Review of Swarming the Arcades: Where the Alien Franchise Ruled

Daljit Kalsi

The Alien franchise is arguably one of the most popular series in cinema history and the movies have helped permanently shape the science fiction and horror genres across the years. Like all good mammoth IPs, there were books, toys, comics, and video games that followed, but translating the elements that made the films great to other mediums wasn’t the simplest of tasks.

The first release, Alien (1979), made one creature seem terrifying, trapped in a tin can floating through space where no one could hear screams, there were pregnant pauses in the action, and the slower pacing worked to the film’s heightened level of suspense, but the sequel showed that the brute force of an entire horde could be just as harrowing, for different reasons. There we see overwhelming odds, the knowledge of being surrounded as ammunition runs low, and the frantic gunfire of desperate souls, building its own type of action-horror. No matter which installment in the series one might prefer, the chances are that the video game representation of it doesn’t quite nail everything there is to love about the franchise.

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There have been many video games featuring these recognizable creatures, so many that even fans have forgotten – or never knew about – a large abundance of them. It was hard for many to get the acidic taste of Aliens: Colonial Marines out of their mouths, but no matter how deep the scars are from that outing, many games that use the IP have been considered favorably by critics and devotees alike. This is especially true with 2014’s Alien: Isolation from Creative Assembly and Feral Interactive, which is considered to be one of, if not the best, games to feature a xenomorph.

Most games based on Alien seem to split these classic elements of the films down the middle, either falling on the side of stealth-survival, or the action that comes from facing the horde head-on. With Isolation holding up the standard at the moment, showing how well the former could be done, one person being hunted as shock and surprise loom, Aliens: Fireteam Elite brings some of that success to the action side of the coin.

James Cameron worked obsessively hard on designing the look and sound of the M-41A Pulse Rifles, so it makes sense that developers would want to capitalize on that. What better way than to put one in the hands of the player? The game that would accomplish this somewhat, as the weapons were mounted to the machine and had limited movement, was 1993’s Alien 3: The Gun. That isn’t the most creative title, but it is memorable and so is the game. Players are on rails in this short adventure, blasting away at droves of aliens that pour out from every place possible with intent to murder. The Gun has the third film as part of its title, but the only major component that is borrowed from there is the setting and the fact that it also has a bit of a grim ending. Some elements do show their age, but the game is still exhilarating with tons of action happening across the screen.

In 2006 the guns were given an upgrade for Aliens: Extermination. Now looking even more like the rifles from the movies, the weapons had more buttons for alternate firing modes, lights, and some advertising materials even claimed they could provide feedback when firing, to help with the immersion. The story saw a group of marines cleaning up whatever was left after the planet was nuked in Aliens and all of the carnage looked great in motion, but the updated graphics weren’t enough to recapture that frantic enjoyment that The Gun brought. It was also much easier to lose life by shooting allied troops in this one, and overall, some believed that Extermination was a good experience that just couldn’t quite topple its predecessor

It would be many years before fans were thrown back into the battle, this time in 2014’s Aliens: Armageddon, which arguably had a better presentation than the previous games and got rid of friendly fire, but also had its fair share of issues. The premise is solid, where the threat has not only reached Earth but has taken over with a fierceness, so much that everyone is trying to make their way to a large cargo ship and escape the planet before they’re completely overrun. There isn’t too much in the way of story after that, but players are here to blow away various baddies and use their different weapons to stay alive. Not only does Armageddon have a larger screen for the action, but its guns are not mounted, attached by wire instead so players can hold them freely and get the closest to feeling like they have a real pulse rifle. This might cause a bit more arm fatigue than the other cabinets, but that could be worth it for the experience. Some also know the game as Alien: Covenant, which it was rebranded as in many locations, to help promote the 2017 film. 

When holding a physical gun doesn’t hit the right spot, and the audience wants to get more down in the shit, there’s always those classic beat ‘em ups. The perspective is different, but the action is still present, and Aliens: The Arcade Game from 1990 is a great example of that. It kept just enough of the film’s key parts without chaining the game down by trying to follow chronological events. Ellen Ripley and Corporal Hicks are somewhat – even if oddly – represented by the selectable characters, Newt shows up in a couple of sections, and the game incorporates many of the weapons and vehicles fans love. The ending is that cherry on top, giving players the ability to blast the Queen into body parts, or use the Power Loader and knock her out of the airlock as Cameron intended.

The stages present a solid battleground for the fights, and although they lack some of the extensive detail some may look for, many rightfully see the presentation for the graphics and environments as “timeless.” When it comes to the gameplay, there aren’t a plethora of moves for combat, but the action brings in the variety, as the perspective is changed, the radar is utilized in some areas, and boss encounters are attention-grabbing. It’s a title that nails the horror and excitement of the film in its own way and is still worth playing.

RELATED: Aliens: Fireteam Elite Review – Co-Op Thrills Inspired by James Cameron

There is one cabinet classic most fans like a bit more. Alien vs. Predator hit arcades in 1994 and left quite the mark on all who experienced it. Although the game didn’t go in for the tones and feel of its predecessor exactly, the same intensity and violence of the previous adventure permeated through its gameplay, having four playable characters – two predators, Linn Kurosawa, and Dutch Schaefer from the first Predator film – and a good number of moves to dispatch the alien menace. AVP also chose to open up the play area and traded in the close-quarters of Hadley’s Hope for a fictional city in California, where a new infestation would require humans and Predators alike to team up. This Capcom developed game took the fighting back to a tighter beat ‘em up formula, limiting the access to firearms, and allowed three players to clobber aliens at the same time for some truly satisfying action.

The on-screen carnage is gorgeous in most segments, showing off huge and elaborate sprites, with flashing colors and vivid backgrounds in most areas, as well as small story bits in between. Movements are fluid and the characters look like they own these areas as they dominate their enemies on a path of destruction. Alien vs. Predator was originally meant to help promote an upcoming film, which the game’s story was loosely based on a draft of, but the script would see numerous changes and a movie wouldn’t be realized for many years. The game was vastly more entertaining anyway.

Each of these arcade hits brings the thrills and excitement in their own vein, focusing more on the heart-pounding action-packed fun of destroying the never-ending menace. They’re all creative in their execution, with different encounters and showing off classic enemy designs while introducing new types of aliens, being allowed to get a bit wilder with many of the creature ideas. These are all short adventures, but high up in the replay department, even if many of them can be tough to play legally now, which sucks. The hope is that Fireteam Elite might evoke some of this quintessential gameplay and bring back a small element of what we experienced in the arcades, standing side-by-side with our compatriots, against the coming horde, praying with every last blast of our rifles.

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