Yes, we know, technically the entirety of the Atari 7800 library could be considered a forgotten classic thanks to the Nintendo Entertainment System juggernaut steamrolling Atari like a patch of wet asphalt in the US. But while Atari’s systems are known for a voluminous amount of shovel-ware, digging through the crap will occasionally yield a gem instead of a turd. Such is the case with 1990’s Alien Brigade, an on-rails lightgun shooter channeling both Operation Wolf and X–COM in what can best be described as “frickin’ amazing.”
On-rails shooters were nothing new by 1990, the genre having been birthed by the venerable Star Wars vector-based arcade game, and subsequently improved and upgraded by the likes of the aforementioned Operation Wolf, its sequel Operation Thunderbolt, and even home games like To The Earth for the NES. It’s a pretty simple mechanic: the stage scrolls automatically, while the player takes control of someone or something armed with a gun, and proceeds to offer fatal doses of lead poisoning to everything in sight without getting shot all to pieces or blowing away innocent civilians. Alien Brigade did almost nothing to alter this tradition, it just took note of the ground rules and said, “Yeah, I can do that.” The end result is simple and fun.
Alien Brigade pulls out a few tricks that we found surprising on a system like the 7800. First, it makes great use of its down time. An animated xenomorph hand draws the word ‘Alien’ in bloody red pixels with its finger to create the title screen when you power up the game. Each level features a short cut-scene beforehand where your soldier, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Kyle Reese, receives his orders for the upcoming firefight. And during a mission, it’s possible to get a game over without losing all of your health by failing to complete a given objective or by committing too much collateral damage to civvies, your own POW brethren, or fellow resistance fighters. Pop one too many friendlies or off-limits targets, and your CO will yank you back to HQ for a court martial for failure to follow orders–a nice, logical change from the typical light gun shooter mechanic where the player somehow takes damage for capping some guy in a lab coat. ProTip: If it worked like that in the real world, “terrorism” wouldn’t be a thing.
It’s also not afraid to get a bit graphic. Aliens blow their guts out when shot, bodies collapse in pools of blood, and the game over screen displays a morbid image of your dead GI’s legs poking out from the foliage behind which he fell. It’s no Mortal Kombat, but compared to its contemporaries Alien Brigade comes off edgier and willing to push the envelope further than Nintendo would have allowed.
So if you’re a current or aspiring 7800 owner/collector, make sure you add a copy of Alien Brigade (and the Atari lightgun–trying to play this with the regular controller is just an exercise in frustration) to your library. It’s a shining example of what made Atari such a great developer in the early days of the home gaming market, and while it can’t hold a candle to the likes of House of the Dead or T2: The Arcade Game, it does the job it was supposed to do then goes home without throwing itself a ticker-tape parade. That’s pretty damn refreshing. Enjoy the ad: