What is man without the beasts? For if all the beast were gone, man would die of a great loneliness of the spirit.
“The following is a contributor post by the Hopeful Sega Mage.”
This review marks my first anniversary at The Well-Red Mage and I couldn’t think of a better game to review. This is a game that I’ve discussed frequently with Red and a game that has probably helped me earn my reputation as a Sega devotee. Altered Beast was also the first game developed by Makoto Uchida, who would go on to develop Golden Axe and Alien Storm. Having covered those games previously, it feels like I’m coming full circle by going back to Uchida’s first game.
“The idea was to embody a very muscular character, who can become stronger and more able to defeat an army of monsters. But at the time, no team was available to program the game, so I had to wait six months to embark on this adventure. I used this amount of time to develop the concept. I wanted something to happen when the character reaches its maximum level…why not turn the character into a kind of animal monster – a therianthrope ”
-Makato Uchida, interview with Joypad Fr., 19/11/2015
Released in Japanese arcades in August 1988, Altered Beast’s premise was that of a dead soldier being resurrected by Zeus to rescue his daughter from the Underworld. Zeus gave the resurrected soldier the ability to transform, to alter his form upon collecting orbs… firstly into a muscular specimen of a man, then into a beast, a monster capable of fighting the Underworld’s greatest guardians.
The ability to transform into a huge mutated animal plus its graphical prowess and impressive speech made Altered Beast a success in the arcades and it would go on to be ported to nearly every system known to man… there is even a Famicom version with extra beasts.
However, the version of Altered Beast that is best known to gamers is the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis) version. Released a year after the arcade original, Mega Drive Altered Beast would become the bundled game for that system. As a pack-in game, Altered Beast had a simple job – wow potential customers with its arcade-like graphics while entertaining new owners long enough until they could purchase another game to play.
“In Altered Beast, there is something that we had introduced but that was not preserved. It was planned to include a system allowing the player to target the strengths and weaknesses of each enemy. However, the development of this idea has not been completed. This may surprise, but we decided to cancel this concept at the very last minute before the release of the game – anyway, the graphics and the sound were ready. In doing so, we were forced to cut half of the movements of action. Our artist was upset by this decision but I was rather happy because I found the gameplay simpler and more fun.”
-Makato Uchida, interview with Joypad Fr., 19/11/2015
As time went on, Sega realised that they needed a character and a franchise that could compete with Mario. This led to the birth of a little blue hedgehog who was pretty quick and quickly spelled the end for Altered Beast as the representative of the Mega Drive. In hindsight, it was a great decision from Tom Kalinske, Head of Sega America. By packing in Sonic, the Mega Drive’s hottest game, you were giving consumers the best possible start to their Mega Drive library and an incentive to grab the new console straight away without worrying about paying more money to get a decent game to go with it. Altered Beast would fade away once it was dropped as the Mega Drive’s pack-in game and was forgotten quickly after launch, as games like Streets of Rage and Street Fighter II surpassed it.
But did Altered Beast deserve to be forgotten like this? Surely, a game selected to be the first pack-in game for a console as iconic as the Sega Mega Drive has something to offer? Altered Beast is definitely a game with a negative reputation, but is that solely the game’s fault?
The 8-Bit Review
I’d probably call Altered Beast a faded beauty, visually. Back upon release in the late eighties, Altered Beast was designed to be graphical showcase for the new Mega Drive, proof that the new console could run arcade games at home. Like many of these arcade to Mega Drive ports, Altered Beast is nowhere near the standard of the arcade game, but it’s certainly more than a passable interpretation of the original.
The Mega Drive port of Altered Beast does have parallax scrolling (the background scrolling moves slower than the foreground, creating the illusion of distance) which was missing from the arcade and was quite impressive for the time. I reckon that unless you were someone who played the Altered Beast arcade machine on a regular basis, you probably wouldn’t have given the differences in quality much thought.
Looking at Altered Beast now, you can see the flaws clearly; the animation (especially that of the enemies) has taken a huge plunge in quality from the arcade original and the colours look washed out in places. Couple this with a lack of detail and Altered Beast seems quite basic these days.
It’s hard to imagine people being impressed with these graphics, but in 1989 Altered Beast helped to sell Mega Drives. I personally don’t think Altered Beast’s graphics are all that impressive (there are better looking early Mega Drive games… Space Harrier II comes to mind). However, I will maintain that the transformation scene still looks great… if you ignore the clumsy cut of the sprites (you can see gaps between the flames!).
If you’ve been reading my reviews over the past year, you’ll know by now that I’m a big fan of the Mega Drive sound chip. Compared to the more varied SNES sound chip, the Mega Drive is a gritty, grungy beast. With that in mind, I would definitely advocate Altered Beast as an early, great example of the plus points of the Mega Drive sound chip.
The arcade’s tunes are here, present and correct, emphasized by the dirty groove of the sound chip. The Altered Beast soundtrack doesn’t get enough love in my opinion – there are some superb compositions here, both mournful and catchy at the same time. Altered Beast’s tunes aren’t too far removed from Golden Axe truthfully – think of a Mega Drive playing Iron Maiden-style metal, heavy yet catchy, lots of high lead melodies against a bruising rhythm that suits the game’s supernatural B-Movie feel perfectly.
Original composer Tohru Nakaabayasi was part of the Team Shinobi arcade development team who programmed Altered Beast andGolden Axe, so the similarities between both games’ soundtracks make a lot of sense, especially ‘I’ll Be Back’ from Altered Beast, which sounds like it wandered in from a GoldenAxe game. Helpfully. the sound programmer for the Mega Drive port of Altered Beast, Kazuhiko Nagai (Alien Syndrome and Altered Beast on the Master System) devised the original in-house sound driver for the Mega Drive, so he was probably one of the best people for the job of porting the soundtrack.
…And the speech? Yes, I need to mention the speech. I know it’s awful and the compression makes Zeus sound like Elmer Fudd, but it’s an infamous part of Altered Beast’s appeal. It’s so daft and out of place that it breaks the atmosphere the game is trying to project. Thing is, how many people heard about Altered Beast because of the speech? As part of it’s ‘so bad it’s good’ cult appeal, the speech is great and has become a meme/in-joke similar to ‘Your base are belong to us’.
If the speech had been better, then I think Altered Beast would have lost a lot of its ridiculous appeal. The silly speech is backed nicely by some great OTT sound FX – thuds, grunts and some digitized screams from films that sound great, a trick Uchida would reuse for Golden Axe.
I think Altered Beast is actually an alright game, albeit one that was dated even back in 1989 and certainly wasn’t anything special. On a base level, it is fun to smash enemies up and see the new environments and transformations. Plus, it’s not a slog to play, like Golden Axe III for example. Altered Beast may have the depth of a puddle on a summer afternoon but, for its twenty minutes of gameplay, it’s fine. It’s not one of the Mega Drive’s gaming highlights, it’s too easy and shallow, but nor is it one of its lows either. If you question that sentence, feel free to try Sword of Sodan and Dark Castle on the Mega Drive, two awful, near broken games that offer no enjoyment to anyone but masochists.
I will grant you that Altered Beast has flaws… it is slow and clunky, certainly a lot slower than the arcade original. Also Altered Beast is an 80’s arcade game at its core: it’s programmed to defeat you by throwing enemies at you until you have to start throwing coins at it and the Mega Drive port, while toned down, does have elements of this. Level five, the last level, simply bombards you with foes in the hope of catching you out and this can be frustrating. Like many 80’s Sega arcade games, memorization and practice are the keys to beating Altered Beast.
I do like Altered Beast’s plot despite the glaring plot holes (Why was only one centurion resurrected? Why can’t Zeus rescue his daughter himself? Why did Zeus think transforming into a beast after collecting orbs was the best solution… why not start as a beast?) but there isn’t much story exposition bar the infamous ‘Rise From Your Gwave’ intro screen, a few stills between levels and the ending.
To be fair, asking for more story details from Altered Beast would be like asking a cartoon to give an in-depth analysis of each character’s motivations. Altered Beast’s plot is very much the 80’s staple of ‘bad man take pretty girl – rescue pretty girl’ given the mythical twist and that’s fine here… the basic plot suits the B-Movie nature of the game. Altered Beast is simply too short a game to have much plot depth… by the time you consider Altered Beast’s narrative, the game is finished and you can move on.
In summary, I like the basic plot, but I really can’t think of how I would add any more detail and exposition to Altered Beast. It’s a low score for the basic, run-of-the-mill story, but I doubt it could be improved upon without altering the game (no pun intended).
Outside of its setting, Altered Beast certainly isn’t a unique game – 2D scrolling arcade brawlers were all the rage in the eighties and I’m sure you can name several (Bad Dudes, My Hero, and Vigilante come to mind) which you might even prefer to Altered Beast. There isn’t much unique about Altered Beast’s core gameplay, anyway… walking right and punching things coming at you is Video Game 101.
The setting however… how many other 8/16-bit games can you think of which offer such a historical/supernatural setting? Feel free to correct me in the comments, but I can’t think of any game that offered this at the time bar (the much superior) Castlevania. The transformation aspect is a unique gameplay mechanic for the 80’s and definitely the selling point of Altered Beast. Again, feel free to correct me, but I can’t think of a game that offered the chance to ‘power up’ your character and change their form so drastically at this time.
Even an Altered Beast apologist like me has no defence for Altered Beast’s depth – there is very little replayability here. Altered Beast was designed as an arcade coin muncher, not as a game to be played at home and as a result, there is very little to see for the player.
The game itself can be beaten in 20 – 30 minutes and after that there is only a harder New Game mode to play. Sure, there is a two player mode but that’s just the same game again with an extra player. Plus, Altered Beast doesn’t have the appeal of a Golden Axe or a Streets of Rage… no one has ever said to me “Hey, let’s play some Altered Beast!” or “I’ll come ’round to yours with a pad so we can play Altered Beast.” I doubt most people even know Altered Beast has a two player mode.
While people may not enjoy playing Altered Beast, they’d probably admit it’s fairly accessible – as an arcade game, it’s designed to grab your attention and the gameplay is simple enough for most people to pick up.
The original Mega Drive cartridge is fairly common – while not on Sonic the Hedgehog levels of commonness, it’s not a hard one to find for determined Mega Drive collectors. Given its frequency and lack of quality, Altered Beast is never too expensive either… I paid 50p back in 2002 and even in these retro-inflated times, I doubt you would pay north of ten pounds for a fully boxed copy.
You don’t even need a Mega Drive to play Altered Beast – it’s always one of the first games Sega ports to any new system or collection and it’s pretty much a given that this will never end. I reckon a lot of the resentment towards Altered Beast is because when Sega announces they will be bringing their games to Steam/Virtual Console/Sega Compilations, people get excited and fantasize about Shenmue and Panzer Dragoon Orta… only to get Altered Beast and Columns again. It’s not Altered Beast’s fault that Sega basically re-issues the same seventy games over and over, but unfortunately it’s an easy target. Still, if you want to play Altered Beast on modern hardware, then it’s not an issue. You can get it on Steam for £1.99 or for PS4/XBox One as part of the Sega Genesis Classics Collection, as well as online for Xbox 360 and PS3.
My Personal Grade: 5/10
So my thoughts then… well, despite many arguments to the contrary, I do think Altered Beast can be entertaining and is at it’s core, a decent game. A port is only as good as the original and I think the Mega Drive port of Altered Beast is a fine port… of a very shallow, average arcade brawler. Uchida himself admits Altered Beast was meant to have more features and I think the development of Golden Axe showed what he and his team were capable of.
I think Altered Beast’s issue is perception. It’s nothing special as a game, far from it. However, it’s one of the weaker arcade games from Sega’s classic 16-bit era, compared to Shinobi (1987), Golden Axe (1989) and Fantasy Zone (1986). I was genuinely surprised when I first realized it came out as late as 1988. When you think that Double Dragon first came out in 1987, you realize how behind the times Altered Beast is. As a simple 2D arcade brawler, Altered Beast is serviceable. However, the late 80’s saw advancements in gameplay that left it in the dust. To be fair though, how many other contextually similar games from that era can compete with arcade classics like Shinobi and Golden Axe?
Ultimately, Altered Beast is a historical curio, a game that is a footnote in Sega’s history, but not a game that holds any lasting appeal. I don’t think it deserves the apathy or dislike it receives, but I can understand people’s disappointment when Sega wheels it out every generation. Given the games that Sega would go on to develop and publish, people expect better retro re-releases than Altered Beast being asked to rise from its grave again. There is the issue really – Altered Beast isn’t an awful game, it’s a redundant nostalgia trip that Sega keeps selling tickets for.
Aggregated Score: 4.6
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