfully navigate the stage quickly enough, you’re basically screwed when you reach the boss.
If you are skilled enough to complete all six of Alien Syndrome’s main stages, then you move on to the game’s final boss: King Core. His majesty is certainly the game’s largest boss, but I wouldn’t call him the most difficult. Finish him off, and you’re greeted with the game’s ending where Mary and Ricky get it on. Good on them. The galaxy isn’t going to repopulate itself now, is it?
Aside from the challenge of finishing the game, your performance is graded when playing with two players, and the “winner” receives a medal, adding a bit of extra challenge and competition aside from surviving the stages.
Aesthetically, Alien Syndrome has a very creepy, ominous presentation. The endless waves of creeping enemies and the droning music work together to create an anxious atmosphere that was unique for arcade games of the time. Most of the stages themselves are fairly hollow, which allows for a lot of room to maneuver and but does little to provide much visual stimulation. Generally, I found that the more organic backgrounds in the planet side stages were more interesting than the sterile, tiled designs of the space stations, even though it didn’t make much sense for electronic maps to be posted on cliff walls. If you are looking for a “stimulating” background, though, just wait until you reach the garish pink, yellow and orange crime against humanity that is stage five.
The character designs for Mary and Rick are simple, and their animations are minimal, as well. I’ve already touched on the interesting boss designs, but the basic enemy designs aren’t quite as inspired. Most of them are generic looking pink and green creatures of one kind or another, though one is clearly inspired by the Xenomorph from the Alien movie series. One of the enemy generators does look suspiciously like an oversized vagina barfing out aliens, which is pretty funny. It would have been nice to have a mix of character designs in each stage, though. As it is, each stage features only one enemy type.
As far as sound is concerned, the main background music is moody and monotonous, but it absolutely contributes to the foreboding mood of the game. Other than the stage music, there is also a generic track for the boss fights and a faster paced tune that plays when it’s time to find the boss door, which has appropriately driving beat but sounds tonally like an alarm clock. The sound effects are tinny, NES fare – unremarkable but adequate.
A cure for what ails you?
For those interested in the history of game development, Alien Syndrome bridges the gap between Gauntlet and Zombies Ate My Neighbors. It is also one of the first games I remember as being “scary,” and the Tengen port is completely competent in translating that experience to the NES. It’s just as short as the arcade game and the time limit will cause frustrations, but retro gamers looking for a slice of sci-fi horror on the NES could do a lot worse. If you do manage to complete the game, playing two-player to compete for score is a good way to extend the replay value, if you have a second player at the ready, of course.
It isn’t as strong as the SEGA Master System version, and of course it pales in comparison to the arcade original, but Nintendo’s “little 8-bit box that could” delivers a decent arcade experience with Alien Syndrome, and it isn’t exactly an expensive pickup on the secondary market, either (roughly $10-$15 loose at the time of this writing). That may still be a bit high considering that the original arcade game is unlockable in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for PS3 and Xbox 360. Of course, there’s also the decades-later sequel/reboot that landed on the PSP and Nintendo Wii in 2007 that went virtually unplayed by all… but that may be best left for a future Festival of Dread.
Thanks for reading!
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