Editor’s Note: This list is in no way definitive. There have been A LOT of Alien games (yay?), including one made by Square for the MSX back in 1987. Instead, this list highlights some of the high and low points of the gaming franchise.
Alien: Isolation is bringing xenomorphs to the Occulus Rift, and it’s the perfect immersive horror combination. Because once we plunge our heads into the immersive virtual reality headset, we’ll be too distracted by the aliens to notice the Matrix trapping us.
The problem is that Alien games have a slightly worse track record than Alien encounters. For every case of somebody kicking ass and being awesome, there are a dozen more burst wrecks where adding aliens just gave people a really bad time. Which is why we’re not waiting to be enslaved by the aliens or the electronics. We’re starting a Search for Extremely Terrible Ideas, and using this SETI to see some of the worst and best things the aliens have spawned.
1982 |Fox Video Games | Atari 2600
Alien on the Atari 2600 could not have been less related to the movie if it had actually been transmitted to us from another planet. They put Alien on the box, and then put Pac-Man in the cartridge, and genuinely hoped no one would notice. It was a worse case of something hiding inside a deceptive container than someone actually infected with an alien. But since Pac-Man is an eternally starving being trapped in labyrinths with the ghosts of those he can never stop killing, it’s hard to say which is the greater horror story.
It was like they already knew E.T. would be the worst alien-themed game ever made and figured they could get away with it. The aliens looked like crunchy sock puppets, and power-ups let you win by ramming them with your face. Which is the exact opposite of the movie. On the upside, your character stomped around, automatically destroying every alien egg they saw. Meaning this game’s hero was smarter than almost everyone in all the movies.
Bizarrely, while it was a terrible official Alien game, it was a much better than the official Pac-Man game, which was so poorly coded the ghosts genuinely flickered in and out of existence like wailing phantoms. And were about as much fun to deal with. Which means, since a good Pac-Man is one of the greatest things our species has ever done, that this is both a worst and best game on this list.
1993 | Probe Entertainment | SNES
Development of the infamous Alien 3 movie went back and forth between arbitrary goals. Which is a bad way to make a movie, but an excellent plot for a video game. The game was gorgeous, because back then all you needed for great graphics was to look like you’d actually tried. Which this game did. Multiple weapons and a hub-style mission system worked much better than the movie’s “Hang around in a miserable place until someone comes to kill you” strategy, which wouldn’t work as a video game until the release of Dark Souls.
Alien vs Predator
1994 | Capcom | Arcade
Alien vs Predator is what happens when someone asks “Why doesn’t Final Fight have aliens, cybernetic weapons, and combinations of both all exploding each other?”, and they get a whole arcade game instead of a Nobel Prize for Best Question Ever.
Players could choose between Predator, Tougher Predator, We Couldn’t Afford Schwarzenegger’s Exact Likeness, and Cyber Ninja Girl.
It was a brilliant game, but it was about as Alien-centric as Journey to the Center of the Earth. “Move towards them and punch them in the face” is the exact opposite of an Alien encounter. In fact, if you would even consider touching anything near their face then it’s not an alien. It feels more like some awesome people wanted to make an awesome game and just happened to end up with the Alien license. Because in the mid-90s selling video game rights was how movie studios paid for parking on their way to their real jobs. And the result was unexpectedly brilliant.
1998 | Mythic Entertainment | PC
Aliens Online was an early attempt at asymmetric online combat, and a brilliant lesson in how hard it is to craft balanced asymmetric online combat. Early maps had problems with spawn-camping, where climbing Aliens could drop down to murder arriving humans before they knew what was going on. Over time, updates gave humans the advantage: they got landmines to prevent alien camping, but because humans could survive a mine while aliens couldn’t, players would charge in and Gorman themselves by dropping landmines at their own feet instead of bothering with fiddly things like guns or aiming.
Then humans got a Smart Gun, which automatically tracked and exterminated Aliens with a single trigger. Man, we sort of assumed that the makers were human, but we didn’t expect that to come across as bias in the game design. But early losses due to disorentiation and superior alien physical abilities, later cancelled out by improving technology? This game exactly modeled how an encounter between a human army and murderous xenomorphs would actually go. Which is really interesting, but not actually fun for anyone directly involved.
Aliens versus Predator
1999 | Rebellion |PC
Aliens versus Predator was a glorious moment in video game history, where someone asked “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and that joyous potential actually survived licensing deals and software development. Which is like a magical faerie surviving a journey through a jet engine, and the result soars even higher because it really was everything you imagined when you saw the title.
You could be an Alien, Predator, or HOOO-AH!, and this wasn’t a case of walking down the exact same corridors with three different animations. Each species had their own levels and completely different abilities. Multiplayer was every kind of fun, and still makes most class-based shooters look pedestrian. Because those classes are “walk on the ground holding a slightly different kind of gun” instead of “scuttle across the roof and murder with your prehensile tail.”
2003 | Sorrent | Mobile
A 2003 mobile phone first-person shooter. It’s like an ancient attempt to build a dialysis machine out of mud pottery: a forward-thinking idea, but the technology really isn’t there and the results are extremely painful. The game had less animation than turning the pages in a comic. And only arguably more gameplay.
The best thing about Alien cash-ins is that they start with the perfect video game plot, and Unleashed screwed it up. It’s so easy: you’re a human, they’re aliens, kill them. That’s been a gaming classic since Space Invaders – a game which had smoother graphics than this stuttering wreck – and Sorrent took extra time just to ruin it. In Unleashed, you’re not fighting Aliens, you’re fighting military researched synthetic aliens programmed to help train soldiers. Which went rogue because that’s all any of those words ever do. So when you’re struggling through this disaster, even your character is wasting his time fighting rubbish no one should ever have made.
2011 | WayForward & Gearbox Software | Nintendo DS
Aliens: Infestation is a Metroidvania game with XCOM elements, and wait a minute, did we just read the greatest Alien idea ever? The XCOM aspect alone is a more perfect ass-kicking gaming element than Eridium. Permanent character death is the most important thing an Alien game can have, because you’re finally afraid of the things.
In most games, you can respawn from the dead, which removes all the tension. We understand that gamers are used to resurrection, but when you’re not facing final death then the aliens go from “Horrifyingly sex-death-shaped monsters of fear” to “Really bad kissers.”
Aliens: Colonial Marines
2013 | Gearbox Software | Xbox 360, PS3, PC
The greatest problem with the plot of Aliens is that if we ever truly meet alien lifeforms, we’ll be lucky if we can even recognize them. Evolving from utterly unrelated materials, situations, and with aeons of their own history behind them, aliens might seem to be completely nonsensical idiot-things incapable of even noticing we’re there. Which is the type of alien they simulated in Aliens: Colonial Marines. Or possibly the type they hired to make it.
The Colonial Marines aliens had worse AI than the average toaster, which can still remember how to hurt people if they’re pressed against it. Then again, while we’re distracted by the aliens acting like realistic aliens, the real threat is how SEGA was acting like Weyland-Yutani: exposing countless innocent people to painful disasters just to make more money. They knew what they were unleashing was horrific but simply didn’t care. It’s a true tragedy. Because it means that the world’s worst Alien game was the one truest to the original plot. Our own Robert Bernstein rated Colonial Marinesa site-low 2.1 out of 10, noting the lifeless environments and saying that the game has no spark nor polish.