Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Retro Review: Area 51

Players: 1-2

Rating: Mature (Realistic Violence)

Reviewed on: Saturn, PS1, Arcade (Yes, I've played all three, and recently!)

If there's any genre that gets a ton of attention out of me, it's the light gun shooters.  There's something about the actual holding the gun and actually aiming that Call of Duty and Half-Life just don't do for me.  And Area 51 is quite probably one of the quintessential light gun games of the late '90s.  For a game that gave me the willies when I was younger, it really has its charms.

The arcade cabinets are made of win
Area 51 has always been a hotbed of government conspiracies, tales of aliens, and top secret experiments.  It's the kind of setting that leaves a lot open to the imagination.  That must be why Atari decided to make an arcade game based around it.  Judging by reviews from the era, that was a good decision.  Reviewers lauded Area 51 for its tight gameplay, and arcade owners loved it because everyone wanted a piece of the action.

With an intellectual property as popular as Area 51, it's a real no brainer to make home console ports for it.  Atari did just that, releasing versions for the original Playstation and Sega Saturn.  Both games were wildly popular, and sold quite well in their own right.  The manuals that come with the home version are obviously supposed to look like a mission briefing manual, but the cheese factor keeps it from being anything less than silly.

Come on! And stay low!
Back in the mid-'90s, Full Motion Video, or FMV for short, were standard in many games.  Area 51 is no exception.  This guy at the start never ceases to amuse, and his opening shout (see caption) could easily be considered meme-worthy material.

Graphically, Area 51 has aged rather well.  The FMV and low detail renders feel rather cheesy, and it's probably for the best that it does.  Aliens show the obvious signs of clay-mation technology, but explode into gooey bits all the same.

While progressing through the levels, players can shoot ammo crates to find grenades and extra clips, power up items to upgrade their weapons all the way up to fully automatic shotguns, and other environmental objects to open up secret rooms.  Many of these secret rooms are as recognizable as other secret areas of classic arcade games, and the home ports even include additional secret rooms.  One of the more humorous ones was the bathroom, where a bunch of the aliens were lined up at the urinals.  There's enough other stuff in the room to blast away for power ups and bonus streaks that missing the secret rooms usually means missing out on a high score.  Still, they're a fun diversion.

As players progress through Area 51, they eventually face off against the alien probe that is summoning in all these aliens.  Players have a limited time to blast away at it while dealing with the aliens teleporting into the area.  It's truly challenging, especially at the harder difficulties.

While Area 51 is challenging and rife with nostalgia, it is also very, very short.  Even on "hard" difficulty, players can complete the game in under 30 minutes.  Sure, that's standard form for light gun shooters, but that fact alone can be enough to turn some people away from this game.  Also, the PS1 version does not support high score saving.  Ironically enough, the Saturn version does. 

This isn't the only problem plaguing this game.  Obtaining two Konami Justifier light guns for the PS1 is difficult, not to mention spendy.  The Namco Gun-Con will not work with this game.  Saturn light guns are equally expensive, not to mention the need for a rather rare console outside of Japan.  And if you want to get one of the arcade cabinets, plan on spending $400 or more, plus shipping.  It really makes scratching that retro itch difficult for anyone besides serious collectors.

All in all, Area 51 is likely to be the sort of game that players would want to pick up for nostalgia's sake, not necessarily because they want a game they can sink their teeth into.  That said, it is still entertaining, even after beating it dozens of times over.  If you already have the hardware, give it a go.  It's worth it.  If you need to invest in hardware, make sure it's worth your time and get a few other light gun games to go with it.  Otherwise, you're shelling out some serious cash for something that you might use a few times.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review! I've been playing Area 51 with my friends recently(arcade), it's awesome!!!