Better Dead than Alien – Atari’s Ultimate Shoot-em-up Game!
Released in 1985, the Atari ST (16/32) marked Atari’s entry into 16-bit computing to compete with the likes of Apple’s Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, and IBM PCs. Though discontinued in 1993 after a short shelf life, the ST was a staple of Atari Explorer Magazine, Atari’s primary publication throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In a 1989 issue of Atari Explorer, I examined the game review for “Better Dead than Alien” in the “Software Survey” section. These opinion columns offered pros and cons for the latest Atari software releases.
Before the written review of the game begins, a blue box is provided with the required system, equipment, quick summary, price, manufacturer, and distributor. There are also five criteria for the game rated on a 10-point scale. Red squares fill up the 2×10 grid to denote a grading system.
To the right of the quick grades is a snapshot of the gameplay. It is a pixelated image of the game where the user tries to shoot the aliens before they collide with the user’s ship. A laser beam from the ship is headed toward an alien far in the distance to give a better image of how the game is played. The picture provides the reader with a stereotypical 20th-century arcade depiction of outer space with a nearly all-black background surrounded by a grey metallic structure. There is not much detail in the image itself, but according to the ratings, the graphics are 9/10. The simplistic design of the graphics makes way for a consuming gameplay that seems like you’ve been playing 10 minutes when it’s really been 30. Based on the image, it would be easy to get lost in “outer space” playing this game.
The “Software Survey” section of the magazine is meant to target a widespread audience of gamers interested in experimenting with newly released games in a wide variety. Written in casual, enthusiastic language, the review called Better Dead than Alien the “best dang shoot ’em up in years!” He stresses that the audience can submerse themselves in this game without thinking critically and ends the column by saying, “You want sophistication, giddadahere!”
The Atari Explorer magazine is represented as a form of play at home. Toward the end of the column, the writer notes that the game can be played using a mouse, joystick, or keyboard and has a simultaneous multiplayer mode. On the top left and right of the screen is where players can see their scores and compete against one another. Better Dead than Alien is a classic arcade-style game that aims to beat the previous high score. It’s all about bragging rights.
Throughout the magazine, the Atari ST is represented as the new wave of gaming, an arcade on a personal computer. Why leave the house and take a trip to the arcade when you can have one in the comfort of your room? Touching on identity, the Atari ST appeals to gamers of all ages. Atari emphasizes that they aren’t targeting solely kids/teens in its Software Surveys. Surveyed games range from fantasy to shooting, complex simulations to sports. Some are sophisticated and require thought, while others require none at all.
The Circuit of Culture can be used to analyze how Atari Explorer depicts the ST and the game itself. The magazine wanted to portray gaming on the ST as an identity – both recreationally and as an innovative step in the entertainment technology industry. Reviews of games like Better Dead than Alien spoke to the identity of the mid-1980s gamer by highlighting the games’ difficulty, graphics, and controls. The pixelated screenshots highlight the ST’s ability to deliver arcade-style action at home. Simultaneously, the writing portrayed games as pleasurable activities that require little critical thought. The informal tone that is used in the Software Survey complements the ST’s intended image as a fun gaming machine compared to the likes of business computers. Overall, Atari Explorer’s representation of the ST promoted its identity as a versatile and affordable home arcade to appeal to a broad audience seeking entertainment on a personal computer.
Better Dead than Alien by Brad Zoom
“The Atari ST.” Nostalgia Nerd, 1 Oct. 2016, http://www.nostalgianerd.com/the-atari-st/.
“Better Dead Than Alien – Atari ST Game.” Atari Legend, http://www.atarilegend.com/games/better-dead-than-alien. Accessed 22 Sept. 2023.
“Better Dead Than Alien.” Atari ST Better Dead than Alien, http://www.atarimania.com/game-atari-st-better-dead-than-alien_8703.html. Accessed 22 Sept. 2023.
Link to Better Dead than Alien – Software Survey: https://archive.org/details/stx_Atari_Explorer_1989-01/page/n55/mode/1up?view=theater