Game of the Month: November 2018
If, like me, you spent an awful lot of time in arcade halls as kid then it’s probably fair to say that you were a bit of a Sega fan. Now let’s not get it twisted here folks, I’m not saying that they were the best producer of games (although they probably were), but what I am saying is that they seemed to have a new title out every other month at one point. They churned out more product than whichever boy/girl band is big right now (here’s hoping in the future people go back to listening to good music though so that last part reads poorly eh?) and most of the games they released were absolute corkers.
In several genres they were almost untouchable, racing/driving games for one and the other was side scrolling beat ‘em ups. From the moment titles like Altered Beast (most over-hyped pile of trash ever) and Golden Axe (awesome beyond words) rocked up they seemed to corner the market on this gaming genre. Ask gamers of now and for sure they will wheel off games like Streets of Rage and Golden Axe being the pin up poster stars for Sega developed beat ‘em ups (mostly because of the success of the Mega Drive/Genesis console, but to think that they were the only true greats is to sell Sega’s glorious back catalogue of corkers short. When you look a tiny bit deeper it’s crazy how many incredible gaming experiences they gave the world and several of them, although instantly recognize-able by most never really get to share in the limelight to the same degree as classics like Golden Axe and famous ‘dog poo’ games like Altered Beast (yeah I said it, that game is rubbish, come at me!)
Another important aspect of why Sega were so interesting, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s, was in how sometimes the home versions of their arcade games would look, feel and play differently. One such obvious example of this would be ‘Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker’ which in the arcade was an isometric multi-player beat ‘em up and for the console home ports it would become a side-on platform game with mild beat ‘em up and puzzle elements. When you also whack into the mix the completely different home computer games for formats such as the Amiga. Atari ST, C64, CPC and ZX Spectrum it’s quite fantastic to see one game title have such an interesting set of origin stories and final game differences.
So with it being another month and time to pick a game to focus on for everyone at RGG an executive decision was made by yours truly to forgo the usual debate and choose a game that was both excellent to play in those dimly lit arcade halls and equally as fantastic in the comfort of your home but that had differences in each version. In true RGG tradition though it’s not one of the usual suspects done to death a million times by magazines, websites and especially Youtubers such as Golden Axe it’s a Sega game that absolutely deserved way more love and respect on launch as well as now, many years after. Without further ado it’s time to jump in the old time travel ship (that’s your memory in case you’re wondering) and take a quick trip back to 1990 when being a fan of Sega was already amazing but about to enter it’s golden period.
For the month of November in the space year 2018 it’s time to choose a character, grab a friend (depending on version) and save the planet from invading aliens as we drive down memory lane to take a look at the absolutely wonderful and far too often casually overlooked scrolling beat ‘em up that is… Alien Storm!
Originally an arcade game, Alien Storm was another in a line of now famous beat ‘em up games from Sega. After Altered Beast in 1988 and Golden Axe in 1989, designer and director Makoto Uchida switched the tone massively with a game not set in mythical/historical or fantasy worlds and at the same time introduced humour and different game mechanics to create something familiar to fans of the genre but a video game that was fresh and new. Set inside a science fiction style universe you now battled in a more modern world setting against invading aliens intent on the total destruction of the Human Race.
The back-story to Alien Storm is exceptionally simple, shape changing Alien invaders are assuming different forms on the planet in order to take control. From actual people to objects such as waste paper bins they are everywhere and slowly but surely are taking humans captive. A familiar type of story to many old school gamers (aliens were the bad guys a lot of the time in the 80’s and 90’s) this Sci-Fi backdrop and plot instantly let everyone know that the object of this game was to lay the smack-down on these evil creatures, save the day and look cool.
From this point onwards however things get a tiny bit confusing as the arcade original gets one set of information about who you play as and pretty much every home conversion on console or computer get slightly changed details. For the arcade entry you take control of one of three people, Gordon, Karla and Scooter who seem to work on a mobile burger van called ‘Alien Burgers’. Upon hearing from someone in government via telephone that aliens are now among us, taking hostages and generally being a bit douchebag like, they shut up shop, switch the van logo to ‘Alien Busters’ and zoom off to save the day. After this pretty great intro sequence you then get to choose who to play as from the three available characters in a similar kind of fashion to that of Golden Axe, minus the awesome skeleton hand image of that game. It’s here where Alien Storm first shows how much it’s fresh and new because in the main arcade version you can actually play with 2 other players meaning that all three characters can be used at once. Whilst games like TMNT allowed for four players at once, Sega beat ‘em ups were traditionally one or two player affairs.
Gameplay remains that of a standard video-game of this genre with either Gordon, Karla or Scooter moving through the level and slapping aliens all over the place. Each of the characters has very specific moves and animation to showcase their specific traits or strengths. Gordon is very clearly the strong one and moves slightly slower, Karla is ultra quick, nimble but a bit weak and Scooter is clinical, precise and sort of sits between the two others from a power level perspective. In line with previous games like Golden Axe each of the people you choose to play as also has a special attack unique to them that is limited in it’s use and actually takes away energy from you on using it. Gordon summons an attack craft to strafe the ground, Karla calls in a mini nuke and Scooter detonates himself to cause huge damage to everyone on screen. For those familiar with previous games from Sega in this genre everything is very by the numbers at this point and it’s here that Alien Storm often gets mistaken for ‘just another beat ‘em up’… a hugely incorrect assessment.
The beat ‘em up genre up until this point was very much fixated on the fighting aspect with pretty much every game out there either moving around a single screen punching or kicking or scrolling the screen but still interacting in the same manner. Alien Storm took this approach and then added two other genres on top to expand everything. At certain parts the action switched to a first person mode where you enter buildings in order to shoot at aliens located within, a sort of ‘Operation Wolf’ type experience if you will allow the comparison, completely changes how the game plays and feels and ramps up the excitement level dramatically. The object of these sections is to dispatch the aliens but not shoot the humans who are running around in the background, you can also blast away at every bit of foreground and background scenery in order to find precious energy cannisters. Considering how several popular arcade and console games, T2 for example, relied completely on this style of game-play for the entire video-game to have it as another part of the overall experience was a huge plus for Alien Storm… but it didn’t stop there!
Once every few levels the action switched to an on-rails ‘Run & Gun’ type scenario where the screen would scroll incredibly quickly and you would have to move and shoot at things coming towards you. Whilst not as complicated or in-depth as it could have been it was another genius move in order to stop Alien Storm just being another game in the Golden Axe vein. Whilst that particular video-game is absolutely a classic it is only ever one thing, a side scrolling beat ‘em up, Alien Storm does that and so much more.
As the action moves along players are treated to yet more incredible tunes that absolutely sit in the mind and after time become something you will either hum along too or connect to certain levels when discussions about the game come up with friends or even better, strangers who share the same love of games as you do. The usual sound effects and voice samples are present as was the norm for both games of this genre and video-games from Sega in general. I particularly like how the music changes for the boss battles which are here although could have been done a bit better with more variation of enemy sprites. Overall though what stands out as much as the superb addition of numerous gameplay mechanics is just how gorgeous everything looks and feels. The presentation aspect of Alien Storm is so good with a brilliant intro sequence, a great animation of the game’s logo and brilliant depiction of both the aliens themselves and the level backdrops, in fact quite often you wish it would all slow down a bit so that you can spend a bit more time taking in the graphics.
Now, with anything released in the 1980’s or 1990’s in the arcade halls it was a matter of time before gamers got to play a version on their favourite home computer or games console and Alien Storm is no exception here. 8-Bit and 16-Bit home computer fans were treated to a 1991 port by Tiertex although that credit is buried underneath logos for Sega and the publisher, U.S. Gold. These home versions appeared on numerous systems such as the Amiga, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC 464 and a few others. Overall the quality of these ports were pretty decent with slight changes to level design and the omission of 3-player support. Unfortunately for technical reasons only 2 players could beat up those pesky aliens at a time. Obviously the 16-Bit versions looked the nicest compared to the blockier graphics for the 8-Bit home computers but overall each version looked and felt like Alien Storm although most were negatively reviewed by the press at the time for being either overly familiar or boring, ironic considering the same press gave games like Golden Axe praise for the exact same things a year earlier.
Console fans were not left out however and the Sega Master System was one such games machine to get a version of Alien Storm in PAL regions and in South America. Unfortunately though it’s a bit of a mess with support for just one player and the removal of many aspects, specifically the complete removal of Karla/Karen.
Where Alien Storm really came home however was the excellent 1991 Sega Mega Drive/Genesis conversion. Handled by Sega themselves (AM7) it was as close as anything ever got to the fantastic arcade original. Due to the console having just 2 controllers as a standard and other technical limitations this version of Alien Storm was also for just 1 or 2 players, which was sadly a bit of a missed opportunity. With slight changes to a few level backdrops, character name changes, character costume colours (depending on region), the removal of the super awesome intro sequence of the burger van and a reduction in graphics quality it missed the best opportunity to really step outside of Golden Axe’s shadow and stand on it’s own for it’s own merits.
One noticeable change about this and other home versions was how the character’s names got changed in certain regions, Gordon became Garth, Karla became Karen and in some versions Scooter became Slammer. It’s not unusual to see variations of the names in differing versions and for some this can be quite confusing and for no obvious reason at all it stands out as being a bit weird. In all honesty I’m still confused about who is exactly who but I guess the genuine versions of everything would be the arcade original.
Regardless of version that you play however, Alien Storm is certainly very unique and very special for many reasons. It’s story is great, the arcade original looks stunning and moves supremely well and with more than one player it’s a complete and total blast! In just a year’s development time they managed to take a game like Golden Axe and add so much in to make a video-game that absolutely should have been a classic in it’s own right globally. But it wasn’t! Why was that?
Well, from a balanced perspective Alien Storm does have some faults. It’s primary failing is that it’s not Golden Axe, that might seem a weird thing to say but certain games are instantly taken to heart by gamers and are never let go, even when better or more fun examples appear. Whilst Golden Axe is a masterpiece in many ways it does have absolutely terrible A.I. that makes playing it a complete chore at times as you manipulate on-screen action in order take advantage of it failings, it’s nowhere near as free flowing as Alien Storm, no way! Alien Storm’s second problem is that it’s just way too short and way too easy to complete, even on hard difficulty, especially on consoles. With a few more levels and a few more enemy sprites it absolutely would have been taken more seriously by the press and gamers of the 1990’s. Another reason why Alien Storm failed to find it’s place was due to both the arcade halls and home consoles having numerous other offerings in the genre. The Mega Drive/Genesis especially was blessed with games in the genre that buried Alien Storm so far down the list that it never really stood a chance from a sales perspective.
So right now some of you may be wondering why Alien Storm was chosen as the RGG game of the Month, and to be fair that’s a great question, so let me answer. Alien Storm is tremendous fun! Remember fun folks? That thing we all started playing games for in the first place. There are very few games so completely silly in design yet so superbly executed in release that are a perfect mixture of what came before and even afterwards. The arcade game was perfect for fans of beat ‘em ups who wanted a little bit more. An extra player to join in the adventure, two extra gameplay genres to break up the pace superbly and enough enemies and explosions to make any teenager smile from ear to ear.
On it’s own, standing on it’s own feet and not being compared to anything else in it’s game genre Alien Storm is a fantastic video-game. It does everything you could want, adds things you had never seen before in a game of it’s style and depending on version allows you to enjoy it with other people. It’s not Golden Axe, of course it’s not, but that game is also not Streets of Rage 2 and yet people seem fine to let those co-exist in the same genre without punishing one for the other, so why does Alien Storm get such negative press. It makes literally no sense. On release Alien Storm was openly criticised by several of the big magazines for all the things previous games were hailed for… and it even added in new cool stuff.
Alien Storm is November’s GOTM for everything mentioned above, good and bad, and that’s what a lot of the great games share in common. A ton of classics are similar to other games, a ton of classics are too easy but they are still fantastic games. We all came to this hobby to have fun and it’s here where this month’s pick shines. I openly defy anyone reading this to play the arcade or Mega Drive/Genesis version, alone or with others, and not smile and chuckle about it all. This game is great, this game is fun and if all else fails this game allows you to blow yourself up and then run in with another body and pick up the old one’s head. If that doesn't reach you then nothing ever will.
Get bustin’ those shape changing aliens today, then get back to open up that burger van, customers are hungry and waiting…