Alien Hominid

The thing to keep in mind when playing Alien Hominid is that it started out as a Flash-based game. Games played through a web browser tend to be trifles: enjoyable but slight experiences, little more than a pleasant diversion. In making the leap from browser to console, developers Behemoth faced the task of expanding the breadth of the game to satisfy the demands of console gamers while maintaining the charming qualities that attracted people to the game in the first place.

Much of the game’s charm is derived from its visual style. Alien Hominid’s 2-D sprites and backgrounds were designed by artist Dan Paladin, and exhibit a delightfully casual, hand-drawn quality. This illustrative style stands in stark contrast to the hyper-realistic 3-D graphics that currently dominate the gaming landscape, but also distinguishes itself from other 2-D styles, which tend towards either blocky, low-res pixels or smooth, geometrically perfect vectors.

The cast of characters in Alien Hominid is also designed to tweak video game conventions. Inverting the typical formula of protecting the Earth from extraterrestrial invaders, you play as an alien interloper trying to retrieve your crashed spaceship from an increasingly dangerous series of hostile human institutions: the FBI, the Red Army, and whoever it is that runs everyone’s favorite not-so-secret alien research facility, Area 51.

The fact that you play as an adorable smiley-faced alien doesn’t make you an innocent in this conflict, though: your weapons include a laser gun and a knife, both of which slice your enemies to pieces, their deaths punctuated with exaggerated fountains of blood. One of your special moves is the ability to jump onto an enemy’s shoulders, ride him around the screen, and bite his head off. The violence is cartoonishly outlandish, which makes it arguably less disturbing than the abject spectacle of, say, Silent Hill; it might be another side-effect of that hand-drawn art, but the sight of flying body parts and spurting blood is almost cute — especially when your alien does a little jig over the shattered bodies of its enemies at the end of a level.

Really, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll give the bloodiness of the game more than passing notice, because you’ll be too busy trying to keep yourself alive. Alien Hominid is a simple run-and-gun game, but what it lacks in complexity it more than makes up for in intensity. Enemies are plentiful and trigger-happy; their volleys are often difficult (occasionally even impossible) to avoid. Most of the boss fights aren’t too hard, being variations on the dodge-attacks-and-shoot-the-hotspot formula, but they last long enough that it’s easy to suffer a slip in your concentration, leading to lost lives.

Lost lives are actually one of the ways in which the game establishes its old school credibility. Rather than the damage meters that most games use, Alien Hominid simply gives you six “credits” (each credit giving you five lives) to play with, as if it were a port of some old arcade game. More tellingly, the fact that the game is in 2-D makes it an intentional low-tech throwback in a medium where technical sophistication is considered a core value. Two-dimensional graphics are not only a style, but a signifier as well, standing in for an entire era of gaming.

In addition to the nostalgia inherent in its style of presentation, Alien Hominid makes many direct allusions to older games in its style of play. The main run-and-gun mechanic closely resembles SNK’s classic Metal Slug series, right down to the ability to jump into vehicles to run over enemies. A couple of levels transfer the action to the alien’s spaceship and have you shooting up helicopters and meteors as in Time Pilot or Asteroids. There’s a tower you must climb while jumping over barrels, just like in Donkey Kong. One boss fight seems impossible to win until you realize it’s not a boss at all, but a game of Simon. There’s even a sequence in which you pick up and drop enemies with a tractor beam, recalling the obscure Atari 2600 game Atlantis. The game also includes a number of unlockable minigames that hearken back to older times. There’s a platformer (with a built-in level editor) that’s vaguely reminiscent of Lode Runner or Jumpman, and a guided-missile game whose giant pixels and barely-present gameplay closely resemble any number of titles on the Odyssey 2.

Although these gameplay formulas are all reliable standbys, combining them willy-nilly into a single title makes the whole affair seem at times to be less an original game and more an exhibit of older works, sort of like those retro-gaming collections that are so popular nowadays. Where those collections have the express purpose of informing or reminding the player of their place in gaming history, though, a title like Alien Hominid simply treats that history as a repository from which we can pick and choose interchangeable elements to piece together a new game. In this scheme, game design is no longer a process of creating new modes of play, but of skillfully weaving together existing elements and styles into a cohesive whole — which Alien Hominid does with aplomb.