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Gaming Obscura: Alien Breed

Robert Grosso / October 3, 2016 at 12:00 PM / Gaming, Opinions

The movie Alien is a major touchstone in popular cultureùa landmark horror movie with a sci-fi aesthetic. It brought to us the horrors of space in a way never shown before, the claustrophobia, the sense of hopelessness and isolation, and fear of a predator hunting you for prey. Since the movie’s release in 1979, the Alien franchise has been a juggernaut in media: comics, books, movies and of course, video games about the Xenomorphs and their face-hugging cycle.

It is no surprise there are countless video games featuring the Xenomorphs out there, but how many of them are any good, let alone memorable? The famous Alien vs Predator series is perhaps the best example of the franchise’s success, but the Aliens share their screen-time with both marines and the Predator species, becoming a somewhat ensemble piece of clashing styles of gameplay. Outside of that series, the only notable Alien game is perhaps the recently released Alien: Isolation, or the Sega and Gearbox debacle of Aliens: Colonial Marines.

There are, however, countless imitators to the Alien franchise, perhaps none so overt as the Alien Breed series by independent studio Team17. Alien Breed is part homage, part blatant rip-off—ultimately Alien Breed is a successful franchise in its own right, making it arguably one of the best Alien franchises out there for video gaming.

Part of the success is behind Team17 itself. An independent company from England, the team, unlike many companies from the era, is still creating video games to this day; they are currently the main publisher behind the Kickstarter game Yooka-Laylee by Playtronic Games. Team17 is also responsible for the Worms franchise, from 1995 all the way to Worms W.M.D, released earlier this year.

Team17 started out primarily working on games for the Commodore Amiga in 1990. Alien Breed, which would be one of their first titles in 1991, would be their first major hit, combining elements from the first two Alien movies and meshing it together in a top-down shooter game for one to two players. The object of Alien Breed is to simply survive each level, collecting credits to upgrade your weapons and ammo to stay in the fight. The Alien onslaught is heavy, with basic Xenomorph grunts taking a few hits to go down, so conserving ammo at times becomes a major part of the game’s strategy, as is keeping pace with weapon upgrades to fight increasingly stronger Aliens.

The game itself has several influences in terms of design. According to a short interview with Rico Holmes—who served as the graphic artist, animator and designer of Alien Breed—the goal was to create a game that can incorporate real time action strategy with a “believable atmosphere.” Two games in particular were strong influences on that design, Laser Squad on ZX Spectrum and Paradroid for the Commodore 64.

Paradroid was a complex top-down puzzle shooter game that had players to interface into numerous robots on a spaceship. Successfully taking over some new, tougher androids would give the player access to various weapons and equipment, and subsequently help the player solve puzzles along the way, including participating in puzzle mini-games to interface with more androids.

Laser Squad’s legacy, however, is much more decorated. Released on the ZX Spectrum in 1988, the title was only five missions long, but each was a turn-based tactical war game that incorporated cover and action point mechanics, forcing players to plan ahead against insurmountable odds. The legacy of Laser Squad is traced to its creator, famous developer Julian Gollop, the lead developer behind UFO: Enemy Unknown, the first game in the acclaimed X-COM series.

For Alien Breed, the influence in design to these two games is mostly based on the top-down perspective. Right on the cusp of a 3D evolution with Wolfenstein 3D and others less than a year away, the top-down perspective was considered the norm for most action-shooters on the PC, as it provided more control and field of vision for players using a keyboard and mouse. A third game franchise, this time the top-down dungeon crawler Gauntlet, was mentioned primarily by critics as a direct homage as well, in particular the sprawling, maze-like levels found in the first title that helped Alien Breed ramp up in difficulty.

The style of Alien Breed is more run and gun over tactical, trading careful tactical planning with the immediacy of combat. Planning ahead with weapon upgrades is the simple trade-off, providing some tactical choices for the player, but the action is always quick and immediate. In some ways, Alien Breed follows a lot of the style and sensibilities of the movie Aliens in this way. Aliens was a good sequel to the first movie because of how it subverted the horror-themed sci-fi approach and combined it with a very action-heavy war movie vibe. Aliens as a movie is the quintessential 1980s movie: loud and bombastic, but bloody and entertaining at the same time.

The success of Alien Breed is really traced by the lasting legacy of the game. Becoming a popular run and gun title in the early 1990s, a special edition released in 1992 expanded on the first game, released at a budget price for players. The Special Edition ’92 was so popular it stayed on the British software charts for over a year after its release. A proper sequel, Alien Breed II: The Horror Continues, would be released in 1993, and Team17 would release several sequels and version of Alien Breed for the Amiga systems all the way to 1996, including releasing a 3D version to compete with the growing popularity of First Person Shooters, such as Doom and Quake.

The 3D versions of Alien Breed were not major successes, and a planned sequel Alien Breed 3D II, titled Conflict, would ultimately be cancelled in 1999. Conflict, which was the only title of the original Alien Breed series to be released directly for the PC and the Sega Dreamcast, was also the only title of the series to not be featured on an Amiga system. In some respects, Alien Breed was a distinctly Amiga franchise, with other developers handling ports to the PC over Team17 throughout the 1990s.

That wasn’t the end of Alien Breed, however. A revival of the series began in 2009, with Alien Breed: Evolution on Microsoft’s Xbox Live. This time following traits of an isometric survival shooter, the new Alien Breed series was a trio of episodic games that retained a lot of the classic gameplay mechanics of the original titles. If that weren’t enough, ports of the original Alien Breed titles were released for iOS and Android devices in 2012 as well, continuing the legacy by Team17.

Alien Breed may not be a household name like Alien, but in some respects it is gaming’s homegrown Alien franchise. From the Amiga roots as a top down shooter to a full, isometric 3D shooter, Alien Breed has smoothly transitioned from a classic shooter to a more modern shooter, while retaining its top-down, arcade style origins. It is not part of the Alien franchise, yet is similar thanks to the design aesthetics of the games. It is hard for the series to overcome the massive shadow draped before it by Alien; after all, the game is ultimately an obscure title originally from the Amiga. However, the steady, continued popularity of Alien Breed for over twenty years, however, has made it a lesser known, but still enduring franchise, one that perhaps will continue cultivating a legacy on its own away from Alien completely.

I hope you guys enjoyed this episode of the series. Remember, if you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for the series, please leave them below, on our forums, or contact me via twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time. 

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.