Monday, November 1, 2021

The Alien and Nostromo

While finishing up this Halloween's selection of survival horror games, I decided to briefly play the earliest game I put in my list as survival horror. That is 1982's The Alien, by Avalon Hill, published on the Apple II, FM-7 and PC-88. At least those are the versions Mobygames confirms as existing, there may be others. The Alien is not a survival horror game by most stretches of the term, it is in fact a strategy game based off the first Alien movie.

This screen changes around quite a bit, which I thought was cool
The way it plays is that you control 7 characters who are divided into three categories, engineer, scientist and security. The objective, is to recapture an alien picked up off a planet. Not necessarily the alien of the movie, just a alien. Though as you can see the title screen leaves little doubt as to the intended origins. I did not make it very far, but attacking the alien tells you to not do that yet, only to stun it and capture it. The company doesn't allow it. I suspect the game will allow you to kill the alien should it start making mincemeat of your crew.
I definitely understand what's going on here
The three types of characters each can do different actions, most importantly, security can use guns. There's a very big issue with the control scheme, however. You have to scroll through the options list with an analog joystick. For me, I moved the joystick slowly up or down in order to get different characters to act or control. This is not a brilliant control scheme to begin with, but the big issue is that every action, every subset of that action, can be selected but not performed at all times. This includes moving, which makes the whole game very tedious to play. There are two phases, one where you react to the alien's actions, and one where you perform some of your own.
Well, why do I have the option to do anything then!?
I did not find this game very interesting, and that would have been the end of it, not even bothering with a post about it...except this is a strangely not uncommon concept. You might know that the Argus Press title shares the same concept as this, and its true, but that's a tale for another year. What is interesting is that across the world, in a small island called Japan, someone else was mining recent horror movies for inspiration.
I'm getting Junji Ito vibes from this

Enter Nostromo, a game released in a type-in magazine. If you don't know what a type-in magazine is, its a magazine with games you type into a computer, back when every one had a copy of Basic included with it. Nostromo was released in the second issue of AX, published by ASCII, hence the name attached to the game in places, AX-2. Released sometime in 1982, by Hiromi Ohba, who would have a moderate career over the years as an audio programmer. Other people and a 1981 release date are stated online but both the magazine and the source code confirm these are not true.

Playing card suits are an abstraction, I hope
I didn't originally get the game running, however, after some effort I was able to. You collect four different types of items, and bring them to an escape shuttle for a series of levels. The only thing holding you back is an a roaming the halls and the game's controls. This game controls extremely poorly. You press an arrow, and you constantly move in that direction until you press a different arrow. Its incredibly easy to clip a corner of a wall until you get used to it. You get into the rooms by I guess tapping against them twice.

The "a" is the alien
You should think less the ancestor of Resident Evil and more ZZT without any ammo and the enemy can't change rooms. I'm incredibly underwhelmed, but this does show something interesting about several things relating to early game design. Two different people, separated by a language barrier, on different systems, made a game based on the same film and did it in radically different ways. Its also a tale of radically different reactions to an old game. Nostromo is hailed as the earliest example of a survival horror game. Not an early example, the earliest example. The Alien, on the other hand, is only notable as being a rip-off. Both have about as much validity to that topic, since neither do much that genuine survival horror games would do.
The Japanese version of The Alien, which came out in '84

What's funny is that the 1984 Alien game, by Argus Press rips off The Alien for its gameplay loop. While I can't tell if that game is popular, it mostly just pops up links to download it, I have heard that game mentioned. It just hasn't spawned the few articles that Nostromo has. That, however, is a tale for another day.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Well, well, well. Now that I have uploaded the manual and Porkbelly's great version removing the irritating control issues, I expect you to give a second try to The Alien ;).

    1. Ah, and how convenient that it works in my emulator too, so I don't have any excuse not to play it. Yeah, I'll get to it sometime before the end of 1982.