clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

From Atari to Isolation: A video and written history of Alien games

Alien: Isolation is the latest attempt by video game developers to create an enjoyable, respectful interactive adaptation of the 35-year-old Alien franchise. It rarely ends well.

While sneaking around blasting Xenomorphs in the face seems like the perfect concept for a shooter, not every game was able to capture the core of what makes those movies so great or those aliens so terrifying. You have one of the best haunted houses in science fiction in Alien, and then one of the most intense sci-fi action films in Aliens. And neither is easy to adapt into games.

With Isolation launching next week, here's where the Xenomorphs have been.

Note: For the sake of brevity, we've decided to focus solely on the games following the main Alien franchise. While we don't discuss them here, we do acknowledge that the Alien vs. Predator games were pretty great.

Alien, Atari 2600 (1982): Fox Video Games made the first leap into licensing the Alien property for video games with what was essentially a Pac-Man clone skinned with elements from the 1979 film. Players controlled a human collecting Alien eggs (dots) and small planet and spaceship symbols (fruits) in a maze abroad the USCSS Nostromo while avoiding Alien drones (ghosts).

Drones could be killed by shooting them with a flamethrower or collecting symbols that would stun them (flashing dots). Alien predated the game considered the biggest flop in the industry's history, fellow Atari 2600 game E.T. the Extra-terrestrial.

Alien, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum (1984)/Amstrad CPC (1985): Developed by Amsoft and Concept Software and published by Argus Press Software, this second game to touch the Alien property was also based on the 1979 film, but with a little more flair.

Each game begins with one randomly selected crew member carrying the Alien. Once it is born, players can control any remaining crew members on a quest to kill the prowling Alien.

Alien included more gameplay elements pulled from the movie's plot, such as players having to locate a synthetic crew member aiding the Alien and put them into hypersleep. There was also an option to have the ship self-destruct.

Players were given a percentage score based on the state of the Nostromo and how many crew members were still alive at the end of the round.

Alien, 1984

Aliens: The Computer Game, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum (1986)/Apple IIe, Amstrad CPC, MSX (1987): There were two versions of this Activision-published game based on the 1986 film Aliens, the first sequel to the 1979 original. One adventure was in a first-person view and mostly recreated the movie's plot, with the gang of Colonial Marines moving through rooms and clicking on Xenomorphs until they died.

The other version split the action between side-scrolling shooter and flight segments.

Aliens, MSX (June 1987): Developer by Squaresoft, this game — scored by renowned video game composer Nobuo Uematsu — was only released in Japan.

The side-scroller was more action-oriented than its predecessors, heralding the direction future adaptations would take.The game also featured more enemy types, a first for the property — not only did players come up against Xenomorphs, but facehuggers as well as flying and laser-eyed aliens joined the fray.

Aliens, arcades (1990): Konami's shoot-em-up take on the 1986 Aliens film included more enemies, more action and more high-stakes fights — like with the Xenomorph Queen. As Ripley, players used weapons like the Smartgun and missile launchers to blow up Xenomorphs. The game loosely followed the movie and included several very un-Aliens like elements, including levels playable as the character Newt.

Aliens, 1987

Alien 3, Amiga, Commodore 64, Sega Game Gear, Sega Genesis, Sega Master System, SNES (1992, 1993): While 1992's Alien 3 is certainly not considered the best film in the series, the video game tie-ins that came with it fared slightly better.

Alien 3 from developers Probe Entertainment and Eden Entertainment Software's wasn't one of them. The game, again setting players in Ripley's shoes, tasked players with running-and-gunning through levels that were poorly designed and featured enemies that couldn't be killed unless both them and you were on the same screen.

Alien 3 also suffered from nearly unforgivable camera problems, as players would often outpace it across the screen. In the time between blasting Xenomorphs in the face, players completed missions such rescuing prisoners and fixing broken systems on the planet Fiorina 'Fury' 161.

Our opinions editor, Ben Kuchera, loves this game and is wrong.

Alien 3, Game Boy (1993): Bit Studios' portable adaptation of Alien 3 is also not the best way to experience the world of Alien 3. The top-down shooter featured chains of generic-looking rooms with the occasional generic black squiggly thing meant to represent a Xenomorph.

aliens konami

Aliens, 1990

Alien 3: The Gun, arcades (1993): Sega's first foray into Alien games was a first-person rail shooter, which, it turns out, is a snug way to wrap up the Alien world into a video game.

One or two players had to plow through waves of the Xenomorph mess on Fiorina ‘Fury' 161, using all the expected weapons.

Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure, PC (1995): In a reprieve from all the shooting and exploding, developer Mindscape's point-and-click adventure not only made the Aliens feel scary, but added a little more to the franchise by spinning different plot threads through the game.

As an ex-Colonial Marine — named Lt. Col. Henricksen, after the actor playing Bishop in the films, Lance Henriksen — players responded to a distress call from their team and set off to explore and solve puzzles to combat the Alien threat.

It's a quieter adventure than the series had known previously — and would in the future.

Alien Trilogy, PlayStation, Sega Saturn, PC (1996): Probe Entertainment's third Alien game packed the plots of the first three movies (loosely) into a first-person shooter.

Text boxes would explain the story before throwing players into the chaos of near-constant Xenomorph blasting. However, although the game made good in recreating the terror inspired by the original films, many people criticized the game for being id Software's horror shooter Doom in a different skin.

aliens comic adventure

Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure, 1995

Aliens Online, PC (1998): Using the same engine that built Half-Life, Mythic Entertainment created an online space in which players could choose to play as Colonial Marines or Xenomorphs and kill the heck out of each other.

One of the title's most notable features was its janky AI, with aliens spending quite some time trying to walk through walls. The servers for Aliens Online were shut down in 2000 after the GameStorm network was sold to Electronic Arts.

Alien: Resurrection, PlayStation (2000): Argonaut Games' Alien: Resurrection, based on the 1997 film of the same way, is widely considered a flop. After spending years in development hell, the game's Dreamcast version was canceled, and the PlayStation version was released to mixed reviews.

The biggest criticism against the game was its control scheme; Resurrection, in addition to being the first full 3D Aliens titles, was one of the first games to use one analog stick to move and the other to aim. What were they thinking?

Aliens: Thanatos Encounter, Game Boy Color (2001): Publisher THQ dipped its toes in the Aliens pool with a top-down shooter featuring controls equally as unloved as Resurrection's. The screen was split in two, with the top half showing a top-down view of your character in action and the bottom half showing your weapon and sometimes the motion tracker.

In Thanatos Encounter, from developers Wicked Witch Software and Crawfish Interactive, players selected one of three generic Colonial Marines and set them to shooting Xenomorphs and saving scientists across 12 levels using most of the guns introduced by the franchise.

Aliens Online

Aliens Online, 1998

Aliens: Unleashed, mobile (2003): Yes, they went there. Sorrent's Aliens game was a first-person shooter that did what it could with the limited technology and space available on mobile devices at the time.

Players had to shoot synthetic Xenomorphs used for training that had gone on a rogue killing spree. Not the deepest of Alien experiences, but the first to hop onto the mobile train.

Aliens: Extermination, arcades (2006): Things were quiet on the Aliens front until 2006, when Play Mechanix brought the Xenomorphs back to the arcade.

Extermination, another light gun shooter, loosely followed the plot of Aliens and allowed two players to mow down the offensive creatures with pulse rifles. The game was similar to Sega's Alien 3: The Gun with much improved visuals.

Aliens: Infestation, Nintendo DS (2011): Developed as a collaboration between WayForward and Gearbox Software and published by Sega, Infestation could be considered one of the better Aliens games.

Players chose four from 19 Marines and sent them into battle against the Xenomorphs. In addition to the Metroidvania elements of being able to backtrack for new stuff, Infestation also implemented a permanent death system. When your Marine died, they were dead.

This game is loosely connected to what would be Gearbox's next Alien game, Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Aliens: Colonial Marines, PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (2013): Developer Gearbox and publisher Sega are still at odds over this one. Based on Aliens and Aliens 3, Colonial Marines was initially slated for release in 2009 but was delayed due to numerous factors — one of which was Rebellion's 2010 title Alien vs. Predator. The story is set directly after the film Aliens and follows a group of Colonial Marines on a search-and-rescue mission for Ellen Ripley and the rest of the team sent to LV-426 during the movies' events.

Not only was the game received poorly, but in-game assets looked strikingly lower-quality than the game's marketing materials. Shortly after launch, a Wii U version was canceled, and Gearbox and Sega were slapped with a lawsuit claiming the companies falsely advertised the game. Documents filed by Sega of America last month regarding the case blame Gearbox, stating the company kept its publisher in the dark and often overstepped boundaries during development.

Alien: Isolation, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One (2014): Announced almost one year after the disastrous launch of Colonial Marines, Isolation takes a different turn by focusing on the survival-horror aspects of the original franchise. As Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, players will be stalked by a single, unkillable Alien throughout the space station Sevastopol, using stealth tricks to survive. Developer The Creative Assembly is hoping to make the game feel like "Ridley Scott's haunted house in space." Check out our review.

Game footage used with permission from Acidglow, Enrique Garcia, Gaming Sanctuary, Gosunkugi, Highretrogamelord, Levelonerules, NecroVMX and Silverwings21.