Welcome to “Raising ‘Cade”, a retrospective feature about the original gaming arena: the arcade. Every week, we’re setting out around the darkest corners of America in search of a different game to play. The goal? Chronicle every arcade game in existence. This week, we’ve found a little first-person shooter you may remember by the name of “Area 51”.
Ah, light gun games. Back in the ’90s, there was nothing better than grabbing that greasy, germ-covered neon orange gun (they don’t really spend the time cleaning them, do they?) and blasting away the baddies. When home consoles began to rival the arcade, they were one of the few aspects of the arcade experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. Honestly, the same holds true to this day. Sure, there are console light gun games around, but unless you have *just* the right CRT set-up, it’s near-impossible to replicate the feel of an arcade cabinet. With Kinect, PS Move and Wiimotes taking over, home light gun games are going the way of the Dodo (or Tasmanian Tiger, California Condor or Toolache Wallaby; take your pick). At the height of their popularity, Atari decided to release a light gun game based on something approaching the height of their popularity: aliens.
For lord knows what reason, the ’90s were all about aliens. In the opening years of decade alone, we had Critters, Spaced Invaders, Alien 3, Body Snatchers, Alien Intruder, The Puppet Masters and more. While most of those movies were flops (and god-awful), there was no denying that little green men were a big thing and only going to get bigger. Smartly catching wind of the trend, Atari (who were enjoying a lucrative stint as as a major arcade cab producer) decided to put its own IP into development called Area 51 in 1995. It was a genius move; not only was the “Area 51” name recognized-worldwide, but its secret govermenment non-trademarkable status made it so Atari could take free license of the name without paying any royalties.
While released to much fanfare and sales, Atari had no idea of what would happen in the coming months. In 1996, a little movie called Independence Day was released. It became an enormous hit (grossing over 800 million dollars worldwide on a 75 million dollar budget), while cementing Will Smith as a bonafide action star (maybe not Randy Quaid so much, though)
Not only did the cast and crew receive recognition (director Roland Emmerich went on to make many more explosions and a Shakespeare film) from the movie, but it made aliens bigger than The Beatles. Roswell, New Mexico received a large bump in tourists, many joined the ranks of tin-foiled UFO chasers and ID4 toys flew off the shelves. There was only one area the franchise was lacking: video games. While action figures came complete with floppy discs (floppy discs, I kid you not) and there was a utterly abysmal tie-ine developed by Radical Entertainment for the Playstation and Saturn the following year, there was no real way for kids to mimic their stars and create some Alien-gut sandwiches. Enter Area 51.
As there wasn’t anything truly identifiable about the extraterrestrials in the film, imagine this: it’s 1996, you walk into an arcade (more likely a putt-putt golf or pizza parlor) and staring at you is a giant green alien, guns and the words “Area 51” (where a large chunk of the film took place); are you going to pass it by because it doesn’t have the same name as your favorite movie, or are you going to blast some alien scum back to the Quaatazk Nebula? Thought so. And kids did exactly that; Area 51 proved a massive hit in 1996, with any arcade who didn’t already have a cab hastily ordering one.
Atari stuck gold, as Independence Day turned out not to be a flavor of the month, but one of the most iconic movies of the decade. Families bought it on VHS (truly the best way to experience a cinematic spectacle) and gathered around to watch it every Fourth of July (what better way to celebrate our Independence from the Brits than watching the White House blow up?). While the game grew outdated, it remained popular through the remainder of the ’90s. While alien-hype contributed to its popularity, was the game actually good?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Area 51 was an awesome game in its day, even if there wasn’t much to it. Players take on the role of one of the STARR (Strategic Tactical Advanced Alien Response) agents, tasked with preventing the aliens, known as Kronn, from taking over the facility. The entire game takes place in within Area 51, going through exotic locales such as hangars, tunnels and office buildings. The aliens themselves don’t appear until halfway through the game, with the first enemies being former soldiers possessed by the invading force. Ironically, kids who didn’t have the patience or felt like it was a better value replaying early parts of the game instead of continuing on (admit it, you did this) may have never seen the actual aliens. Still, when you’re shooting a million rounds a second, the enemy could be an army of “Reagan Skeletons” and you probably wouldn’t notice.
The vehicles and level themselves were pre-rendered in 3D, while everything else was 2D digitized video sprites. Any human in the game was actually modeled from footage of a real person, which was practically mind-blowing back in the day. Players now, however, would laugh it off if they didn’t appreciate the unique ’90s vibe the scheme represents. Explosions were actually digitized video, meaning every enemy explodes in exactly the same way (bet you didn’t notice that, did you?). Basically, multiple forms of rendering were combined in an attempt to mask current shortcomings of current graphical technology. As an on-rail scripted shooter, it worked.
Shooting-mechanics are fast and forgiving. There is not limit to how fast bullets can come out — those who fire light-guns by rapidly hitting their index finger against the trigger will feel right at home. To reload, you simply shoot off screen and another round of bullets mysteriously appears (thank goodness real guns don’t work like this). It was a rapid-fire shooter in a pre-Time Crisis world that favored precision and speed. Besides shooting, one of the strongest aspects of the game was the sound. Not only was there a tension-builing electronic song, but effects throughout were strong. Bullet noises were fast, audile and loud, while the aliens let out this hilarious dinosaur-sounding yelp whenever they were blown up. Plus, something about that clicking sound when reloading was inexplicably satisfactory.
Those obsessed with the game or keen enough to look into Tips’N’Tricks-style publications may have found a few ostrich-sized easter eggs lurking about. There are many secret rooms throughout the game that can be entered by targeting various aspects of the environment. Shooting up all the office windows, for instance, takes you to “Shake your Buddha”, where shots can be taken at heads of the development team (proof the industry never thought violent video games were a serious influence on children) to increase your score. A full variant known as “Kron Hunter” could even be entered by shooting the first three STAAR members that pop-up. In this mode, where the graphics are completely inverted in trippy ways, players take on the role of a Kron tasked with taking out members of STAAR. Secrets like these are a refreshing throwback to when developers actually had fun creating games.
When playing Area 51 in 2012 (which, by the way, cost us like $6.50 in tokens — this feature doesn’t come cheap), it’s amazing how well it holds up. While nearly ever aspect of it is outdated, it’s probably the pinnacle of ’90s light gun action and something developers have never been able to recapture. A testament to its likeability (or at least durability) is the fact that you still see them around every so often. After my play session, I spotted a kid no older than ten playing, loving every minute of it — without irony. It’s comforting knowing we’ll still be ready for the impending alien invasion.