Retro Review: Alien Storm (Sega Mega Drive)

In the Mega Drive's early years, Sega had this habit of releasing 'pseudo-ports'- games named after one of their arcade titles, but with different graphics and game mechanics. Alien Storm is one of these titles, but it actually benefits by distancing itself from its arcade cousin...

After Earth is invaded by a vicious alien army, the Alien Busters- Gordon, Karla and Scooter (or Garth, Karen and Slammer in some versions)- vow to wipe them off the planet, mostly through the ancient art of beating the crap out of them. While the game has a few passing similarities to Golden Axe (both visually and gameplay-wise, which is unsurprising as the arcade version was developed by the same dev crew, Team Shinobi), Alien Storm does enough differently to separate it from its medieval cousin. For a start, the game isn't content with just being a scrolling brawler, as the game regularly flits between the brawler sections, running stages that are over in about 30 seconds, and Operation Wolf-style shooting sections which despite the lack of a light-gun work quite well and don't have many cheap shots against you. Although the running stages are fairly superfluous because of how uncommon they are, the shooter segments are a nice change of pace, look particularly impressive (especially since you can destroy almost everything in the background) and are spaced out appropriately so they don't get repetitive.

Alien Busters are On the Move!

The brawling sections themselves feel quite different, too. Stages are considerably shorter than other games (which sometimes makes the 'stop, fight a gaggle of aliens, move on' structure a bit too obvious), the combat is fairly fast-paced as you can attack enemies while they're on the ground (multiple times, even!) and perform a rolling dodge that flings you halfway across the screen and, most importantly, your character's attacks are limited by the energy meter. Normal attacks consume it very slowly, while your character's special screen-clearing weapon takes a significant amount, and it can be refilled by picking up energy units from certain enemies and destroyed scenery in the shooting stages. The main effect this has is that you have to play somewhat strategically by using the roll-and-charge attack when you can, and you'll eventually learn to balance your physical attacks (no energy cost but if mis-timed can be fatal) with your weapons (powerful and can attack enemies while they're down, but costly) to make it through the game.

After picking up when best to use your weapons and when to roll (which won't take long) the energy meter doesn't add too much challenge though, as your normal attacks barely make a dent in it, but at least it's different and gives the brawler sections some variety. Besides, the main challenge comes from the fact that you have only four lives/credits, which it turns out is just the right amount- enough to let you beat the game but not enough to let you coast through. Add in the nice visual style (the enemy aliens have some fantastically grotesque designs, and the many ground-attack animations, like Scooter ripping his leg off, are a nice touch) and the enemies themselves (there aren't that many different types, but each one requires a different approach) and you have a pretty solid game that keeps you interested by mixing things up as much as possible (in truth, the one thing the game is lacking is variety between the characters- aside from their animations and a life-extending glitch with Scooter, they're pretty much identical).

The Fierce Battle

It's a shame, then, that the game loses the plot on the final stage and immediately becomes massively dull. The alien mothership isn't particularly large (if you take the right route, that is) but every room is the same- walk forward a single pixel then get bombarded by a group of enemies, deal with them then move another pixel forward and get bombarded by the same enemies, repeat a few times until you reach the next room. In a cruel move, the first such enemy battalion is a group of Fatties, the most obnoxious enemies in the game. It's rare that the final stage completely kills your enthusiasm for a game, but Alien Storm almost manages it, as it's not so much difficult as monotonous, a battle of attrition rather than one based on skill- it's saved only by the fact that there aren't that many rooms to claw your way through. Just truncating the stage a little bit would massively improve it. The game's other failing is its music, which is very hit-and-miss- tracks like Cybernate-Q and Neuropath are excellent, while others like Dark Alley and That's GG are, well, pretty awful.

However, Alien Storm can take solace in the fact that it's better than its arcade forefather. The basic game mechanics are mostly untouched, but the visuals are less impressive (with no scaling and some animation frames cut) and the stages themselves have changed- the arcade game starts in a high-tech city while this port begins on a dingy farm and has an exclusive laboratory stage (some of the arcade stages show up in altered forms, though). More important are the subtle changes to the game itself, as it's been rebalanced for home play. In the arcade game, enemies are far more numerous and do more damage (with an extra form for the boss alien who is incredibly cheap and will kill you) and the shooting scenes are incredibly obnoxious, with more enemies and projectiles than you can reasonably handle. It ends up being frustrating rather than fun, but this port fixes most of that, and also adds a Duel mode (as seen in Golden Axe), pitting you against a series of alien groups with a slim amount of weapon energy- it's short, but it's tough to get to the end.

Gameplay Footage:

We Are BUSTERS!

Overall, Alien Storm is a game that's fairly solid- not what you'd call an essential game, exactly, but it does its job pretty well. The mechanics are well-executed (with a few things, like the evasive roll and ground attacks, separating it from the crowd, even today), it's considerably less frustrating than its arcade counterpart while still offering a decent challenge, and it's just the right length and pace, making it ideal for a quick go when you feel the urge. Its main problem is that brutal final stage which suffers from a disproportionate and somewhat unnecessary spike in difficulty- without that, I'd recommend it unquestionably, but as it is, 90% of the game is great fun, with that last 10% doing its best to ruin the fun.

...Still, at least it's only half-an-hour long, eh?


Last Updated ( 15 July 2011 )  

Tepid Snake

Wait, what do I put in this box again? Oh, it's about me. I like playing weird and unusual games- the sort you're likely to forget about- and I hope you like reading about them because they're what I write about. And game trivia too. Please look forward to it!

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Comments 

(Link to this comment) Farzlepot 2011-05-02 20:59
I Couldn't get enough of this game back in the day, and even now I still like to have a few quick cracks at it every now and then! Definitely a memorable classic in my book.
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