Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pretty, Dull: The Ballad of Altered Beast

A typical scene from Altered Beast.  Not shown: Boredom.
Altered Beast is something of a mystery in hindsight.  It’s hard to understand what anyone could have seen in this sluggish action game, mindless even by the low-brow standards of late ‘80s beat ‘em ups.  It’s even more puzzling that Sega released Altered Beast for a half-dozen home game consoles, and offered it as the pack-in for the Sega Genesis when that system first launched in 1989. The only thing about Altered Beast that won’t come as a surprise is that Sega offered a free Genesis game through the mail as a peace offering to players who spent a whopping ten minutes finishing their first.

Take that, weird-looking Golden Axe steed!
So, what was the appeal of a game like Altered Beast?  I didn’t get it even as a teenager, but my brother was drawn to the graphics, which were not only advanced from a technical standpoint but imaginative, surreal, and even a little haunting.  Serpents burst forth from the ground, zombies fall apart with the pieces leaping toward the camera, and weird creatures nip at your heels as you fight to rescue Zeus’ daughter from the nefarious necromancer Neff.  It was a macabre spectacle that would have no rival until the release of another beastly action title, the brilliantly illustrated Shadow of the Beast.

Past the window dressing, Altered Beast is a bare bones beat ‘em up, not far removed from its more contemporary cousin Bad Dudes vs. Dragonninja.  The armies of the dead and an assortment of mythological beasts are barfed out of the right side of the screen, and you dispatch them with punches and kicks.  The stages are occasionally sprinkled with pits, but they’re more effective at robbing the player of quarters than breaking up the monotony of the flat level designs.

On your journey, you’ll sometimes cross paths with packs of Cerberuses... or is it Cerberi?  Anyway, you’ll find sparkling white hellhounds hiding in their midst, leading to the game’s hook.  If you can sink a fist into one of these beasts before it finds sanctuary at the edge of the screen, it curls up into a shining blue ball of energy.  Catch the orb as it snakes its way upward and your hero gets a welcome boost of strength, bulking up his muscles while adding similar heft to his attacks.

Oh, but I haven’t gotten to the best part!  Grab three energy balls and things take a turn for the furry, with your resurrected soldier taking one of five super-powered animal forms.  You’ll be hurling hadoukens as a werewolf in the graveyard, soaring above the swamp as a lightning-powered dragon, and turning cave dwelling creatures into stone statues with your deadly… bear breath.  I’m not sure I follow the logic of this one, but the look of agony etched on the faces of your petrified victims (and the sadistic joy of shattering them afterward) makes it worth the suspension of disbelief.

Snatching all three orbs also brings the stage to a merciful end, and prompts a showdown with Neff.  The sneering villain, looking very much like Robert Englund in his Nightmare on Elm Street prime, transforms into a screen-filling monster in a last-ditch effort to send your hero back to his grave.  You can see the strain on the art staff as the game progresses… while Neff’s first form, a tower of rotting human debris with bones and skulls buried in its foundation, ranks up there with R-Type’s Doppleganger as one of gaming’s most visually stunning bosses, things quickly go south from there.  Your next fight is with a watermelon packed with eyeballs.  A few stages later, you challenge a plump crocodile with a glowing belly, which looks like a Care Bear Cousin that didn’t make it past focus testing.  It’s like the boredom that swiftly sets in when you play this game eventually got to the designers themselves.

Beer would have been really helpful for this review,
I'll tell you that.
So there you have it.  Altered Beast looked great for the time, but its scrawny ass couldn’t cash the enormous check its graphics had written.  It didn’t make much of an impact on the gaming culture, either.  Sure, you’ll find occasional relics like myself who still remember Zeus’ distorted cry of “Rise from your grave!” from the Genesis version of the game.  However, when Sonic the Hedgehog finally came to America, Sega wasted no time making it the Genesis pack-in, swapping out Altered Beast with such mindboggling speed that it would have left even their spiny blue mascot slack-jawed.  There have been a couple of half-hearted attempts to revive the Altered Beast franchise in the 21st century, including a wrongheaded Game Boy Advance remake with grotesque-for-all-the-wrong-reasons rendered graphics, and a loose Playstation 2 sequel with ball-squeezin’ action.  Lately though, Sega has been content to leave the series in its grave … and even Zeus himself would find it tough to argue with that decision.

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