With the new decade came new generations of gaming consoles, and the Aliens universe took full advantage of the medium. Aside from porting the Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection films into video games, new stories were being told in such titles as Alien vs. Predator for the Atari Jaguar, Aliens Infestation on the Nintendo DS, and the much hyped, but extremely broken, Aliens: Colonial Marines.
This retrospective focuses on one of the lessor Aliens video games in the series, an under-the-radar title that deserves a bit of reconsideration for its (albeit minor) contributions to the Aliens universe: Aliens: Thanatos Encounter.
Aliens: Thanatos Encounter was released in March of 2001 on Nintendo’s Game Boy Color, a handheld system in its death throes. The aging system (still built predominately on twelve-year-old technology from the original Game Boy) would be superseded by the Game Boy Advance a mere three months later in June. In terms of Aliens games, the Aliens vs. Predator 2 PC game, which would be released in the autumn of 2001, would become a benchmark game in the series, garnering acclaim and greatly overshadowing prior Aliens/Predator entries. With these two factors in consideration, Thanatos Encounter slipped through the cracks for gamers and Aliens enthusiasts alike.
The story begins with marines in stasis, en route to Earth after a successful training mission. Their ship’s computer, Mother, receives a distress signal from an enormous space freighter, the Thanatos. Mother receives orders from Marine HQ to investigate. A detachment of marines made of up Cpl. Brooke, Cadet Jorell, and Privates Shiro, Vanora and Chayton dock with the Thanatos via their UD-4L Cheyenne Dropship and proceed to setup their command post in the Thanatos’ docking bay. The marines begin to systematically clear the docking bay and associated corridors of xenomorphs (facehuggers, chestbursters, and aliens of various sizes) while rescuing the crew of the Thanatos.
A marine investigates the cargo bays to rescue a lone survivor; however, the elevators strand them on an upper level. Com-links between Mother and the Thanatos become disrupted, leaving the marine without any intel. Once the com-links are restored, the marine has made their way to the main body of the freighter and must set about rescuing a scientist. The facilities have become more and more derelict from xenomorph activity. In the living quarters, the rescued scientist informs the marine that there is a prototype weapon that needs to be obtained. After this, the Thanatos begins its evacuation procedures and the marine must venture deep into the living quarters that has now been converted into an alien hive to destroy the queen. Once the queen has been incinerated, the marine races against the self-destruct sequence (2 minutes and 40 seconds) back to the docking bay to escape on the dropship. After the Thanatos is destroyed, the marines and the rescued crew set a course back to Earth.
Aliens: Thanatos Encounter is played from a top-down perspective. Its repeating missions of rescuing survivors with aliens running amok among metal corridors recalls the 1987 arcade game, Alien Syndrome, which was in turn greatly inspired by Aliens. On each level, the player can select which marine they wish to play, as each one has varying levels of attributes in regards to speed and stamina, and there is some moderate inventory management. The marine has two hands, and in each hand can hold a weapon, a motion tracker, a two-handed gun, or even go guns akimbo; however, lining up the shots can be problematic, as a gun in the right hand will fire straight from the right hand, and not from the character’s center, so when an alien is charging at the marine, many shots will be missed. The limitations of the GBC hardware only add to the difficulty of maneuvering and strafing to line up shots.
The graphics for Thanatos Encounter take as much advantage as possible from the GBC’s color palette and look much more colorful than other GBC games, but it does lack the horror and atmosphere in its presentation. Each level is needlessly labyrinthine and repetitive. It’s a competent game, but it should’ve been either released a few years earlier or greatly improved and released on the Game Boy Advance, where it no doubt would’ve been a superior game.
Echoing its vanilla gameplay is also the vanilla story of Thanatos Encounter, but perhaps the barebones story is what makes the game an interesting oddity when compared to other Aliens video games. Thanatos Encounter works with the barest amount of Aliens lore to try and tell the biggest action story as possible, without conflicting with the canon of the stories from other Aliens media (be it games, movies, comics, etc.). There are no ties to Ripley in Thanatos Encounter and the characters in the game appear in no other story. Yet, there are elements in the game that firmly anchor it to the Aliens universe. The marines and their xenomorph nemesis, Mother, and the iconic powerloaders are plentiful in the game, as are the dropships from Aliens. During level 8, only the flame thrower can be used so that the hull will not be breached from arms fire, which mimics the sequence in Aliens in which the marines are under the Atmosphere Station. The ending sequence of the marine racing against time as the self-destruct goes on after dealing with the queen mirrors Ripley’s race against time with Newt to get back to her dropship before the facility explodes.
Perhaps the best way to look at Thanatos Encounter is a game that serves to underscore the role of the marines in the Aliens universe. The events that transpire in the game feel like a normal mission for the marines: infiltrate, secure, rescue, exterminate, and extract. Though there are mentions of Mother and Marine HQ, the unseen scheming hand of Weyland-Yutani is hardly felt in Thanatos Encounter. In fact, perhaps the only time it is somewhat felt is when the marine must retrieve the prototype weapon. Of special note for this mission, though, is that the marine never actually picks up the prototype weapon (It’s probably implied that the survivors collected in this stage hold the weapon.), they never use said weapon (In most video games, the experimental/prototype weapons are the BEST weapons.), and Weyland-Yutani is not once mentioned through the entire game. The other interesting aspect is the Marine HQ’s goal for the marine to continuously exterminate the aliens. In the Aliens universe, the Company is always scheming to capture, study, and weaponize the aliens, so again, seeing the plot emphasize destroying the aliens and saving the survivors goes against the modus operandi of how the Company operates, but not against the MO of the marines.
The marines themselves are depicted in a blank-slate fashion, a rarity when it comes to American-centric armed forces. Since the game was released in the spring of 2001, the Vietnam messages that permeated the marines in Aliens are absent; this was a war that was too long ago and other conflicts had come and gone since (Desert Storm). On the other hand, the September 11th terrorist attacks had not yet happened, and thus the decades of how marines were being depicted in films during the War on Terror are not applicable here. Being released at a (relative) moment of American peace time, the marines find themselves metaphor-less.
Within Thanatos Encounter, there are a few instances of plot holes and gaps of logic within the narrative. How did the aliens get on the Thanatos in the first place? Why on earth must the marine kill the queen and then have the self-destruct sequence start? Why not avoid the queen, escape, and then explode the Thanatos from far away? And who thought it would be a great idea to name a space freighter the Thanato, after the Greek version of the grim reaper? (The name would perhaps be more suitable to a marine ship.)
Regardless, Aliens: Thanatos Encounter is a quirky entry in the Aliens video game line. A little over a decade later, another marine-centric game would be released, Aliens: Colonial Marines, but to disastrous results (glitches, graphics, terrible AI, etc.), though with excellent storytelling that explores the events on LV-426 after Aliens. The marines have always been a fan-favorite element in the Aliens universe, and Thanatos Encounter does a competent job at giving them their own spotlight.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Ad Victoriam! Essays on Neo-Peplum Cinema and Television. He can be found at nickdiak.com.