Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Alien vs Predator

Year: 1994
Developer: Rebellion
Publisher: Atari
Platform: Atari Jaguar
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown 

For as long as there have been monster movies, there have been heated debates over which monster is stronger.  Hollywood and video games have been only too eager throw fuel on the fire ever since 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman set off a trend of monster movie mashups.  Even the two biggest names in monster movies got in on the act and it shouldn't surprise anyone that King Kong vs. Godzilla is still the most commercially successful entry in the Godzilla franchise.  So it was only natural that when 20th Century Fox added the Predator to a stable of monsters that already included the first two Aliens films people began clamoring to see the two title monsters duke it out directly.  Dark Horse Comics was the first to deliver while an Easter egg in Predator 2 made the crossover all but official, but it was clear this was not nearly enough to satiate the public's desire for a mashup.  In stepped Rebellion to develop the most highly anticipated game for what was at the time the most powerful console on the market: the Atari Jaguar.

The game is played as a first person shooter, but the experience is very different depending on which of the three playable characters you select.  AvP let's you play as either an alien, predator or marine each with their own story and unique abilities.  As Marine Private Lance Lewis, you start out in the brig totally defenseless when the aliens attack your base.  You're goal is to get a gun, regain security clearances and gain access to the base's self-destruct console before making your getaway in an escape pod.  As a Marine you can use a variety of weapons such as shotguns, plasma rifles and flamethrowers along with the exceedingly helpful motion tracker.  You can also heal yourself with medkits (but can't carry any) and traverse the base using either the elevators (with proper clearance) or the air ducts.  As a predator your mission is to kill the alien queen and claim her skull as a trophy.  True to the films you come armed to the teeth and can cloak to (mostly) hide from enemies, but instead of scavenging weapons you earn them through honor points.  Killing enemies while visible with your melee wrist blades will earn you the most points, whereas as using ranged weapon while cloaked will actually cost you honor points causing you to lose access to some of your upgraded weapons.  The predator can use and carry med kits but is limited to using elevators to get around the ship.  The alien character stands out from the other two because you are limited to melee attacks but can also move significantly faster.  You can't heal yourself at all, but you can cocoon any marines you kill to create a respawn point in case you die.  Another advantage is that the predator's cloak doesn't work on you, very useful since your objective of rescuing the queen from a predator ship means you'll be fighting lots of them.  Like the predator you are limited in how you can move around the ship with air ducts being the only option.

Face huggers were some of the most terrifying enemies in the game.  Not only did they strike suddenly, they also blocked your view making it hard to defend against the swarms of aliens that were often lurking nearby.
Regardless of which character you select, AvP is an extremely tense horror game.  There is no background music, only the ambient sound effects of the huge ship and the monsters that populate it.  Combined with the maze-like corridors it creates a very claustrophobic feeling.  It's easy to get lost too since you can more or less freely navigate the many decks within the ship which greatly adds to the tension when you take a wrong turn and stumble upon a horde of enemies.  Being one of the earliest FPS games on a console it was also startling to be attacked from any side with many jump out of your seat moments caused by suddenly hearing an aliens screech and getting hit from behind.  The greatly increased power of the Jaguar over the other existing consoles at the time allowed for much improved graphics and a bigger field of view then previously possible which further helped to make AvP superior to the many craptastic Doom ports and knock-offs beginning to flood the console market.  Rebellion also added lots of little touches to connect the game to the movies in order to further immersion.  The ping of the Marine's motion tracker, the way the predators vision changes when cloaked or how dead aliens leave damaging pools of acid around their corpses all helped further flesh out the game's environments.  This wasn't just the best game for the Jaguar, for many it was also the main reason why they bought the Jaguar at all.    

Being able to cloak yourself at will was extremely useful when fighting in crowded rooms, but the cost in honor points and the more difficult vision mode it triggered helped balance it out.

Unfortunately not enough people were willing to buy the $250.00 Jaguar (just under $400 in today's money) for a single game.  Despite being much more powerful then the Genesis or SNES and it's claim as the first 64-bit console, the Jaguar had little else going for it.  Few 3rd party developers were willing to deal with the chipset's unique architecture and many viewed it as severely flawed.  Further compounding the issue was poor initial sales of the console as a result of lackluster first party games such as the universally panned Trevor McFur which simply paled in comparison to Mario or Sonic as a console mascot.  As a result few publishers were interested in releasing games for a console with such a small install base which created a downward spiral of disinterest in the system. 

On the consumer side of things, many criticized the controller design whose extreme complexity and awkward layout became something of a running gag.  The regular version had 17 buttons, most of which were arranged like a telephone keypad in an undifferentiated block between the hand grips.  Remember this was at a time when the main competition offered between 4 (Genesis) and 8 (SNES) buttons.  Atari must have realized how complicated this setup was because most games included a button overlay that fit over the number pad in order to provide more distinguishing information.  The pro version of the controller added 3 more buttons while leaving the number pad unchanged, demonstrating just how poorly the executives running Atari understood their market.  Even the design of the plug was poorly conceived as the VGA cable used to connect to the console was extremely easy to unplug with the slightest of tugs.  A 2009 IGN article cemented it's status as the worst controller ever making such abominations as the Power Glove look brilliant by comparison.  

Whoever decided the controller needed * and # buttons should have been immediately fired.  Out of a cannon.  Into a wall of spikes.
But for those few brave souls who did own a Jaguar, AvP was their saving grace.  The game earned highly positive reviews and offered an FPS experience that was largely unmatched on consoles and came very close to capturing the genre's excellence on PC.  The graphics outshone anything else available on SNES, Genesis or even the cutting edge CD-based (and astronomically priced) 3DO.  AvP proves the Jaguar could have competed against the next console generation that would launch a few years later, outclassing the Sega Saturn and even holding it's own against the original Playstation.  But with sales far short of expectations and a severe shortage of titles to play the writing was on the wall with Atari's 1995 SEC filing revealing they still had over 100,000 unsold units in inventory.  Atari launched a terrifyingly bizarre infomercial presumably to scare people into buying a Jaguar, but by 1996 Atari had no choice but to leave the home console market entirely.

An idea this good can't stay stuck in the past and the intervening years has seen this mashup develop into a legitimate franchise of it's own.  Rebellion has remained active with the series and has already relaunched it twice on various platforms.  In 1999 the series was reborn as Aliens versus Predator for PC and Mac which recaptured the positive reviews of the original and sold well enough to earn a Gold Edition re-release and a sequel in 2001.  This version added in a surprisingly fun multiplayer component that was further refined in the sequel.  Rebellion tested the cliche that the third time's the charm when the relaunched the series again in 2010 for PC, PS3 and 360 this time calling it Aliens vs. Predator.  This outing received only mixed reviews with many criticizing the overall polish and the multiplayer in particular as being a step backwards.  Since Rebellion released this alongside another re-issue of the "versus" version of the series they same year it made the differences between the two more apparent.  Nevertheless, Rebellion co-founder and CEO Jason Kingsley has expressed his desire to develop a sequel saying that sales were good even despite a few "totally shit" reviews. 

Being limited to melee attacks when all your enemies carry automatic weapons would seem like a severe handicap, especially with no healing ability.  But their incredible speed and ability to cocoon enemies into spawn points made it incredibly fun to play as the alien.
For those wanting to experience the original it's fairly easy to find working Jaguars online (many already bundled with copies of AvP).  However, this might be one of the few instances were playing the emulator may actually provide a better experience since the game plays much easier with keyboard and mouse then the original controller.  Another thing to watch out for is the abundance of confusingly similar named titles.  Because Rebellion freely distributed the source code for the "versus" game just a year after it's release (and because it's the most popular of the series) it's all to easy to accidentally snag a copy of that version instead of the one published by Atari.  That's not such a bad thing because "versus" is incredibly fun in its own right, but it lacks the weight and importance felt within the first AvP game.  Even all these years later you can still feel how many hopes were riding on the game.  To those precious few Jaguar owners it justified their decision to buy the console in the first place while to everyone else the game was a shining beacon of something great that was forever beyond your reach.  It was truly an epic battle of the monsters, but in the end the beast that took the biggest beating was the Jaguar itself.

"That's it man, game over man, game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now?!"   Chill out, Hudson.  This series is sure to return someday.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!           

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