Games

Remembering the Identity Crisis of Licensed Video Games, Through the Lens of ‘Alien 3’

If you wanted to play the events of the movie, you had two main choices—and neither of them was really “right”.

by Mike Diver
Mar 1 2017, 2:55pm

The sudden death of actor Bill Paxton on Saturday February 25th sent shockwaves through the film industry, as evidenced at the Oscars ceremony the next day, where Jennifer Aniston led the tributes from his peers.

Paxton was a versatile actor who enjoyed high-profile roles in several movies of the 1980s and '90s, including Titanic, Twister and Apollo 13. He also had the curious honor of being the sole human killed by a Terminator, in James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi-noir masterpiece; a "xenomorph", in the same director's 1986 blockbuster Aliens; and a Predator, or "Yautja", in 1990's Predator 2. Three of Hollywood's biggest baddies there, and they all made time for the Texan, who will be missed by work colleagues and filmgoers alike.

Paxton's Private William Hudson never made it to the end credits of Aliens—he was dragged down to his doom, pulse rifle blazing, during a not-quite-final stand against a swarm of acid-blooded bugs. Then again, perhaps that was a preferable fate to escaping LV-426 only to die in an escape pod crash at the beginning of the third film, as was the case with Hicks, Newt and (sort of) Bishop.

Yet the character's spirit did carry on—albeit in a video game, not a motion picture. (I'll elaborate shortly.) 1992's Alien 3, the film, was a strange installment in a franchise that's struggled to find itself ever since its first two movies, an oddly somber experience that was born of complex studio strife and emerged undeniably comprised. With no guns, just a single alien and a cast of barely developed supporting characters, it represented a poor foundation for a licensed game tie-in. So it was hardly surprising that the games that did come out, bearing the title Alien 3, were only loosely connected to the events of David Fincher's directorial debut.

It's Alien 3 that I immediately think back to when considering how games based on a movie could vary wildly from system to system.

The 1980s and '90s were a time when licensed video games could and often did excel, regularly surpassing the qualities of their inspirational movies or television shows. DuckTales on the NES is a great case in point—the series was passable Saturday morning fare blessed with a nagging theme tune, but the Capcom-made platformer of 1989 is regarded as a genre classic (see also: the Mickey Mouse-starring Castle of Illusion). But these games could also come out in peculiarly different guises, depending on their destination platform and, in some cases, which developer owned what rights to produce the adaptation.

The 16-bit games based on Disney's 1992 animated movie Aladdin are (in)famous for their stylistic differences. Released in 1993, the Mega Drive/Genesis and Super Nintendo versions were the work of different developers, Virgin Games and Capcom respectively, and while both ostensibly similar platformers, closer analysis reveals quite individual aesthetics. Several games based on Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out from a host of studios, including an Ocean-published Amiga version that's beatable inside 12 minutes—if it'd been around then, NeoGAF would've had a field day—and Bits Studios' side-scrolling action adventure with isometric driving sections on then-cutting-edge consoles (a little more on that company, in a moment).

But it's Alien 3 that I immediately think back to when considering how games based on a movie could vary wildly from system to system. And what's most interesting here, I think, is that the tonally distinct 16-bit versions of Alien 3 came from the same developer, Britain's now-defunct Probe Software Ltd, and were both published by Acclaim in the UK.

Beyond some basic premise essentials—both games are set on the Fiorina "Fury" 161 prison facility, and cast the player as a fully-armed Ellen Ripley, who magically discovers rifles and grenades on a planet that, we're told in the movie, has nothing much more dangerous than scissors on its surface (thanks, video games!)—these releases played very differently. Sure, they both took the side-on, action-platformer approach to presentation, with Ripley running and gunning her way through legions of facehuggers and their rather bigger, angrier relatives, but get past that first impression and play the things, and wow: they couldn't be more different.

Above: A longplay video of 'Alien 3' for the Mega Drive/Genesis, via YouTube user Johnx895— start to finish in about 45 minutes.

I owned the Mega Drive (Genesis) version, and it was a challenging combination of map memory, effective bug hunting and great leaps into the unknown of what's just off the screen. You raced through areas of the facility, saving cocooned prisoners from a chest-burst-open fate (those are some hella healing hands she's got there), exploding an array of xenos into puddles of sizzling goo. It features an end boss that's like a regular drone alien jacked up on Bane's Venom, an arsenal that'd put Metal Slug to shame, and great screams as its iconic monsters are both blown apart and, should you be too late in rescuing all the trapped humans, born so very violently into the world.

I really enjoyed the Mega Drive game, and completed it several times (completely ill-fitting end credits music, FYI). But how I envied my friend, Tom, who had the other version. I'd borrow it, to play it on my brothers' Super Nintendo, but it wasn't the same. This was an Alien 3 that demanded time, attention and affection.

It wasn't the arcade-length experience of its Sega counterpart, which could be wrapped up in under an hour—in that, you "saved" your progress by being able to skip stages, using a cheat code, to pick up where you left off should dinner be called. The SNES game was a deep dive into the series' atmosphere and action, non-linear in layout, almost Metroid-like, and featuring the kind of missions you'd actually expect someone in an Alien movie to have to tackle. For example, grabbing old bits of junk from one area and attaching them to other components in order to progress—much like Ripley duct-taping a rifle and incinerator together with a locator to go after the captured Newt.

Alien 3 on the SNES doesn't just tell you that you've failed in on-screen words, it uses a famous sample from Aliens to really drive home the disappointment.

These missions are all accepted from terminals scattered throughout the game—which glow with the same blue that emanated from the console Hudson's looking at in Aliens, when he pinpoints the unfortunate colonists' transmitter signals. It's one of several echoes of the second movie—Ripley crouches through countless vents, flame-cooks eggs like she's preparing breakfast for the entire Colonial Marine Corps, and racks up an extraterrestrial body count that far exceeds that of the complete Starship Troopers film series.

And then there's the Game Over screen which, trust me, you'll be seeing a lot, as the SNES Alien 3 has some significant bottlenecks of fist-biting frustration. The game doesn't just tell you that you've failed in on-screen words, it uses a sample from Aliens to really drive home its disappointment. It sounds like this. Which is, obviously, lifted from this oft-quoted passage delivered by Bill Paxton, as Hudson, immediately after the marines' first, ranks-depleting encounter with the aliens of LV-426. "Game over, man, game over. What the fuck are we gonna do now?"

"They mostly come at night, mostly," is Newt's chilling warning to her not-exactly saviors, as Hudson continues to rant away in the background. Aliens, while a completely different ride to its 1979 predecessor, centered more on cacophonous action than quiet tension, wasn't without its moments of discomfort, of horror—take the scene where the real monster of the story, Burke, releases a facehugger into Ripley and Newt's sealed room. And the SNES Alien 3 really nails that unease through its music and sound.

Above: A longplay video of 'Alien 3' for the Super Nintendo, via YouTube user Super Average Bros., clocking in at just short of five hours.

Every clunk sounds solid, grenades thwomping and thwacking around confined spaces; machines whir and buzz with that same practical-effect weight, that industrial build quality, you get in the movies; and the aliens themselves screech with more authentically blood-freezing hostility than in the Sega game. The music is admittedly more Aliens than Alien 3, going big on bombast, but it's respectfully in keeping with James Horner's propulsive score for Cameron's movie.

Compare this energetic yet eerie SNES fare, evocative as it is of marines feeling their way through some sort of secreted resin-coated tunnels, to the Mega Drive's lighter, more generic electronic melodies, which could be accompanying any sci-fi action game. Indeed, as it goes on, it's quite reminiscent of Turrican II. (Ask your parents.)

In more recent hardware generations, a third-party game based on a film has tended to be the same experience whatever the platform—at least in terms of home console releases. See, for example, 2008's Iron Man, and the next year's James Cameron's Avatar: The Game, which are virtually identical (i.e. equally poor) whether played on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Of course, handhelds have long received quite different games to their beneath-the-TV cousins— The Amazing Spider-Man of 2014 is not the same game on 3DS as it is on PS4.

The Sega game just doesn't resonate with the same love for the source material as the SNES title.

And Alien 3 on the Game Boy, developed by another studio that's long since closed, the aforementioned London-based Bits, was nothing like its full-color alternatives. It's a top-down affair, more of a maze-like puzzler than an action game for the most part, but ends with the same storyline beat as the SNES game—which, just in case, I won't ruin for you. But, suffice to say, it's rather bigger than opening some sprinklers.

Assuming you ever got to that point. I didn't, personally, but I saw it done, by my friend. Myself, I became very familiar with Paxton's exclamation of despair, of defeat, having been unable put in the time to properly learn the layout of the SNES Alien 3. But all the same, I loved its moodiness, its effective capturing of that Alien feeling. The Mega Drive game was great as a run-and-gun arcade platformer; but sub out the xenos and replace them with other enemies and it wouldn't change in a meaningful way. It just doesn't resonate with the same love for the source material as the SNES title which, from its ominous menu onwards, is simply Alien, through and through.

I don't know why these games, by the same company and based on the same movie, came out so differently—if anyone does, perhaps from knowing someone who worked at Probe at the time, I'd love to hear from you. (I've looked for something, anything, online, but nada.) But I guess it's appropriate that there were two same-generation games out there, splitting opinion, given the film's modern appreciation, divided as that's become between the theatrical release and its extended, plot-altering "assembly cut". The latter every time, obviously.

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