Friday 9 June 2017

Mega Drive Review - Alien Storm (Game 135)

Alien Storm is a brawler that has a lot of things in common with SEGA's other entries into the genre, especially those that started off in the arcade. But with a variety of gameplay styles why has this game got lost in the crowd?

Developed by Team Shinobi

Published by Sega

Released in 1991

Given that my youth was spent playing platform games and RPGs on the Snes I had no idea just how many different side-scrolling brawlers there were in the late '80s and early '90s especially on Sega machines. Like most gamers, I knew of the big franchises; 'Golden Axe', 'Double Dragon', 'Final Fight' and 'Streets of Rage'. I was also aware the genre was frequently used to create licensed games like 'Turtles in Time' and 'Batman Returns' but I had no idea there were so many other titles that are now frequently forgotten. 

As the name would suggest, 'Alien Storm' presents a classic alien invasion story. A generic city is under attack by swarms of foul beasts from outer space, led by a giant brain in a jar. Celebrity reviewer Julian Rignal in particular loved the foes featured in 'Alien Storm', to the extent that he spent half his allotted review word-count just listing some of them. "One alien has green arms inside its mouth which reach out and grab you; another farts noxious gases, one irritating type spits goo from mouths in its chest, there's a mutoid kangaroo which sprouts a disgusting proboscis from its pouch, a giant slitherer which opens it mouth enormously wide and leaps across at you, and there's also a which grabs you, turns you upside down and drops you on your head." Game designer Makoto Uchida took great delight in including these gruesome foes and remembers many more enemies that were not used.
"I spent a lot of time on the different attack styles. There are so many ideas that didn't get through the proposal stage but I think everything came out satisfyingly well. The company's female colleagues play-tested the game with their eyes shut complaining "[they] can't look at it straight it's so gross!"" The boss fights were also made deliberately huge and repulsive at the request of Uchida. "Getting the enemies right is 100% important. There is a formula in Hollywood that says a movie will be a huge hit if you manage to create an incredible villain. This applies in the same way to games".

Three heroes take it upon themselves to defend Earth against this alien invasion. The player can choose between Karen, armed with a flamethrower; Garth (sometimes called Gordon), equipped with a lightning gun; and Slammer, a sentient robot who uses an energy whip.
Perhaps inspired by a famous film released years before, the trio call themselves Alien Busters, and despite looking different all three heroes seem to handle identically. It's a shame as other games where you move across the screen fighting an endless stream of foes feature characters that behave noticeably differently. 'Streets of Rage' and 'Final Fight' for example offer a diverse cast and choosing the one that best reflects your play style is key to success. However in 'Alien Storm' Karen, Garth and Slammer all move at the same rate, run and tumble at the same speed and offer the same attack range when fighting foes. Though each character uses a different style of weapon, it turns out to just be a cosmetic difference and if the Internet is to be believed "they're all running on the same engine under the hood".

Like most other side scrolling brawlers, ‘Alien Storm’ features an attack that can be used to clear the screen, provided enough magic or energy has been accumulated. Karen calls down a nuclear missile to set the screen ablaze, Garth summons a rapid-firing chopper, and Slammer just causes himself to self-destruct, leaving his head lying on the ground until a fresh robot body appear and reattaches it. The problem is while all of these attacks look different they are functionally the same. Indeed the special attacks are attributed to different characters depending on the system on which the game is played.

It is not hard to see why 'Alien Storm' is frequently described as "'Golden Axe' with robots and aliens". The bulk of both games is identical with the faults of the earlier game are replicated in the second. It's still frustrating when you're surrounded by enemies unable to fight in two directions at once. Of course the similarities would be more of a surprise if both games weren't made by the same people. Both 'Golden Axe' and 'Alien Storm' were created by one Sega's internal development groups; Team  Shinobi.
Both were released in arcades using similar hardware and both were ported to the Mega Drive to satisfy Sega's claims that they were bringing the arcade experience home.  'Alien Storm's Garth even looks like 'GoldenAxe's Ax Battler, only in futuristic clothing. Both games are presented in a 2.5D view which allow players to move in and out of the screen. "We had seen the 2.5D view used in other games and chose to adopt this approach" remembers Uchida talking to Keith Stuart In the 'Mega Drive / Genesis Collected Works'. "However this decision tremendously increased the amount artwork required" recalls the game's designer. To increase the sense of depth the backgrounds in 'Alien Storm' employ the classical Trompe-l'œil effect: an optical illusion that fools the brain into perceiving depth on flat surfaces.  The streets that seem to vanish into the distance are there but the perspective doesn't change in relation to the character's positions. "'Alien Storm' is virtually arcade perfect! The graphics are spot-on with a whole host of brilliant aliens and decent backdrops" suggested Richard Leadbetter. Side by side the arcade and mega drive versions do indeed look similar especially the sprites. The backgrounds on the home port are marginally less varied and the level transition animations have not survived the journey home but otherwise it's a faithful port. Comparing the audio is less complimentary to the Mega Drive version; the sample speech has all gone and the sound effects are confusing, far too loud in the mix drowning out the music. Not that the background tracks are that special. They're noisy, repetitive and tinny but that seems to be in-keeping with the gameplay.

It's a shame the catchy melodies that existed in 'GoldenAxe' weren't carried over to 'Alien Storm' in the same way the gameplay was. Especially as 'Alien Storm' does set itself apart from other generic brawlers by offering a couple of different play styles that show up typically after each standard level.  A first-person gallery shooter sequences pop up fairly frequently. During these the perspective shifts to behind the player's weapon as you shoot at aliens in enclosed areas like warehouses and convenience stores. Enemies leap out at you from behind stacks of boxes and the environments progressively deteriorate as the rain of gun fires continues.
It's all reminiscent of 'Operation Wolf' and a very similar mini game was also a part of the developer's earlier output, something game designer Makoto Uchida admits to. "They were inspired by 'Shinobi' which was created by my senior. That title also featured a first person bonus game which I referenced in 'Alien Storm'". But while they provides a change of pace from the scrolling fighting, some reviewers believed the sections to be so badly made that you'll miss the main game. Dan Whitehead even called them "atrocious shooting gallery stages" when he reviewed the digital re-release for Eurogamer. "Collision detection is fussy, meaning you have to be on the exact same horizontal plane as an enemy to cause any damage, while the treacle-slow cursor pace does little to keep you engaged".
Perhaps more successful are the "endless runner" style levels in which your character is constantly moving towards the right side of the screen almost like they were in a scrolling shoot em up. Along with shooting you can leap over enemies and change your position relative to the constantly moving ground; not unlike the infamous speeder bike stages in 'Battle Toads'. Uchida believed frequently changing the style of play was essential to keep a player's attention. "If the gameplay is intense for more than a few minutes they get tired [...] Apparently our concentration levels go down if we watch TV constantly for 15 minutes so we also felt it wise to insert something like a bonus stage every 15 minutes too".

15 minutes suggests the normal stages are larger than they are as even the least able of players can finish 'Alien Storm' in less than an hour. "The game is so incredibly easy" confirms CVG magazine journalist Paul Rand. "I reached level seven on my first go, and I wouldn't exactly call myself the world's greatest shoot 'em up expert." It was something fellow reviewer Paul Glancey agreed with. "Even with the game set on the hardest possible level (single player mode, rapid fire off and hard energy level and game difficulty) 'Alien Storm' presents little lasting challenge to anyone more skilful than a sedated pineapple".  "'Alien Storm' is about as difficult as putting on a pair of trousers!" claimed Mean Machines magazine, making use of another obscure metaphor. "Virtually everyone in the office completed the game within half an hour of its arrival - it's that simple [...] It is a real shame that the extra difficulty levels don't really add that much of a challenge to the game." Perhaps the game was made so easy simply because the ending is so hilariously superb. After beating the screen filling final boss it's revealed that the three protagonists likely died on their way to Earth. Despite this the end credits still show them and the game's enemies performing a choreographed dance routine that wouldn't look out of place in 'MoonWalker'.

While the original arcade game allowed three to play simultaneously on the Mega Drive this has been reduced to two. However, naturally having a player aide you halves the difficulty. "This one is fun with two players but unfortunately it is too easy that way" claims EGM magazine.  "It's all about playing alone". This is probably why in 1991 Mean Machines magazine suggested that buying the game was actually a poor use of your money. "For £35.00, you should get a lot more value for money, and in this respect 'Alien Storm' just doesn't deliver." EuroGamer's Dan Whitehead was even more brutal. "It is, quite frankly, a bland, flavourless slog. Amusement comes only from goofy animations - such as the robot character and his self-destruct smart bomb move - but that's no reason to waste [your money]". "'Alien Storm' simply isn't the type of game you want to keep coming back to" agreed critic Tim Boone at the time. "It's great for a few goes in the arcades, but when it comes to splashing out notes for the cartridge you have to ask yourself how long you'll be playing that game, and there are plenty more games out there which will keep you playing much longer than this." On the Mega Drive you'd be well advised to look towards, 'Golden Axe' or indeed a number of other very similar games. As the Nintendo Life website suggests "simply put, the 'Final Fight' and 'Streets of Rage' games have held up infinitely better than 'Alien Storm' and as such must rank higher in purchasing priority".

If this game were the only side scrolling brawler you've ever played you'd probably enjoy it and finish it. But if you like 'Alien Storm' you'll likely love either 'Golden Axe' or 'Streets of Rage 2' both are superior in almost every way. While my knowledge of obscure side scrolling brawlers has certainly grown by becoming aware of 'Alien Storm' my favourite game in this genre hasn't changed. I don't know if I'm any better off.

Where did I get this game from?

Like the majority of my Mega Drive games I got this game as a bulk buy, intact it was on a compilation cartridge. Sadly when the other games on there are 'Thunder Blade' and 'Super Monaco GP' this is probably the best game in the collection.

1 comment:

  1. One of my first mega drive games when I got it back in the 90's.
    Always liked it even though it was short, but that gives it some extra appeal as it is a quick bit of entertainment when not in the mood for a longer and more in depth game. FYI super Monaco GP is a pretty good game too but it takes ages to get in to it as I found out after years of ignoring it, then playing it out of desperation and boredom.
    But to the casual gamer Alien storm coming across as the best game on that compilation would make sense. Good to hear that even in 2017 people are still discovering and rediscovering games from the past rather than relying on modern systems.


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