Area 51

Area 51
3.5
Game Name: Area 51
Media: 1 CD-ROM
Publisher(s): GT Interactive
Developer(s): Mesa Logic
Genre(s): Rail Shooter
Release Date: 1997
Serial Number: T-25408H-50
Region: PAL

Area 51 Sega Saturn ScreenshotArea 51 is one of a handful of arcade games that I played in my childhood which indelibly pressed itself on my memory. Shooting walking corpses has never been my thing; I didn’t sink many quarters into the machine, and each one didn’t last long, either. And yet, watching my brother blast through aliens and horribly mutated humans in a secret government installation, I had to admit there was something compelling about the game’s style.

So naturally, once I got my Saturn Virtua Gun, this is one of the first games I picked up to supplement Virtua Cop. I was satisfied to find that this version accurately recreates the arcade game I remember – not perfectly, of course, and perhaps not even as precisely as the PlayStation port, but solid enough that any complaint would be shameless nitpicking.

So for those of you unfamiliar with the game in any form: Area 51 is a light gun shooter in which you battle through the titular government installation, which is overrun by aliens and humans mutating into aliens. As with most light gun games, there are baddies to shoot (before they shoot you), innocents to avoid shooting (in this case, your fellow government task force operatives), and weapon power ups. Where it gets more unique is its scenario, and its graphics, which use full-motion video with digitized sprites and stop motion animation.

Area 51 Sega Saturn ScreenshotIt may not have aged well with changing fads, but Area 51 is at the absolute least a good slice of mid-1990s cheese. And its style is consistent, allowing those of us who still enjoy realistic-styled graphics to be drawn into the intense sci-fi scenario. Little touches like aliens crawling up elevator shafts while you take a ride, background radio transmissions, and shrapnel from exploding vehicles help bring the atmosphere home.

A particularly good aspect is the game’s replayability. Shooting certain destructible targets opens wild secret rooms with minigames and such. I haven’t managed to unlock most, but the back cover assures me the Saturn version has all the secret rooms from the arcade version plus some console-exclusive ones. Other console exclusives include five difficulty modes, “cowboy” mode, and a “no gore” mode (which actually just replaces the skull-and-bones sprites of slain enemies with goo splatter droplets, making it arguably more gorey than the regular mode!).

Area 51 Sega Saturn ScreenshotThe core gameplay is somewhat less impressive. Comparing it (perhaps unfairly) to the seminal Virtua Cop games, the most prominent difference is that whereas careful aim and intelligent anticipation are key in VC1&2, Area 51 is all about speed. Enemies pick a variety of places to pop up from, but since they’re digitized sprites and not 3D models, most can’t move around any more than a cardboard stand-up, and they usually take up a lot of screen space. In short, aiming is not difficult. The developers instead made Area 51 challenging by having enemies pop up at a rapid rate.

The game’s simplicity peaks at its sole boss, as underwhelming visually as it is in design; the boss is essentially a moving target which spawns two normal enemies about once per second. Shoot and reload fast enough, and you win.

Those last few comments probably sound a bit dire, but let’s step back a bit: The gameplay is simple, but it is also balanced, well-paced, and fun. It’s not as deep or ingeniously designed as the Virtua Cop games, but not every painting is a Mona Lisa, and if you want to use your Saturn light gun with more than just two games, Area 51 is one of the better choices. And if you don’t yet own a Saturn light gun, it’s one more good reason to buy one.

Area 51 Sega Saturn ScreenshotBut wait! Doesn’t Area 51 also work with the standard controller? Well, yes; all Saturn games do. But it is with the standard controller that Area 51’s simple gameplay hurts. The speed needed to shoot all enemies in time just isn’t possible using a D-pad. The game is still playable, but it is distinctly awkward. If you don’t have a Saturn light gun (plus a TV that works with one) and aren’t planning to get one, you should give Area 51 a pass. To coin a phrase, the fun’s in the gun.

One thing to keep in mind is that all of Area 51’s shortcomings are only that it is not the Saturn’s best light gun game. It has nothing that I would call a real problem, and considered as the simple bit of action it is, Area 51 is consistently enjoyable.

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