SSPA – Alien³

 -Contains spoilers for the first three Alien movies-

Every Halloween there are a few films I love to watch, and among the cheesy old horror schlock and the classic thrillers, there is one classic that’s a must see every year: Ridley Scott’s Alien. This film combines elements of slasher films, haunted house stories, and body horror to tell a wholly engrossing and terrifying tale. The crew of the spaceship Nostromo encounter a mysterious alien crash site on a distant planet. After a hideous organism latches to the face of one of their party and he is taken back on board for medical treatment, an viscous creature bursts from his chest. This new alien swiftly matures and hunts down the remaining crew one by one. With little hope against this fearsome beast, the crew are desperate to kill it, or otherwise escape the ship.

Alien Poster

There is little I can say in praise of this film that has not been said before. Ridley Scott’s direction is excellent, Derek Vanlint’s cinematography is masterful, the alien designs by H.R. Giger are nothing less than iconic, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is perfect, and the whole cast shines with excellent performances. The film exudes this oppressive sense of dread and isolation that drives home the suspense and horror. The characters are written and performed with a realism that keeps you invested, and eager to see them survive. This movie stands as a monument to the horror genre.

It’s a pity about the rest of the franchise though…

Seven years later a sequel arrived in the form of Aliens. Directed by James Cameron, the movie takes more of an action bent this time. Set some fifty seven years after the previous film, the lone survivor of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley, is recovered by agents of her employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. They don’t believe her account of the alien she encountered and in the intervening years, established a space colony on the planet where the Nostromo crew discovered the creature’s eggs. When the colony goes dark, the Company hires a team of Colonial Marines to investigate. Ripley is asked to accompany them as an adviser, and she reluctantly agrees. The marines doubt her stories of the alien threat, but after finding the colony decimated and the colonists dead save for one survivor, a young girl, they scramble to evacuate. However, the site is now teeming with an alien hoard, and there seems little hope of escape.

Aliens Poster

This film is a fan favorite for the action set pieces and the memorable one-liners, and for many it’s the pinnacle of the series, but I’ve always seen it as a lesser follow up to the first movie. There’s a lot of talent on display in terms of the set design and cinematography, but the story and acting aren’t as strong as last time. Before, the small team of the Nostromo behaved like real people trapped in dire straits, the Colonial Marines are sadly one note. Each one seems to fill a quota of stereotypes. We have the level headed leader, the tough talking coward, the obviously going to die first one, the Professor and Mary Ann, and all the rest. Although Lance Hendriksen, as the android Bishop, and Sigourney Weaver, returning as Ripley, deliver great performances, most of the cast is pretty flat. I will say, it’s a fun and tense action film, but it feels more akin to the original Predator, than a follow up to the original Alien. Nonetheless, I am in the minority on this subject, and Aliens was a massive success. 

Although demand for another Alien film was high, production on the third film was troubled to say the least. Initially the studio wanted two films shot back-to-back, but that fell through. Multiple scripts were produced, and were scrapped. Director Vincent Ward was originally slated to helm the project, but after production disputes he was fired, leaving a young David Fincher to pick up the pieces. All these issues and more added up to a tangled mess of half baked ideas and frustrated production. In the end Alien 3 was released to confused audiences in 1992

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Set shortly after the events of Aliens, the survivors of the Hadley’s Hope rescue mission are flying back to Earth aboard the colonial marines drop ship. Somehow though, a face-hugger was left on board the ship and causes a malfunction, leading to the emergency evacuation of the ship. The escape pods crash on a nearby prison planet, with only Ripley survives the crash. Although rescue is on its way, the face-hugger has found prey in the from a prisoner’s dog, and now there is a new Alien on the loose, and it’s up to Ripley to put it down.

This movie has a lot going against it. The acting is hammy, the directing and cinematography is all over the place, and the story is contrived, making a lot of bad decisions, not the least of which includes the ending. Over the course movie it is revealed that Ripley had been assaulted by the facehugger at the start of the film while in hyper sleep and is carrying the embryo of a xenomorph queen in her body. After defeating the alien attacking the colony, representatives from Weyland-Yutani arrive to take Ripley away. However, she knows that once the company gets hold of the embryo they will simply use it to create more. To stop them and finally wipe out these creatures forever, Ripley dives into a vat of molten metal to take the embryo down with her.

Ripley Death

This ending was a pretty big let down for many fans. It seemed an unsatisfying conclusion for such a beloved hero. While it wasn’t the film’s biggest flaw, it was a sour note to leave the theater on. Fans were disappointed and the movie going public was not satisfied. 

Alien 3 marked a downward turn in the franchise and I believe that it has never recovered. The next sequel, Alien: Resurrection, was another mess with a dumb plot and tonal issues. Prometheus made an effort to take the series back to a point of mystery and intrigue, but only served to raise more questions and deliver a muddled mess of a film. Alien: Covenant tried to bridge the gap between the prequel and the series proper, but only served to screw up the continuity even more.

Although the franchise has under performed as of late, many films, comics, and video games have been influenced by the first two films. The early days of gaming featured some interesting adaptations. There was a Pac-Man clone for the Atari 2600, an adventure game on the Commodore 64 that saw you replay the climax of the first film, another Commodore title based on the second film where you must escape from Hadley’s hope, and a side scrolling shooter for the MSX that takes you through the highlights of Aliens.

None of these ever made it to the big home consoles from Nintendo or Sega. The series influence was still felt in the games industry, from the dark worlds of Metroid to the horror of the parasitic Flood in Halo. It was also more shamelessly ripped off in several classic gaming franchises like Contra and R-Type

This changed with the release of the third film. By 1992 it was pretty common for most major blockbusters to have an accompanying game. Almost as if to make up for lost time Alien 3 got three different games across eight platforms. For most of them there are only a few differences, while others are pretty unique. Do any of them deliver the tension and horror of the original? Maybe the pulse pounding action of the second? Or are they all clustered duds like their ill fated movie counterpart? Let’s find out!

Story: All Versions

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After defeating a Xenomorph queen and destroying the alien hive on planet LV-426, the surviving members of the Haley’s Hope mission entered hyper sleep for their return journey. Unfortunately, there is a stowaway on board. The queen managed to leave one egg on the survivor’s ship, the Sulaco. The released facehugger triggered the ship’s emergency evacuation protocol, releasing the passengers in their sleeping pods  and sending the ship on a crash course to a nearby planet. The ship crashes on the prison colony Fiorina “Fury” 161. The inmates search for the escape pods and discover Ellen Ripley still alive, but Commander Hicks of the Colonial Marines and Newt, the lone survivor of Hadley’s Hope, both died in the crash, while Executive Officer Bishop, an android from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, is severely damaged.

As Ripley recuperates, the commandant of the colony sends for help to take her back to Earth. However, mysterious deaths begin to occur. Ripley manages to repair Bishop long enough for him to tell her about the alien threat still at large. With a new Xenomorph, bred from a prisoner’s dog, wreaking havoc on the facility. Ripley must fight to survive until help arrives.

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As is pretty common for many movie tie in games in this era, the game only follows a loose skeleton of the plot. The story is the same general outline of the film on all versions, but whether it was due to the negative response of the film, or it was based on an earlier draft of the story, each game has some major differences from the source material. To begin with the movie only has one Xenomorph terrorizing the inmates of Fury 161, while the game features an alien hoard. The absence of more aliens was an element of the film that was hotly criticized. After how much the stakes had been raised in the previous movie, to go back to only one Xenomorph seemed like a considerable step back. While it wouldn’t have been impossible to make a game with only one alien, it certainly would have posed a challenge to the developers.

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The combat in all the games involves shooting down the aliens, another stark difference from the film. The reason they don’t just blast the alien away with a pulse rifle in the movie is because the prison has, no joke, zero guns. In the film it is stated that the prison colony operates on the honor system to keep the peace. The ridiculous logic of that plot point aside, designing a game where you have to take on the alien with no weapons is not impossible, but definitely more experimental than the developers were willing to go. 

Most of the games’ endings are a departure from the film’s. Despite the manuals stating that Ripley has an alien embryo inside of her, it’s never really brought up. The only version to keep the film’s ending was on the Super Nintendo. The SNES version ends with Ripley killing herself to prevent the aliens from returning, while every other version from the ends with a triumphant victory over the aliens as Ripley leaves the planet safely. The Gameboy version has the unique twist of having multiple endings depending on how you play the game.   

The 16 Bit Games

Genesis

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Gameplay:

Alien 3 is a side scrolling platform shooter. You play as Ellen Ripley as she navigates the facilities on Fury 161 rescuing the inmates from the Xenomorphs. Each of the game’s five levels are split into three stages and a boss fight against a more powerful Xenomorph. The stages have you run around a small area fending off attack from aliens and facehuggers. You have a limited time to find all the prisoners and escape. You cannot leave until the last prisoner is saved and if time runs out, you’ll be treated to a montage of all the inmates you didn’t save being violently killed by alien embryos bursting from their chests.

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Throughout every level, aliens come at you from all sides, sometimes falling from the ceiling or bursting from the ground. Outside of the xenomorphs and facehuggers, there are actually no other enemy types in the game. Rather than throwing new enemies at you in the later stages, the game increases the number of aliens and prisoners dramatically, while adding more maze like level design to run out the clock. The lack of enemy variety doesn’t really take away from the experience, but the lack of boss variety is really disappointing. Each level ends with you fighting a tougher alien that jumps around the arena spitting acid. It’s fine for one fight and I’ll even accept the later fight where you take on two at once, however it’s the only boss in the game. Maybe they could have used a more ferocious alien every other level or made a queen the final boss. As it stands, it’s a little disappointing.

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You have a small arsenal of weapons to stave off the xenomorphs. The strengths and weakness of these guns offer good variety. Although you could theoretically just run and gun, you’ll have to be careful about your ammo reserves. Extra ammo and health can be found in the levels, but after the first few stages it gets pretty well hidden or put behind an onslaught of aliens. 

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The standard gun is the colonial marines’ pulse rifle. Its an automatic rifle with long range, but its high rate of fire means it runs out of ammo quickly. (Strangely, the manual depicts this gun as a modern M16 assault rifle, while in game it resembles the pulse rifle from the second movie)

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Next you have a flamethrower. This is a short range weapon that takes out enemies very quickly.

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The grenade launcher is powerful, It has a low rate of fire, and it can be used to blow away locked doors.

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The hand grenades are lobbed instead of fired. They can be tossed up and down holes to clear enemies.

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One other item you can find is battery packs for your pulse rifle’s radar. With this powered up you can see a general impression of the enemies (in blue) and prisoners (in red) in your area. This can be handy in finding the prisoners, who are sometimes well hidden, or in anticipating an attack. The biggest problem with the radar is that you have no control over its use. The battery doesn’t last, so every time it gets refueled you only have so long to find the more cleverly hidden prisoners.

The radar is helpful in sighting oncoming enemies, but in many cases it’s necessary to see anything coming your way. When running down a corridor you have to be pretty far to the side to move the screen along, but since you can’t see anything coming ahead of you, xenomorphs will constantly leap at you from off screen that you had no hope of taking down. This is probably the game’s biggest failing, making the difficulty not just challenging at times, but unfair.  

When you die, or time runs out, you’ll lose a life. Losing a life causes you to restart the stage, and when it’s game over you have to restart the whole level, which really kills your enthusiasm to go on. To make matters worse, you have a limited number of continues to complete the game. 

Presentation:

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In terms of graphics, Alien 3 makes good use of the Genesis’ capabilities. Each level is distinct with great use of color and detail. Exploring the levels requires you to pay attention to the environment, spotting air vents and hidden rooms to find prisoners or gear. There isn’t much character animation, but the sprites are detailed. The Xenomorphs are large and intimidating, and although the humans all look the same it fits with the games narrative, so you don’t really notice.

The evels can get a little repetitive. Going back to how the end bosses are all the same super xenomorph, it’s a shame there isn’t more variety in the characters and enemies, but for the simple arcade experience the game offers, it goes largely unmissed. What I think helps the game stand out are smaller details. The opening of every level has the close up of a xenomorph turning a corner, mouth dripping while you here it growl. 

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The parallax scrolling on the planet’s surface in the background of the first stage, and the organic alien matter in the foreground of the hive are fine additions that give the game character, and at least serve to make the game stand out among other action platformers of the time.

Matt Furniss composed the music on Genesis. It’s a mixed bag. The opening theme is moody and sets a good tone for a horror game, but the levels vary on that score. The iron works has a good tense feel, and the alien hive is excellent.

But levels like the medical bay and cell block, while not necessarily bad, they are not very well suited to the horror atmosphere of the game

Conclusion:

This was a fun title. It focuses on a simple, arcade play style and builds upon it with more complicated levels. The problem with the game is its lack of variety. Although there is a lot of game here, there are only five levels with the same objective. The lack of enemy variety and especially memorable bosses leave the game somewhat forgettable. It’s a fun time and a pretty good entry in the Genesis library.

SNES

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Gameplay:

The Super Nintendo version of Alien 3 is similar to the Genesis version. Once again we have a side scrolling shooter where you explore Fury 161 looking for prisoners to save, however there is more to this one than the arcade action of the Genesis. 

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At the start, Ripley accesses a computer terminal for an overview of the level map and a list of objectives required to finish the game. These terminals highlight exactly where you need to go, however there is no in game map and you’ll have to remember where the points of interest are or go back to a terminal to examine the blueprints of the stage. The objectives involve rescuing prisoners, repairing damaged parts of the facility, and wiping out aliens infesting certain areas. Each level has some variation on these tasks. While at times repetitive, they do force you to learn to creatively navigate each area of the base.

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You have the same weapons as in the Genesis game. Instead of having to cycle through them, each weapon is mapped to the buttons on the controller. In a couple of the levels you’ll find upgrades to your flame thrower, making it more versatile and adding some variety to the late game. The only missing weapon is the hand grenade. The grenade launcher serves the same function by lobbing the explosive, losing its ability to fire in a straight line. Your radar is a fixture whose use you can control this time with the select button, making it easier to identify the trapped prisoners and incoming aliens through the entire game. 

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You can shoot in all eight directions and you can also do a crouching walk that lets you hit shorter enemies more accurately. Your jump is pretty high and long, with a sort of floatiness that makes it easy to find your footing. Although your ammo is displayed at all times, your health only appears when you get hurt, and your objective is not labeled in game at all. Anytime you need a refresher on your mission you’ll have to make it back to a terminal, which is sometimes easier said than done. The aliens are unlimited, but there’s only so much health and ammo in the levels, giving the game a survival horror feel.

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The variety of aliens is greater this time. While the Genesis game had grown xeonomorphs and facehugger spewing eggs, this time around we have everything in between. From small chest burster larvae and dog-like infant aliens, you’ll be quickly overwhelmed in some areas by the sheer number of opponents. To get around this, there are some areas where you can also use the air vents to bypass enemies or shortcut to other parts of the base, but for the most part you’ll have to learn the layout of the levels and it can be rather confusing.

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From the central corridors there are doors in the foreground and background, these lead to the main arenas in the levels. The confusing part is how the rooms are connected. Some of these doors will put you out on the left hand side of a room, and the right side door will also put you out on the right side of the next room, turning you around. The terminal blueprints tell you which doors lead to which rooms, but the game doesn’t tell you the names of the rooms during exploration. You’ll have to dedicate them to memory.

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Presentation:

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This version’s presentation is one of the strongest points of the game. The environments are robust and, for the most part, are taken right from the film, with effects and details that make them feel more like a living, breathing space. The major facilities have people in the backgrounds (though they mostly seem to be standing around while you in the foreground are blasting alien monsters), the alien hives are dark and foggy with great Giger style designs, and the variety of the stages lend a scale to the game that is not seen in the other versions. The game uses highly detailed images in its cut scenes and some voice clips throughout, such as the prisoners’ cries for help or Private Hudson’s line “Game over man” from the second film.

The character animation is very smooth. Ripley’s outfit looks a little different from the movie and the prisoners all look alike once again, but the aliens look great. One thing that’s kind of odd at times is how the prisoners are captured. Some of them are gooed up like in the second film, but early on they are in shackles hanging from the wall. It paints an odd picture of the facility as though they just left these guys locked up. I suppose it serves to make Ripley more heroic, diving into deadly chambers to save those trapped inside.

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Music was handled by Steve Collett in this version. The soundtrack is very bombastic. Almost every track sounds like it would nicely accompany a boss fight. It feels more in line with the action highlights from James Horner’s score for Aliens with its heavy use of martial drum beats. The opening title music even uses samples from two of that movies tracks.

Rather than each level having a unique track, the music is tied to the mission you are currently completing. They make good use of the system’s capabilities, giving the sound a sort of orchestrated vibe. The only issue I have is that there is very little down time. Most of the pieces are intense, even if the objective is something as low key as soldering a door shut.

Conclusion:

This version of the game takes advantage of the system’s capabilities to deliver a more impressive experience. It is a shame that, although the game offers more in terms of gameplay and presentation, the game is not structured like an adventure game. The narrative is not developed over the course of the game, the levels are not interconnected, and they don’t follow the plot of the film to any degree.

As impressive as it is I can’t help but want more from it. Maybe if it was structured more like a Metroid game, giving more purpose to the back tracking and exploration, if it had a proper save feature rather than passwords, and some cutscenes throughout, it could have been a truly superb SNES game. It is different enough from the Genesis version to make them both worth playing for their own reasons, but if you are looking or some tense action and are a huge Alien fan, you’ll be satisfied with this version.

Amiga

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The Amiga version is practically the same as the Genesis version with only some minor differences in color and sound, like how the alien doesn’t growl at the start of the level. I do like how the alien hive level is darker and more foreboding, but overall I’d have to rate the graphics as just below the Genesis version.

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Furniss composed for this version as well, but the quality of the music on the Amiga is not as crisp as the Genesis.

The 8 Bit games

NES, SMS, Commodore 64

Gameplay:

On the NES, Sega Master System, and Commodore 64, each game is a variation of the Genesis version, with altered level layouts and graphical changes. Again as Ripley you go through Fury 161 rescuing inmates in a very arcadey fashion. All the same tools and gear are present, but the Master System version left out the radar, making the exploration more of a challenge. This also exacerbates the issue of unseen enemies just out of frame and will often leave you scrambling to find the inmates you missed before time runs out.

Presentation:

Each of these systems runs the game in 8-bit graphics and none of them are all that impressive.

The NES’ limited color pallet leaves the levels looking dull and repetitive, although there are some detailed images

Music on this version was composed by Jeroen Tel. It’s not as eclectic as his Dracula soundtrack, but it’s rather forgettable.  

The Sega Master System had a more robust color pallet to work with and made for more detailed environments. This version also has a brief scene at the start of Ripley shooting a xenomorph. Pretty unique, but it is the only one in the game.

The Game Gear port is largely the same, only with a couple of graphical tweaks, like the drooling alien at the start of the levels, and the smaller screen size.

Mat Furniss helmed the music on these versions and each track is a sort of remix of the ones on Genesis. Not too bad, but not as good as the 16 bit version.

The Commodore 64 version has the poorest graphics. They’re very blocky and repetitive making it easy to get lost.

Although the music is almost identical to Funriss’ it is credited to Andy Roger on this version and while not the worst, it’s not that great.

Conclusion:

These versions of the game fail to live up to their 16 bit counterparts. None use their hardware as well as the SNES version, but neither do they make for adequate revisions of the Genesis version. The principal gameplay is still here, but it’s fighting against limited controls and muddy visuals.

Gameboy

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Gameplay:

The Gameboy version is the most unique. Rather than a cut down version of the SNES, or Genesis version, Alien 3 on gameboy is a top down adventure game with an in game timer and multiple possible outcomes. It follows the film, with Ripley arriving on Fury 161 and having to wait for rescue while a new Xenomorph prowls the facility. As you explore the facility you’ll get intel from different characters, and equipment from the crashed Sulaco that’s been scattered across the base.

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Eventually the new xenomorph will appear and at the start of the game and its unkillable. You’ll have to avoid it while you continue your scavenging for gear. Once you have the tools needed to fight back properly, there will be a general outbreak across the facility and you’ll have to destroy the alien eggs, and get off the planet.

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Much of the game is spent wandering around the prison looking for new items and avoiding surprise attacks. The layout of the facility can be difficult to navigate thanks to the repetitive backgrounds. Your inventory is small and the items you leave stay in the same location throughout the game. 

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You have about two real time hours before Weyland-Yutani lands on the planet. When they show up the game is over and not necessarily for the better. Since the company’s true motives have always been to capture the alien and breed them as weapons, failing to eliminate the aliens on Fury 161 before they arrive amounts to a game over. In many ways it reminds me of the time limit in the original Prince of Persia. It can be strict and imposing to new players, you’ll learn ways to shorten your game on repeated attempts. 

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Since items are only marked by small symbols on the floor it can be easy to lose track of key items, however if you find the base map you’ll have idea of where you are. The map also gives you a read out of the number of prisoners left alive, how long you have until Weyland-Yutani arrives to collect you, and how many of the aliens are left in each stage of their life cycle from eggs to fully formed xenomorph warriors.

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The ending of the game can be slightly affected by your decisions, though it amounts to little more than score. You don’t have to defeat the alien or save the prisoners to complete the game. You could even escape the planet and Weyland-Yutani if you can fix the escape pod before they arrive.

The game’s greatest fault is that there is no way to continue. You have four lives and once those are lost, you’re through. Theoretically, if you know what you’re doing, the game can be as short as half an hour, however a new player will find this frustrating, as they replay the game, doing the same exploration over and over to get back to the point where they died.

Presentation:

The graphics are simple, but effective. The character sprites are rather small, but the game gives you a wider field of view in exchange for the lack of detail. It also makes the large xenomorph sprite more surprising when it shows up. The environments are pretty well drawn, although they tend to look kind of similar, particularly in the air ducts, making it a little easy to get lost, especially if you don’t have the map.

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The story is fleshed out with cut scenes and conversations with other characters. The portraits in these scenes look pretty good and it helps drive the game play.

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The music is limited to a couple of tracks. They’re simple and could stand to be more dynamic when encountering something like the alien queen or a clutch of eggs, but they’re appropriate to the atmosphere of the game.

Conclusion:

For the original gameboy, this game is impressive. There was the possibility that it would be a smaller version of the NES game, much like the Game Gear, but instead they took a very original path. The time limit keeps you on your toes and the threat of the alien in the early game, before you have a hope of defending yourself, is very tense. However it does suffer from the limitations of the system, and not having any way to continue, or at least find more lives is a major henerance. Not a perfect title, but in the end it stands out among its console bretherine.

Final Conclusion:

It’s been a rather interesting lineup of games. Although all the 8-Bit home console games were disappointing renditions of the Genesis version, both 16-bit titles were very enjoyable. The Genesis’ arcade style gameplay was very satisfying and the SNES game built upon that original concept for even more thrills. The Gameboy version too was an admirable effort. While none of these games capture the suspense and horror of the original film, or even the third or that matter, they are better follow ups to Aliens than the movie ever was.

As I hold out hope that the franchise will someday release another Alien movie that captures the creativity and quality of the original two, I’ll rewatch those old time classics and play another round of Alien 3.

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