Released in 1987, Alien Syndrome is Sega throwing their hat into the at-the-time popular ring of the top-down shooter. Wanting to stand out from the crowd, they incorporated elements of Gauntlet (the maze layout of each stage) and Commando (the fast and fluid pace) with several of its own ideas for good measure. As either Ricky, Mary or both in co-op, you must find at least ten hostages on each stage while fighting off the unrelenting alien hordes (whose spawning habits change from stage-to-stage, including a memorable moment where they start coming out the walls!) and picking up weapons along the way, then make your way to the exit where a fearsome alien boss resides. All this has to be done before the time bomb goes off and kills you all. It's a solid title mechanically, with some nice variety between the weapons (the flamethrower is powerful but with weak range, the laser penetrates multiple enemies, etc.- pick them carefully for boss fights because you can't change them mid-fight!) and a quick pace to proceedings, which certainly elevates it above Ikari Warriors at least.
The first thing you'll notice about the game, and one of the elements that separates it from its contemporaries, is its horror stylings- when the flyer says 'weird and bloodcurdling array of creatures', it's not kidding because alien monstrosities are the order of the day here. Well, except for the slightly out-of-place cute look for the humans. Fortunately there's only a few ideas stolen from the movie Aliens (the design of Ricky and Mary's ship, the slimed-up humans and Xeno-like enemies in Round 2- I was expecting more to be ripped off, honestly) as the rest of the alien designs are all Sega's work... And they're absolutely disgusting. In a good way, like. From the twitching flesh worms on Round 1 to the sinewy tentacle aliens on Round 6, the creature design is suitably grotesque and make the game worth playing just to see what horrid space anomaly the game's going to throw at you next. This extends to the boss creatures as well, which are really revolting such as the fleshy-piranha plant in Round 2, the lurching monster in Round 3 and the final boss, which is... You know what, I'll let you find out yourself. If you can make it that far.
THE TIME BOMB IS SET
That's the other thing about Alien Syndrome- the challenge. It's an element it shares with other Sega releases of the time, in particular Fantasy Zone, where the difficulty is high from the off (the first time I played it I could barely reach Round 2) but stays high even on repeat plays- you can't learn everything about it and expect to sleepwalk through. While a bit of memorisation helps, the constant stream of enemies and confined spaces (especially in the boss encounters) mean that the game demands your full attention at all times- being sloppy for a second means you'll be killed by something like the blob-throwing enemies in the far background of Round 3, or the spawning snakes in Round 4. However, the game is remarkably fair and doesn't feel frustrating, with only a few sections I'd call too difficult (the enemies that spawn from the ground in Round 5 are a bit much, and the Round 6 boss is very tough). The fact that the game is fairly simple (there's no rolling or even secondary weapons like grenades) means the developers could focus on making the game difficult but possible with the tools the player has. It's not a game to relax with, but one to struggle against, which is its greatest vitue.
What makes this difficulty more apparent is that you cannot continue, and there's no way of moving and aiming independantly like Robotron: 2084 or Ikari Warriors. You can continue in co-op mode (it's more inviting to a second player than the likes Victory Road) but for single-player, the no-continues route is satisfting- going for a one-credit clear is the main reason you'll keep coming back to the game, to make it through on skill (and hidden extra lives) alone! The only downside is that the game will loop upon completion, but you get a short ending before going back to the fight, so it's not all for naught. As for the controls, they actually work in its favour- while the game helps you out with some option robots that cover your back with tiny bullets, the game is better without a rotary/dual joystick set-up, as it would ruin the difficulty. Consider this- Sega released the ultra-obscure Bullet in the same year, a dual-joystick shooter similar to Alien Syndrome with no maze aspects but plenty of scrolling... And it's way too easy because you can just walk away from everything and cover your back with rapid fire. I have no doubt that the same thing would happen to Alien Syndrome with a control scheme like that, unless some serious retooling of the game took place (such as, I dunno, a 3D remake or something...). The way it is, the controls work well, rarely frustrating you or making you pine for a different control set-up.
(For those struggling with the game, there's a trick for extra lives at 3:30)
GO TO THE EXIT
Alien Syndrome may be a short game, but it's one that demands a lot of you if you want to make it to the end (or, in this case, to loop it once). It's worth it, though- the mechanics are very tight and the game goes at the right pace, with the different weapons (especially the little Option robots) adding variety and strategy to the game, the aesthetics alone make the game worth a try, and the difficulty is just about right. Compared to the likes of Ikari Warriors and Victory Road, clearing Alien Syndrome on one coin is within the average gamer's reach, and perfect for a quick challenge when you need it, but it can also be enjoyed in co-op mode (even if it's just to marvel at the disgusting aliens) with no fear of premature Game Over if you have a few credits between you. Its main fault is that some will find it a bit too simple (especially compared to later games in the genre like Shock Troopers) but it''s a brutal kind of simplicity, like Robotron: 2084, that grows on you if you give it a chance... But the real question is, are you gonna be Ricky or Mary?
Please note: This review is based on the worldwide release (the parent set in MAME), also unlockable in Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection (PS3/360). The Japanese version has some differences, most notably Round 1 and 2 have their bosses swapped around and you must save all 16 hostages on each round instead of just 10. The game accounts for this by giving you more time by default, but it makes the game a little too hard. The SMDUC version seems to run slightly faster and the high-score table music is missing, but it's otherwise a good port.
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