There has always been something that just works about gaming and aliens. Even since the earliest days of arcade action, battling against extra-terrestrial hordes has been a fundamental part of what ultimately makes playing games great.
For evidence of this, you only need to take a look at the games featured on the raft of retro gaming systems released in recent times. Whether you’re enjoying a game of Super Metroid on the Super NES Classic Edition or another old-school title, conflict with alien enemies has allowed gamers to tap into one of the real joys of gaming – escapism and its ability to transport you for a few hours or minutes to another world. Of course, such battles remain incredibly popular across a host of platforms from mobile and consoles to the more lo-fi thrills and spills offered by arcade shooters on 8-bit Apple II, like Alien Downpour.
But what ultimately makes a great alien threat in a video game? In this article, we are going to look at a handful of both classic and contemporary extra-terrestrial enemies to see if we can learn what gamers want from their otherworldly foes.
An arcade classic
If one title more than any other is responsible for gaming’s obsession with tackling an alien threat, it is Space Invaders. While it was not the first game of its kind when it was released by Taito in 1978, it undoubtedly captured the imagination of the public more than any other. Quite why this was is open to interpretation, but the BBC links the game’s phenomenal success to the fact that it was released shortly after sci-fi classics like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit the big screen.
However, Space Invaders has also maintained its popularity for a long time since then, with the iconic gameplay and graphics being a constant source of inspiration to both gamers and developers. New versions of the game have been released on numerous occasions including as part of the Taito Legends compilations for consoles including PlayStation 2, while reviews have noted how games like Alien Destroyer on the Sinclair Spectrum Vega or Void Invaders also owe a fairly significant debt to the original Space Invaders. Its influence has even spread away from video and console gaming into areas like online gambling, as this Space Arcade slot machine review outlines how that game and its stylings are essentially an open love letter to the design of the arcade classic. But there’s definitely more, especially in the area of mobile games, with Noctua Software’s Voxel Invaders owing more than a small debt to the classic too.
The simplicity of the Space Invaders aliens was obviously influenced by the technology available to games developers at the time. However, while systems have evolved to make beings more complex in terms of design, it is interesting to note how many modern threats still have the unrelenting sense of purpose of the arcade classic’s bad guys.
Stopping The Flood
Jumping a couple of decades forward in time, the first great alien threat of the 21st century was arguably The Flood from the Halo series of games. The creatures made their first appearance in Halo: Combat Evolved, the launch title for the first Xbox, in what has long been regarded as one of the gaming’s great plot twists. While players start the game thinking their primary and sole battle is against The Covenant, the story is turned on its head when it is revealed that a much more terrifying danger is lurking just around the corner.
As an alien enemy, The Flood are undoubtedly formidable. The creatures infect other lifeforms to create mutated and misshapen entities which in turn take on their hosts’ memories and knowledge. This must have been a dream for Halo’s designers, who seemingly had fun creating the horrifying look of the creatures and alien parasites. But as well as being shocking to look at, the race’s backstory taps into classic sci-fi body horror tropes that bring to mind the likes of The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien, with fans of the latter and Halo even theorising as to which of the creatures would ultimately win in an intergalactic confrontation. The Flood are a seemingly unstoppable enemy with the power to wipe out all life forms – a threat so great that ancient beings destroyed all life to starve these creatures to death.
A bit of gentle persuasion
The idea of deadly creatures using bodies as hosts or harvesting the abilities and skills of the races they conquer is clearly a powerful one, as the same concept has been seen in a number of the other best-known alien threats in 21st century gaming from The Swarm in Gears of War to the Reapers in Mass Effect.
Looking at the latter, the Reapers are a terrifying hybrid of both synthetic and organic materials – a combination which gives them huge power in a number of ways. As well as being incredible warships in their own right, Reapers are made up of organic hive minds conjoined with technology to give them access to a raft of information, with the physical design of the ships varying depending on the races they have acquired.
However, one of their greatest powers is indoctrination. While The Flood will do anything to literally – and physically – break into your head, Reapers are able to do this in a much more subtle manner. Being in close contact with Reaper tech can start to affect a person’s mind and ultimately make them believe that the Reapers’ motives are correct. The individual may not even realize they are acting under the influence when this first starts to take hold.
This level of creativity and imagination in the design and creation of the Reapers and many more of the creatures from the original Mass Effect trilogy is often seen as one of the franchise’s high points – quite simply the games sold the idea that you were in a vast universe full of intriguing and diverse organisms incredibly well. Sadly the fourth title in the series, Mass Effect Andromeda, failed to repeat the trick with the design of aliens such as The Kett and Angara coming in for particular criticism from some quarters.
While we have only scratched the surface when it comes to alien threats in gaming, it is clear to see that the world is full of incredible and powerful extra-terrestrial antagonists. But what does this mini-analysis tell us about what makes a great villain?
If there is one thing that Space Invaders, Halo, and Mass Effect have in common, it is that the games have bad guys who are unrelenting and often come in a swarm as they look to overpower the heroes. Furthermore, some also tap into very modern fears, from The Flood’s insidious powers linked to bacteria and infection to the Reapers’ use of technology to enhance its dangerous skills in persuasion and indoctrination.
All of these villains are truly formidable and seemingly invulnerable and that may well be part of their appeal, as there can be no greater sense of accomplishment than when managing to defeat an opponent previously thought to be all-powerful.
Aliens have a long history in video games and they are sure to feature in this world for many years to come, with the likes of the long-awaited and much-anticipated sequel to Beyond Good and Evil no doubt set to take us into more fantastic new worlds. With the bar being set so high for alien enemies in previous games, it will be fascinating to see where developers can go next to make the ultimate extra-terrestrial opponent.