While his friends were busy playing more famous 2D beat ‘em ups, Matt Gardner was much happier with a one-off Sega franchise – though he twice had to overcome his own body’s betrayal just to try it.
I know it’s an unpopular opinion for a gamer to have, but I can’t change it: I firmly believe that Alien Storm is better than any entry in the Streets of Rage or Golden Axe franchises.
Yes, Streets of Rage 2 was a masterpiece that people still endlessly yet rightfully bang on about to this day, while the first Golden Axe may as well have been handed out under government licence, such was its prevalence in homes across the UK in the 90s. Yet the gift of Mega Games 3 on Jesus’ birthday in 1995 put paid to my interest in these former mainstays of my Mega Drive collection.
In the long term, Mega Games 3 would outshine nearly every game in my collection and become the cartridge of choice – even if just one game of the trio ended up being worth my time.
I’d quickly written off Super Thunder Blade – a game that felt dated even back then – while Super Monaco GP felt pared-down when compared to the glorious version found in my town’s arcade, which boasted mind-burgling 3D effects and, more often than not, a queue out the door.
First on the cover yet last on the menu screen, Alien Storm proved to be a case of third time lucky. Little did I know that I’d have to overcome betrayal by my own body not once, but twice, to play it.
The joy of six
My memory of the first time I ever played Alien Storm is still so incredibly vivid. It was Christmas Day ‘95, when the Mega Drive was starting to breathe uncomfortably due to imminent obsolescence at the hands of an all-new generation of consoles. I was still a huge fan of my humble Mega Drive II, and new games were coming out for it all the time. Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island, the last game I ever got new for my Mega Drive, was still another year away.
After speedily devouring breakfast – something we were made to do before being allowed to go into the front room where all our presents were – I sat cross-legged on a dining-room chair placed hastily between our couch and armchair, before elatedly unwrapping present after present. Late in the process, my brother handed me a cube-like gift from him – and in one tear, a whopping six new games were revealed. SIX!
At the time, cartridges were getting very cheap in second-hand shops. My brother – then at university – bought me four from a trading post around the corner from his digs. While browsing, he noticed Mega Games 3, and knowing how popular Mega Games I was in our house (most notably with my dad, who became a Columns addict), my brother bought it alongside Winter Olympics: Lillehammer ’94, The Amazing Spider-Man vs The Kingpin, as well as Soleil, AKA The Crusader of Centy.
I asked if I could try one of them out, but my mum quickly and fairly shut me down. “Wait until you’ve unwrapped your other presents, and we’ve all seen ours, and then you can go upstairs,” she smiled. I sighed, but it was fine – she was right. Soon, my dad went into the back garden to have a cigar, my mum started making Christmas dinner and my brothers headed out elsewhere. I was alone in the front room, rifling through the games’ manuals, still sat cross-legged on an uncomfortable seat. It was finally my time to start gaming – or so I thought.
Falling over backwards to play games
FLUMP. That’s the noise I remember making as I landed face first in a pile of ripped-up wrapping paper.
For the first time in my life, I learned how unresponsive the human body could be when you’ve got dead legs. Huddled on my seat for 45 minutes, I’d fundamentally stopped all blood flow to my lower half, so there I was, laying face down on the living room floor simultaneously laughing and almost on the brink of tears with the pins-and-needles-style feeling of dull, yet ticklish, pain everywhere south of my waist.
I started dragging myself along the floor, coming to terms with just how heavy my arse and legs were. As a game-obsessed preteen, I was still thoroughly undeterred by the challenge of getting up to my room. In a rare moment of clarity – one surprisingly devoid of greed, despite it being the most gluttonous day of the year – I reasoned that I could only carry one game with me during my treacherous journey.
So, Mega Games 3 – on account of it being a three-in-one title – was the obvious choice. I put it on my back and crawled slowly out of the door, along the hallway, then turned to climb the stairs. On the way there, my mum called me a “daft sod”, as if I’d chosen the army crawl as my primary mode of transportation. She probably thought I was off my tits on the sugar high from the dozen or so Quality Street I’d just eaten (and she wasn’t wrong), but I was overcoming odds she simply didn’t understand.
As I looked up the steps, my left leg started to twitch back to life, its pain subsiding slowly, and I retrieved the box off my back and threw it upstairs. I used the 5% ability in my leg to gain minor, pathetic leverage on the freshly-carpeted staircase, which slowly but surely gave me rather incredible rug burns on my arms as I climbed.
After a minute of flopping up the stairs while laughing like a dickhead, I’d made it – and my body had just about returned to normal. I hobbled to my room, brought my crappy Saisho TV to life, blew the cartridge chip for good luck, and clicked the well-worn red power button of the Mega Drive. Mega Games 3 was alive!
I played Super Thunder Blade and Super Monaco GP for a few minutes each, before concluding that “Super” was no longer a trustworthy word in game titles. It was all down to the last crack of the whip, and I needed to reset the console. Except, well, I’d sat cross-legged again out of habit, and…
It’s all just a little bit of history repeating
THUMP. That one I do remember the sound of, as will my brother I’m sure, as he ran upstairs to see if I was OK.
My legs were dead again, and I fell off the bed, knocking the chair over and nearly pulling the 14” telly off the desk – a move that would’ve surely killed me, as it weighed about 16 stone. I reset the Mega Drive, span around, and as I was scrambling up the bottom of my single bed, my brother became the second person in as many hours to call me a daft sod.
He was distracted by the TV screen behind me, as the game sprung to life. Two halves of rebar and metal-strewn rock butted one another, before fusing to create the inimitable ALIEN STORM logo. “Is it two-player?”, he asked. I didn’t know, but it turned out it was, and so with me as Scooter the robot, and him as Garth, the standard bloke character, we went into it together.
We ended up playing it until dinner a couple of hours later, by which point we’d learned how best to roll, prioritise enemies, and ultimately work as a team. We were a long way off completing it, but we loved it enough to talk about it over food. However, we never went back to it together; he was a social butterfly and was going to the pub, while I had another three games to try out, eventually getting hooked on the somewhat unplayable moguls of Lillehammer ’94. It was winter, after all, but I still believe I’d’ve been better at moguls in real life compared to my horrific displays in digital Norway.
The sound of fear
A week later, on New Year’s Day 1996, I went back to Alien Storm. During the week prior, I felt put off by the fact I’d be facing ugly alien hordes on my lonesome, and initially, my fears proved well founded; I was overwhelmed. However, with countless retries, I started to get better and better. What’s more, I started to really, really enjoy things I’d not paid much attention to previously, most notably the music.
Three pieces of music – from the character select screen, then the “Mission 1” screen, and then Mission 1 itself – might have been the trio of songs I’ve heard the most as a gamer. Given that I was absolutely shite at Alien Storm to begin with, I must’ve listened to them more than anything from, say, the Sonic the Hedgehog games; I was half-decent at those, so I’d usually hear a much vaster array of music.
The three songs were all, in their own ways, incredible. I felt geed up by the character screen, then always shat myself when being ordered to “save the people” as a woman screamed herself inside out, but I’d always get back down to business during the opening bars of what was, quite frankly, one of the coolest songs in any beat ‘em up going. It was dystopian, unnerving and wholly negative, but those first few notes set the scene for a remarkable experience.
Yet still, the best was yet to come from Alien Storm. While repetition weirdly worked in its favour with the music, it was the variety of gameplay which separated the game from its peers.
Mixing it up a Storm
The biggest problem I had with Streets of Rage and Golden Axe was the constant repetition. You walked on screen, beat the shit out of everything there, then you were told to move on. Rinse, repeat. Sure, there was plenty of variety in the baddies you faced, and the level design was different enough between zones, but aside from that it was business as usual. Okay, Golden Axe regularly forced you to give thieving dwarves a thoroughly good shoeing around a campfire, but that was barely even a minigame.
One thing that truly set Alien Storm apart from this competition was its then-incredible variety of stage formats. While there were only three variations, including the aforementioned “attack, move, attack” gameplay, the other two styles spiced things up wonderfully.
The first of these was arguably the most famous section of the game: the first-person shooter element. The rule was simple: annihilate everything that moved and destroy absolutely everything else to collect energy for your weapon. Up until that point, I’d simply not seen anything like it.
In earlier shooter levels, you were presented with an electronics shop and a warehouse, whose owners would undoubtedly return in the aftermath wondering if a successful alien invasion would’ve been a better alternative to owning a shop that no insurer would ever pay out on.
There was also a run-and-gun format, which was a little more hit and miss, especially as it could be utterly unfair with its random hurdles and inexplicably fleeing aliens, who had until that point been happy to terrorise children, disguise themselves as bins, and generally act like arseholes. But at least you were running at 100-ish miles an hour during proceedings, adding to the thrills and spills that Alien Storm had already doled out in spades.
Unlike Golden Axe, I actually completed Alien Storm within a few months. It was a case of chipping away, reaching the next level, and generally rolling about as much as possible to avoid getting surrounded. It also helped that the special move with Scooter at the end of his health bar – a good way to go out with any AS character, as it hurt you as well as those you attacked, unlike the bazooka obliteration associated with Streets of Rage – would give you a brand new Scooter without losing a life.
Yet for every beat-‘em-up tactic Alien Storm taught me, I never carried them across to Streets of Rage or Golden Axe as I clearly wasn’t all that clever. As such, I never got back to completing any Rage game until my teens, while I’ve never finished an Axe trilogy title.
But after finishing Alien Storm, I felt complete. And with its synchronised dancing finale, it was absolutely worth it. You certainly didn’t get this when you defeat Mr X or Death Adder.
- Varied level styles to break up any possible monotony
- A fantastic soundtrack that matched the camp horror elements of the game perfectly
- The “3D” shooting sections were all kinds of fun
- Had a habit of being ridiculously unfair, especially in later levels
- The running-style missions weren’t the best
- Enemy design was repetitive and the initial surprise they delivered wore off quickly
While it’ll always be overlooked in favour of the more established Golden Axe and Streets of Rage series, Alien Storm was much more than a beat ‘em up. It combined the simple linearity of the genre with a variety of gameplay, colourful graphics and a solid soundtrack. How it didn’t get a sequel is a huge surprise – but when it’s as perfect as it is, a follow-up might never have lived up to the love I developed for it all those years ago.