When I first played Alien Hominid, within a few minutes I had decided that there ought to be a fundamental rule about unavoidable green instant death lasers in games. And that that rule should read or at least rhyme with "Cluck the hell off!" A couple of hours later though, I didn't any more. The difficulty level still makes me cry from time to time (and I'm too proud to go for "Easy"), but there's just too much charm and personality in this engaging little side-scrolling shoot-'em-up for me to be cross with it for too long.
Example: the very first thing that happens is that your character, the titular alien, crash-lands right outside FBI headquarters. Suddenly a convoy of quirky, Johnny Bravo-looking feds rumble along at pace, scooping up said spaceship, sweeping up the debris with brooms and finally marching past with a sign reading "Nothing to see here". Your eyes dart around and realise there's a big sign saying "We kill aliens" parked next to the FBI building. And then your little alien hops out of the ground looking pleased with himself. It's just... a fun-looking multiplatform console game. Friendly, even.
Your little alien, however, is not very friendly when you pinch his spaceship. As you run and jump around shooting, he viciously rips through mountains of the poor incapable agents, the whole cartoon spectacle brought to life by some wonderfully imaginative, genuinely cartoon-quality visuals oozing with charm. You can see from the screenshots how nice it looks, but what makes you gawp is the quality of the animation - and the wealth of different animations and humorous touches means there's never a dull moment. Just standing there when you first haul yourself out of the ground and firing at the dazzled innocent standing on the other side of the screen waiting to give you a power-up, you get to see him dodge the shot in at least a handful of different ways. And there's a sense of comic timing to it, too; it just looks better if he lurches out of the way at the last second.
And there are certainly lots of ways to watch your adversaries get their comeuppance, too. Tough enemies will blink out of the screen at the player in disbelief as they die, blood spurts geyser-like as they writhe in perversely amusing fashion, and whenever you attack within a certain range your alien stops firing guns and starts hacking off heads instead. With so many different death animations and a variety of other ways to overcome the bad guys (be it grenades; running them down with vehicles whilst leaning out of the window and giggling; using a freeze-ray, vaporising or flame power-up; or leaping onto their shoulders and biting their heads clean off) it remains fresh despite the fact that you're playing the same levels over and over, and they're full of mostly the same enemies.
That said; there aren't really a huge variety of ways to kill people. At its core, Hominid is a very simple game; it's just so well drawn and animated that it manages to enthral on that level primarily, and the fact that it probably lacks a bit of depth in terms of what you're actually physically doing compared to the heavyweights of the little niche genre it's invading (you know, Metal Slug, et al) is less of a problem. Take what I was saying about hacking enemies heads off when you get up close, for example. That doesn't involve using a different button or attacking style. The duration of the animation is the same and the responsiveness afterwards too. Behind the two wonderfully different animations there is no mechanical difference at any stage as far as I can work out, but the fact that each display varies so much from scene to scene practically negates the issue.
Generally speaking you do just move left to right, jumping, firing up, down, left and right, dashing using the shoulder buttons, and dodging as you go, picking up the odd power-up, razing bits of the scenery with your grenades (stock of which gradually replenishes once you've chucked them), leaping into easy-to-use vehicles, and of course constantly keeping an eye on where the feds are coming from. It can be left, right, through manholes; even from the skies. And the latter is a nice illustration of the lovely little in-game asides that prefigure events that are about to influence play. The developer could simply have ropes drop from the top of the screen and enemies come zipping down them. We would have known what it meant. But instead it zooms the camera up to the heavens so you can watch the choppers arrive and prepare to lower their cargo. And virtually everything it does makes you smile because of the way it's been illustrated.
I keep coming back to the visuals. The importance of the variation, the gorgeousness of the base elements, the sense of humour and uniqueness. That probably tells you all you need to know. Watch a video of the game in action and you could be fooled into thinking it's pretty complex. But this began life as a Flash game on the web, and only through Behemoth's resourceful endeavours did it ever see the light of day on consoles. And as such, beneath it all, it's the simplicity of what it makes you do and the effectiveness of the manner in which it lets you do it that helps it so endear.
With its origins in the margins of the industry, it's also perfectly happy to be fiendishly tough, but then it is using the Metal Slug playbook. You get used to the challenges in the same way as those games, really. Unless you pick up a little shield orb which protects you from one hit, you'll die on first contact - heh - with anything thrown or swung in anger. So the dynamic tends to be lots of frantic but relatively considered leaping about throughout most of the levels, which only absorbs a small percentage of your available lives, and then gruelling encounters with bosses - often in the middle and at the end of a level - that drain far more. And obviously in time you learn the patterns, adapt, and the whole thing tumbles before with greater ease - and of course you start to find more treats hidden amongst the rubble. There's an assortment of multiplayer mini-games to unlock, and we'd be surprised if you didn't feel like returning with a second player in tow for a bit of co-operative fed-flustering.
There's more to the game beyond the first few levels, naturally, with different vehicles, enemies armed with flamethrowers, bladed weapons and other things, and while it's difficult, it does at least let you hop back to the start of the level you're currently on with a full complement of lives should you come unstuck, which may wind up the hardcore but seems like a sensible concession in this day and age. Now, there isn't a huge amount more, just to clarify - people have polished all 16 levels off in just a few hours, according to ye olde apocryphal Internet - but there's a real sense of this being a game you'd come back and play again. That's so plainly how it's been designed.
And, rather appropriately, that's what I'm going to do. See you in a few weeks for the review.
Alien Hominid is due out on PS2 and Xbox on 27th May, and the Xbox version will apparently feature downloadable content options. Ooh. There's a Cube version out in the US, but no word on its future on these shores just yet.