In the summer of 1992, UK joystick manufacturer Cheetah released the Alien 3 JoyStick for a range of 8-bit and 16-bit microcomputers. It was basically a big plastic xenomorph that you could sort of control games with. As an Alien-obsessed 13 year old, I was determined to save up and buy one for my Commodore Amiga. To this day, it remains the worst financial decision of my life.
Last week, celebrated Swiss artist and sci-fi visionary H.R. Giger tripped down a staircase, which tragically resulted in the 74-year old meeting his maker. I like to imagine this was a biomechanical goddess of cold and unknowable beauty. a bit like that lady from Necronomicon II. But I digress.
While best known for his conceptual movie work, Giger’s trademark style also had a significant influence on gaming, which just about justifies the rambling diatribe I'm about to unleash. Older readers may recall his involvement in the point-and-click psychological horror game Dark Seed, while the inspiration for titles like Dead Space, Space Hulk, Alien Breed and R-Type are blatantly obvious.
But of all the nightmarish visions to slither out of Giger’s shadow, few are as diabolically evil as the Alien 3 JoyStick. It was a conduit for frustration, misery and physical pain that effectively murdered my childhood.
To appreciate the personal trauma this device caused me, some background information is required. You’ll need to cast your mind back to the early 1990s. Australia was a completely different place back then -- rap was dominated by a white guy, speculation was rife about the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and the country was skating dangerously close to a recession. Okay, so maybe things weren’t that different. It was a lot harder to get your hands on video game peripherals, though.
In the pre-internet days, you were basically stuck with whatever Australia’s small handful of distributors felt like bringing into the country. Tragically, this did not include Cheetah’s Alien 3 JoyStick. From The Games Wizards to The Gamesmen, nobody seemed to have it in stock. Did they not know genius when they saw it? By combining the Amiga with Alien, it was clearly the best invention in the history of mankind. Or so it seemed to my thirteen-year old brain.
With the Alien 3 movie just around the corner, I was desperate to land my hands on one of these babies so I could take it to the cinema. I even fantasized about hiding the peripheral in some popcorn and freaking out my schoolyard crush Casey Pursy, in a sort of a pubescent precursor to the dick-in-a-box. But first I needed to find the bloody thing.
After ringing up a bunch of mom-and-pop electronics stores without success, I finally had a eureka moment – one of my uncles lived in the UK! What’s more, he actually owned an Amiga! All I had to do was get in contact with him and he’d be able to send one over.
Naturally, this required lots of incessant, unseemly begging to my parents before they agreed to stump up the cash for an international call. I remember the conversation going down something like this: Me: “G’day, Peter! It’s your favourite nephew here!”
Uncle: “’Allo then. Your dad mentioned you’re looking to buy one of those Alien 3 joystick jobbies. They’re crap, you know. You’d be much better off with the Cheetah Bug.”
Me: “The what? No! It’s gotta be the Alien 3 JoyStick!”
Uncle: “They ain’t that cheap y’ know.”
Me: “I don’t care! I’ll pay anything!”
Uncle: “Right. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
With that, I handed the phone back to my dad and the financial arrangements were made. This basically involved me handing over the cash to my parents (including shipping costs) and my parents reimbursing my uncle via bank transfer. All told, the transaction cost me somewhere in the region of $60 – an astronomical amount for a 13-year old. But I knew it was going to be worth it.
The Alien 3 JoyStick didn’t make it in time for the movie. I never plucked up the courage to ask Casey to go with me either (she kind of looked like a Mini Me version of Susanna Hoffs from The Bangles. I still regret not making a move on her.)
As you can probably imagine, my experience watching Alien 3 in the cinema was underwhelming to say the least. The plot seemed to chiefly comprise of cockney slapheads running around playing tag in a sewer. And that ending was the biggest downer ever! By the time the Cheetah peripheral finally arrived in the post, my enthusiasm for all things Alien had waned considerably. Oh well. At least I had a new, state-of-the-art joystick to play Project-X with. Right?
As it turns out, the joystick was a load of bollocks. Worse than the film, even. It was unwieldy, cheap looking and uncomfortably pointy in the hand-grip area. Playing games with this thing was about as impractical and painful as using a live echidna. I couldn't even get past the farcically easy first level of Xenon II. Completing a lap on Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge and Stunt Car Racer was a war of attrition that my hand couldn't hope to win.
To make matters worse, the joystick didn't even come with auto-fire functionality. No really. This made it essentially useless for all shoot-em-ups and action titles -- including the Alien 3 video game that it was specifically built for.
I learned a harsh lesson about the quality of licensed products that day. The late, great H.R. Giger might be a masterful artist, but his creations make for really crap joysticks.
The following year I got the Cheetah Bug. My uncle was right: it was awesome.