In 1986 Aliens, the long-awaited sequel to 1979’s Alien arrived in theaters. Where Alien had been slow-paced and horrifying, Aliens was action-packed and terrifying. The movie was a box office success and game developers were keen to translate the success of the film into success at the arcades. Unfortunately for Sega, Squaresoft and Activision had already secured the license to make a game based on the movie property, so Sega had to develop their own curiously similar product. Luckily, they were already a dab hand at doing just that (see Top Gun knockoff After Burner), and Alien Syndrome was born. The game is a competent eight-direction top-down run-and-gun shooter with a bizarre and surreal art direction and plays very similarly to Atari’s Gauntlet.
The story of Alien Syndrome is, if one is being kind, cursory; if you prefer honesty, it’s non-existent. Players take control of either Ricky or Mary (two-player cooperative is an option) and are tasked with saving a specified number of humans from six space colonies infested with aliens before facing a unique boss creature. The final stage of the game takes place on the player’s character’s own vessel (a la the finale of Aliens). As a game, Alien Syndrome mostly fails to capture the claustrophobic tension and terror of the Alien movie franchise. This isn’t Sega’s fault, though; arcade hardware simply wasn’t up to the challenge. The developers must have known this, which is why the art direction is so far out there. Only the music comes close to delivering on the promise of terror. With its low tones and sparse instrumentation, the soundtrack provides the atmosphere the graphics and gameplay fail to.
Alien Syndrome is populated with bizarre creatures, especially the boss fights, where you fight hearts with heads, brains with ears, heads with eyes that turn into horns. Outside of Splatterhouse, Alien Syndrome has some of the most disturbing imagery I’ve ever seen in a game. In 1987, the game’s unique imagery distinguished it from other arcade games. Unable to create a truly horrifying experience similar to the game’s inspiration with the hardware at hand, the designers instead aimed to deliver a disturbing one—and in that, I think, they succeeded.
Alien Syndrome saw ports to a dozen consoles, including the Amiga, Atari, ST, MSX, NES, and personal computers. None of the console versions are as playable as the arcade version, and the Sega Master System version is almost a completely new game. A sequel was produced in 2007 for Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PSP and is more of a dungeon crawl with stats, armor, and weaponry to manage.
Article by Jonathon Howard
GameSpite Journal 12: Aline Syndrome