Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol.14: Alien Syndrome

The Sega Ages 2500 series has by this point erratically offered us almost every kind of retro re-release imaginable: we’ve had games brought back almost unchanged, games with a few welcome extras, games that have been borderline broken, and the odd lavish remake too. Alien Syndrome impressively adds yet another flavour of retro rebuild to the mix, choosing to use the 1987 arcade title of the same name as the base on which to build a game that’s virtually a complete reimagining. This is Alien Syndrome treated as a concept, and then updated for the 21st century.

And you know what? It works.

The original was always a bit too brightly coloured for a game trying to sell a desperate sci-fi setting where violent aliens ran amok and innocent people awaited rescue. Any charitable thoughts of this issue being a simple case of the ’80s are sadly blown away by Gauntlet, released two years earlier: that had a broadly similar action-maze setup packed with hordes of monsters, an intimidating announcer, and a more threatening colour scheme. Alien Syndrome always felt like a mismatch… until now. This PlayStation 2 remake gives every stage a dark and grimy look, adequately reflecting a certain style you’ve definitely seen in a certain series of sci-fi movies dripping with ooze and rubbery gore. There’s an industrial functionality to the details found in these new interiors, and they contrast well with the uncomfortably organic intrusions creeping over the walls and floors in later stages.

As drastically altered as the interiors are, the aliens themselves, from the smallest wormlike entity to the biggest end of level boss, proudly share the original’s globby shapes and lawsuit-dodging forms, and much effort has been spent making them look as uncomfortably icky as possible. Organic shapes throb and pulsate, eyeballs may fly across the room, and exposed brains do all sorts of things exposed brains shouldn’t.

Whatever the size of the monster you’re shooting at it’s guaranteed to spray fountains of blood everywhere when it expires, a graphical flourish grim enough to require a gore warning to appear on the front of the game’s box. Alien Syndrome is not shy about showing what happens when extraterrestrial beings are introduced to the toasty end of a flamethrower or a hail of gatling gun bullets. As splattered as the corridors may become, the (lack of) graphical fidelity really helps here, the absence of fine biological detail keeping this gruesome feature on the right side of unpleasant. Alien Syndrome wants to be conceptually grisly, rather than visually distressing.

Of course none of the above would mean a great deal if the game underneath it all wasn’t much fun, but happily for us, this remake’s an absolute pleasure to play. The game design enthusiastically leans into Alien Syndrome’s arcade origins, keen on emphasising the joys of chasing high scores and achieving a good end of stage rank, all wrapped up in a short but exciting experience you’ll want to keep coming back to until you can clear it all in a single credit (and beyond).

The timer’s pretty tight this game around, and best of all it’s not an abstract concept designed to keep arcade gamers moving but a ship-destroying explosive set by your own character at the beginning of each stage, turning each level into a do-or-die race against the clock. Correctly managing the conflicting push and pull between locating survivors and general survival in the short period of time given to you is vital. Saving everyone is no longer required (although you do still have to rescue a significant number of captured victims), but there’s always that temptation to push for just one more before the clock runs out…

One thing you won’t have to worry about is getting lost. There are maps dotted around each level, and when brushed up against these give you not only a brief view of the stage layout, but also show the exit (which won’t open until you’ve rescued the minimum amount of survivors) as well as the exact location of everyone still hoping to be saved. Glancing at this information while dodging spewed acid and other fluids helps you realise how well designed these places are: they’re just maze-y enough to make you worry you won’t get to everyone in time, but not so labyrinthine that generally heading in the right direction as you fire away isn’t going to be the correct course of action.

Putting enemies down along the way is easily done thanks to a flexible pair of default control schemes spread across the DualShock 2’s digital and analogue inputs. Those who prefer something closer to the arcade game’s traditional 8-way joystick and single fire button can stick with the d-pad: holding the cross button makes you simply fire straight ahead as you walk around, while holding circle locks your shot direction until you let go of the button. Anyone hoping for something a little more Robotron can play Alien Syndrome as a twin stick shooter, using the analogue sticks to freely shoot in any direction while moving in another. Adding a little something extra to the offensive mix are option bombs, triggered by a quick tap of the R1 button. These allow you to sacrifice a collected satellite helper for a highly damaging (and massively combo boosting) one-off explosion. This flexibility and ease of use make Alien Syndrome not just easy to control but easy to like, because every common bugbear—it sticks too close to its ’80s roots, it doesn’t stick close enough to its ’80s roots, the analogue sticks are right there, why aren’t they doing anything—has been preemptively answered before anyone even picks up a controller.

You’ll still get hit from time to time, the new energy bar generally allowing you to take a few knocks before dying (some boss attacks will still instantly kill you though). Rather than being easier it’s more that this feature gives you a little leeway, a chance to go rushing into a room teeming with enemies and do your best impression of a square-jawed action hero. Not convinced? No problem.  A special “retro” difficulty setting is unlocked after clearing the game once (easily done thanks to the game’s infinite supply of score-bruising continues), which reverts the most basic rules back to the way they were in the ’80s: one hit from anything kills you off, and you have to rescue everyone, all the time. Beating the game once also unlocks stage attack mode: just pick any level you like and aim for the high score.

And you will want to keep coming back until you sit at the top of every high score table because this is one of those games that really shines on repeat runs. You find yourself getting better and better, tactically picking up favoured weapons, plotting a smoother route through each ship, and wondering with a little shame how you ever died there last time. Longer periods of pain-free success lead to huge combos: these chains can go into the hundreds with a bit of skill—assuming you don’t get hit, which resets the combo counter. The good news is your final combo bonus is based on the biggest combo earned that stage (assuming you’ve not died), so getting knocked once after two minutes of perfect play doesn’t invalidate the entire run.

It’s on these later goes that small details start to catch your eye and even change the way you play. There are five different types of survivor awaiting rescue, with four of them granting unique benefits when saved. Maybe it’s a good idea to leave the time-granting scientist for later, or perhaps you should make a beeline for the person who drops the unique spread shot. You might even notice how the behaviour of those little “options” you can collect changes depending on the main weapon currently equipped, or start to make a mental note of each gun’s strengths and weaknesses, and how these can be manipulated and mastered for better results.

This is brilliant. No, it’s more than that: this is the game I’m putting on when I want to play Alien Syndrome. Every change has been designed to amplify the ’80s arcade experience, making this game arguably truer to the spirit, if not the reality, of the era than the actual ’80s arcade game it’s based on. What a treasure.

[Ko-fi support has made this series of Sega Ages 2500 articles possible! Please consider leaving a tip if you’ve enjoyed my work!]

4 thoughts on “Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol.14: Alien Syndrome

  1. Out of all the Ages games you’ve reviewed so far, this one definitely sounds like the biggest surprise so far! I definitely didn’t expect this game to get such a great remake


Comments are closed.