Alien Soldier is awesome

This year I decided to create a gaming wishlist, filled not only with games I’ve always meant to play but never got around to but also challenges that I’ve long wanted to have a crack at but never really had an excuse to. One of those challenges was finishing Treasure’s legendary Mega Drive action game Alien Soldier in a single credit (which with this game actually means a single life), and to be honest I didn’t really expect to pull it off…

...until I did.*

*On “supereasy” – we’ll come to that in a bit.

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Anyway that’s quite enough about how I waste spend my free time, because the star of this blog post really has to be the game itself. Alien Soldier wasn’t Treasure’s final Mega Drive game (that honour went to Light Crusader, their rather ho-hum isometric RPG) but it certainly feels like Alien Soldier is where they poured every drop of expertise and knowledge they’d built up since 1993’s Gunstar Heroes thanks to its endless procession of screen-filling, multi-segmented, sprite-stretching bosses and non-stop action. “Now is [the] time to [set] the 68000 heart on fire!” the Japanese title screen famously exclaims – and looking at everything going on in-game you’d be forgiven for thinking Treasure’s programmers were trying to make that iconic Engrish statement a literal fact rather than mere title screen excitement.

But what makes the game really special isn’t just the way it makes all sorts of tricks that were “impossible” on the Mega Drive look completely effortless, it’s the way they took the accepted action game design of the era and then threw it all out the window.

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Think about it – back then action-platformers (and indeed, most games of any genre) had a typical stage/boss structure to them, with possibly a midboss thrown in to break things up and perhaps a medley of previously defeated end-of-level guardians before the final showdown for good measure. But the bosses are the highlight, aren’t they? So if facing off against giant monsters/robots/monsterrobots is the best bit why have so few of them and why make players fight through long stages against hordes of tiny nondescript enemies before they even see them?

And so Alien Soldier went and addressed all these issues we didn’t even know were issues by creating an action game where the “scroll” sections (the traditional left-to-right segments) can be completed in mere seconds, ensuring the focus is entirely on the game’s vast selection of extraordinary bosses.

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Every last one of the game’s twenty five boss encounters are unique, memorable, and tough. Alien Soldier is a highly technical action game – there is simply no way you can just shoot at stuff and hope to muscle your way through. Heck, with some bosses you can’t even guarantee you’ll have a floor to stand on as the game takes great pleasure in forcing you to fight in various strange locations including on top of a speedboat, in outer space, stuck to a giant spider’s web and plunged underwater. You really don’t know what to expect next, and each boss is best approached as a puzzle: Which weapon works best? Does the boss have a weak point? Do they have an attack I can Counter Force into life crystals? Alien Soldier takes no prisoners and is quick to punish every mistake you make, but it always feels fair because it consistently rewards skilful play and those that make the effort can soon find themselves utterly obliterating adversaries that used to feel impossible.

In spite of all this gushing I do have one, and only one, serious complaint – Alien Soldier has just two difficulty settings: “SUPEREASY” and “SUPERHARD” (yep: ALL CAPS, no spaces) – now “SUPEREASY” is the easier of the two, but in a game where progression is based on the player’s ability to dodge, counter, and then fire pixel-thin lasers at very particular spots in a moving target the difference is no where near as great as their descriptors make them out to be. The game really could have done with some sort of separate training area to give people the chance to practise Zero Teleporting upside-down through enemy fire and other essential techniques, and in my opinion having people understandably fail early on in a damned difficult game even though they’re supposedly playing on the “super easy” setting has done more harm than good as far as encouraging people to learn the game is concerned.

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However, if you do find yourself becoming acclimatised to Alien Soldier’s idea of a “lull” and are grateful for the breathers where you’re “only” running upside down avoiding bombs or dodging laser fire coming from the sky with short warning then the game transforms into a deadly ballet, your carefully selected shots piercing enemy weak points at exactly the right moment and thoughts of survival eventually becoming secondary to pushing yourself for faster and faster clear times.

All in all there’s really not anything else like it, even now. Of course it’s not the only difficult retro or retro-style game before or since, but there’s never been anything that’s been so determined to give you all the best bits, all the time, and with such an unrelenting intensity. Unfortunately not a game for everyone – the controls can be bewildering at first and the game expects you to keep up or go home – but practise and perseverance will pay off for those that don’t get disheartened and the reward is the pleasure of experiencing one of the most breathtaking and exciting games of its generation.