There is always a risk with retrogaming that your mind is playing tricks on you. That title that you stored in your memory banks that brings back hazy memories of happier times, only to revisit it and find that not only has Father Time been rather unkind but he’s picked his pockets and shoved him down the stairs.
And so to Alien Syndrome. Released in the arcades in 1987, this run and gun shooter would see conversions to the usual gamut of home systems. Playing either single player or with a buddy, there are eight levels to play through, involving lots of running, lots of shooting and lots of prisoner rescuing.
It holds a special place in my ever fading memory banks as a game my brother and I stumbled across in some grotty arcade on holiday once, probably at Butlins. We were captivated by the bold graphics, grim looking aliens and a badass flamethrower that charred the alien hordes quicker than you can say George Foreman. Imagine our delight when we found there was a conversion to the humble Speccy that we could play at home.
So the question is, all these years later, has Father Time wrapped up Alien Syndrome in a nice cosy blanket with a cup of hot milk and two (count ’em!) hobnobs on his bedside table? Or sent him out to fend for himself in the shed with the animals? Let’s dive in.
Blimey, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.
In a ‘honestly Guv, I’ve never even heard of Aliens, let alone watched it’ plot, you must infiltrate a base to rescue a number of hostages that have been captured. Dropping you into the middle of a maze-like arena, blobby aliens come at you thick and fast. Your default weapon is a rather weedy looking pea shooter but can be quickly and easily upgraded courtesy of the handy pick-ups stashed conveniently into the walls.
And you’ll need those upgrades because the alien menace is relentless. Each beastie only takes a shot or two to dispatch but not only are there lots of them but they respawn too, so that every inch of the arena is crawling with scum. The aliens themselves come in a couple of flavours, the standard purple slugs a shuffling inconvenience whilst the green variety rear up on their tails and spit a globule of green goo at you.
The merest touch of an alien or their gooey excrement means instant death, the loss of a life accompanied by a blood curdling scream from your avatar of choice. You have the option of a male or female lead, although in practice the only difference between the two is the colour of the weapon fired and the pitch of the scream when in your death throes.
Weapons offer a nice variety and you will soon settle on a favourite depending on your playing style. The starting weapon needs to be ditched as soon as possible, offering as it does little in the way of resistance. A chunkier blob version is available but other weapons offer greater promise. The flamethrower that I recalled so fondly remains a satisfying weapon, streaming out a constant billow of fiery venom. For added effect, swish your character this way and that to dish out flame grilled alien slug at every turn. Mmm, crispy. A variant on the flamethrower is available that trades in the power of a long stream of fire for a projectile version, offering the benefit of range and flexibility but losing something in the devastation and cool stakes. My favourite though was the laser. Not only does it offer a rapid fire it also provides the greatest range, allowing you to crack off shots in all directions, filling up the screen with a visceral symphony of deadly justice, whilst also allowing you room to manoeuvre. Combine it with a separate pick-up that adds some shooty protection to the rear and you become a one man walking death squad.
As well as weapon upgrades stashed in the walls you’ll also find the occasional map. Not only does this give you an overview of the maze but also helps you track down the various hostages that need to be rescued. Fortunately they seem impervious to both friendly fire and aliens (how come your trooper doesn’t come equipped with whatever body armour they are wearing?) so you don’t need to be mindful of your shots. Crack them out with reckless abandon if you want to survive. Running up to a hostage makes them magically disappear, rescue enough of them and the exit to the level opens up allowing you to escape.
Well I say escape but actually it takes you into the lair of one of a hideous selection of end of level bosses. Employ the standard gaming tropes of blasting the weak spots and dodging incoming fire until the vile behemoth is left in a sticky pile of gloop.
I had great fun revisiting this but it is absolutely rock hard. You start with three lives and with no continues, respawning enemies and end of level bosses blocking your way, this is a three Shredded Wheat affair and no mistake. The levels themselves are reasonably compact and with your character offering flexible movement and swift firing, the layouts can be learned and enemies despatched with a degree of efficiency. Don’t dilly dally too long through because as an added impetus a timer counts down throughout each level, ready to explode when it reaches zero. The boss battles meanwhile are a rotten cherry on a long since past its sell by date cake. This is the type of game that makes you earn your progress, don’t expect any handouts. But for all that it never feels unfair. You are well equipped and whilst firefights are intense and enemies dangerous, this is a game that rewards patience and skill. Which probably explains why I routinely failed to get past the first level.
Sound is routinely excellent. As you start a voice booms out ‘RESCUE THE HOSTAGES’ whilst your mission is accompanied by a foreboding thud that ratchets up the tension as the danger mounts.
Let’s start with the version I remember on the humble Speccy. As you would expect this is graphically simplified but the traditional yellows and blacks of the Spectrum palette actually work quite well. Level design is faithful, as are the monsters and weapon choices. Scrolling is somewhat jerky and movement a little stilted and so whilst this is undoubtedly an inferior experience it is a solid conversion.
To the Amiga we go and surely the extra 8-bits of grunt will give us a smoother experience. Sadly whoever programmed this version appears to have sunk one too many Red Bulls that morning. The speed is ramped up far in excess of the arcade original so that your tear around the level like a wild banshee. At the same time control conspires to be clunky and occasionally unresponsive and combined with a tighter, zoomed in camera, offering you a reduced view of the carnage, this becomes a wholly unsatisfying experience to play through, not to mention a significantly harder one. Also the pre-game screen indicates that there are only four levels versus the original’s eight, although given the heightened difficulty rendering progress a Herculean task it’s unlikely to make any difference.
But saving the worst until last is the Sega Master System conversion. Good grief, what were they thinking? This is Alien Syndrome in name only. Gone are the slug like aliens, replaced by Geiger-esque knock offs. Gone is the smooth maze scrolling, replaced by single screens that you navigate between. Gone is the instant regeneration after losing a life that afforded you a second or so of sweet, impervious bliss to seek a revenge kill, replaced by dumping you back to a loading screen. In their place we get random death squares that you render ineffective by shooting, otherwise stepping on them spells instant death. A crappy, ugly conversion.
A classic run and gun carved out of the Gauntlet mode. Hard as nails but fluid controls and meaty blasting ensure this remains a satisfying challenge.