In Space, No One Can Deny The Nostalgia:
Revisiting Alien Trilogy
Andrew Roberts revisits an old PlayStation classic from a British developer and wonders whether the dated FPS format and low poly graphics of Alien Trilogy still have the charm...
Given a memorable birth in the late ‘70s, Alien (UK/US, Ridley Scott, 1979) had a profound effect on the science fiction and horror genre, with its timeless influence, still felt in films today. Chronicling the interstellar journey of the crew of a commercial tug operation, Alien introduced the now-iconic Xenomorph, an extraterrestrial organism that parasitises a host and is violently born, maturing into a hulking, biomechanical nightmare of deadly efficiency and ferocity. Designed by Swiss artist H. R. Giger, the titular alien is a frightening chimera of phallic and vulval threat, deep Freudian fears, and a neo-noir femme fatale embodiment of impregnation and sexual anxieties. It also introduced us to one of the most resourceful and enduring heroines in cinema history, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), who not only manages to outsmart the creature and escape to safety but cemented herself as a genre icon by returning to battle with the creatures throughout the subsequent three films. Aliens (US/UK, James Cameron, 1986) followed up shortly after, almost to the same – if not more – critical and audience acclaim, while a third instalment Alien3 (US, David Fincher, 1992) was released to a more middling response. Similarly, Alien: Resurrection (US, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997) received a more lukewarm critical reaction and the original cycle of movies was thus considered over. The series would be revived much later with a set of prequels including Prometheus (US/UK, Ridley Scott, 2012) and Alien: Covenant (US/UK, Ridley Scott, 2017).
As with most successful movie franchises, the industry of computer and video games was never far behind growing trends and the Alien series was no exception. Several companies had already undertaken projects to adapt the series into the video game format, starting with 1982’s Alien for the Atari system. In this version, the player-controlled Ripley as she ran around a labyrinth, collecting alien eggs whilst avoiding three Xenomorphs who pursued her constantly, only being able to fight back temporarily after picking up a flamethrower item. It was essentially a reskin of the more popular game Pac-Man, whilst a 1984 version for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum was a text-based adventure where you controlled the Nostromo crew trying to fix the ship and escape before the alien killed you all. At the same time as James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens: The Computer Game was released on Commodore 64, Apple II and the ZX Spectrum, stringing together a small collection of minigames connected with an adventure-style map. Another version was released the following year in 1987, this time a first-person shooter/adventure hybrid, where the player controlled a small group of Marines who try to access the Alien Queen’s lair by penetrating a maze-like processing plant.
A coin-operated Metroidvania style game also entitled Aliens was released in 1990 by Konami, with a wildly colourful art style, considerable deviation from the film’s concept and a whole host of new Xenomorphs to contend with. Finally in 1992, to coincide with the film’s release, Alien3 was released for Sega Megadrive and the Amiga console, another Metroid-style shooter, with further ports and variants appearing in 1993 on the NES, SNES, Master System, Game Gear and Game Boy.
It was in the early months of 1994 however when first-person shooter Alien Trilogy was announced, from the UK-based Probe Entertainment, which was eventually acquired by Acclaim in 1995. It was first planned for the game to debut on the-then popular Sega Mega CD and the Sega 32X, but development soon shifted to the PlayStation, Sega Saturn and PC when it was deduced that more processing power was needed for the project. The project was announced not long after 1993’s Doom had catapulted the first-person shooter into mainstream popularity and made a whole flurry of Doom clones follow in the wake of its overwhelming success. With Duke Nukem 3D and Medal of Honor piggybacking on the lucrative formula for their own franchises, Probe Entertainment decided to produce a similar game using the Alien IP as the inspiration and concept. They were also excited to be utilising an experimental 3D motion capture software to portray realistically moving sprites for the enemy aliens in the game, to create a more authentic Alien experience. Even the game’s tone was to be a more faithful adaptation of the source material, eschewing the bizarre colour mismatching of the Aliens arcade shooter and the lack of tension in the Atari’s Alien for a more fan-pleasing aesthetic.
Booting up Alien Trilogy now is a nirvana of childhood nostalgia; players are treated to a CGI cutscene that recreates the arrival of the Sulaco on LV-426 as shown in the movie Aliens. Even all these years later, the graphics have held up reasonably well, with recognisable characters like Hudson and Vasquez being present, while reimagined scenes like Hicks’ over the shoulder volley of bullets and Hudson ‘running a bypass’ on the entrance doors dish up absurd levels of fan service for such an early title. It also introduces Bishop and Ripley as characters, with the latter sporting her shaved appearance from Alien3 and appearing to be a Marine herself. This is where die-hard fans may notice the deviation from the plot of the films; rather than (as the game’s title suggests) adapt the plot of Alien, Aliens and Alien3 into a continuing story, the developers combined all three, condensing them into an extended variation of Aliens’ plot with locations, references and elements from all three making an appearance. To that end, the story quickly changes from the expected canon, with all of the aforementioned Marines ending up slaughtered by the Xenomorphs in this introductory cinematic, with only Ripley surviving with a single handgun in her possession.
This practice of course was not particularly unheard of for video game adaptations at the time; frequently, only minor elements of the original film make it into gameplay, with particularly deviant examples found in the Atari version of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and the Megadrive versions of Baby’s Day Out and Home Alone. However tangential the game’s plot goes, this is essentially an excuse to have the player character go around as Ripley, wasting loads of Xenomorphs as she embarks on a giant ‘bug hunt’. To that end, the game certainly doesn’t disappoint.
As Ripley, you explore levels from a Doom-style first-person perspective with your firearm in front of you. The heads-up display details your current health level, armour level, grenade count and currently equipped weapon’s ammo. Also featured is the iconic ‘Motion Tracker’ from Aliens which functions essentially as the movie’s version does, beeping and displaying a blob when it detects movement nearby. The movement control system is relatively rigid by today’s standards with ‘tank controls’: moving forward and backward with the up and down D-pad, with the left and right buttons turning you on the spot. Ripley can also strafe to avoid attacks along with other actions like firing your gun, switching weapons, activating doors, switches and panels in the environment and throwing grenades.
Her arsenal is drawn straight from the films too, much to the delight of Alien aficionados: the player starts off with a standard-issue 9mm pistol, similar to the sidearm that Gorman wields in Aliens. Its power is pretty limited though and only of use against crates and the lesser enemies. Next up is the shotgun, obviously for ‘close encounters’, which packs a meatier punch to enemies and is useful for disposing of enemy groups and barricades. The flamethrower that Ripley wields in the finale of Aliens is also available, and while powerful to spread in a wide arc, it consumes its fuel quite carelessly. The infamous Pulse Rifle is also available, spraying powerful three-round bursts, along with a grenade launcher that fires explosives at breakneck speed. Finally, the player has access to Vasquez’s Smart Gun, which not only has superior firepower and speed but auto-targets enemies on-screen, allowing Ripley to spray an area liberally with bullets. The player can find seismic survey charges, which function as grenades that explode on contact with surfaces, and batteries, for powering up junction boxes or door panels. Acid vests can also be found, to protect from minor hazards like corrosive puddles, Xenomorph carcasses and steam jets while Auto Mappers can display a complete map of the current level when you hit pause. Other minor pick-ups include the Shoulder Lamp, for lighting up the darker areas and the variety of MediKits and DermPatches to restore health.
Ripley’s environment is also incredibly detailed, even in the jaggy, texture-stretched polygonal world of the PlayStation, with grungy wall textures, industrial structures and a living, breathing mechanical world of machines and devices that help to simulate the outer space setting of the game extremely well. Due to the condensing of the game’s plot, all of the action takes place on LV-426 with the first third of the levels based on the Hadley’s Hope colony from Aliens. You start in the complex entrance, before exploring the outer complex hallways, eventually moving into the crew areas, such as the recreation rooms, med lab and garage. You then traverse through the Weyland-Yutani atmosphere processor, the adjoining security catwalks and finally, the atmosphere processor’s basement level, where you finish the section after reaching the Queen’s nest. The recognisable corridors and automatic doors are almost entirely lifted from the film, with some exquisite movie nods like interactive cryotubes, the M577 Personnel Carrier parked in the garage and the Weyland-Yutani logo plastered on certain walls. The second section of the game is set in LV-426’s prison building, which is almost entirely based on the planet Fiorina 161 from Alien3 with similar architecture, design and locations. You explore the living quarters, canteen and meeting tower before getting into the industrialised areas featured later in the film, such as the leadworks, a series of tunnels and ducts, the smelting area, the furnace and the penultimate area in the lead mould before tackling another Queen. Again, little fan Easter Eggs such as locating the crashed EEV from the Sulaco are present for eagle-eyed fans. Coming full circle, the third and final section of the game takes place on the alien derelict from Alien, termed in this game as the Boneship. After entering through tunnels, you use the hub area of the pilot’s chambers (complete with the deceased Engineer in the pilot seat) to access catacombs, inorganic chambers, lifts and finally the infamous egg chamber before you tackle the final Xenomorph Queen. All three of the game’s major locations are stunningly realised The game ends as Ripley and Bishop make a daring escape on the Sulaco as LV-426 is destroyed in a self-destruct sequence, only to have the stereotypical ending occur, where a nearby ship is revealed to have a few Xenomorph stowaways…
The plot of the game though is admittedly rather vacuous and only serves to set-up each scenario for the levels the player explores. In a slight break away from traditional first-person shooters of the time, each level is given specific mission objectives that are not simply to reach the level exit. For example, the first level tasks you with removing makeshift crate and barrel barricades, in order to allow future Marine groups to secure the area effectively. A subsequent mission will have you reactivate panels to power up areas of the colony that have lost light, while others will task you with killing a certain percentage of the level’s enemies. If these objectives are not completed, the level will simply restart until the condition is satisfied. While retro FPS veterans might be stumped occasionally by these novel objectives, it adds a different flavour to the otherwise run-and-gun experience that Alien Trilogy offers. The environments and level designs are also varied enough to suit these narrative tasks, such as collecting ID tags from residential quarters, trying to locate cocooned colonists in a Queen’s habitat or clearing out the Xenomorphs from an egg chamber. In between each section (Hadley’s Hope, the Fiorina 161 Prison and the Engineer’s Derelict), another CGI cutscene plays out to illustrate how Bishop transports Ripley between these areas, so in spite of the story being quite threadbare, there at least is an effort to display continuity between the levels. Though amusingly, LV-426 is destroyed in the game’s final cutscene, contrary to most of the player’s assignments in allowing Marines to re-establish the colony. Another great little bit of detail is evident upon player death; the enemy that killed you determines which CGI death the game displays, such as Ripley succumbing to a Facehugger or having her head bitten by a Warrior’s internal teeth.
Now, of course, the main meat of the game is in the menagerie of enemies that will assail the player on their journey. Fans will be delighted that pretty much everything makes an appearance from the first three Alien instalments, in rather authentic 2D sprites. Facehuggers are one of the most common enemies, emerging from vents or hiding within smashable crates, skittering towards you on sight. Contrary to their lethality from the films and their subsequent appearances in Alien-themed video games, Facehuggers are rather harmless here and end up being more of an annoyance than anything else. They do however have a unique ability to latch onto the player’s face, obscuring their view temporarily and causing damage, but considering they only take a few shots from the player’s 9mm before dying, they are still of little consequence. Chestbursters also make an appearance, sometimes hiding in lockers, cryotubes and in one of the more fan-service moments, they will emerge from cocooned colonists if you do not kill them quickly. They can cause minor damage but take significantly more hits than a Facehugger. Similarly, you will encounter stationary Xenomorph eggs which begin to hatch when the player is close in proximity, spawning a Facehugger if it opens completely, so players are encouraged to destroy the egg with gunfire before this succeeds. Warrior Xenomorphs, like the one from Alien and Aliens, function as your common enemy, packing a bit of a punch if surrounded by them. They can often be hard to target too, due to their insect-like manner of advancing on you in a jittery, diagonal fashion, making it hard to target them effectively. When the player reaches the prison level, they will also be introduced to Runners and Sentries, the young and adult forms of the Dog/Ox Xenomorph from Alien3, which are fairly similar to the Warrior in terms of threat but take varying levels of damage. In certain situations, Warriors and Sentries are also able to crawl on the ceiling to attack you, making it almost absurdly difficult to hit them with your gunfire, but thankfully, the creatures too have massive difficulty hitting you so it’s not the nightmare scenario that it initially appears. Finally, there is the Queen which functions essentially as an end-of-section boss. She is initially ignorant of the player, still attached to her overgrown ovipositor until the player gets too close or opens fire, at which point she becomes immediately hostile. She’s fast, agile and can close the gap between you very quickly and unleash hell. Of course, the only solution is to fight fire with fire and pump an insane amount of ammunition into her, taking care to destroy the eggs dotted around the nest before you engage with Her Royal Majesty. Taking a cue from the film’s continuity, all the Xenomorphs bleed acidic blood, causing damage to the player if they shoot their targets too close, or if they walk over the carcass on the floor, adding a whole new layer of danger on the higher difficulty levels.
In addition to Xenomorphs, there are also humanoid enemies to contend with, the first of which are the Security Guards. In a cunning use of artistic licence, the colony’s security team is explained as being ‘infected’ by the Xenomorphs, presumably by the Facehuggers method. In this continuity, however, ‘infected’ people become aggressive and violent, attacking other non-infected personnel. Hence, Ripley is expected to gun them down, especially as the guards will not hesitate to shoot her upon sight and curiously, the other Xenomorph enemies will not attack these guards, in a similar vein to how the Alien refuses to attack the impregnated Ripley in Alien3. Similarly, Weyland-Yutani soldiers patrol certain levels wielding pulse rifles, with an explanation in the game’s opening specifying that these soldiers have orders to shoot anyone on site who attempts to interfere with their operations.
Almost in exactly the same vein, company handlers (who show up at the denouement of Alien3) will attack the player, intent on retrieving a Xenomorph and dispatching anyone who may stop them. Lastly, there are synthetics on-site who attack with variations of Vasquez’s Smart Gun, all of them programmed to safeguard the Xenomorph invasion against anyone who threatens them. Understandably, the creatures also leave them alone, meaning that this universe’s version of Ellen Ripley has a whole army of opponents to contend with over the course of the game.
Another noteworthy feature of the game is that of the game’s sound design. In addition to a hauntingly jaunty ‘90s soundtrack (courtesy of Stephen Root who worked on probe Entertainment’s equally memorable Die Hard Trilogy) which alternates between genuine tension and motivational background beats, the game’s designers also went to the films themselves for a whole library of authentic samples and sounds. The shotgun uses the same fire and reload sound from the movie, whilst the Pulse Rifle and Smart Gun utilise their iconic samples from the film itself, almost to the point where you visualise the scene it’s ripped from. The skittering of the Facehuggers is sampled directly from the attack on Ripley and Newt in Aliens whilst the sound that the Warriors make when they spot you is taken from when the Alien Queen bumps her head trying to pursue Ripley in the finale of Aliens. Even the Motion Tracker’s beeps, the sound of automatic doors and the cry of “Help me..!” from cocooned colonists all elicit these visceral memories of the film to resurface and on that level alone, Alien Trilogy is pure catnip for fans of the franchise who want to relive the fond remembrance.
Being a PlayStation era game, however, it would be disingenuous to say that the game has aged gracefully. The controls are quite rigid in design and in execution, making the player’s movements a little unwieldy and lacking fluidity that is offered in Duke Nukem 3D and Doom. There’s also a peculiarity in some of the level designs which makes the experience a little unfair sometimes. For example, one level is set in a Xenomorph nest, with the walls covered in goop and tissue, so much so that explosives are required in order to progress. Said seismic survey charges are available on the level in a limited supply, but use them up before opening the routes and the player remains stuck indefinitely. In other scenarios, players can’t progress until a certain percentage of the level’s aliens are killed, only to hide some of them in hard to reach secret areas, while other levels have floors that give way, with zero indication that they are trap floors. This archaic level design is certainly not the worst of its kind and was at least contemporaneously fashionable to implement, but the more learned audience of today may find this a little irritating when revisiting. So too is the lack of instant mission restart or easy loading functions; when the player dies, the game directs you right back to the main menu, with no option to continue or even restart the mission, which was an established concept even in the ‘90s so unless you saved your progress or noted down the level password, you’re out of luck. More confusing still is the game’s method of reloading your game save, which is buried bizarrely in the Options menu under Memory Card Management, rather than as a separate ‘Load Game’ function. These elements certainly date the experience and remind you that rose-tinted glasses might just be involved in your fond recollections of the game, but they’re certainly not a deal-breaker; they’re simply features of a bygone era that has thankfully progressed. Personally, if it were up to me, I’d nuke them from orbit (just to make sure).
Ultimately, Alien Trilogy is both an aged relic of the ‘90s and a curio of nostalgic catnip that manages to still retain the childhood fun we all had with first-person shooters. It may be clunky and janky in areas, but it takes a film fan to know a film fan; Alien Trilogy was clearly made by a team of professionals who had passion, love and fondness for the Alien franchise. They managed to take an ambitious amount of source material and convert it into a meaty, respectably enjoyable first-person shooter that is visually faithful to the franchise it represents and in doing so, they packed it with enough details and nods to the films that even the most hardened and cynical of Alien fans would unfailingly smile at the warm nostalgia.