Our game of the day for Halloween Week is one that was the first “survival-horror” kind of game I had played in the 90s and one that managed to pull off a few scares once in a while. That would be
Alien Vs. Predator (Atari Jaguar)
This is often touted as “the killer app” or “the only reason” to own an Atari Jaguar, although if you’ve read this blog at all, you know I disagree with the latter sentiment. It was a great game for the system to have at the time though so it certainly could be considered a killer app of sorts.
The premise is simple and well known – play as one of three characters from the Alien/Predator franchise. They have mostly straightforward objectives – if you are the Alien then you need to rescue the kidnapped Alien Queen from the Predators; the Predator needs to capture the Queen as the most valuable hunting trophy a Predator could probably find in that part of the galaxy; if you play as the Colonial Marine, that is where it is not as clear cut when you first start the game.
Before diving into each of those a little more, lets look at the game in general. In 1994 we were just about to enter into the 3D revolution but this eschewed full 3D polygon graphics for the raycasted style that was used in games like Wolfenstein 3D. Now the best version of the classic Wolf3D also happened to show up on the Jaguar but there are some differences in the engine used for AvP. First, there is texturing on the floor/ceiling; there is no music in AvP, just ambient noises and AvP is more of an “open-world” game as opposed to find the key, get to the end of the level and fight the boss, rinse/repeat thing. I don’t know about technical differences like color-depth and screen resolution between the two versions. But the way they went about handling AvP really was something different at the time. As mentioned it was open world so you could spend all the time you wanted exploring the space station, backtracking and so on.
Alien – If you want something fast-paced and limited to melee attacks, then the Alien is for you. The idea of claw-tail-claw to coccon enemies and create a save point in lieu of health pick-ups was clever and introduces a small strategic element to the game. Aside from being weak, the challenge you face is having to work your way up the station using the air ducts, which happen to all look the same no matter where you go.
Predator – Slower paced but very tough and brutal once you have a full arsenal to use. While the Predator moves slowly, he can use the elevators so once you memorize the layout of the game (which took me about a month or so of playing), you could clear the game fairly quickly using him. Weapons are unlocked via score and you do have invisibility but killing foes while invisible deducts points, so it is only really useful when you are low on health and you need to hide.
Colonial Marine – The main course of the game really. As mentioned, when you start out with just a shotgun and a few rounds, you know nothing about what is going on. If you want to figure out more, you need to find computer stations that have different journal logs on them. They did try to organize the logs so that you would find them in succession to unveil what happened on the station but thanks to the open nature of the game, you can end up finding a higher clearance security card and gain access to higher areas than might have been planned.
I played as this character the most and it was certainly the scenario filled with the most tension. Because there is no music, just background noise from the station, the Alien screams stand out especially when they quietly sneak up on you; the Facehuggers tend to freak out anyone with an aversion to spiders and they likewise can be very sneaky. You don’t run into Predators very often in this scenario but when you do they will taunt you while invisible which is a great touch.
This scenario is also very much survival horror – you have to conserve ammo instead of spraying and praying and the game will randomly generate the positions of enemies and some items when you start a new game so you don’t know where to expect them most of the time. What is also interesting is that this does not use the dark to generate the scares at all – no matter where you go in the station it is well-lit. This wasn’t the case in later AvP games that Rebellion did but I find it interesting from a game design perspective in how they used sound to drive the scares as opposed to light-dark tricks.
Overall this is a great game that is still fun to play today. My son likes watching me play it, although he hasn’t worked up the courage to spend a lot of time on it himself. Of the games I have mentioned for Atari Halloween week it would have to be at the top for tension and horror.
Addendum: It should also be noted that the Atari Lynx had a version in the works which would have been released around the same time, probably before the Jaguar version. Atari also had considered creating hardware that would have allowed the Lynx to work as a motion detector on the Jag version but that likewise never came to be, probably due to cost.