If you've been to the store recently, you know how much computer games cost. Buying them hurts. Because of these inflated prices, most software stores include in their inventory a rack of budget games, usually priced under $25. This would be good, if it weren't for what's on that rack. Usually the budget section is stocked with older games that did poorly when they were initially released as a full-priced game. This is often because the game wasn't any good, and people caught on. Occasionally you can find a good game at a good price, and that's why I always check out the budget rack whenever I'm in a software store. (I still pat myself on the back for picking up Data East's game Continuum for $15 a couple years ago.) The budget rack is where you're likely to find Alien Breed. Distributed by Microleague, Alien Breed is a new game, not a failed game scaled down in price.
Alien Breed is an eight-way scrolling top-down shooter. If you've ever seen Gauntlet, it will seem fairly familiar to you. Your character is an intergalactic soldier. An alien force has overwhelmed a scientific space station, and it's your job to clean up the mess. If you think this won't require a magnificent display of cognitive prowess, you're right. If you think this will require running through maze-like levels and wasting lots of aliens, you're 2 for 2.
Alien Breed borrows much of its play mechanic from the Gauntlet games, including the way it handles multi-player games. Two people can play at once as a team and divide the carnage equally, but one player can do just fine as well. You can play adequately with a keyboard, but a joystick is recommended. The keyboard controls don't support separate keys for diagonal movement, so to move at an angle two keys must be pressed at once, which is a little more awkward than it sounds. Unfortunately, the game wouldn't recognize my Gravis GamePad, which is plugged in via the game port in my Sound Blaster 16, so I was relegated to the keyboard for this game. It was still fully playable, but the joystick would have made things easier.
System requirements for Alien Breed are a breeze for anyone who has bought their computer in the last few years. VGA graphics, 640K of memory and 2.2MB of hard drive space are all that's necessary to run the game, although a sound card is always nice. That's it. No memory managers, no VESA drivers, no Pentiums. (Yes Origin, that last crack was aimed at you.) With all the technological Frankensteins prowling the game market, it's nice to see the occasional game you can install and configure without reconfiguring your computer or paying for a call to tech support.
Once you slog through the whopping two page manual and start playing, you'll find yourself in the space station's docking bay, with no aliens present. Relish this peace, because this is the last haven you'll find in this game. As soon as you pick up the two keys on the ground and open the doors to the rest of the level, you'll be assaulted by ugly brutes bearing a distinct resemblance to H.R. Giger's creation from way back in 1979. These things aren't bright, but they are fast, and their numbers are unlimited. And they don't want you here.
As you wander around the infested station, you will find many objects to pick up that will greatly enhance your chances of making it out alive. Keys will open the many doors around the station. Ammo clips will help ensure that your gun doesn't start making impotent clicking noises at the moment of truth. First aid kits will make you feel better after a few aliens have gnawed on your skull. Money can also be found, sometimes in great abundance. Unlike the treasure troves in Gauntlet, the money in Alien Breed can actually be used; all you have to do is find a computer terminal. Did I say computer terminal? I guess I did; guess I'd better explain myself.
Computer terminals are scattered around each level, and can be accessed by walking up to them and pressing the secondary fire button. Once you have logged into the Intex computer system you have access to a variety of information and services. You can request a radar display of the level you're on; this is also known as a map, and can be extremely helpful in some of the more labyrinthine levels. Structural details of the station can be called up, giving you information on the objects you'll encounter. This is nice, but the best function of the computer terminals is the chance to spend your money. Better weapons can be purchased, and supplies are also available for those with enough money. Extra ammo, extra keys, extra health, and extra life can all be had for a cost. One of the most useful purchases you will make is the remote location scanner. Once this is in your possession, you will be able to call up an overhead map anywhere on the level, although the accuracy of the map will degrade slightly the further you are from a computer terminal.
To top it all off, some levels even have an objective that must be accomplished before you progress to the next stage. On the second floor you must destroy four power domes and then flee before the whole level self-destructs. On another level, a series of fire doors must be closed. This is a nice feature, and alleviates the drudgery that can result from doing nothing but killing aliens.
There are a few bad points about Alien Breed, but none of them are terrible. For starters there is the aforementioned problem with my joystick; I'm not sure if the problem was in the joystick I tried to use or the fact that it was connected via the Sound Blaster game port, but the end result was the same. The game also has a tendency of slowing down appreciably when there are two or more aliens on screen; this lag is noticeable, but it doesn't make the game jerky or unplayable. Some of the sound effects had a hard time playing back on my Sound Blaster 16, a problem I had on a much grander scale with Silverball, another Microleague game; the problem here is just that Microleague needs to rewrite their Sound Blaster drivers to support the 16-bit cards, and I hope they get to it soon. The copy protection is in the form of a code that must be entered when the game is first loaded; these codes are printed in faint yellow ink on a white card, and are downright painful to read, but at least you only have to do it once per sitting. The biggest problem with Alien Breed is the way in which your progress is saved. After you complete a level, you are given a pass code which will allow you to continue from the level you just made it to. The problem with these pass codes is that they don't save your individual progress, only your position in the game. What this means is that the game does not save your weapon, keys, ammo, or money, so no matter where you are in the game you enter with the supplies of a rookie; this can make the game extremely hard to deal with at high levels, so it's best to try to keep in good health and try to see as much of the game as you can without continuing.
Overall, I had a lot of fun playing Alien Breed, even with using the keyboard control. If you enjoy Gauntlet, you should appreciate Alien Breed as well. It's a good, challenging shooter with good graphics and a creepy atmosphere. It also kicks the hell out of most games in its price range, and is one of few computer games that really excels as a two-player game without sacrificing single-person play. The next time you're in a software store with few dollars in your pocket and you're in the mood for a quick fix instead of a deeply-involving game, I'd recommend Alien Breed. Computer games can be pretty weighty entertainment, and sometimes it's good to give your brain a rest and let your reflexes do the talking.