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Alien Hominid

Expanded from its humble beginnings as a Macromedia Flash game, Alien Hominid makes a powerful appeal to retro gamers and nostalgists with its 2D, side-scrolling action, which cannily recalls a time when gameplay got more emphasis than graphics. Which is not to say that the game's minimalist aesthetic isn't artful: Hand-drawn in splashy, vibrant colors, it looks and plays like a forgotten arcade classic, with a pint-sized yellow alien hero who seems like a ready-made icon.

On an Earth that's hostile to alien interests, you play a scrappy yellow Hominid (or, in multiplayer mode, a Hominid with a variety of unlockable hats) forced to blast through a relentless, 16-level assault in kitschy America, a pre-glasnost Soviet Union, and, of course, Area 51. Facing wave after wave of blocky FBI and KGB agents–who must be wondering why they went through the Academy just to leap haplessly onto a freeway or spring to their doom from a snow bank–you die dozens upon dozens of times in a quest for alien freedom. Your only friend on Earth is a portly kid with a backpack who offers temporary shields to protect your fragile mortality and extra firepower for your arsenal, which includes a pellet-firing ray-gun, a few grenades, and the ability to bite the agents' heads off in "freak out" mode. At times, you can navigate cars, bulldozers, and other vehicles, including a UFO for Asteroids-esque space battles and even a giant gorilla that scoops up and devours screaming KGB thugs. Each level ends with an epic confrontation with a boss that often consumes the majority of the screen.

Beyond the gameplay: In the gaming world, there's no equivalent to low-budget independent cinema, because each title has to have an officially sanctioned publisher in order to see the light of day. After the Flash game became a cult phenomenon, the creators took a chance by developing Alien Hominid for consoles before getting a publisher, and its indie spirit makes it a refreshing anomaly in the slick, 3D-only marketplace.

Worth playing for: Two especially giddy moments: A stage where you swoop up wriggling FBI agents in a UFO tractor beam and drop them en masse into a chip-shredder, and a duel with an oozing, spurting "butterscotch monster."

Frustration sets in when: Unless you're D.A.R.Y.L., the orphaned computer boy, any mode other than "easy" will inevitably lead to claw-handed futility. A battle with a pair of giant electrical sockets, in particular, results in endless numbers of smoking carcasses.

Final judgment: Retailing for a relative song, Alien Hominid has a quick-and-dirty, homemade charm that justifies its cult following.