Wednesday 28 June 2017

Pico Breed (PICO-8)

Back in the mid-nineties, one of the deciding factors that persuaded me to 'upgrade' from an Atari ST to an Amiga was playing a little budget game called Alien Breed (Special Edition) by up and coming studio Team 17. I'd cycled 4 miles on my BMX to a friend's house in the next village to check out his new Amiga 600, and after initially laughing at it's childish form-factor I was soon taken aback by the quality of the games on the thing compared to my trusty old Atari.

Looking back, Team 17 certainly had some balls in releasing Alien Breed. The follow up games swapped the xenomorph-lookalikes and face-huggers for more generic/non-copyright-infringing sprites, but that original game captured the pure essence of James Cameron's Aliens. It was unlike any other top-down exploratory shoot-em up of the time; your bulky marine felt slow and vulnerable, there was a constant feeling of dread and the scarcity of ammo and keycards forced you to constantly weigh up your options and make difficult decisions. The endless waves of xenomorphs meant that getting lost or taking a wrong turn could have dire consequences - and when that self destruct sequence countdown started... well, you just knew you were in the shit.

20th Century Fox missed out. They could have put an official seal of approval on the thing and Alien Breed would have been the best Alien home computer game ever. It really is a classic, and a game that I've yet to find a modern counterpart that successfully captures the same feelings.

Until today.

Who would have thought that it would have been an Alien Breed 'tribute' on the humble Pico 8 that almost got it right, causing those happy memories to come flooding back? But yet here we have Pico Breed, a game by a developer who has quite clearly been touched by memories of the 'Breed' in a similar way to yours truly. And damn, those teeny weeny alien sprites are almost too cute to kill.

Of course, being a Pico 8 port, there's been some cuts. There's only one short level, and aside from the three-headed queen there's a grand total of two alien types; predictably full grown 'xenos' and little facehuggers than spawn from eggs. Thankfully your stereotypical marine-tough-guy can take a huge amount of damage before kicking the bucket, and if you act smart and target the alien spawn points first then you'll find there's enough ammo to last for days.

Progress is made through this top-down shoot-em-up via the collection of key cards and hacking of terminals to open doors and sealed bulkheads. The layout of the stricken spacecraft is typically Alien-Breed-ish; i.e the architects were clearly on some heavyweight recreational narcotics when they came up with the layout and had no regard for common sense or health and safety. There are dead-ends and maze-like ventilation shafts a-plenty, key cards kept safely behind locked doors and ammo lying about in the most unlikely of places. At least on this version there's no self-destruct sequence with barely enough time to escape and tons of hurty-hurty one-way electric gates. What kind of sicko space-engineer came up with the idea for those anyway?

Surprisingly Pico Breed has also nailed the sound of Alien Breed too. There's an ominous background hum, the doors open with a lo-fi "swish" and the explosions and gunfire are suitably punchy. Even the alien death-throe chirrups are as perfect as you can get with the Pico 8 limitations. In addition to this, the starfield zipping by in the background gives a feeling of speed and urgency that Alien Breed never managed; there's a genuine sense of panic as the starship full of alien scum hurtles towards Earth.

There have been a few complaints on the BBS that the game is too hard, but I guess they are missing the fact that the spawning points can be disabled, or perhaps they missed the weapon upgrade? Not meaning to sound as though I'm bragging, I found the game pretty easy - I think it took all of two or three goes to successfully reach the end. But hell, it was a blast to do so and thanks to the speed-run timer I'm tempted to give it another shot. Gabriel Crowe, I salute you.

Download/Play the the game here (from the PICO-8 BBS).
Run it using PICO-8 (Commercial).
4 out of 5

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