When we used to storm Area 51 at the arcade

Earlier this year, an event posted on Facebook captured the nation’s attention. The page titled “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” provided a call to arms for those who are curious about what might be hidden in the government facility, 83 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The 27 word manifesto read as follows: “We will all meet up in Rural Nevada and coordinate our parties. If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets see them aliens.” Since the original post on June 27, over two million respondents have said they’d attend the raid. An additional 1.5 million are interested in the event, set for September 20.

Groom Lake Air Force Base, colloquially known as Area 51, has been the subject of speculation and conspiracy theories for more than 60 years. The facility’s operations are highly classified, and the remote location is as close to the middle of nowhere as it’s possible to get in the United States. Security around the base is extremely tight, with a strict no-fly zone enforced. Signs posted around the perimeter notify visitors that deadly force is authorized, and photography and trespassing are strictly prohibited.

 

What we do know for sure is that the Air Force has used this base to test experimental aircraft, such as prototypes for the U-2 and A-12 spy planes. Nearby residents have reported seeing strange patterns of lights in the sky for decades, leading many to believe the base is also being used to house repurposed alien ships. The surrounding area has leaned into this reputation for many years, and is often referred to as the “Extraterrestrial Highway.”

Popular culture has built up Area 51 as a mecca for those who want to believe aliens have visited us. The extreme security measures and remoteness of the facility suggest the government has a serious secret to protect, and many believe it could only be extraterrestrial in origin. Whether the military base hides living aliens, crashed remnants of UFOs, or just experimental airplane technology, there’s no question it’s intriguing to think about what might be concealed there.

With this in mind, let’s take a look back in time to explore another alien raid, as we revisit Atari’s 1995 arcade shooter Area 51.

Blast from the past

The year is 1994, and Atari is in serious trouble. Despite being synonymous with video games in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the brand hasn’t had a profitable game for years. The Jaguar home console which launched late last year is struggling to find an audience, and the aggressive marketing campaign doesn’t appear to be helping. The situation is clear; Atari needs a hit game, and fast.

But what sort of game should it be? The arcade renaissance brought on by 1991’s Street Fighter II is flagging, and arcade operators want games which offer something you can’t play on a home console. Games with specialized peripherals seem to be performing well, especially light gun games such as Sega’s Virtua Cop and Konami’s Lethal Enforcers. The police theme feels played out by this point, though. Atari puts Ed Logg (one of their few remaining star developers) on the project, which he calls Bounty Hunter.

Image via GeoSteve

Unfortunately for Atari, Logg sees the writing on the wall and defects to join Electronic Arts before completing Bounty Hunter. Atari took the code Logg had written to an external team called Mesa Logic, but after playing through the unfinished game this team asked Atari if they could come up with their own concept for the gun game instead of completing Logg’s. Atari agreed, and Mesa Logic’s head Robert Weatherby began working with his team on a new concept. Inspired by the recent hit TV show The X Files and an article in Popular Science about the secretive Air Force facility, Mesa Logic began production on their own gun game, a fast-paced shooter called Area 51.

The Truth is in There

 Promotional arcade flyer for Area 51 via Arcade Museum

Area 51 puts you in the boots of a member of the elite S.T.A.A.R. (Special Tactical Advanced Alien Response) unit, responding to a crisis at the alien containment facility. Extraterrestrials known as Kronn have infected the base’s staff with a mutagenic virus, transforming them into decaying, zombie-like humanoids. The zombies are still capable of using the advanced weaponry used throughout the base, however, so fighting past them to activate Area 51’s nuclear self-destruct is no easy task.

Mesa Logic borrowed most of Area 51’s gameplay elements from Virtua Cop, including the ability to reload your pistol by aiming off screen. The team literally put their own stamp on the project, and you can still see the Mesa Logic logo on some of the box trucks surrounding the airfield.

The game itself is an on-rails shooter, notable mostly for its pre-rendered digital graphics. At the time, digital backgrounds were much more of a novelty, and Area 51’s innovation was the way in which it smoothly transitioned from one shooting gallery to the next. This was much harder to accomplish in 1995 than it is today, and at the time required use of Atari’s expensive Silicon Graphics workstations. This type of computer had become famous a couple of years before because they had been used extensively in the making of Jurassic Park. Mesa Logic used these workstations at night after everyone had already left Atari’s main campus in California. The foreground elements, including weapons fire, explosions, zombies, and aliens, were all 2D pixel art overlaid on the 3D pre-rendered backgrounds.

Area 51’s aliens didn’t start to show up until the later levels of the game, though they featured prominently on the sides of the cabinet. The Kronn aliens were created using stop-motion animation and had an insectoid appearance, complete with facial mandibles, extra arms and eyes. No matter what type of enemy you dispatched, every one disappeared in an identical explosion of bones and blood, with a slightly elongated skull flying towards the player.

Many background elements in Area 51 can be interacted with, including crates which can be shot open, windows which can be broken, and exploding barrels which can be detonated to take down enemies standing nearby. Powerups can be found occasionally, upgrading the main weapon into a faster-firing machine gun or a shotgun which required less accuracy to dispatch aliens. These upgrades would last until the player took damage, at which point they would revert to the standard pistol. Screen-clearing grenades could also be found, and shooting the icon at the bottom of the heads-up display would wipe out all threats currently attacking the player. Other members of the S.T.A.A.R. team would sometimes appear, and the player was penalized for shooting them.

One reason for Area 51’s popularity had to do with its many secrets. Shooting targets in a specific order, or aiming at out-of-the-way breakables would frequently lead to a side area where the player could earn tons of powerups, take down a room full of unaware aliens, or (because this was the ‘90s) get to see a scantily clad female for a few seconds. The most famous of these easter eggs was called “Kronn Hunter” mode, and was activated if the player ignored the alien threat to deliberately shoot the first three S.T.A.A.R. members who showed up on screen. This mode didn’t change the gameplay, but altered the visuals to resemble the Predator’s thermal vision, as seen in the 1987 movie. It also changed the icons on the heads-up-display, making the grenades and bullets appear to be alien and mysterious. The intrigue surrounding this mode was amplified, because players who achieved a high score while playing Kronn hunter mode got a stylized “K” logo next to their initials instead of the usual military rank and insignia.

Although Area 51 was a smash hit in arcades at the time of its release, it’s difficult to recommend today. While it’s still fun to grab both guns and dual-wield your way through the campaign, the once-impressive visuals are laughable by today’s standards. A master can complete the entire game in less than 20 minutes since the gameplay never changes. Once you have the patterns memorized, there’s very little replay value apart from attacking the high score leaderboard.

Alien Legacy

The success of Area 51 encouraged Atari to fast-track a sequel, as well as some home conversions for console players. Ironically, even though the arcade version of Area 51 ran on modified Jaguar hardware (COJAG, short for Coin-operated Jaguar), the game was never ported to Atari’s home system. Despite its success Area 51 wasn’t enough to save Atari, and the company gave up on selling Jaguar consoles just a few months after the shooter hit arcades. Both the PlayStation and Sega Saturn received faithful home versions, though the Saturn wasn’t capable of displaying the action over the full TV screen and had a border frame surrounding the game space.

Mesa Logic’s follow up game was called Maximum Force, and it ditched the alien theme to focus on shooting generic terrorists. Even though it was the spiritual successor to Area 51, this game wasn’t nearly as popular and didn’t sell as well. Atari attempted to salvage the title by re-releasing a combined arcade cabinet from which players could choose to play either Area 51 or Maximum Force a year after the initial release, but Maximum Force never hit the same heights as its predecessor. This may be because gamers had grown more sophisticated in the intervening years, and first-person shooters on PC and consoles were far more common by this point. Half-Life­ was only a few months away when the combined cabinet released, and Goldeneye 64 had already been out for more than a year.

Area 51 got a true follow-up with 1998’s Area 51 – Site 4. While some dedicated machines for this title were created, it was far more common for arcade operators to buy a conversion kit and update their existing Area 51 or Maximum Force machines with new software. Site 4 included a suite of 18 target practice minigames which players could train on and collect powerups before attempting the game’s campaign mode. Like its predecessors, Site 4 consisted of prerendered backgrounds and sprite-based action elements. Advances in technology meant Site 4 was a much more colorful game than the original Area 51, and the backgrounds weren’t quite as boxy and plain. Unfortunately, players found Area 51’s gameplay passé by this point, and Site 4 never gained the popularity of the original.

The series lay dormant for several years after Site 4, until Midway (which had acquired the rights after absorbing Williams, who had purchased Atari) brought it back in 2005 with a well-received survival horror first-person shooter simply titled Area 51. This game had very little to do with the arcade shooter, instead taking inspiration from more recent games such as Halo and Metroid Prime. Released for the original Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PC, this version of Area 51 is most notable for its voice cast, which included Powers Booth, Marilyn Manson, and David Duchovny as the voice of the player character. Fans have been asking for an HD remake for years, but the game’s convoluted rights and prominent voice cast mean it’ll probably never see a re-release.

The most recent incarnation of Area 51 was this game’s 2007 followup, Blacksite: Area 51. Unfortunately, Blacksite was rushed into production before it was ready, and the reviews were less than enthusiastic. The unfavorable response more or less killed the franchise, and it’s been dormant for more than a decade now.

This week’s events have brought Area 51 back into the public eye, so there may be no better time to bring back the long running shooter franchise. The original game has never been made available on modern consoles, but the arcade games are fully playable through the MAME arcade emulator, and there are still thousands of arcade cabinets spread across the nation. If you get a chance, plunk a quarter or two into the original arcade machine. It’s still an awful lot of fun to blast your way through the facility with a pistol in each hand.