When Alien Resurrection came along in 1997, it also brought with it the sorry realisation that I was far more excited about the first opportunity (that I could reasonably justify, at least!) to see Winona Ryder on a cinema screen since Bram Stoker’s Dracula five years earlier than I was watching a new Alien movie. She’d been my thing for a while by then; surprisingly, given my later tastes for similar, I was never drawn towards her Beetlejuice performance in 1988, but Heathers the following year was a whole different matter, and suddenly the likes of Sarah Greene, Belinda Carlisle, Emma Samms, Heather Locklear and a bevvy of Page Three lovelies were all being shoved aside for this nerdy 17-year old’s new Queen of Hollywood!
Most of a decade later, Alien Resurrection wasn’t exactly a masterpiece on any front, and the Dracula video that was still a permanent feature in my VHS player would be staying that way! As for Alien, the same could probably be said of Alien 3, which was the first in the series I’d been old enough to see in the cinema, but while neither that nor Resurrection are ever going to be anyone’s favourites, none of them have ever really been mine! Yeah, I know it’s heresy for a horror and sci-fi nerd to say such things, but it’s not for the want on trying! As I write I’ve just been delving into the lovely quadrilogy DVD box set I received on one of my first Father’s Days, mainly for a fresh fix of Winona Ryder with unusual hair, but I’ll often watch one or the other of them, and I’m not saying I don’t enjoy all of them well enough, but you know what? I’d rather watch Alien vs. Predator! There, I said it!
If I wasn’t that excited about a new Alien film in 1997, I most certainly was excited about that comic book crossover by Dark Horse in 1989! 1987’s Predator was a thing of playground legend, and while Alien and even the far more recent Aliens were already legendary by that time, Predator had Arnie and Apollo Creed, and that invisible camouflage thing was just the coolest thing ever! We’ve seen loads of these mash-ups since, of course, but I’m struggling to think of many that were around by then – Robocop Versus The Terminator on all the consoles was still a few years away, and a Freddy vs. Jason movie was a rumour for a very long time but I’m not sure that early; in fact, I think DC vs. Marvel comics was about it, but regardless, who would win in a fight between Alien and Predator was a massive question!
As much as James Cameron, Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver might hate the premise, the concept stays pretty true to both franchises, with the real focus being how mankind’s encounters with both species shape their own civilisation’s destiny. But yeah, there’s some decent scraps between them too! Their first on-screen hookup was actually in 1990’s Predator 2, where the eagle-eyed viewer might notice a Xenomorph’s head on display in the Predator’s little trophy room, but the movie itself would take a while longer to arrive! It was originally touted in 1994, but it would be another ten years before it actually arrived, taking the concept of the comics to an underground pyramid in Antarctica, where archaeologists soon discover they’re in the middle of an ancient Predator-Alien battleground! Okay, the first two Alien movies might have more to say, and Predator definitely does with its immortal “get to the chopper” line, but the frozen setting here is really atmospheric, and there’s some great special effects and big, dumb fighting. It’s alright!
It did get an also alright 2007 sequel, with the dust-up moving to small-town Colorado, and I don’t think we’ve seen the last of them either, but we should now turn our attention to old video games! The reason we’re right here, right now is the recent (at the time of writing) new epic from Bitmap Books, Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat-‘Em-Ups. At 456 large-scale pages, it’s a monster, and while I’ve not had a chance to properly review it yet like I have some of their other tomes, as always the quality is off the chart, and if there’s a beat ‘em up missing from this thing then it’s probably not worth playing!
We’ve not covered one of these beat ‘em ups for a while (since Splatterhouse 2, in fact, if that counts), and spotting Alien vs. Predator in there while I was reading it the other day, and having just watched Alien Resurrection, the stars seemed to align so I thought why not! And while we’ve got the book to hand, we can pick up the story of the game from there too… I had no idea that when Capcom was putting this together in 1994, it was originally developed as a tie-in for that year’s ill-fated movie adaptation of the comic books we just talked about! I also had no idea quite how successful the Alien vs. Predator had been in the arcades either; I’m not really sure where I first came across this one myself, but there is some vague association with a bowling alley so in the absence of any hard facts to back that claim up, I guess it was doing alright to get that far!
I’m going to avoid nicking too much more from the book, but I will allow it to send me off on a quick tangent because it also mentions Alien vs. Predator being name-dropped as an inspiration for Treasure’s legendary Sega Saturn beat ‘em up Guardian Heroes, which I’ve never even heard of, so let’s have a quick look and see if it’s as legendary as it says it is! It’s from 1996 on Xbox 360 as well as Saturn, and from what I’ve played it’s as much fantasy RPG as it is beat ‘em up, with deep character progression across thirty branching stages. The combat itself is pretty cool, allowing you to jump between back, front and middle of the screen, and each of the characters has a ton of moves to get to grips with. The artwork is great, the animation is great and the soundtrack is really great! But for all of that, I’m a bit cold on Guardian Heroes so far – the RPG and story stuff gets in the way of the action way too often, and while I’m sure that’s the point it’s not really what I’m after with this genre. Always glad to discover something new though!
Back to AVP, and we’re in the fictional city of San Drad, California because it’s been infested by Xenomorphs, and it’s where we’re also going to find none other than Arnie’s movie character, Dutch Schaefer, and cyborg super-soldier Linn Kurosawa, who’ve been stranded in the middle of the fun. Just as things are turning rough though, two Predators turn up to lend a hand against their old foes. As the scrap progresses, we learn that the Aliens were brought in for a bio-weapon experiment gone wrong, headed up by the dastardly General Bush of the US Colonial Marines, in turn in cahoots with the unscrupulous Weyland-Yutani Corporation. You’re not the only ones on his tail though, and the climax sees the Alien Queen make a surprise appearance before his ship is set on a crash course for the rest of her minions and what’s left of San Drad!
All of this is vaguely explained through some brash, partially animated anime-style cut scenes, although none of it makes a huge amount of difference to the experience! And from there, we’re choosing from up to three of Dutch, Linn, the Predator warrior or the Predator hunter, and it’s time to hunt! Once you’ve decided which Predator you want to be, the flimsy wire-mesh fence that’s holding the impending Alien massacre at bay gives way and suddenly you’re surrounded by a ridiculous number of enemies, and that’s the way it’s going to stay for most of the duration! I do love chaos like this in my beat ’em ups, but that chaos has to be matched by the combat, and Alien vs. Predator has it in spades – as well as regular melee combat, all of the characters are armed to the teeth with their own melee weapons and also limited use signature firearms that give you brief periods of extra brutality before they either overheat or run out of ammo, although the latter is rarely a problem because there’s almost as many grenade launchers, machine guns and flame throwers dropping as there are enemies!
While weapons – perhaps unusually for the genre – play a persistent and tactical role in your journey, I’d go as far as saying this is probably my favourite hand-to-hand, foot-to-face, etc. combat in any beat ’em up; the Go Straight bible concurred, even going so far as to say that Kurosawa feels more like a Street Fighter combatant, with her flying kick chains that can clear entire screens as she bounces from one destroyed face to the next, complemented by a bunch of other combos and a katana special. Now, I haven’t been any good at a fighter since IK+ on Atari ST (where I wasn’t just good – I was the best!), but according to Go Straight she ended up being a real fan favourite, and actually went on to appear in a few Street Fighter games over the years, as well as Namco x Capcom. Ah, Street Fighter… the game I own but have still never played on more systems than any other! Anyway, what I do know is that the combat here is easy to get to grips with and is instantly impactful, and while chaining graceful combos is going to take a hell of a lot of focus on learning your favourite character inside-out, you’ll be merrily laying the smack down on screen with any of them within a couple of goes, and you’ll love every second of it!
Whether you’re playing solo, or in a squad of two or three (depending on the cabinet configuration), you’ll find a combination of strength, speed and agility to suit your preferred play style (once you’re done with always being a Predator!), although how much I enjoy a character’s attacks has usually been my modus operandi for choosing them in any of these games… Unless it’s Streets of Rage, of course, where I always pick Blaze for pervy reasons! In this case, the warrior Predator isn’t a bad shout though – high damage and good at everything with no major weaknesses, and his melee weapon provides plenty of reach for a more cowardly working distance! The hunter Predator is probably the most fun, with a cool jumping dive attack and plenty of spectacle, but is a bit slower to recover in the heat of battle. The Arnie character, Major Dutch, is a beast, with no melee weapon but a gun-mounted robot arm, and no jump but a high-power dash; he plays more like a big seven-foot tall wrestler, especially with his flying powerbomb slam! As you’d expect Linn Kurosawa is the opposite – fast, agile and a master of the martial arts, and with all of her depth I can really appreciate why she might be your choice if you really wanted to dedicate yourself to playing this. And I can really appreciate why you might want to do that!
Back at the beginning of the game, and regardless of skill level, within seconds you’re going to be feeling like total boss as you wipe out wave after wave of the familiar, basic warrior-type aliens that just keep coming and trying to fill every space on the screen like some bad Japanese Powerpoint presentation, but all of a sudden there’s a sinister moment of respite because you’re about to find out what a total boss actually feels like! All of that panicked button-mashing might have worked fine for the first onslaught, but here’s Chrysalis, an armoured alien with a spinning spikey tail attack that’s your first introduction to the game’s limited but well-considered menagerie of meanies! There’s old favourites like face huggers from the 1979 original Alien movie, and the zombies that they’ve impregnated, as well as Colonial Marines still loyal to the big baddie General Bush, but the real stars are the huge, pile-driving Royal Guard aliens, and not forgetting the Razor Claws that will be ripping you apart in the blink of an eye if you stay still for any more than that while they’re around! And yes, all while you’re still surrounded by a mass of those regular Alien aliens! Where there’s Royal Guards there’s usually royalty somewhere near too, and once you’ve done enough damage to her eggs and her hive you’ll get an appearance from the Royal Queen, who’s got a load of screen-spanning attacks and a nice line in acid vomit, and actually I think that was the point in the game where the difficulty noticeably ramps up.
I’m too rubbish at games to ever think about one credit clears, so my measure for success at any arcade game that has a conclusion is being able to see the back of it using as many continues as I might have had coins to pay for in my pocket back in the arcade. And about halfway through Alien vs. Predator’s seven stages you’ll be feeling pretty good about doing that after just a few goes (admittedly after several decades of playing these things in my case!). But then it gets really hard, with more and more of the less regular Alien aliens now filling the screen, and all of the Colonial Marines have started packing some serious firepower, and suddenly it’s death after death and you realise there’s actually way more to learn than its mindless violence and blockbuster presentation might have suggested so far!
As I write, I’ve just glanced up at the TV where I’ve got Roger Corman’s classic 1957 sci-fi horror Attack of the Crab Monsters playing in the background, and it’s the climax where the giant crab is clambering over a load of rocks (incidentally, right by the same cave entrance where Adam West drove into his Batcave!), and you can’t help but think what a spectacle that must have been at the time. And on top of some of the all-time great beat ’em up gameplay on offer here, that’s exactly the same kind of spectacle that this offered back in 1994, which, by complete coincidence, is also now putting me in mind of Konami’s spectacular 1990 Alien arcade game, but that’s another story that we’ll come back to here sometime too!
It all looks very Capcom! If you’re more familiar with Street Fighter than I am, or stuff like Darkstalkers, you’re going to feel at home with its comic realism. There’s fantastic detail in everything, right down to the Predator’s dreadlocks swaying about as he moves and enemies being totally engulfed in flames as they’re totally engulfed in explosions! Everything moves like a top of the range fighting game, and there’s real clout to the special move animations in particular. There’s something very sinister about the way the aliens move too, especially when they’re coming face-on towards you! The backgrounds are a bit of a mixed bag – nothing wrong with any of them, but while some are absolutely stunning in their use of parallax scrolling, object movement, contrasting colour and incidental lighting to highlight a mass of detail, some are little more than generic sci-fi or future-urban.
I’d say the same of the audio design too. The sound effects are as good as they come, with a real meatiness where it’s needed and real authenticity too, with some of the gun sounds lifted straight out of the movies! And there’ll be times when you’ll just be in awe of their density, as you pick out the individual sounds from the cacophony of noise that’s perfectly echoing the chaos of the number of enemies on the screen. What’s that doing, however, is pretty much negating the need for the soundtrack still trying its best to emerge from behind this beautiful mess! Like some of those backgrounds, there’s nothing wrong with any of this bombastic orchestral score, but for all of its mostly well-timed drama, none of it is especially memorable.
Neither are the soundtracks to First Blood, Transformers or many other Hollywood greats though, and everyone quite rightly still loves them, so let’s instead focus on what is surely one of the great video game movie tie-ins, even if the movie it was tied-in to didn’t then actually materialise until ten years after the fact… In which case, it’s definitely up there with the best comic book tie-ins if we go there instead, but before I start having flashbacks to the crushing disappointment that was Slaine, or any one of several dreadful Judge Dredds, we can certainly say it’s up there with the very best of the beat ’em ups! According to Straight Up, Kung-Fu Master was the first (another crushing disappointment when it arrived on the ZX Spectrum!), a claim that we most likely debated when we looked at Renegade here a while back. There’s no debate that Renegade is my own favourite in the genre though, but runner-up? Well, if Kung-Fu Master counts then we’ll have to toss a coin, because while Alien vs. Predator might suffer against that on the nostalgia front, I can’t deny it wins outright on good old fun! It’s still such a blast to play, and if, for some reason, it didn’t reach a bowling alley near you back in the mid-nineties, do yourself a favour and look up one of the great unconverted (and, so far, officially practically unobtainable) arcade games!