The MSX version of Square's Aliens.Screenshot: Square Enix (MobyGames)
The name Square is closely associated with RPGs, and for good reason. But in the days before it had its first huge hit with Final Fantasy, Square tried all kinds of different things, including licensing the rights to the 1986 film Aliens and producing an action game with some now-familiar names in the credits.
There's not a whole lot of information out there about the development of these early games, but in a new book released this month titled The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Volume 3, author John Szczepaniak talks to Square's Takashi Tokita, who has been at the company since 1986, about his career, and spends some time on Aliens.
Tokita and the game's other developers would go on to be key figures in the creation of Final Fantasy shortly after the release of Square's Aliens in 1987 in Japan.
Tokita started his career, he said in the book, at a little-known company called ZAP Corporation, developing games for the MSX, a computer format that was very popular in Japan.
"Around that time, I saw a commercial for Square's King's Knight for the Famicom, and I was really impressed with its graphics, so I decided to take an interview with Square."
Takashi Tokita, with games from his long Square Enix career. Aliens is on the far right.Photo: Courtesy John Szczepaniak
Although Tokita would eventually go on be the lead designer of Final Fantasy IV and direct a slew of other games, at the time he was a graphic designer, drawing pixel art. His first job at Square was on Aliens.
"I think one of the reasons why they decided to recruit me was because they wanted to develop this title for the MSX, and I had experience doing graphics for the MSX," he said.
Tokita did all the art for the game, he said in the book. He had limited reference materials to go off: "First I went to watch the film, because I had not seen it. Then I got some highly-detailed model kits to use as reference materials. I kept them on my desk and referred to them from time to time as I worked."
What resulted was a fairly standard side-scrolling action game in the vein of Contra, with the player picking up new guns that fired in different formations and squaring off against a massive alien at the end of each level.
As with many such games, it looks fairly brief if you're good at it - here's one player zipping through it in 20 minutes flat:
While Aliens was only released on the MSX, that wasn't originally the plan. "We were actually working on the MSX, Famicom Disk System, and a PC version, but we only completed the MSX version," Tokita said.
"What happened was that the MSX version was programmed in-house, but we used contracted programmers for the Famicom and PC versions, and they really weren't up to the challenge."
A prototype disk of Aliens for the Famicom Disk System (a floppy disk add-on for the Japanese version of the NES) was found and dumped in 2011, and that version of Aliens turned out to be playable all the way through, although Tokita says Square wasn't happy with the quality.
"I think the Famicom version reached a stage between alpha and beta version, however the quality was quite poor," Tokita said. "The programmer just ... Didn't really have the skill to pull it off. He was holed up in the office, working at it night and day, but ... unfortunately, it didn't turn out the way we had hoped."
Does the near-existence of a Famicom version mean that we almost had a Square-produced Aliens game released for the NES? Probably not. "I think they only got the licence for use in Japan," Tokita said.
Indeed, the mention of Activision on the game's manual probably means that Square sub-licensed the Japanese rights from the U.S. publisher, which released Aliens: The Computer Game in Western territories.
The ending scene from Square's unreleased version of Aliens on the Famicom Disk System. Tokita drew the image of Ripley and Newt. Screenshot: Square Enix (YouTube)
Besides Tokita, two other key members of the team would go on to Final Fantasy fame. Aliens' producer was Hiromichi Tanaka, who did game design on the first three Final Fantasy games and also went on to a long and storied career at Square. And the music for the game was composed by Final Fantasy maestro Nobuo Uematsu himself.
(As often happens in Japanese game credits, the three went by goofy pseudonyms in the Aliens instruction manual - Tokita was credited as "Dirty Tokita," Tanaka as "Cellotape Tanaka," and Nobuo Uematsu as "Kentaro Hayabusa.")
"It was a very famous film, and we had a lot of freedom to develop the title," Tokita said in conclusion. "I was only 20 years old, so that was quite exciting for me."