The Aliens franchise has always been ripe for video games when you combine space alien xenomorphs with acidic blood, big guns, crawling through air ducts and flame throwers. While Alien 3 for the Nintendo Entertainment System holds true to the franchise, it diverts from its movie tie in by having more than one alien and actual guns to find them with. Its a welcome turn, because I’d rather have something to shoot and something to kill. The developers could have gone the stealth route, but who wants to be vulnerable when video games are power fantasies?
Alien 3 is a 2D side scrolling shooter. The object of the game is to rescue captured prisoners from labyrinth like levels of corridors and tunnels. That’s fun and that’s easy to do, but then you have a timer to do it all in. Sure lots of games have timers, there’s nothing wrong with that, but once you cut down all of the prisoners, you need to find the exit through a vent before the time expires.
The game becomes a maddening rush of a memory game. You need to memorize where each prisoner is from a previous run and go about the quickest and most efficient way to find them all. Taking damage punishes you as Ripley is knocked flat on the ground. Going down ladders becomes far faster when you take damage, she falls off and down the shaft.
In fact Ripley will be falling a lot, because the game is designed that way. If she falls from too great a height, she’ll tilt and get laid out on the floor. There are other parts designed to send her tumbling down staircases. Landing on one of the steep stairwells makes her roll down in a comical fashion.
I’ll hit you with the game’s worst sin of two giant sins. If you fail and your time runs out, you’re punished by having to watch the game scroll to each of the prisoners as an alien bursts out of their chest. This is a double edged sword, because you get to see their locations, but you get to wait to see the locations. There is no way to skip it or speed it up at least that I found. Its like this for every time expiration.
These levels are a good size, but there’s nothing to distinguish one part of a level from another beyond the platforms. The backgrounds look similar and you’ll wonder just how many morgue slabs a prison can have by the end of the first level. The game loves to hit you with a maze of vents at the end of each level and Ripley crawls slower than she runs. Rightfully so too, its a vent after all, but there can be a lot of dead ends when you’re low on time.
The game’s second biggest sin and that’s trapping you at the bottom of a level with no way up and no way to die. You need to let the time run out even if you have four or five minutes left. Perhaps there is some way to die, its just nothing obvious. maybe I can throw a grenade into something or crawl up a fence.
For everything the game gives you it takes something away. You have a lot of health, so the game takes away a lot of your sight. You only get about thirty percent of the screen to see where you’re going. To compensate for this, you can walk a bit, then let the screen move over so you can see fifth percent. Then you walk down to thirty percent, wait and let it pan over some more. I’d like to think it was bad programming, but it was probably psychology to give the aliens a chance. This also prevents you from doing a speed run, because you’ll just get mauled by a xenomorph, but again you have so much energy, you can take a hit and find a health pack.
You can climb up and down ladders and you have a high jump, but the problem is, you need to walk off a ladder rather than leap off. That high jump of yours becomes problematic, because some gaps you need to leap across from a narrow platform, you need to leap, then use the directional pad.
On a ladder you can drop a hand grenade below you to take out an enemy, because you’re unable to shoot at all when hanging from a ladder. The problem is, the grenade will drop through the enemy. I suppose in real life the alien would let it fly by them rather than catch it and explode.
You’ve got four big guns, a flame thrower, a powerful standard machine gun, some sort of single shot projectile that I can only assume is the grenade launcher and you have throwing grenades. They all feel useless beyond the standard gun and the single shot. The throwing grenades bounce and can miss their target. The flame thrower has such a short range I swear its a blowtorch.
I suppose the biggest thing to take note is that the buttons are reverse where B is jump and A is to shoot. While this goes against NES game logic, somehow I’m sure you’ll master it. To switch weapons, press select. I’d much rather find weapons on the fly than have four to juggle.
The controls feel stiff and deliberate as if the game wants to take away any mobility that you have, especially getting off a ladder. You need to be near a platform. Ripley can crouch, shoot digitally up or down with only the machine gun, but never directly up or down, nor can she fire a gun when jumping. Holding the jump button makes you jump again and under normal circumstances I am against that, but there are so many tight platforms that mimic a ladder and force you to jump over and over that I have no problem with this mechanic.
The enemies have some variety and they feel more stealthy than in the Super Nintendo version. Face huggers pop out of eggs, but you’ll have them dead long before they get out. Xenomorphs can crawl on the ceiling, drop down and jump up. They also hang around in vents. One of the more interesting things is an Alien’s head that can be seen from a ceiling, you need to shoot him down before he pounces. Its interesting, but I can imagine careless players getting frustrated. There are also acid spitters and faster, pouncing aliens.
When you’re finished with a level, you get a score based on how much ammunition and prisoners you rescued. This really makes it feel like a game worth replaying for anyone looking for a high score. Its a nice addition for anyone that can get into Alien 3. The menu has options for difficulty and how many lives you want. Each death or time expiration starts you back at the same level again.
After a few levels, you’ll get a dull and meaningless boss fight against a larger alien. I recommend standing off to the side and shooting it, because it just goes in its pattern unaware that you’re killing it. Going out in the open will eventually get you killed.
The thing that shines the most about the game is the music. Its great, and while it has a typical NES sound, it sets itself apart from anything else on the system for how sinister it can sound.
Alien 3 is a flowed game, but I still enjoy it. There’s a different sort of feel to it. Its nothing good, but its different. There’s a psychology to its madness that is good for people that want to endure torment for a high score.