“If science fiction is the mythology of modern technology, then its myth is tragic.”
-Ursula K. Le Guin
Alien vs. Predator represents what I esteem to be an astute observation. Maybe I’m off on this, but we don’t really see too many children’s toys and video games based off of rated-R film franchises anymore, not at the level of ubiquity that we did in the 90’s. It was not uncommon at the time for a young preteen, such as myself, to play with action figures based on Giger’s nightmares, or characters from Predator, Terminator, Hellraiser, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in full Nightmare on Elm Street costume. Needless to say, one doesn’t see children today playing with action figures anyway, and pop culture figurines seem relegated now to the realm of adult collectibles. Why exactly big business studios then thought it was appropriate to cross-market their horror films to wee lads and lasses in such a way is a consideration perhaps of irresponsibility for another day.
However, this is why Alien vs. Predator represents a unique period of time in the history of video games, when arcades bore the flickering imagery of stylized blockbuster action-horror. The arcades then were advertisements. Every arcade I’ve been in as an adult is tame by comparison.
Another thing which made AvP a sensation is because of these guys:Capcom has had a slew of hit franchises over the years but they were at the height of their arcade powers in the mid-90’s with sensational shooters, fighters, beat ’em ups. The Marvel vs. Capcom series, the untouchable Street Fighter franchise, Captain Commando, The Punisher, Darkstalkers (a personal favorite), I learned to be able to pick out a Capcom game at a glance because of how gorgeously detailed their pixel sprites were.
Capcom was a pop culture referencing machine! They were producing games that were the answer to all those questions of “Who would win?” from our golden afternoons. What prepubescent delight at pitting Wolverine against Mega Man, or punching through xenomophs as an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike. Alien vs. Predator oozed Capcom’s greatness and talent for developing arcade games like its titular extraterrestrials oozed slime and mucus from their silicon orifices. Sorry for that mental image but it reminded me of the pallid people that once infested these arcades of yore.
Arcade games of the 90’s weren’t renown for complex storytelling. AvP doesn’t make any attempt to reach for the diegetic of the movies its loosely based on. It does, however, cycle through a cinematic if there are no active players. This was how the cabinets back then gave their background.
The ultimate worst thing ever has finally happened. A hive of xenomorphs somehow lands on Earth in San Drad, California and the aliens begin to multiply and turn the largest city on the west coast into a living hell, just like real life California. Maybe the aliens came to protest. Anywho, the last two human members of a resistance are cut off and surrounded by the star beasts, only to be rescued at the last moment by a group of space-faring predators, members of a warlike race come to hunt the most dangerous organisms in the universe.
Alien vs. Predator is a side-scrolling beat ’em up crossover of the Alien and Predator franchise (prior to the AvP films). One of the most fan-frickin’-tastic features of the game are the four playable characters. The game supports up to three players. You can play as either one of two Predators, a hunter and a warrior, or one of two humans, Major Dutch Schaefer and Lieutenant Linn Kurosawa. Whoever you pick, you’re tasked with staving off hundreds of xenomorphs of all shapes and sizes, and greedy humans looking to profit from the aliens as biological weapons. Just like in the stories!
The two Predators play fairly similarly with minor differences in their attack. The hunter seems to be the more rounded of the two. If it’s any consolation, the warrior looks a lot cooler. Both predators can use their shoulder mounted laser cannons as their special power for an incendiary AOE, but this drains a portion of their health. They also have access to an arsenal of alien weaponry.
The Major, despite his ridiculously huge robot arm, is clearly based on Arnold Schwarzenegger from the first Predator movie. There’s no mistaking that square jaw. He’s the obvious bruiser of the bunch with his slow but powerful attacks. Combo punching and headbutting aliens is what he does best but he also has a wrist mounted arm cannon. Not to be outdone by Street Fighter II, the Major also has spinning cyclone and piledriver attacks. AND he says “I gaht eet” when picking up an item. Shut up, Zangief.
The Lieutenant I always assumed to be Ellen Ripley from Alien, though there’s little resemblance. Kurosawa is a Japanese cyborg who wields a katana and is also proficient with an infinite ammo handgun. Yep, just like Sigourney Weaver. Replaying AvP, I enjoyed Kurosawa’s greater speed and agility (which in fact made her my go-to character over 20 years ago) but I was surprised in discovering as an adult how many sort of “secret” techniques and combos she has.
Merely throwing monsters together from separate franchises does not automatically a quality game make. The aliens and the predators have had their fair share of duds over the years, as have the many monster-movie crossovers since the days of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, one of the earliest such crossovers from 1943 that sort of just exists. Yet despite this, Capcom’s arcade beat ’em up is the best sample of the many attempts to pit Alien against Predator.
Why? Because it’s a beat ’em up. It strips away all of the potentiality for fluff and lore that has built up around these monsters for a kind of purity that’s honest to its genre and presentation. It aims to be a great side-scrolling beat ’em up, not a pretender to high philosophy or statements about the hostile nature of an indifferent universe. In this light, it fits into the mold cast by Ridley Scott’s original Alien (the same could be said of the first Predator). Scott’s was a film with purity of purpose as suspenseful, claustrophobic sci-fi horror. There’s an underlying subtext of the male fear of pregnancy and sexual trauma perhaps, but it doesn’t brandish these as a kind of Freudian “moral of the story”. It’s not spoon-fed, not thrown in your face, not talked about by characters, not mused over by narration, and not expounded upon by academics in ways that modern films often do.
Succumbing to the temptation to over-explain is the Achilles’ heel of science fiction. I love sci-fi enough to say that. Mystery, not exposition, is at the heart of good science fiction since it is mystery which drives us to ask scientific questions about the universe. Mystery even goes beyond science’s reach to the questions which science does not and can not answer. Scott’s Alien is the best in the franchise it established because it dodged that bullet. It doesn’t care to layout the full blueprint of the xenomorph’s biology. It doesn’t care to explain the perfect organism’s earliest origins, what planet they come from and so on. The film merely aims to be a great thriller, which it succeeds at for its focus.
The same can be said of Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator. It succeeds because it focuses on being a good beat ’em up, something with very clear definition. It’s probably easier to fail at being a good movie than it is to fail at being a good arcade game in this style, but because of its ability to stick to what it’s supposed to be good at and not aim for anything higher, I dub this the best Alien versus Predator there is. Taking two blockbuster movies into consideration, that statement is actually rather sad.
Apparently this game was intended to be a tie-in for an AvP movie which never made it to theaters. Capcom decided to just release the game anyway as a standalone. I think its standalone nature benefits it.
The 8-bit Review
Alien vs. Predator doesn’t look too different from Capcom’s other arcade games from the era but considering they made excellent arcade games, the resemblance is a good thing. The creeping xenomorphs are richly detailed for what are essentially “common thugs” and when there are dozens of them on screen at once, it’s a thrilling sensation.
One of the visuals which has remained unforgettable after all these years is the boss fight against the Queen Alien, mounted on her ovipositor, surrounded by glistening eggs with a blazing background behind her. An exhilarating fight was quite the first time reward after dropping in several quarters to reach it.
Also of note are the cutscenes. The characters look like they’d fit right in with Darkstalkers designs, another Capcom game which had similar cutscenes before the game was started up. As far as I could find in researching, apparently the artist we have to thank for this unique, faded, dramatic character design is some person named Bengus, a freelancer who worked on several Capcom titles.
Hideki Okugawa is an accomplished composer who has worked with Capcom on many of their titles, which explains why the minor-key noisiness of the AvP soundtrack may sound familiar to you. When I listen to it, I hear that Gothic, pipe organ sound of darkness that evokes Capcom, with a some military drum rolls for the US Marines Major and Lieutenant.
I personally don’t think this is the best example of music from Okugawa. It’s essentially filler for the action, though the game (as previously discussed) doesn’t have grand ambitions anyway.
Gameplay is fairly standard in AvP as a beat ’em up and what it should do it does well. Players progress through stages toward a boss, fighting enemies and collecting points, and power ups. All characters can find and pick up weapons such as flamethrowers and chakrams. There’s additionally a special ammunition power up which allows for unlimited rapid fire without the need to reload, for a short period of time of course.
Boss fights are always a particular highlight in this kind of game and the giant alien monstrosities you’ve got to take down encourage that “get him!” mentality among you and your friends playing. There’s no feeling quite like it. Plus I’m sure the genetic variants of xenomorph helped sell a few extra action figures.
Alien vs. Predator has the occasional problem with hit boxes. It’s not as severe as in other titles in this genre but there will be moments when you’ll have to focus on squaring your character directly in front of an enemy to line up the attack. Missile weapons specifically seem to miss quite a bit. It’s not enough to become frustrating but it is a minor annoyance. Minor things like that are the only thing to drag down the fun gameplay. There’s a peculiar feature in this game where the video speeds up all of a sudden, rushing you through dialogue at the accidental touch of a button, which can at the very least be jarring and at most disappointing if you miss the rare moments when characters have something to say.
As mentioned, this is no sprawling epic. Aliens infest a Californian city and predators arrive to aid surviving marines. Together, they uncover a secret plan by the Weyland-Yutani (here spelled “wayland-yutani”) corporation to gain control of the aliens as biological weapons, a theme in many of the Alien franchise films. Once the threat is eliminated, the predators offer Schaefer and Kurosawa alien weaponry in honor of their battle prowess and then return to the stars, hinting that if they return they will not be allies… next hunting season. Punks.
There were both three player and two player cabinets, with the better option being three players if you could find it. One thing I really miss was local co-op with complete strangers, something which these old cabinets uniquely afforded. I remember several high fives with people I never knew and would never see again upon beating the game together. The structure of a beat ’em up also allowed for players to jump in at any time if there was an open space for them, or step away if they ran out of quarters. This is markedly different from couch co-op with personal friends at your home and it’s definitely a different experience from multiplayer with strangers online. Something about going through the thick of it with the person right beside you made you respect them, surprisingly. I mean, imagine respecting a complete stranger! Not in 2017.
Beat ’em ups are inherently accessible. It’s obvious that you have to punch, kick, and obliterate these space monsters. What isn’t obvious are the “hidden” techniques, grabs, and combos each character possesses. These you can only discover while playing the game.
At least for me and my circle of friends, Alien vs. Predator was a sought after item in local arcades. The last arcade to contain it in my hometown burned to the ground (rumor was arson) and it would be years before I’d run into the game again. AvP had a lot of personality and visual character among several genre-peers which recycled the same old street-level brawling. Putting the game in the backdrop of the Alien/Predator universe made it a title with unique familiarity, even if the gameplay itself was already well past “tried and true”.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I don’t know that I’ll ever get tired of playing beat ’em ups. They’re just such good fun, especially if you’ve got a buddy (or two) to fight off the hordes of xenomorphs with you. Alien vs. Predator is an exemplary relic. It’s definitive of arcade gaming from the time. It’s not the best or most refined in its genre but for sci-fi movie fans (which I was and which I am) it was pure gold. Unfortunately, just like real gold, the arcade Alien vs. Predator is pretty hard to get a hold of these days since it never saw a direct home console port. The Super Nintendo title is really a different game. Nintendo Switch? Get on that.
For other beat ’em up reviews check out The Simpsons (its the best there is), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, and The Evergreen Sage Mage’s take on Mother Russia Bleeds, which in fact inspired me to write this post! For more alien horror, read up on Alien: Isolation by The Black Humor Mage. Thanks for reading!
Aggregated Score: 8.0