Xeroxmorphs in Dittoland: Alien Bash II

Under scrutiny next in my new clone zone series is Alien Engine, or is it Chaos Bash? I kicked off my investigations by reading the Amiga PD interview with its coder, Glen Cumming, and immediately decided not to bother playing it after all. Case closed, class dismissed.

I’m fibbing of course, but who could blame me given that the game’s author himself has such contempt for his second-born Amiga bambino? The self-deprecating chap bashes his own abilities as much as we do the titular aliens. Undeterred, I set out to unearth its redeeming qualities and to ascertain if his criticism is at all justified.

Written purely in Assembly code and released in 1995, two years after its forbear, The Chaos Engine, we find ourselves poised squarely in top-down, 8-way, scrolling shooter territory.

If you’re already acquainted with the game, it’s likely thanks to Amiga Format magazine who made it the starring attraction of cover disk 83b in April 1996. Quite an endorsement for aspiring software developers, even if they couldn’t be bothered to credit the authors!

The eagle-eyed readers amongst you may have spotted the ‘II’ in the title. Its predecessor is another top-down shooter, though one that’s more akin to a mash-up between Alien Breed and Extreme Violence, while not enough of an imitation of either to be considered for its own XiD article.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Myles Jeffery’s competently drawn environmental graphics had been ripped straight from The Chaos Engine portfolio. Per contra, the sprites are heavily reminiscent in style of those populating The Bitmap Brother’s 1993 hit, though certainly not carbon copies.

The quality of the artwork is exceptional throughout – way above the standard typically expected from a PD game. While accurate impersonation is a craft in itself, this is largely panegyric of Dan Malone’s vision and artistic flair.

The real question is, how would Alien Bash II look sans Dan? *Cue the dramatic movie trailer voice-over* “…in a world without Dan, a lone blob faces the wrath of the place holder graphics army…”

Curious to discover what might have been, I contacted Myles – who now works as an independent developer specialising in customised Microsoft tools – and raised the potentially contentious subject of aesthetics. He told me…

“There were at least two iterations of the graphics if I recall, perhaps more. I don’t think we set out to create a “clone” of Chaos Engine but there is no doubt as Alien Bash 2 evolved it was a very big influence ? for me at least with the graphics. Chaos Engine is an excellent game and the graphics breathtaking. I couldn’t believe what could be achieved with only a palette of 32 colours. It gave me impetus to ratchet up the graphics of Alien Bash 2 to the next level. But of course this has the side effect of eating up ever more time on a project that seemed at times without end.

Alas Glen and I completed Alien Bash 2 at the tail end of the heydays of the Amiga.”

Regrettably, the spectrum of enemies faced is extremely restricted, and as the backdrops take inspiration from just two of The Chaos Engine’s stages, once you’ve seen one level, you’ve pretty much seen the entirety of its visual delights. Nonetheless, the drab, muddy beige overload is sporadically enlivened by sumptuous, atmospheric snow and rain climes, complete with authentic sound effects. Top marks for attention to detail!

Truly befitting of The Bitmap Brothers, the sound effects are richly metallic, a blend of novel recordings and samples seemingly borrowed from other games. The gravelly knife-throwing acoustic accompaniment from The Bitmap Brother’s medieval, puzzle-platformer, Gods, has certainly been recycled, and some of the auditory death throes and winces evoke Doom’s snarling, grunting soundtrack.

A selection of speech samples are also included, ratcheting up the needle on the homage-o-meter that little bit further. Sadly though, you’ll find that some of them are indecipherably muffled, while others have been accidentally clipped mid-playback, so what sounds like Overdrive’s “get ready” race instigator is delivered as an abridged “get…”.

Music is used sparsely, having been adopted from mod archives with the permission of the composers, and duly credited in the game’s intro. Both pieces are of a standard worthy of an original Bitmap game. The main title, ‘Drugs part 1’, and trading post, ‘Rapina4’, tracks were provided by D. Trauemer/Iris and Lassi Nikko/Dune respectively.

The objective of the game is fairly primordial as could be expected from the action-oriented shooter genre until The Chaos Engine threw a spanner in the works with its ‘outer limits’ style plot; eradicate the marauding swine, rescue their forlorn hostages, escape from alien planet.

That’s not me disparaging your – no doubt worthy – opponents; they really are pigs. Bipedal, chopper-drone-blade-throwing, steampunk pigs to be precise. Their supporting cast consists of foot-munching grubs, and tooled up piggy head-bopper statues and jumping fish. All of which are hell-bent on impeding your ability to achieve your sub-goals:-

  • Collect the keys used to blow up (?) the gates (see if you can spot the Renegade logo knocker), which bar you from reaching the captives.
  • Locate the pentangle to reclaim the key used access the level’s fireball-spitting generator.
  • Enter the generator and blast the living bolts out of it to thwart the alien infestation.

There are eight levels altogether – each with their own name, though looking identical in every other respect (a medley of The Chaos Engine’s ‘forest’ and ‘mud rivers’ stages) – plus bonus areas accessed via hidden switches and symbols embedded in the floor. The latter puzzle elements serve to elevate Alien Bash II well above your average, run of the mill top-down shooters, leaving you wondering if you misread its PD label.

To aid you in your reconnaissance mission, skulls or coins can be collected and redeemed in the ‘trading post’ mercenary’s emporium in exchange for weaponry such as the rocket pack, grenades, plasma gun upgrades or an often desperately welcome energy boost.

Alien Bash II is a single-player affair with only the one character to select from, as opposed to The Chaos Engine’s six personalities with their own unique aptitudes. With these strategic nuances forsaken it’s a much more action-oriented shooter, albeit one that doesn’t skimp on the switch-toggling brainteasers.

Whilst the Bashful one’s construction quickly spiralled into homage territory, Glen and Myles took the opportunity to add a refinement or two to enhance the game’s mechanics.

For instance, the game supports a second fire button used to cycle through your available weapons. You can also tweak the extent of your grenades’ reach via the cursor keys, and select from three independent firing stances, including one that allows you to remain stationary while rotating through a 360-degree arc.

I think that calls for well-deserved application of the ‘i’ word. You know, ‘innovative’, that one. Quite a refreshing shocker for a shameless copycat assemblage of this nature.

I suspect the dev duo were growing weary of the seemingly endless task of designing a lengthy action game – working on it only every other Sunday and overcoming silicon implosion! – given that they merely phone in the denouement.

It’s a challenging game – possibly tougher than The Chaos Engine even – that deserved more than an abrupt “the end” notification to wrap it up. Not even the cheeky flourish of a “la fin” or “c’est tout!”…just “the end”. Hmmf.

Glen – who still works as a programmer today – expresses concern in his aforementioned interview that the development hell himself and Myles endured may have strained the relationship beyond reconciliation. He needn’t have worried because Myles has no such regrets, and would likely do it all again given half a chance…

“I don’t recall parting company on a bad note, but then it was a long time ago. My memories of Glen are fond. We had a blast making the game, talking about games and playing games. Alien Bash 2 took way longer than we could have imagined. He was a great bloke whom helped me in my early forays into programming which contributed to establishing my career as a developer.”

It’s an exceptionally well constructed and seemingly bug-free game, replete with silky-smooth scrolling, yet sadly there’s no getting away from how derivative it all is. Ultimately, tricking yourself into believing you’re playing anything other than a diluted approximation of The Chaos Engine Lite is simply a bridge too far. You wouldn’t attempt to recreate the Sistine Chapel with an Etch-A-Sketch, would you?

Following a five year long dog-with-a-bone rescue mission, in March 2015 Prowler from the EAB forum helped Glen to recover the virus-ravaged data from his original source disks, overcoming many obstacles and setbacks along the way, so the game can continue to be tweaked and enhanced by anyone with the necessary programming skills.

After painstakingly harvesting the data from nearly two hundred floppy disks in various states of disrepair, the critical data actually surfaced on the hard drive of a third party, Higgy/Sean, in 2014. Having given away his Amiga hardware four years previously, Glen’s development drive had apparently been part of a game of pass the parcel, no doubt with the help of eBay! ‘From Oxfordshire with love’ it was delivered to Prowler who worked his magic on the long lost treasure and uploaded the source code to Aminet.

It was an incredible display of dedication and passion; a perfect example of the kind of perseverance against adversity we have come to associate with the Amiga community.

Myles was equally impressed when I made him aware of the project…

“Thanks for sharing the links. Had no idea Glen had done this and made the source code available. I read some of the posts and it is indeed fascinating the effort put in to recover the code. What a great story.”

Thus far no-one has swallowed the bait and released an Alien Basher for the next generation. I for one would love to see such an endeavour reach fruition; the original shows great promise and without the stigma of the ‘lifted’ IP to skew opinion, I imagine it would enjoy a far more positive reception.

Perhaps the best candidates to take the aliens by the horns would be none others than the original tag team themselves? With the benefit of an extra 21 years experience, it could be the game they envisioned, yet couldn’t quite deliver as a fledgling, bedroom developers. Glen commented on the EAB forum that he hadn’t ruled it out, so maybe there’s hope yet:-

“If I had the time and money I would love to write an Amiga game again – I would try and use the hardware properly this time around and I know a bit more nowadays – still got a rubbish imagination however and always struggled with getting graphics done.”

Keep on Bashing in the free world!

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