In 1984 film licenses were still something of a rarity on the home computers. Ocean Software hadn't quite yet cottoned onto the idea fully and generally they tended to be low-key affairs. One game dramatically changed this: Ghostbusters. Activision's classic made their fellow publishers realise the potential of a good movie behind your game and one such software house was Argus Press. Under their Mind Games label, Argus released Alien, an adaptation of the film that (technically) most Spectrum fans would not have been able to see due to its 18 certificate. Of course, many of them had seen it in one way or the other, but that's another story...
The Playstation game Resident Evil is generally acknowledged to mark the start for the phrase "Survival Horror", yet the genre had been around for years and the movie Alien represented a perfect template for this type of game.
Your task as player was simple: take command of the various members of the Nostromo crew, kill the eponymous xenomorph and protect Jones the cat. Each level was presented in an overhead plan style with all the locations of the spaceship present including those "you-go-first" air ducts. After a brief introductory period, the Alien would hatch from a hapless crewmember and the running around and screaming would commence.
From Imagine to Concept
John Heap, of Imagine and Denton Designs fame, was the designer and programmer of the ZX Spectrum version, and it also marked the first full debut of this talented coder.
"I'd been in the industry for about three months," recalls John, "and was working at Imagine Software on one of their Mega Games." Readers who are familiar with the demise of the Liverpool-based software house will recall that these two games, Bandersnatch and Psyclapse never saw the light of day, having been quietly abandoned in the aftermath of the Imagine collapse. "Some of the older hands, including Paul Clansey," continues John, "set up a company called Concept Software and a short while later they offered me a job as they required a Spectrum programmer." The game John was being recruited for (at least initially) was Alien, a conversion of the Commodore 64 original, programmed by Paul Clansey.
"The C64 version was already well on its way to completion when I joined," explains John, "so whilst I was sole programmer on the Spectrum version, a lot of kudos should go Paul's way." The conversion process was not quite so simple in those days, however, as John confirms. "The code was written in assembler and there were no cross-compilers. When you take into account the different strengths and weaknesses of the two machines, it was basically a total rewrite." Nevertheless, John was very excited to be working on such a prestigious film license. "To have it as my first published game was absolutely fantastic. I don't recall the constraints - if any - that Paul was working under, but I think we were more or less allowed to design the game as we liked."
Cranking up the Tension
In addition to the license, Alien had a number of other concepts that stood out. Always planned as a strategy title, the game had a slowburn atmosphere to it that marked it significantly apart from the ubiquitous platform and shoot 'em up games occupying the shelves at the time. "That worked incredibly well," says John proudly, "as having the door sound as either you or the crew moved around was a stroke of genius and was a lesson to us all: less is more." There was only one drawback to this in John's opinion. "When you are finally confronted by the Alien - whilst it's an excellent graphic - it is kind of disappointing bearing in mind the tension that has been building up."
Alien utilised an icon-driven system for control. "I remembered from my Imagine days their Apple Lisa's all running spreadsheets. These computers had an icon-driven OS and I could see they were the future so we were keen to implement them into Alien." Another novel concept was the emotion indicators: "I wanted to show intelligence within the NPC's and player's character - or at least as much as was possible given the Spectrum's limitations." says John and this random element kept the player thinking about alternate actions, given the implications of their emotional status. "Simply put, they might not do as they're told," he states impishly, "and it allowed man-management features to be added to the gameplay." John went on to develop this idea further with some of his subsequent games such as Shadowfire (Beyond) and Where Time Stood Still (Ocean).
Speccy vs. C64
I can't resist any more and ask John the million-dollar question. Does he think the Spectrum version was better? "Well, I liked the Spectrum more as a computer," he reflects, "because you had a blank canvas and never felt there were any artificial limits imposed. I think the Spectrum version was graphically cleaner than the C64, helped by the fact that my pixels were square and I wasn't limited to a single character set." And also, like many Spectrum games, Alien was a tough beast to master. "I think perhaps I made the difficulty worse by allowing access to the air vents. That element wasn't in the C64 version and I programmed the cat to jump into them!" says John without an iota of regret for those Spectrum gamers who tore their hair out trying to rescue the pesky feline critter.
The level of difficulty was succinctly demonstrated by the end percentage score the player received. Echo the ending of the film (rescue Jones the cat, set the Nostromo to self-destruct and escape in the shuttle) and you'd receive a lowly 2 or 3% score. "It seemed that it would be a better ending for the company to kill the alien without blowing up the Nostromo," explains John, "so all you had to do was kill the alien, keep all the crewmembers alive and ensure the cat is ok." he adds with a smile. Simple.
Despite this, there were a couple of elements that John wasn't happy with in retrospect. "I always tested the game on a keyboard and on release there were reports that with a joystick it was difficult to highlight the correct icons so I realised I should have put some debounce in." he says. "I was also a bit disappointed with the title screen; it was drawn on a very old fuzzy-screened colour television so when I placed the green attributes it looked subtle and glowed atmospherically. When I saw it on a big modern telly, however, I was appalled at how chunky it looked!"
Ultimately, John was very satisfied with the end result and the reception that Alien received in the gaming press. Sinclair User gave the game a "Gilbert Factor" of 7 and said it boasted "tremendous tension". Your Spectrum's Joystick Jury noted Alien's high difficulty level allayed with admiration for its diverse and original gameplay. Best of all, however, was Crash magazine's coveted Crash Smash where the (anonymous) reviewer cited a "very faithful recreation of the movie's feel," and recognised the atmospheric sound effects before concluding "Hitchcock would have loved it". High praise indeed!
Many thanks to John Heap for his help in this article. These days he runs The Good Game Company who can be found here: http://darkinference.com/index.html