Retro Rated: Alien Breed Special Edition ’92

Factfile
Developed by: Team 17
Released: 1992
Format played: Amiga 500

Ruminations

Starting life as a Public Domain producer and publisher, Team 17 would become a prolific and respected publisher throughout the life of the Amiga. With many of its coders having started out in the demo scene, a Team 17 game was usually notable for its high quality graphics and sound, showcasing the very best visual and aural elements of the humble grey box.

The cynics amongst us may put forward an argument that┬áTeam 17’s output could often be seen as derivative, or at the very least heavily influenced, by other works. Body Blows for instance was a none to subtle attempt to recreate Street Fighter II on a single button joystick, Project X sought to take on the king of side scrolling shooters in R-Type whilst Assassin was very much a tribute to Strider.

And then there was Alien Breed. It’s influences are not hard to spot; this is Aliens in all but licence with a liberal dose of Gauntlet sprinkled on top. But if we cried foul every time a publisher released a game that riffed on another, we would have a very small library of games to choose from. Familiarity should not breed contempt, it is quality that counts and luckily Alien Breed oozes it like acid blood from the titular beasts.

Gameplay

Split across 12 levels, your mission can be best summed up by watching Aliens. Yes, there is an abandoned base to explore with creepy corridors full of nasty surprises waiting to jump out and hug your face, and not in a friendly ‘Bayley from WWE’ way.

Gameplay wise it is the Gauntlet vibe that is felt most strongly. Action is viewed from the top down, the viewing area letting you see more than enough to navigate your way round the level and to get the heads up on any upcoming threat. You can play with one or two players, the extra player providing some much appreciated additional firepower. Either way, prepare for a stiff challenge and no mistake.

Navigation of levels is managed though key cards, available as pick ups throughout the level or purchasable via the in-game computer terminals. There are only a finite amount so you have to use them strategically. Do you risk opening the door in the hope of finding more keys but with the chance of coming up empty? Or do you save them, turning down the chance to pick up credits and ammo in exchange for the guarantee of progress later on? It adds a layer of strategy to an otherwise blast-heavy experience.

As referenced above, in addition to keys you can also pick up ammo clips and credits, the latter allowing you to purchase weapon upgrades and other goodies from the terminals dotted around the level. Should you find yourself out of keys and out of credits, you can shoot your way through locked doors but at the expense of considerable ammo.

The tight corridors feed an atmosphere of tension  but they have their annoyances as all too often you find yourself carefully massaging your key count, only to accidentally brush against a door on the other side of the corridor, inadvertently using up a precious commodity.

Levels themselves offer a degree of variety around the same basic core mechanic. Most of your time is spent shooting, collecting or avoiding but as you progress through the game and discover the extent of the alien infestation, specific objectives present themselves, from locking security doors to blowing entire levels before making a mad dash back to the exit lift.

The 12 levels provide a real challenge but one that almost borders on the extreme. Part of the fun of retrogaming is reliving the rock hard experience of old-school gaming. There is none of the hand holding, screen prompt tutorial guff you get in modern games. This is a three Shredded Wheat affair from virtually the first screen. The tight confines of each level can work to your advantage to an extent as aliens can often only approach you one at a time but as it can take so many shots to dispatch each one, they creep inexorably toward you as you fire so that once you get rid of the first couple in the queue, the next one is on you before you can get a shot away. They spawn endlessly too, emerging from holes in the ground, often right as you run over them. Destructible spawn points would have been a welcome relief. Touching a beast doesn’t spell instant death fortunately but does suck a great wedge of health. You can top up health from the computer terminals, or even buy an extra life if you have enough credits but long term survival is dependent on clever movement and saving your funds for meaty weapon upgrades.

Graphics & Sound

Despite the top-down viewpoint, graphically this is a classy offering. Whilst 3D games inevitably show their age as technology progresses, the 16-bit era has a charm to it that defies the ravages of time.

Weapons are satisfying to use and varied in their output whilst the aliens, Giger influence and all, are a suitably grim looking bunch. The outpost itself, never the star of the show, nonetheless plays a fine supporting role, evoking a suitable sense of isolation and futuristic industrial minimalism.

Sounds is fantastic throughout. As soon as the title screen appears a foreboding soundtrack hits, instantly setting the mood for what is to come. Aliens spawn with a nasty squelch and a squeal when shot, weapons crack out a noise to match their look and feel, speech warnings tell you when ammo, health or keys are running low and your little man even emits a heart rending cry of agony when he finally breathes his last. This is a game positively dripping in atmosphere.

What Came Next

The eagle eyed amongst you will have spotted a strange moniker appended to the name of the game. Indeed Alien Breed was originally released in 1991 to critical acclaim. However when it came time for the budget re-release a year later, not satisfied with their earlier efforts, Team 17 set about improving the game, doubling the number of levels, increasing your rate of movement and ironing out some of the bugs from the original. It is a testament to the publisher’s desire for quality that they would take the opportunity to improve upon an already successful game rather than just pump it back out onto the shelves, something they repeated with both the aforementioned Project X and Assassin.

And they would be rewarded as the 1992 Special Edition would become a commercial smash, hovering in the UK game charts for over a year. It would also cement the franchise in the hearts and minds of Amiga gamers. A full-on sequel, Alien Breed II, would arrive in 1993 whilst Alien Breed: Tower Assault followed a year later. With the gaming landscape beginning to shift, so the Alien Breed games needed to evolve and 1995 saw the release of Alien Breed 3D, switching the action from a top-down Gauntlet clone to a Doom-esque FPS, reinvigorating the franchise and providing the much maligned CD32 with one of its biggest hits. A 3D sequel would signal the end of the game’s Amiga run in 1996 before the series was rebooted in 2010 with Alien Breed Evolution on Xbox 360 and PS3.

Team 17 themselves would of course achieve global success with the Worms franchise which, having started life on the Amiga in 1995 continues to produce sequels to the present day. The publisher also looks set for another hit with the recent release of throwback platformer Yooka-Laylee.

Bottom Line

The difficulty level occasionally verges on the precipice of being just a tad too hard to the point that you no longer enjoy the challenge. This is offset to some extent by the use of level codes, avoiding the need to relentlessly grind back through earlier levels but your enjoyment of the game may ultimately come down to whether you find it challenging or simply frustrating.

For those with the stomach for battle, this is a great looking, terrific sounding, atmospheric blaster that wears its influences shamelessly on its sleeve and dares you to do something about it. Originality be damned, this is a terrific old-school challenge and one of the finest games of its type to grace the Amiga.

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