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Alien Syndrome Review

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Throughout the 1980’s Sega was making its mark in arcades. It pushed what was possible in racing games, and rail shooters with Outrun, Space Harrier, and After Burner. It gave us the awesome Golden Axe, and the visually impressive Altered Beast. Unsurprisingly many of these games were ported to its own consoles, the Master System, and the Genesis. But there is one of their IPs that came, and went in this period. Something so familiar, and so different. Something so difficult, and yet addictive. I’m talking about Alien Syndrome.

PROS: Great visuals, atmosphere, music, and control (most versions).

CONS: Obscenely difficult. Dark Souls difficult. In deep space.

ALIENS: One of many blockbuster influences that can be seen here.

At its core, Alien Syndrome seems like a typical overhead shooter. You move either Ricky or Mary, depending on which player you are. As you go along, you kill various creatures for big points. But it isn’t so simple. Where previous overhead run n’ guns like Commando, or Ikari Warriors had you kill enemies, and charge to the end of a linear level, this doesn’t. Alien Syndrome is unrelenting about its premise. Your mission isn’t a simple matter of killing things, and getting to the end. Each stage is a ship, and on each of these ships are a number of survivors you have to rescue. Not only do you have to rescue these survivors, (who are stuck in cocoons the way the ones in Aliens were portrayed) you’re timed. Because each ship has initiated a self-destruct sequence a la Captain Kirk.

 

This is to ensure that the menacing invaders cannot make it to Earth in the event you fail your mission. Also because each stage is a ship, there are no straight runs to the north. Instead, each of the stages is a maze, with its own distinct layout. So you have to explore every last nook, and cranny looking for survivors. The survivors are represented by a row of heads. As you rescue them, they’re depleted from the bar. If things get tough, or confusing (which they will) each of the ships have a few maps. Finding these on the wall will pull up a map on  the screen. On the map are flashing pixels, that represent the survivors.

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Once you find all of the hostages, the game will prompt you to get to the exit so you can escape. But in each of the airlocks is a boss alien. These are large, and diverse. Each of them is imposing. Each of them has a powerful attack, and the later bosses employ some very tricky patterns. The bosses all look really cool too. For a title that has fallen into obscurity, it has some of the most memorable bosses in arcade game history. Even the very first boss, is the sort of thing you’ll wish were made into an action figure or statue. These designs are that good.

But, run n’ gun games are often only as exciting as their weaponry, and enemies. Alien Syndrome has a great many of each. Again, taking influence from the Alien movies, there are flame throwers, fire-ball guns, and grenade launchers. But there are others, like the blaster that shoots laser beams like the Imperial blasters in Star Wars. There are also temporary shields, and chess pieces you can find for points.

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How do you get these things? There are cubby holes on walls, marked with the appropriate letter for the weapon. For example L is the laser. The enemies are also varied throughout the game. In earlier stages you’ll fight brain slug creatures, but you’ll see everything from aliens to creatures that shoot their eyes as projectiles. Quite honestly, everything on display is really cool. Every ship has its own decor. So you won’t see a lot of the same tiles in subsequent levels. Some of the ships are what you would expect to see in a space-themed game. Steel floors, technical circuitry patterns for walls, and other touches. But other stages are completely alien (no pun intended.). Some ships seem like they’re made of flesh, others are like stone. Many of the stages have some really cool parallax scrolling effects on floors to represent pits or other pitfalls. And fall you will if you walk over them.

Alien Syndrome is quite the challenge too, because there isn’t a single moment where you aren’t attacked by a horde of aliens. You have to be quick on the draw, as well as quick to react. Dodging projectiles, enemy creatures, while trying to rescue people at the same time. The difficulty especially ramps up after the first stage, and the bosses will often hand you your own behind on a silver platter. There are also no continues, making your performance all the more important. It really does give you the visceral action of the genre, while providing other challenges.

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There are many ways to play Alien Syndrome as it was ported to a lot of platforms. Interestingly enough, the ports to Sega’s own Master System, and Game Gear resulted to almost entirely new games. The scrolling is gone. Instead things work on an almost flip-screen mechanic, only scrolling when reaching the end of the screen in a Castlevania door style transition. The other major changes are almost entirely different maps, and new bosses. The core concept is the same, and it retains the songs from the arcade machine. But these changes make for arguably the worst version of the game. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t play Alien Syndrome on the Master System. It is still a pretty good iteration. It’s brisk. It gives you the same style of gameplay in a new, and unexpected way. Rather, it isn’t the best option for those looking for a replicated experience on a retro console. If you do pick this one up though, you’ll want something other than the Master System Control Pad, because the sometimes mushy d-pad will have you accidentally walking into an alien, or projectile. I recommend the Sega Control Stick. It just seems more responsive in this game. For whatever reason, this game won’t see a Genesis controller properly, so the Sega Control Stick is the next best thing.

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The other two major versions I happen to own ate the Unlicensed Tengen NES port, and the Commodore 64 port. Both of these are pretty good, getting the stage layouts, enemy types, and overall feel pretty nicely. The Commodore 64 version fares especially well though, as it’s the most responsive version I own. Everything is fast, and smooth most of the time. While there can be a bit of slowdown when an awful lot is going on, it still performs better than the NES version overall. The C64 doesn’t have as large a color palette as the NES, but it somehow gets closer to the arcade experience in terms of visuals. The C64 also has the arcade cabinet’s animated attract mode, and a really good original soundtrack. It’s another example of the staying power of the computer’s SID sound chip.

But Tengen’s NES port is no slouch either. It still looks pretty good most of the time, and even manages to add some pretty cool cinema screens to amp up the experience. I should also note that while the C64 has the better soundtrack, the NES version also tries to replicate the arcade’s songs rather than experiment with them, or add new ones. While it isn’t as responsive or quite as fluid as the C64 version, it is the only one of the three to offer continues. On the C64, and SMS you’ll need to clear the game on a handful of lives. For those out there who don’t own a vintage computer, but you have an NES, and a SMS it’s a pretty close race. For authenticity the NES port wins, but the SMS version looks a bit nicer.

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Of course, all of this is moot if you have Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 or PS3 though. Because the arcade ROM was included in the compilation. You’ll have a nearly 1:1 experience at that point. Be that as it may, most of the home ports all offer a pretty great send up of the original. Alien Syndrome also appeared on the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Sharp X68000, MSX computers as well as MS-DOS.

It’s a shame this IP has lied so dormant over the years, aside from a brief, largely ignored game on the PSP, and Wii that played nothing like the original. Alien Syndrome is a fun, if difficult run n’ gun. If you have any of the platforms it appeared on, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy. If you’re blessed to live near an arcade that has a working cabinet, do yourself a service, and put in a few quarters. With its challenge, memorable characters, and insane bosses, Alien Syndrome is one arcade classic you’ll never want to forget.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine Review

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Hewson. That isn’t a name that many people remember but it was an important one. Back in the mid 1980’s home computer gaming was on the rise. Computers were more capable than game consoles, and did more than play games. Families were opting into them as parents could figure out their finances on them, as well as work on them. Their children could do homework, run educational software, and of course play games.

Many developers cropped up out of this environment, as they could affordably code their own software. In the USA home computers would spare Activision from the console market crash, as well as allow Electronic Arts to slowly build its empire. It gave way to independent publishers too like Cosmi who would put out a lot of great budget titles. Japanese companies like Konami, Capcom, SEGA, Technos, and Taito would see official ports of their games on computers. But in Europe computers would prove arguably even more popular. Time Warp, Rare, Firebird, Codemasters, and Hewson are but a handful of European developers who would make a lasting legacy on these machines.

Hewson Consultants was one of the smallest of these studios. But it managed to put out some of the most memorable titles for the European market. Their biggest strength was arcade shooters. Over the years they would put out things like Paradroid, Tower Toppler, and  Uridium. But today’s game was one of their most noteworthy titles published.

PROS: Style. High difficulty. The C64 version’s glorious soundtrack.

CONS: May be TOO difficult for some. Short. Some versions have control issues.

DTV: Cybernoid, and its sequel are bundled in the C64 DTV Games in a controller system!

Cybernoid came out around the time when arcade shmups had transitioned to scrolling stages. But instead of going along with the likes of Gradius, and R-Type, Cybernoid retains vintage flip screen gameplay. That isn’t really a bad thing. The result is something that feels different, even if it is technically inferior. Cybernoid is a game that uses the flip screen mechanics to implement characteristics of an adventure game.

The story is pretty cut, and dry. You’re a pilot for a federation army sent into an asteroid belt to stop pirates from stealing your resources. Cybernoid is a tough game through, and through. When you fire it up, you’ll immediately have the sense things are going to be difficult. As the game doesn’t scroll between screens, each screen is its own puzzle, adventure shooter. Some areas will be a fire fight. Other areas will have a bunch of death traps you’ll need to carefully navigate. Sometimes you’ll find a combination of the two.

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The game becomes extra challenging when you realize that you’re also being timed. If you fail to complete a stage in time you die. In fact, many things will kill you. If your ship grazes a bad guy, you die. In true bullet hell fashion, the screen will be filled with projectiles. If a single one touches you, you die. If you crash into certain parts of the scenery, you die. But there is something really satisfying about Cybernoid in spite of the steep learning curve. When you finally solve a room, you will feel ecstatic. Then crushed when you lose your last life in the next room. But restart you will.

The game does give you a pretty high number of power ups to help you. How do you find these power ups? By killing everything you possibly can. Destroying enemies will allow you to salvage the wreckage for items. You can find missiles, force fields, option shields, and more. You’ll also want to conserve a lot of the power ups because in some rooms you’ll need them to destroy some of the obstacles. If you run out of supplies when you get to these rooms, you’ll be stuck watching the timer count down to your demise.

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Cybernoid isn’t very long either just clocking in at three stages. But those three stages will likely take you days of committed gaming to beat. Cybernoid was also released on several platforms, and depending on where you are in the world, some versions may be easier to find than others.

The 8-bit versions of the game are largely similar. Most of the ships, characters, and background textures are the same. The color palettes, and screen modes differ mildly between the versions. The ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC versions look closest to each other while the Commodore 64 version probably has the best look of any of the 8-bit computers. Interestingly the Commodore 64 version also has an entirely different soundtrack than the other computer versions. The legendary Jeroen Tel wrote his own score for the C64 while the other computers had the original soundtrack by Dave Rogers.

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Here in the states though, most people are probably most familiar with the Nintendo Entertainment System version published by Acclaim. This version was done by a small developer called Studio 12. The NES version looks like it was based off of the C64 version, even the color palette used is similar. The NES version also has its own original soundtrack that is decent, but nowhere near the earworm level of the C64 version. The two versions also play pretty close to each other, though the C64 version feels a lot more responsive. On the C64 things feel a lot more fluid, and you’ll have an easier time trying to avoid huge swaths of projectiles. Though again, by no means will the game be easy.

This doesn’t make the NES version bad, but it isn’t the preferred version. This is because of a number of small things that hold it back. Things feel a little clunky when compared to the C64 version. Getting around a couple of the obstacles is harder as a result. A couple of enemy types were shrunk in size to compensate for this but it doesn’t help all that much. There are also a couple of minor bugs that rarely come up. But when they do, they can really annoy you. However, the NES version does have one advantage, and that is you can select between three difficulty levels. They don’t change the level of challenge dramatically, but if you’re getting creamed you can make things mildly easier. The NES version also has a cinema screen that plays upon your death, as well as an ending. Other versions simply restart the game with your current score intact.

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Cybernoid did find its way onto the Amiga, and Atari ST as well. These versions have better graphics than the 8-bit versions. But I can’t really tell you much about them as I haven’t spent any time with them. In my research I’ve found that many people who have played them aren’t particularly all that fond of them. They have a much lower reputation in terms of play control, and balance than their 8-bit counterparts.

No matter which version you go with though, you’ll be presented with a high level of challenge. Cybernoid isn’t particularly long, and may not have the constant action of classic shmups. But the blend of bullet hell, and flip screen adventuring make for a unique, classic. One that belongs in your classic gaming library.

Final Score: 8 out of 10