Saturday, February 2, 2019

Alien Storm

Between the debut of the Golden Axe and Streets of Rage there was a very odd stand-alone beat'em up title released by Sega called Alien Storm.  Initially an arcade game, it was quickly ported to the Genesis.  Much like the original Golden Axe, the two versions of Alien Storm were fairly similar with a few minor downgrades made to the home console version (probably due to hardware constraints).

While not the most bizarre game Sega has ever made, Alien Storm is definitely somewhere near Altered Beast in terms of weird imagery.  The basic premise is the standard Earth-invaded-by-creatures-from-outer-space plot as seen in a vast number of science fiction films.  In this instance the only real opposition the invaders face comes in the form of three heroes (a man, a woman, and a robot), who incidentally operate a roach coach business on the side.  Basically it's Ghostbusters if the ghosts were replaced by monsters from the stars.  The enemies themselves look heavily inspired by films such as "Alien", "The Thing", "Gremlins" and...well...a lot of other rubber suit monster movies.

In terms of gameplay, it's pretty standard beat'em up fare with a few noteworthy distinctions.  Players have two bars to keep track of; one for energy and the other for health.  Energy depletes little by little when making attacks.  Normally, it would never run out because there are more than enough restoratives to be found while playing.  However, there is a screen-wide AOE attack available to players that kills aliens real good, but takes a big chunk off that energy bar.  Sounds risky to use, but even if the energy bar does end up completely depleted the player can still perform a weaker set of attacks.  So, players don't have to worry about becoming completely helpless.  The health bar doesn't drain very fast either (even when the character it's attached to is taking a pounding).  Much like the Ninja Turtles arcade beat'em up though it's the only life the player gets per credit (or continue, depending on which version of the game it is).

To break up the action there's also some SHMUP and first-person rail-shooter sections.  Much like the gameplay, the music is also an eclectic mix.  Some parts sound like pop or electronic, but the level intros have these creepy stingers attached to them that feel straight out of a horror/suspense film.  There is a fascinatingly disparate collection of attack animations unique to each of the three playable characters as well.  It can be kind of mesmerizing to watch one of the heroes zap, blast, shoot and burn a foe all in the span of one or two seconds.  Just to cap off what a crazy mix of ideas this game is there's a post-finale dance segment to wrap things up.

Alien Storm never got a sequel which, based on the way things are nowadays, makes it prime material for a franchise reboot.  Personally, I would be perfectly happy if that never happened.  Beat'em ups are, for better or worse, a product of their time, and Alien Storm is an exemplary way to show that point.  Attempts to adapt the genre to more modern game designs has been pretty mixed in terms of results.  Beat'em ups are (at their core) all about positioning and in a 3D space in becomes a lot harder to gauge that precisely.  It's a fundamental problem with games like The Warriors and Golden Axe: Beast RiderSleeping Dogs handled it better than most, but there's something about the genre that just seems to work better when it's 2D sprites.

Athstetics is another big part of beat'em ups.  Getting the right balance between goofy versus serious and realistic versus stylized is like trying to walk on a pair of parallel knife edges.  Titles like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim fell off one side, while Dragon's Crown and Mother Russia Bleeds toppled off the other.  I worry that the planned Streets of Rage 4 may not have quite grabbed onto what made the original three so memorable simply because so much time has passed between then and now.  Of course, the same could be said for any attempt to bring an old franchise to the modern age.

Hold up...what this?

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