The urban legends surrounding Area 51 are as much a part of conspiracy theories as Santa Claus is to kids on Christmas. That’s also a fertile stomping ground for tales about aliens, secret experiments, and whatever else might strike a storyteller’s fancy. There’s just no avoiding how its mystery has created its own mythic power that continues to be a convenient staple when it comes to the strange and weird. So it should come as no surprise to see it crop up in a game…or have its own.
Atari’s Area 51 airburst its lead rain over arcades in 1995. It was your typical light gun blast ’em up which put one or two players on rails as they shot their way through a moving gallery of pre-rendered backdrops, digitized actors running across the screen, and enough aliens to make H.G. Wells green with envy.
Why are you blowing away all of these aliens? It seems that Area 51, that legendary and not-so-secret base in the Nevada desert, is the victim of an alien invasion. You and STAARS are sent in to set the base self destruct in order to wipe out the invaders who have also turned the living into neon jumpsuited zombies.
Aside from the rendered backdrops, the game also captured digital performances from actors portraying the STAAR troopers and the alien possessed cannon fodder found everywhere before they exploded in a gory cloud of pixelized meat and bones. It was a decent shooter in the arcade, but I didn’t think it was quite as good as Midway’s Terminator 2 cabinet back in ’91. Sure, it might not have the kind of lavish CG rendered sets that Atari’s did, but at the same time, the gameplay felt a lot more fun.
But Area 51 also added a few neat twists to the usual arcade formula with hidden easter eggs. For example, if you shot all of the STAAR team members at the start of the game and avoided shooting the aliens, you’d start the game over as a “Kron Hunter”. There were also secret rooms that could be accessed by shooting certain things in the game in sequence to unlock them providing even more point scoring incentives.
The stand up would also come back as Area 51: Site 4, an improved version of the original with better graphics and more content such as training missions to warm up your trigger finger.
It was later ported over in ’96 for the Playstation, Saturn, and even Windows PCs and was relatively faithful to the actual arcade version. In 2005, it was re-imagined by Midway as an FPS title for the PS2, Xbox, and Windows, and featured the voices of David Duchovny and Marilyn Manson. Now that was a far cry from the somewhat cheesy action of the arcade version as it closely embraced the whole “Area 51” mystique with huge subterranean laboratories and plenty of secrets woven into the entertaining backstory. Two years later in 2007, Midway followed that up with BlackSite: Area 51 which was not as great.
The ad below is for the arcade port and it’s showing the world through the infrared filter of a piece of hardware masquerading as Terminator-vision. The bizarre thing is that it’s all text, fancy effects, and nothing else. No screen shots at all to compare the quality of the conversion against what players might remember from the arcade – if their arcade even had an Area 51 stand up. Though it sounds exciting, the ad is clearly banking on the popularity of the arcade game to let these little shortcomings slide in earnest.
It also featured Midway as the name behind the game.
Wait, but didn’t Atari put out Area 51?
They did. Atari, in ’95, was a part of the Time-Warner Interactive division which was bought by WMS Industries Inc. in ’96. WMS, which is probably better known as pinball maestro Williams Electronics, also owned Midway at the time which likely explains why their name appears in an ad for an Atari game. It seems that not only did they publish the game, they also owned the rights to the IP which is further backed by their follow-ups mentioned above.
Will we see another Area 51 game? Probably. If not it’s own game, then you can expect it to have another cameo somewhere aliens are once again threatening humanity with extinction. Or who might just be trying to hitch a ride back home.