Aliens: Konami’s Arcade Game Is Still Amazing

In 1990, Konami made an arcade-only scrolling shooter based on James Cameron's Aliens. It's one of the best Alien games ever.

When James Cameron’s Aliens stalked into cinemas in 1986, it was at a time when video game adaptations of major films and TV shows were really beginning to take off. Sylvester Stallone’s shoulder-padded Dirty Harry clone Cobra was turned into a surprisingly decent run-and-gun courtesy of Ocean in 1986. Things like Airwolf, Miami Vice, and even Oliver Stone’s anti-war film Platoon were all shrunk down to fit the computers of their day. Many were terrible, but a few, like Ocean’s other licensed titles (RoboCop, The Untouchables, and the like) were perfectly decent.

Aliens certainly seemed to be a better candidate for a game tie-in than most movies. This was, after all, about a group of heavily-armed Marines led by Ripley, the survivor of Alien, as they’re assaulted on all sides by acid-spitting, hissing xenomorphs. Its humans-versus-monsters premise probably explains why a grand total of three games based on the movie appeared in the 1980s alone.

One was an arcade adventure courtesy of Electric Dreams, which saw your first-person view switch between the film’s increasingly nervy roster of characters. Activision’s Aliens game attempted something a bit more cinematic, offering up a string of mini action games stitched together by rudimentary cut-scenes (amounting to still images, for the most part) designed to take the player through the film’s pivotal scenes. Then there was Aliens on the MSX, released exclusively in Japan in 1987 – a somewhat limp platform shooter which bore little resemblance to the film. 

Konami’s Aliens game was somewhat late to the party, since it didn’t appear in arcades until 1990. Taking the form of a scrolling shooter, it loosely adapted the film’s final third, in which a heavily-armed Ripley heads back into the aliens’ nest to rescue Newt.

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Visually, Konami’s game takes the kind of liberties with Aliens’ characters that few developers would get away with in 2015. Ripley has a weird blonde rinse, Hicks (who steps in as player two’s character) doesn’t look much like Michael Biehn, while Konami introduces different strains of alien entirely of their own devising.

In fairness, it’s not hard to see why the designers did this. The excitement of blasting the exact same type of alien for level after level would soon pall, and confronted with this reality, other developers would later take a similar approach with their own Alien games—check out the jazz-hands xenomorph in Gearbox’s tawdry Aliens: Colonial Marines for one example.

Some of Konami’s alien designs make perfect sense on paper. There are flying ones, running ones, projectile-spitting ones, big boss ones as well as the more familiar soldiers Ripley fought in the movie. Yet Konami also saw fit to throw in zombies, which crawl toward you through ducts or reach out to grab you from behind vents. They’re more akin to something from a George Romero movie than James Cameron’s classic.

Glaring inaccuracies aside, Aliens is a decent ’80s action game. The weapons have a satisfying, meaty feel, which makes you feel like an invincible, alien-mashing warrior right up until you’re overwhelmed on all sides and, inevitably, shown the dreaded Game Over screen. 

Aliens is certainly more varied than most of the coin-ops that lined up arcades at the time. The first level’s side-scrolling section (where you can move in and out of the screen, like Double Dragon), which takes Ripley through the relatively unmolested areas of Hadley’s Hope, is followed up by an up-the-screen boss battle. Entirely disconnected from Alien lore though it is, this boss battle’s typical of Konami’s approach to game design at the time. Reaching an atrium the end of a long corridor, you’re confronted by a huge…thing, which proceeds to lunge out of the screen at you. It seems like a simple opponent to beat at first, but just when you think you’ve defeated it (by blowing its screeching head off), the thing starts charging around and firing balls of plasma from its neck hole.

Level two is an into-the-screen blaster where you protect the APC as it hurtles down an alien-infested corridor. Level three takes place in claustrophobic air vents. Level four sees Ripley descend into the bowels of LV-426 in an elevator, xenomorphs sniping and snipping at the vulnerable lift cables all the way down. Some of the later stages are downright nightmarish, too. There’s a colorful recreation of the aliens’ nest, right down to the human victims hanging from the walls.

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Sure, Aliens does the usual late-80s coin-op thing, where certain moments prove so indescribably tough that a credit will vanish in seconds. To this day, I’ve never been able to guide Ripley to the bottom of that lift shaft without the pesky aliens cutting all the cables. But it’s also a solidly-made, exciting game, and a kind of cousin to Konami’s mighty Contra, a videogame series which itself owed a debt to the story ideas and production design in the Alien franchise. Aliens even fuses the film’s range of weaponry with familiar ordnance from the Contra series: flamethrowers and M56 Smartguns are joined by three-way shots and missile launchers.

Aliens builds to a predictable yet satisfying climax: a re-enactment of the scene where Ripley jousts with the alien queen in her Power Loader armor. The queen, all claws and writhing tail, is a fearsome creation, particularly given the limitation of the era’s hardware, and enough to sweep away memories of the weird space zombies and magenta alien soldiers. 

Konami wisely gave would-be players a glimpse of the climactic battle in Aliens’ attract mode, knowing full well, it seems, why games like this were so popular in arcades. For players who weren’t yet old enough to see the film itself, the game provided a taste of its deep-space horrors. As a youngster at the time, I actually played Aliens a good couple of years before I saw the movie, and I didn’t realize that, one, Cameron’s sci-fi epic didn’t have a pounding electronic soundtrack, and two, that the xenomorphs in the movie aren’t a weird shade of pink. At the time, I didn’t care. All I knew was that I was being given a glimpse inside an R-rated universe I would never otherwise have been allowed to see.

Unusually, Konami’s version of Aliens wasn’t ported for home devices, perhaps because it arrived far too late to cash in on the film’s run in theatres. Instead, it was one of those arcade games that kept popping up here and there—a bowling alley perhaps, the end of a pier, or in the foyer of a swimming pool, which is where I first encountered it—before gradually fading out of public view.

Konami hasn’t done much with Aliens since 1990, either—probably because it no longer owns the rights to the film’s intellectual property. The Aliens IP now rests, of course, with Sega, and the resulting games have ranged from the sublime (the superbly-made but incredibly stressful Alien: Isolation) to the ridiculous (the disappointing Aliens: Colonial Marines) to the cancelled (Obsidian’s Aliens tactical game). 

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But 26 years ago, when licensed games were still a relatively new phenomenon, Konami’s Aliens arguably captured the excitement and claustrophobia far better than its counterparts on home computers. Indeed, Aliens was among the best games based on the property for many years—right up until Acclaim released its Alien 3-themed alien-blasting maze game in 1993.

An engrossing trudge-and-gun shooter, Aliens gave kids everywhere a small taste of what it might feel like to be stuck in the gloomy corridors of Hadley’s Hope—at least, until you finally ran out of credits.

Game over, man. Game over…