Altered Beast – Sega Genesis
Platform: Sega Genesis
Release Date (NA): August 14, 1989
Genre: Beat ’em Up, Brawler
Nerd Rating: 6 out of 10
Reviewed by Nerdberry
Note: Defining Retroary: Retrogaming + February = Retroary. Here at nerdbacon.com, we define Retro as anything the year 2000 or prior. However, if a pre-2000 gaming system releases a game after the year 2000 (i.e. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, which was released for Nintendo 64 in late 2002), it qualifies. PS2 and GameCube are currently not included.
For the 4th annual Retroary, I have decided to review Altered Beast as my kick-off title. For veteran gamers over the age of 25, this title should need no introduction. Its place in gaming history is firmly solidified, with a cultural impact that saw Altered Beast find its way into a number of outlets. To name a few, Altered Beast is featured in a rap song (see 4 Ize’s set on “Freestyle” on the Ludacris album Word of Mouf), has a cameo in the smash hit movie Wreck-it-Ralph, and is the title for Matthew Sweet’s 1993 album. There’s no denying the legacy Altered Beast has bestowed upon the masses, but at near 30 years of age, is it still worth blowing the dust off the cartridge’s connectors?
I already noted the game’s impact on the social landscape, and this didn’t happen because the game sucked. It happened because the game was friggin’ badass for its time. Originally released as an arcade game, Altered Beast proved to be a smash hit as it provided Sega with perhaps their best exposure in the American market. You’ll have to remember, at this time (1988), Sega had yet to make much of a dent in the home console market with their Sega Master System, and their share of arcade success was minimal compared to heavy hitters like Midway, Capcom, and Namco to name a few. But the upcoming 1989 North American Genesis launch would finally showcase Sega’s true prowess. Before Sonic the Hedgehog was a household name and a pack-in title, Altered Beast held the honor as the Sega Genesis’ flagship series. In fact, it was Sega’s ability to port arcade hits onto the Genesis that truly helped them succeed.
Perhaps one of the most challenging games to review in 2017, Altered Beast walks a thin line between nostalgic joy and antiquated pain… a very thin line. I can’t help but seethe at every delayed button response, every stiff missed connection of a kick or punch, and the over-the-top and seemingly unnecessary difficulty. Almost every aspect of Altered Beast is cringe-worthy, to be quite frank. As I struggled through a dozen failed attempts at beating the 2nd level, I couldn’t help but wonder what everyone was so excited about when they played this in arcades or in the early ’90s. My feelings of nostalgic joy are somewhat suppressed by the overwhelming pain of the game’s archaic nature, but they are still present. That nostalgic joy only exists because I had the pleasure of enjoying Altered Beast in its heyday.
Being that I was born in 1986, my first experience with Altered Beast was that of a child, and I surprisingly remember my youthful sentiments. I remember the excitement of a muscly super hero. No, not a comic book super hero, but an Arnold Schwarzenegger type hero. Altered Beast had the feel of a high-powered action movie filled with villains, explosions, and plenty of muscles. I don’t remember having any feelings of frustration, anger, annoyance, and the like. While I have no recollection of how I felt towards the game’s sheer difficulty, I do remember spending hours on end attempting to beat the game to no avail. I don’t think I ever will beat it either. *Sigh.
Setting the Tone. Story.
NOTE: After this review, I’ll likely need to touch up on my Roman/Greek mythology some. So forgive me if I’m historically inaccurate at all.
In ancient Greece, Zeus’s daughter Athena has been kidnapped by an evil demon named Neff. Zeus resurrects a powerful warrior from the grave (Zeus’s “Rise from your grave!” quote is the first level’s opening moment) to fight his way through Neff’s army of mythological creatures, demons, sorcerers, and zombies to rescue his daughter. As you kill your enemies, they drop orbs that you must collect to power up (this is where the famous “power up!” line started) so that you can be strong enough to defeat Neff. Boom. Altered Beast in a nutshell.
The story is pretty gnarly and, as far as I can tell, is pretty unique for its time. Sega’s utilization of Greek (or is it Roman?) mythology in many aspects of the game provided a fresh experience for those tired of the cliche city street brawlers, sci-fi shoot ’em ups, and various Super Mario Wannabes that ruled the gaming roost at the time. I have never been all that interested in or fascinated by ancient Greece/Rome, but I still found Altered Beast‘s theme to be intriguing enough to capture my attention.
Punch, Kick, Die. Gameplay and Controls
Gameplay is about as straightforward as it gets. You navigate the land kicking and punching your way all the way to Neff’s final lair. Along the way, you may occasionally use a platform, but the terrain is pretty flat for the most part. The enemies aren’t the fastest, and the A.I. is pretty much non-existent. But little was expected in that department in 1989.
With only three buttons at your disposal, and one of those being a jump button, you are limited to only two offensive maneuvers: kick or punch. But what made Altered Beast so cutting edge (although not revolutionary) was the button-combination abilities. In conjunction with other buttons, you could now crouch and punch, lay down and kick upwards, jump and kick, or jump and punch. While at first it might seem that the extra button variety is unnecessary, you will soon learn why Sega included those extra attacks. Over the course of the game, the enemies will attack you from a number of angles, forcing you to make snap decisions on what button combination is best utilized in that particular moment. Right now it doesn’t sound all that impressive, but in hindsight, it’s actually pretty ingenious.
While the control scheme is pretty solid on all fronts, the execution is a bit poor. I found the character movements to be rigid, slow, and lacking. I cannot honestly say I remember how I felt about the controls back then, so maybe they only feel so terrible today because I have hundreds of games to compare them to. Regardless, there are some contact issues that make it challenging to defeat enemies with precision attacks. This lack of a controlled attack relegates Altered Beast to a pile of outdated 1980s button-smashers that it never deserved to be in. Sometimes the truth is cold.
Bleep Bloop. Zap Zap! Sights n’ Sounds
While Altered Beast is nothing to write home about today, upon its original release, it was very graphically and aurally impressive on all fronts. Visually and graphically, Altered Beast is a pretty sharp title, although not as impressive as games that were released later in the Genesis’ lifespan, which is to be expected. For its time, however, it proved to be a quality arcade port to households, bringing its dramatic and sharp visuals along with it. Although the graphics look as ancient as the mythological gods the game portrays, we didn’t always feel this way.
Personally, the music was always a bit boring and dull, but I can see why some would appreciate it. I can’t argue with its tone-setting ability and appropriateness for the theme of the game, but I guess my personal preference would have been for something a little faster. The sound effects are about what one would expect for the time, with plenty of bleeps and bloops and B-movie-foley-artist-esque slapstick punches and kicks. When compared to other games of the time, Altered Beast does seem to lack slightly in sound effect variety. However, it is second-to-none in rendering voices and dialogue, something cartridges of the time were not very well known to do.
WTF? WHY? Difficulty n’ Such
Altered Beast is infamously known for its challenging gameplay, although not quite on the same plain as classics like Battletoads and Ghosts n’ Goblins. Part of the conundrum in classifying the difficulty of a game like this relies on this 2-part question: “Is the game challenging because the developers made it hard? Or is it because of the technological limitations of the era – bad controls, contact issues, etc?” Regardless of what you think is the correct answer for that question, make no mistake, Altered Beast can be a bitch of a game at times. The only saving grace you have is when you power up into a Werewolf, Weretiger, or whatever other Were-animal they’ve conjured up. While not invincible, the power upgrade is quite substantial and vastly superior to the buff he-man body builder you play as for the rest of the game.
Altered Beast is the kind of game that lives on forever with gamer’s of a certain age, but I can’t honestly say that it has aged very well. There was a time and a place for this game, and it had its day, but that day has come and gone. Does Sega owe much of its success to Altered Beast? I would think yes. This game was a catalyst for them, kicking off the North American Genesis release with gusto. Their aim at releasing edgy, dark, and less childish games helped set them apart from their contemporaries in such a way that it became the very fabric of their existence. Altered Beast may not be worth wasting your dust-blowing breath on today, but it is not a game that should be forgotten, nor should its legacy be downplayed. Now that I’ve finally gotten this game off my “games to review” list, I think it’s time to retire one of my occasionally used phrases… Here it is. One… last… time… POWER UP!
Nerd Rating: 6 out of 10
Reviewed by Nerdberry
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