Aliens Go Home Run! is as close to a nostalgic throwback to the coin-op days as you’re likely to find. You take on the role of Sally, a baseball player who has managed to start a war with an alien planet by hitting a ball so hard it essentially smashes into their world with the force of a nuclear weapon. Of course, now the rather miffed aliens are out for revenge - specifically against her, rather than Earth in general.
Once you get past this ridiculous intro, developer Anim-Ace will treat you to around seventy levels of craziness which essentially involves you smashing a baseball into a load of blocks until they’re all cleared - all whilst dodging alien laser fire. If you think Break Out meets Space Invaders in a bullet hell environment, you’re probably on the right lines.
Hit and Run
Like the best arcade games, Aliens Go Home Run! - or as we’ll refer to it; AGHR - is simple to pick up and pretty addictive from the start. The premise is simple. You hit the ball around the screen, trying to clear all of the coloured blocks by bouncing it off walls, aliens, and other blocks. You have a swing button that will send the ball out in a roughly 45° degree arc, but if you hold the thumbstick up when hitting, you’ll get a far more directed shot. This is a nice touch, as it removes some (but not all) of the randomness associated with similar Arkanoid-style games. You also have three strikes (read: lives) and will lose one if you are hit by an alien, or alien gunfire.
To help you out, your plucky baseball player has a progressive power-up system similar to Gradius, which cycles through four different items. The heart restores one of your lost strikes, the bubble will protect you from a hit, the extra baseball chucks in another ball to hit around the arena, and the laser arc will unleash a blast of laser fire directly up whenever you swing the bat. You also have a slide button which renders you invulnerable through the period of the slide, and soaks up bullets as you do so.
Loading the Bases
All of these mechanics combine to offer an effective and frenetic experience, delivered in bright, primary colours. You’re introduced to the different aliens gradually over five different worlds. They mostly spew bullets of various shapes at you, but there are a few exceptions. The most annoying by far are the jelly-like substances which trap you in green goo until you can break free. How you do so is never explained, but hammering the thumbstick and buttons worked for us.
They are accompanied by Thwomp-like beasts which will drop on you if you linger too long under them. Chuck in some huge plasma ball-firing aliens, walking crab mines and claymores hidden in blocks, and you have the makings of a manic shooter. There’s almost too much happening on screen at once, but the framerate is consistent and the wonderful and hyperactive chiptune tracks desperately will you to victory. Depending on the level, some of the static aliens can often blend into the background, especially the ones that drop on you, which can cause howls of frustration. Staying still in the game is very rarely an option.
After every fifth level, you’ll encounter a boss. Again, these are well-designed and very distinct. Other than hitting them with a ball or laser fire, there’s little interaction with them and they are mostly a lot easier to defeat than the main levels. One notable encounter with a gravity-switching alien saw us take a backseat to the action whilst the ball seemingly did its own thing and killed the boss on our behalf. Others, like the boss contained in a field of jelly, require a little more work. The one-on-one encounters help to break up what could otherwise become a fairly repetitive game. Each level is also short enough for you to enjoy individually, should you want to revisit any particular favourites.
For all the nostalgic goodness on show, AGHR does suffer from a few issues. The primary one is balance. Certain levels require patience and an inordinate amount of luck to get past, and we were stuck on one in the last world which took us a good twenty minutes to complete. However, the following three levels - including the final boss - were all finished on our first go. There is a time limit for each level, but it never once caused any consternation. We were either dead, or the level had been completed before it ever came into play.
The ebb and flow of the challenge is bizarre, as the worlds generally ramp up consistently until you hit a spike of difficulty on a specific level or two which then knocks everything out of kilter. Similarly, the distribution of power-ups has no pattern. On some levels you’ll be collecting more goodies than you could possibly cope with, whilst on others - in situations when you badly need them - you’ll be lucky to get given one for the entire duration. This also works against the game’s balance, but shouldn’t be a particularly big thing to sort out in a future update.
The more egregious problems are technical ones. At times the ball will get stuck between the wall and one of the level’s bumpers, forcing you to restart. The collision detection is not fantastic either, especially when it comes to explosions. You’ll need to slide through the crab mines to destroy them - if your ball hasn’t done it for you - but the flames linger long enough for it to cost you a strike if you don’t remain in the corner of the screen. It’s that second or two of inertia that could cost you the entire level, and it’s entirely unnecessary. Similarly, the Thwomp-like things can only be killed by sliding into them three times, but we often experienced moments where the slide’s invulnerability didn’t work.
Worse still, at times when we were not touching the fallen alien the game thought we had and penalised us. It detracted from the experience but - and this is worth noting - it wasn’t enough to turn us away. We resolved to complete the game despite the issues, mainly because it was so quick and accessible, not necessarily because every facet of it was enjoyable. If you have masochistic tendencies honed by years of playing Dark Souls, you’ll find much to admire here - though, unlike those games, the pain you feel is generally not down to your incompetence, but the game’s.
If you manage to finish the entire thing, there’s still more to do. Anim-Ace have thrown in extra optional levels on each world, which are significantly more difficult than anything that came before. On top of this, a Boss Rush mode is included which is a great way to break up the bullet hell nature of the individual levels. Finally, if that wasn’t enough, you can even design your own courtesy of a level editor which is comprehensive but unfortunately has an interface which is far too clunky to be of interest to anyone other than the most patient designer.
Still, at a bargain basement price, Aliens Go Home Run! offers a decent amount of gameplay - around six to eight hours if you include the optional levels - and a splendid return to the days of cabinet glory in musty arcades. You don’t get to put your initials in at the end, but your top score is recorded against each level. If you used the standard Nineties fee of a twenty pence piece per game, we estimate we spent well over seventy quid bringing you this review. Nostalgia may be enough to bring you to it, but determination to overcome the levels despite the technical niggles will compel you to stay. As games go, it’s not a home run but it’s definitely not a walk, either.