Friday, September 26, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 4/13/14: Alien Storm

at 6:00 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this... questionnaire.

Game: Alien Storm
Year: 1990
Developer: Sega (AM1)
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Arcade, Genesis, SMS, a bunch of home computers no one cares about

We've done Capcom, Konami, and Technos, so finally it's time to hit Sega. What better way to kick off the greatest developer ever's great line of beat-em-ups than their most famous work of all time, Alien Storm? I don't think any information in that last sentence could be considered actual. Unlike Golden Axu and Streets of Rage, not even a Genesis port could save Alien Storm from being lost to the ages. Probably because Alien Storm isn't really a home port kinda game. It's all about frilly flashy action with it's advertised three modes of game play: beat-em-up, shoot-em-up, and shoot-em-up again! (in a different way!).

So is Alien Storm a hyperactive schizophrenic mess, or is it a roller-coaster ride that makes the most out of its many modes of play to keep hearts a-pumpin' and brains a-throbbin'?

Pro-run: 7 credits each, died on stage, uh, I don't know, pretty early. (The first running stage, if I remember right.)

Is the game aesthetically appealing?
Yourself: I love this game's aesthetic. From the goofy Ghostbusters intro with the characters serving up fresh-cooked "alien dogs" to the giant mutant snails with trash cans and phone booths on their backs, there's a vile sense of humor paired with the grotesque artwork that sells the whole thing as '80s-style horror comedy the likes of From BeyondDead Heat, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Golem said he couldn't look at the monsters and see anything but Basketcase, and I couldn't come up with a more perfect description. These ghoulies look like a mix of gargoyles, a mad scientist, and the most heinous rubber masks come to life.

The soundtrack is clearly trying to evoke a funky Ghostbusters mood - though it succeeds in doing so, I can't say it offers any memorable tunes in the process. They definitely could've used the composing talents of a one Danny Elfs-man on this one.

Golem: When Yourself asks if Alien Storm is a hyperactive schizophrenic mess, that brings to mind this game's sense of animation. Something like Golden Axe has a very sensible look--you swing an axe, a guy doubles over. Alien Storm, though, has this stilted feel that I can't put my finger on, like folks just pop in and out of zany animations. It probably didn't help that I spent most of my time as the robot character, who will swap between back-mounted missiles, a laser whip, and a bazooka in the same span (and button presses) that Gilius Thunderhead would've landed a couple axe swings.

For the creepy, weirdo feel this game seeks, it finds matching FM sounds, blending funky bass and haunting high-pitched synths.

How is the control and move variety?
Golem: My character's distance from an enemy would activate different attacks. At close range, Scooter goes into a sweep attack using his laser whip, and far away, he sends out missiles. There are also a few attacks between, and placement is so fine that I often had difficulty knowing exactly what attack I'd trigger. It keeps the pace pretty manic, since I was concentrating on how many pixels I was away from a monster at the same moment that I was watching five other guys crowd around me. Most attacks cost energy, though, and when I ran out, Scooter could only swing a sword.

Anyway, there is also a dodge move and a dash move. Attack while dashing, and you get a dash attack; dodge while dashing, and you jump; attack while jumping, and you get a jump attack (Scooter's jump attack dropped bombs directly downward). I'd like some more practice using that dodge move, come to think of it. Finally, there is also a screen-clearing special move that cost lots of energy.

Which is only to talk about the brawling parts. There are shooting gallery stages where all you can do is shoot. Alien Storm also has two chasing stages, where you run on a brawler-esque plane, but the dodge button always jumps and the attack button always shoots lasers.

Yourself: The dodge is key - because of how fast enemies move, your main tactic to avoid being surrounded will be to roll out of the way. It functions similarly to the TMNT games' ultra-lofty jump - while it's faster and can't be canceled into any type of attack, it creates crowd manipulation based on positioning rather than stunning/clearing attacks.

How is the player character variety?
Yourself: Continuing with the Ghostbusters motif, one of the characters is a blue-clad Ghostbuster equipped with proton pack, one is Sigourney Weaver (in her Aliens attire but hey she was in Ghostbusters), and the other is I think a Cylon. Unfortunately they all play essentially the same. There may be slightly different attack ranges and C-3PO seems like the fastest, but there's nothing distinguishing enough that I could strategize around it. 

How is the pick-up variety?
Golem: The arcade version only has energy pick-ups to power attacks. While they're rare in the brawler sections, they're all over the place in shooting galleries, and players can fight over who gets the energy pick-up--shoot it, and it slides towards your end of the screen; if another player shoots it before it reaches your end, it'll slide towards him or her instead. The Genesis version also features health pick-ups.

Yourself: While limited ammo and pick-ups could theoretically lend to unique gameplay, the overabundant starting energy supply and relegation of pick-ups to secondary stages pretty completely undercut that. 

How is the stage variety?
Yourself: Alien Storm's attract reel goes so far as to throw in a line about "TRIPLICATED GAMEPLAY!", and that's really the order of the day here. In fact, if I knew just how triplicated the game is, we probably would've left it out of the WBEU along with the NES Battletoads. The game is set over three types of stages: beat-em-up side-scrollers, shooting galleries (a la Operation Wolf or light gun games), and auto-running run-and-guns. The field of play in the run-and-gun levels is restricted to the same small vertical belt as in the beat-em-up levels. After each beat-em-up stage is either a shooting gallery or a run-and-gun.

The first-person shooting segments are a bit more complex than their corollaries in Shinobi. Some enemies will hide behind boxes and store shelves, others will fly toward the screen in a parabolic arc, still others will pop up in the foreground for slashing attacks. The player has 8-directional control of their cursor and the screen even scrolls left and right a bit to show a wider view of the gallery - it isn't Wild Guns, but it's dynamic enough to feel like more than a bonus stage.

How is the enemy variety?
Golem: I'll admit that I mostly only noticed enemies varying in body size and attack range. The snails hiding in trash cans are pretty slow and small, so I had an easy time placing Scooter precisely for a strong attack. Big, salmon-colored tentacle guys demand more care, and I'd often take damage just walking close enough to get out an attack.

But then, you have exceptions like the flowers that regenerate and the kangaroos that shoot their offspring as an attack.

Yourself: There are a couple distinctive movement patterns (see one-on-one section), but generally the biggest factor used to escalate enemy challenge is speed. Enemies also have really skimpy health reserves, so most go down in a single combo or one or two heavy hits.

Though their appearances vary here and there, the enemies in the shooting gallery stages are pretty much the same group in every iteration.

How are enemy groups formed?
Yourself: As the enemy variety is limited, there aren't too many interesting combinations. Normally you see big groups of one enemy type, with different guys getting the spotlight at different points (most memorably, the kangaroos in the final stages).

Formations tend to come in big numbers - there are usually at least four enemies on screen and I believe up to six or seven. They come wave after wave too - this compensates for their short life-spans and requires you to be constantly adapting to new spawns. It also comes with a kind of tedious monotony, as it's easy to lose track of position and crowd control and just stop caring.

How does combat work one-on-one?
Golem: Alien Storm's tension comes from the exact space between your character and the enemy. Are you at the right range to do the attack you want? Can you press your luck and get closer, or are you going to worm your way in by starting off with distanced attacks? Finding a good range for an enemy usually works throughout the game. For instance, flying guys will piledrive you if it get too close, so that was a pretty clear indication to just plain stay outside of that guy's arm length.

Once you started on an enemy, if you got it in a decent stun, it was important to follow up with another attack to finish it.

Yourself: Enemies have a tendency to move in vertical patterns (for instance the fairy guys who basically move in a tight sine curve) which exacerbates the challenge in lining up mid-range shots. Very rarely will an individual simply walk straight up to you or circle around as is the typical beat-em-up pattern. Generally they attack by springing into charges or simply grabbing you when you stumble into their erratic path. In contrast, there are also flower-mines that stay planted and don't move at all. The way that contact is risky in and of itself and the enemies move almost unconscious of player position lends a shoot-em-up-like sensibility to the combat; the challenge is in staying totally untouched, then managing to quickly line up at the right distance and connect a hit - the follow-up is the easy part. 

How does combat work against crowds?
Yourself: It's basically about navigating that shmup-like flow, identifying safe spots amid the varying patterns. Your character is invincible during a dodge, so (especially in single player) there tends to be a lot of rolling around to get out of a crowd or behind enemies. The strategy largely comes down to picking off enemies one by one, trying to keep at a great enough distance that you can use the more powerful ranged attacks, then as the enemies close in, getting your way across the screen to hit them from the other side.

How is the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Golem: There is one brawler boss, a fleshy blob that makes plastic stretching sounds every time it transforms. Each phase has one attack, and it ranges in space. For instance, the first form's laser alternates between firing into the space directly in front of it and directly behind it. I took plenty of hits, but I had an easy time observing why, and avoiding his attacks could easily boil down to finding a rote rhythm.

Yourself: The guy has three forms, but as Golem says, each is so simple that he's a bit of a joke when he shows up for a redux. On the positive side, the dearth of bosses certainly lends to the game's distinctive breakneck pace. Still....

How is the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: This is where the absence of bosses hurts. While the pace ramps up and more aggressive enemies (first the fairies, then the kangaroo-men) are introduced later on, Alien Storm serves to demonstrate that without the punctuation of hearty boss fights, a difficulty curve loses its potency. Optimally, bosses force players to re-evaluate the game mechanics; after the boss is defeated we're released back into a fiercer wild where we'll need that higher competency. Without these peaks, the arbitrarily ramping difficulty just feels tedious, like it's building to nothing. Then again, that's also a symptom of the lack of enemy variety.

Really can't believe I'm asking a beat-em-up to have more bosses, since generally I consider it a genre weak point. I guess I've learned something about myself. I guess we've all learned something about ourselves.

Interesting fact: the player characters are different colors in the Japanese version

Play again or recommend?
Golem: I'd like to play it again just to get a better feel for how to manage space, both getting the right attack and putting the dodge to use. This is a hard recommend because gameplay feels awful; you can't do anything cool with the enemies, and if you get hit, the attacks leisurely sap your health without as much feedback as your standard brawler. But then, getting a sense for the range of each attack was engaging, and while the game gets a little repetitive, it's not that long, either. It's more interesting than entertaining, I guess is one way to put it.

Yourself: However shallow, the speed of the game and the mode-switching certainly kept me fixated. Maybe it didn't give me much insight into beat-em-ups, but it's "a blast" [quotation available for advertisement materials] and - put it this way - if you're at the point where you're even considering Alien Storm, it'll be worth your while. 

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