For all the hours I spent playing on my best friend’s Atari 2600 in the early eighties, it would take the best part of another four decades to discover my favourite game on there (submarine rescue ‘em up, Seaquest), and then even longer to discover it was also home to what I genuinely think is my favourite Pac-Man game ever (not counting Pac-Land as a Pac-Man game, of course)! And not only that, but it’s also not a Pac-Man game at all, but Alien, which, amazingly, given my love of the films and it’s now 2021, is also the first Alien game I’ve ever played! But that’s not a bad place to start, given it was the very first Alien game, and surely one of the earliest officially licensed movie tie-ins too; there was a Death Race arcade game in 1976, but not a lot else until a flurry on the 2600 in 1982, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark, then stuff like Alien, Tron, King Kong, Star Wars, E.T…
The game’s plot, all explained onthe back of the box, couldn’t provide a better justification for ripping off Pac-Man; in fact, it does such a good job that I’m wondering if Pac-Man might have ripped off Alien! Ever since you blasted off from the last planet you visited, you’ve been hearing weird sounds around your ship, Nostromo, so you set it onto auto-pilot and have a look around… Turns out every hallway in the maze-like hull has been lined with alien eggs, so you have to run around all these corridors, crushing them underfoot as you go. But what could have produced such terrible eggs? “A hideous being with jaws like a beartrap” of course, and as you run away there’s another just ahead, and don’t forget that no one can hear you scream in space!
The manual goes further, telling us that we have to run through the hallways of the space ship, crushing all of the Alien eggs which have been placed there while also avoiding or destroying the adult aliens, and snatching up as many prizes as possible. And what do prizes make? Points of course, which the manual helpfully has space for you to write down at the back! You just move the controller up, down, left and right to run over the eggs and steer clear of the aliens, where the slightest touch from the albeit slightly forgiving collision detection means instant death. On either side of the screen you have a “Hyperwarp Passage” that is better than Pac-Man’s version because it’s called a Hyperwarp Passage, but similarly takes you to the other side of the screen. However, in an even larger departure from Pac-Man, you’ve also got a flame thrower which you can use up to four times to scare off or immobilise or potentially have no affect at all on the aliens, unless you’re on the extreme right or left of the screen where fire doesn’t work – I’m sure there’s a great reason!
Each maze also has three pulsars (or power pills) that you can destroy to weaken the aliens and, er, gobble them up or similar. You can also use the flame thrower to run over the pulsars so you can save them for later, adding a nice expert tactical touch that Pac-Man simply cannot equal! What Pac-Man also cannot equal is Frogger! Clear mazes and you get a bonus round, which involves you making a Frogger-style dash up the screen between moving groups of aliens against a harsh clock, so you need to make your route choice and stick to it quick.
As was often the case with the Atari 2600, the developers had to make the most of all those levers and switches on the console, so Alien also gives you four difficulty switch settings, where the aliens travel randomly or in fixed patterns, and where a pulsar has an effect or has no effect on the aliens (which actually equates to three settings because one of those makes no difference)! You’ve also got four skill settings, from practice to expert, though for all of these options (same as for pretty much all 2600 games), I’ve not had any more fun in any of these endless variations than by not touching anything!
Alien looks and sounds like an Atari 2600 game – it’s hard to dress it up much more than that, except it looks like a good one! The mazes are well defined, movement is smooth, the alien eggs look like dots and the pulsars look like asterisks, but there is real character in the aliens – especially the sinister yellow one! Barely any flicker either (apart from the sinister yellow one, but let’s say that’s intentional to up the scares), which you definitely can’t say for the strobe-ghost horror show of official 2600 Pac-Man! There’s a really cool effect when you go into the hyperwarp thingy at the side of the screen too, where you dissolve as you enter it before re-emerging on the other side. In the sound department you’ve got various siren noises that either up the tension or just drive you mad, and there’s a constant crunch as you take out the alien eggs underfoot. Again, classic Atari 2600, but I’ve heard an awful lot worse on the Spectrum and they work absolutely fine!
Apart from Pac-Land (more here) – and the Pac-Man cartoon it’s based on – I’m not the world’s biggest Pac-Man fan, though I’ve definitely had my fill of all kinds of revisions on all kinds of systems for over forty years! I even became something of an expert on Pac-Man 256 a few years ago, absolutely playing it to death until free-to-play arrived and sucked out most of its soul. Anyway, I like Pac-Man. But I like this more! It plays a very pure version of Pac-Man, to the point I generally forget about the flame thrower even existing. The character is responsive; the seemingly random nature of the alien AI is challenging and often panic-inducing; the mazes feel good and the Frogger bonus screen is a really nice incentive to keep going, though the concept is arguably just as addictive without it. And it’s got 2600-cool aliens from Alien chasing after you, which is loads better than crazy flickering ghosts! And for me at least, that all combines with a clear love of the film that might not be able to transcend the technical limitations of the time and the system, but is just about enough to transcend all other versions of a similar game!