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Alien Syndrome (Sega Master System) artwork

In the distant future, as the human race occupies the far reaches of the galaxy, an armada has begun terrorizing their colonies. This fleet, which is very specifically labeled the Alien Syndrome™ in the manual's plot, has put a stop to the colonization, even wiping out special forces sent to annihilate them. These beings, some of which are made up of phallic, "non-distinct" alien creatures, remained unopposed and were set on conquering the galaxy as we know it. That was until two volunteers, Rick and Mary, stepped forward to end this domination. Geared up in what appears to be casual wear and sweat outfits, the two attempt an assault on seven enemy ships and rescue its captives, doing all this with just a rifle that fires at short distances.

You think since there's only two people, Rick being player one and Mary being a second player for "switch" sessions when someone dies, that this would be a slow, methodical endeavor. But this is a video game, specifically one from the 1980s, so things go much faster. Design-wise there's an explanation, with the catch here being timed explosions having been set prior to the start of each stage. So you have the daunting task of maneuvering each ship's maze-like structures in an overhead perspective, find captives spread around, and shoot up aliens that materialize out of thin air, all while outrunning a countdown. Simply getting hit once by or colliding with an enemy forfeits a life, too. Don't think you can ignore hostages and venture to the end, either: the devs ensured that you can't cheap your way to boss fights, since the amount of hostages you save is tied to opening the exit.

It won't seem too apparent that you're traveling through a complex network of corridors within the first stage; you might even question the ferociousness of your color-coded H. R. Giger opponents with their slow, lumbering pace. However, the following five stages showcase the labyrinth-esque structures in a much better light, providing multiple paths that split into more paths with several dead ends. Hallways and rooms are much more cramped as well, with enemies being tougher to contend with due to these constricted environments. With every step you take into a new area, you'll be on alert to the whereabouts of materializing foes, who now move erratic and faster. They've also become more freakish in design, from demonic faces with crab legs to what looks like brains with multi-colored cortex mushing around.

Alien Syndrome™ certainly has a think-on-the-go mentality that'll keep you moving like you're shaking off a nightmare. But regardless of your skill level, the main section of the game is very much doable and fair, even when things get a bit tricky. If anything, Alien Syndrome™'s main source of difficulty stems from how it handles continuing. In oldschool fashion, when you lose all your lives, it's back to the title screen you go. Some practice and perseverance is what's needed to knock it out in a single playthrough, with every life mattering, and where the scoring system is legitimately vital since that's how you obtain extra lives. It's pretty simple, yet the game's structure is cleverly set up to where you're forced to use several mechanics and dynamics together in order to succeed. Can't ignore hostages because they're key to escaping, can't ignore enemies because they're key to more lives, and so on.

Frustratingly, despite its interesting blueprint, Alien Syndrome™ falters during the final stages when it starts crossing the threshold of being genuinely challenging. The sixth main stage gives you a very brief countdown and only so much to do in a small span; you pretty much have enough time to make one backtrack attempt if you missed a few hostages. Furthermore, you won't have access to a stronger weapon until midway through the stage, constraining you to the default pea shooter against aggressive aliens. Sounds great, right? Well, that's all you get, because that stage is stuck between three irritating boss fights before reaching the end.

If that sounds anti-climatic, it's because that's how it goes down. Alien Syndrome™ gives up when things are getting great, and your consolation prize is a set of boss encounters that are designed to be annoying versions of the previous four battles; dodge three-way projectiles while avoiding ugly alien creatures that conveniently gain a speed burst when you move away from danger. From a "replay" perspective, it makes sense that they would do this for a game with only seven short stages, to prevent players from completing the whole thing quickly. It makes sense, but it's not a smart choice; ironic considering most of the game is layered with smart design choices.

There could have been a better fix around this. Perhaps the strangest thing about Alien Syndrome™ is that it ends quickly, yet it's an action game that has more in common with Gauntlet, benefiting from something so simple as a prolonged escalation of difficulty. If the Master System port was trying to stay true to the arcade's seven stages or just wasn't able to add more, they could have included one or two loops with variations; each successive loop with stricter time limits, harder enemies, and the rearrangement of hostages, if possible. At least with this, players not satisfied with a single session can attempt a "survival mode" style of playthrough. Sadly, as it is, Alien Syndrome™ is a game with competent design that gets held back by the unwillingness to go further.


pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (October 07, 2021)

Pick any sci-fi game from the 1980s and you're likely to spot an Alien reference.

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