Alien Crush Returns, it turns out, is much more than an update: it is a direct sequel to Alien Crush, and a very different game. While the new version doesn't outshine the original, there's certainly more of it. And it finally brings online leaderboards to the series -- along with direct online competition!
The game is divided into arcade and story modes -- yes, there's a story, and it's ridiculous, obviously written to evoke nostalgia for pointless game stories. Your spaceship crew, piloting a pinball or something, investigates a giant spacecraft that turns out to be -- some kind of huge alien thing! That also turns out to be pinball playfields! In order to escape with their lives intact, the crew must destroy certain creatures inhabiting each of three pinball tables, as well as boss stages. This story mode is brief -- maybe thirty minutes long on the first try -- but it's a novel and goal-oriented way to play a pinball game, and provides a nice diversion from repeated high score attempts.
As expected, repeated high score attempts are the basic experience of the arcade mode, a game on one table of your choice that lasts until you run out of lives. These tables are identical to their story mode counterparts, except, of course, that you can't complete them by destroying monsters. The tables all feature dynamic moving parts, including creatures to destroy, bumpers of various kinds, conduits between areas of the field, and multiple sets of flippers. As you hit certain targets, you'll trigger tons of points, of course, but also a unique version of multiball in which the second ball is a different color, and the loss of the original ball results in death even if the "new" ball remains in play.
The additions -- extra abilities, bosses, multiple tables -- help ensure that Alien Crush Returns is not confused for its predecessor. But even more than that, the game's look distinguishes it. While the original playfields were organic in nature, the 16-bit graphics gave everything a "clean" appearance. Alien Crush Returns dials up the grotesque-o-meter, never letting the player forget for a second that the game's playfield is supposed to be an organism. The entire board pulsates; creatures spray purple mist for no real reason and explode into green goo upon contact. The playfield surface looks like some kind of meat, and the walls evoke fibrous muscle tissue. When destroying obstacles, I couldn't help but get the distinct feeling that I was puncturing unspecified organs in some alien's digestive system. Worst of all, the game emits a swallowing sound when you lose a ball.
These new playfields may not be as distinctive or as memorable as the original, though that may be because I haven't had almost twenty years to memorize them. But they play very differently from each other and add variety to a genre that usually features enough gameplay in a single table for hundreds of hours. I'm pleased to say that Alien Crush Returns admirably revives the grossout sci-fi pinball genre, and that the new online features make a welcome addition.
Final score: 8.5/10