Gamers of a certain age will be very familiar with the moment that the words ‘survival horror’ entered into their consciousness. It was March 22nd, 1996 - the release date of Capcom’s Resident Evil, a game that first coined the term, and whose legacy needs no further explanation. Its cunning design and originality in a gaming world still in the fledgling days of 3D graphics pulled in gamers worldwide - 5 million in North America alone if sales are anything to go by - and brought them an immersive, terrifying experience that critics of the time claimed had never been produced before.
History and the Internet though can prove that claim to be a bit of a fib. For certain, it took a game like Resident Evil for the ‘survival horror’ namesake to be dreamt up - it was most definitely a game about survival and was also pretty horrific for its time. But there were also a number of games that came long before it that used the same mantra: the theme of desperately attempting to escape a deadly situation against an unknown, usually monstrous foe, and having to utilize whatever scraps and left-around items you could find to achieve this without getting killed. Alone In The Dark from 1992 will spring to mind for some - Resident Evil’s makers have even gone on record as saying that without that series, their own efforts would have resulted in a very different game indeed. Veteran Japanese game-players and those who do a lot of poking around on the Web reading up on gaming’s history may also have come across Sweet Home - a 1989 NES game released only in Japan that carried the very same kind of setting and atmosphere (Resident Evil was in fact originally planned to be a remake of it). But dig around deeper and sift around all the dust that has gathered on those long-forgotten cartridges and cassette tapes and there’s another, even earlier example for the genre - and it comes in the guise of an officially-licensed game for a movie that practically birthed the whole survival horror theme to begin with.
For sure, Alien for the Commodore 64 looks pretty awful these days. It came out in 1984 alongside fellow Spectrum and Amstrad CPC releases, and adopted the exact same look to those two titles as well - despite being on a better hardware platform. It wasn’t graphically fantastic then, and no amount of love for retro that exists in modern-day culture is going to make these ugly sprites pretty. But primitive as it is, Alien does have one saving grace - its gameplay and logic are surprisingly sophisticated for their time, and still manage to successfully convey the tension in the film’s plot and its main climax points. It plays both as an objective-based, item-collecting strategy game and a real-time struggle against a Xenomorph slowly closing in on the Nostromo’s crew - a union of mechanics that still form the basic of many survival horror games today.
Alien pretty much sticks to its namesake’s story as well. Depending on which mode you choose (Full or Short Scenario), each new game will either start at the moment the Xenomorph hatches and makes its chest-bursting first appearance, or at a point further along into the story when half the crew is now dead. However, the game doesn’t just put Ripley in charge of the Alien’s extermination - you instead control the entire crew, who have to work as a unit if they are to nullify its threat. And there are a number of ways you can achieve this - take the film’s route and try to blow the Nostromo up with it on board, suck it out to space via an airlock, or collect as many weapons as you can and make a united stand against it to take it down. There’s a surprising amount of variety here for a game so old, and it even throws in a few more curveballs too. Each new game starts by randomly deciding which crew members are already dead - be it the one single victim of the Alien’s hatching in Full Mode, or the ones it has since attacked in Short Scenario. By this day and age, it’s a negligible way of ensuring ‘no game plays the same way twice’, but it’s one that fans of the film might get a kick out of.
Do you feel like Dallas could have done a better job shuffling around in those air ducts when hunting the Alien down? Or do you feel either Kane or Parker deserved a better say in their fates? All of these possible situations can arise and more, re-shaping the film’s original events in glorious 16-colour fashion.
Uncannily, playing the game feels similar in pace to the movie as well. Everything is dramatically slow at first, as you move your crew, person-by-person, around the map of the ship to hunt for items that can help bring about the Xenomorph’s demise. It’s a pretty laborious process of moving the joystick up and down the menu to the right to determine where they go, all the while fighting with the overly sensitive controls to make sure you don’t send them off to the wrong place. All the while, the Alien itself is creeping around as well. Fortunately it doesn’t make reveal itself at all in the first half of play, allowing you to build your arsenal and give yourself a fighting chance. This is a good thing too - you definitely need every second of this time that you’re given.
Once the Alien does begin to make its move (and hopefully you’ll see it coming if you manage to find the Tracker), the entire flow of the game changes. The Xenomorph will suddenly come at you hard and fast, and it has a very bad habit of getting through large numbers of your crew in rapid succession. Unless you’re properly tooled up at this point or have a position-based strategy to deal with the alien quickly, your chances of winning are incredibly slim. This is an 80s video game, remember! None of those save points or easy modes for the casual these days.
Worse still is the fact that the Xenomorph is not the only thing hell-bent on your crew’s downfall. Again, just like the movie, one of your crew will be an android intent on sabotaging their hopes for survival by keeping the Alien safe - and it won’t always be Ash. You may have a great plan set up and will never know which of your members will be about to turn and attack you, rendering your carefully-considered traps utterly useless. And did I also mention that the game is also time-based? Yep, you have a time limit before all of the oxygen on the Nostromo is depleted, meaning Ripley and co. also have to contend with the ship trying to kill them as well. All of this pressure and only a joystick to stave it all off with - it’s barely any wonder hardly anyone remembers this game. They’ve clearly blocked the trauma of its insane difficulty out.
Ultimately, all of this item collecting and cautious planning is done with the aim of meeting the game’s objectives. There isn’t really a Game Over as such as all playthroughs end the same way, with a status screen that judges your command aptitude over its run. Did you manage to get the Nostromo back to Earth, sans Alien? Did you keep all of your crew alive? Did you manage to rescue Jones too? All of these factors play a part in the overall score you get in the end, and you should be prepared for some pretty harsh judging. Even running the same path of the film will get you a low score. But don’t worry - there’s always the chance to make things right the next time. Where the Alien will likely kill you again. And again. And again. And to think people complained about Alien: Isolation’s difficulty curve…
Whatever the case, Alien for the Commodore 64 is an interesting keystone in the development of horror games. Even if it looks hideously dated and suffers from various flaws, it still retains a surprising amount of atmosphere and tension. Whether its alien or android, Ripley or Kane, you simply never know who’s going to turn up to ruin your best-laid plans - or save them. This knife-edge between life and death is the true definition of what a survival-horror game should provide, and if that's even up for debate, then Resident Evil 6 is the best game ever. And I think we can all agree that that’s just complete nonsense…