Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Many Faces of Altered Beast

Think it’s just a pack-in game with dubious audio? THINK AGAIN.

To most people, “Altered Beast” will forever be that game on the Sega Genesis where you eat orbs, turn into various manimals, and engage in boss fights that fluctuate from retardedly easy to mind-breakingly impossible. And also, it’s a game that recasts Greek mythology, turning Zeus into the God of Thunder. And of course…”rise from your gwave.” Can’t forget about that, ever.

I’ve always loved the Sega Genesis version of the game. It was short, simple, challenging as all hell, and as far as I’m concerned, the two-player mode beat the shit out of “Super Mario Bros.” Sit around, taking turns, waiting for your buddy to die so you can play a game that’s virtually identical to the single player game? Forget that, I’m going to team up with a Smurf-colored grizzly and shoot lightning balls at clam monsters and hyper-phallic wasp soldiers instead!

While the Sega Genesis iteration of the game is clearly the most well-known version of the game, there are actually a dozen different versions of the game out there, ranging from 8-bit ports that never got out of Japan to weird-ass handheld remakes to a 128-bit “re-envisioning” that transformed the franchise into a 3D “Devil May Cry”-type brawler. As it turns out, “Altered Beast” is one of the most surprisingly prolific game series out there, and I reckon it’s not a bad idea if we quickly ran down a list of every single “Altered Beast” game ever made -- and trust me, that entails WAY more software than you’d think.

Altered Beast -- The Arcade Game! (1988)

Well, the 1988 coin-op is clearly the first place to stop on our whirlwind tour of all-things “Altered Beast.” The game is fairly similar to the Genesis version of the game, albeit with better visuals and mildly more polished sound. The level design is pretty much the same as the Genesis title, and the mechanics are virtually identical. You walk around, half naked, punching skeleton demons until they explode, you kill a couple of blue Cerberuses, you turn into one of five animal-warrior creatures, and at the very end of the game, you fist fight a rhinoceros-man that slowly turns more heliotrope as the battle unfurls. In some ways, you could call the arcade original your standard beat ‘em up, although the mythological/horror vibe and limited, two-way movement certainly made it feel worlds apart from games like “Final Fight” or “Double Dragon.” It also had a two-player mode, which was awesome.

Altered Beast -- on the Sega Master System! (1988)

Before “Altered Beast” made the jump to the Genesis, it first appeared on Sega’s 8-bit Master System. Of course, the game lacked the voice acting that made the arcade game so memorable, but overall, the music here isn’t too bad. The visuals are also pretty good, and certainly better than the graphics for most of the ports that were released in the late ‘80s and early 1990s (as you will soon see.) The big difference here is that the game only has four stages -- it merges the “bear” / “tiger” cavern/palace levels into one stage -- and also, the boss fights take place in completely pitch black environments. Of course, the bosses do look a bit different than they do in the arcade version of the game, but outside of the omissions and alterations (har-har) listed above, it’s a pretty straight-forward and largely enjoyable game -- if nothing else, it’s probably the best Sega could’ve done with the hardware, anyway.

Altered Beast -- on the MSX! (1988)

I couldn’t find much information about this hyper-rare port of the game, outside of a brief YouTube video and a couple of unimpressive screenshots on Google. Judging from the first stage of the game, however, it appears to follow the arcade title rather faithfully, but for all I know, the second stage might have an “Outrun”-style driving set-up. Anybody out there with more info on this one care to share it with the rest of us, by any chance?

Altered Beast -- on the ZX Spectrum! (1988)

In some ways, the ZX Spectrum version of “Altered Beast” is both very faithful to the arcade original and something altogether different. In terms of gameplay and aesthetics, the game looks and feels quite similar to the arcade title, and the music -- although fairly primitive -- is actually quite recognizable. Of course, the Spectrum had a fairly limited color palette, but the visuals remain pretty vivid and, considering the hardware limitations, pretty impressive. You even get some cool “exploding enemy” effects that Sega’s home consoles couldn’t pull off! Where the game diverges, however, is in its length, as almost all of the stages are condensed considerably. Hell, there are even moments when you’ll see two or three blue Cerberuses on screen at once! It’s a fun game, but the controls here aren’t all that intuitive. It’s an intriguing little diversion, but as a port, it’s got more problems than positives.

Altered Beast -- on the Sega Genesis! (1989)

Really, what more can be said about this game? It’s an iconic 16-bit classic, that’s just as fun and engrossing now as it was a quarter century ago. The visuals were great, the music was terrific and the voice acting was…uh, interesting, to say the least. Since this is the most well-known version of the game, I suppose it doesn’t make sense to ramble about it to much. Just know this: it’s a tremendous game, and if you haven’t played it yet…seriously, what the hell are you doing with your life?

Altered Beast -- on the Commodore Amiga! (1989)

Now here’s a fun, rarely played title that’s definitely worth a look at if you’re a hardcore “Altered Beast” aficionado. This Activision handled port plays very much like the Genesis version of the game, with slightly improved music and voice acting. The visuals, while not as crisp as the Genesis version, do entail more arcade-like effects -- for example, when you kick a skeleton warrior to death, it literally explodes in pseudo-3D. The levels, bosses and transformations are more or less identical to the arcade and Genesis versions, although there are some slight changes here and there. For one, you get a really brief opening cut scene (don’t get too excited, though, because it’s just a human eye turning into a wolf pupil) and the player status bar has been redesigned. It may not be the best version of the game out there, but if you’ve never gotten your hands on it before, it might be a decent way to kill an afternoon.

Altered Beast -- on the Atari ST! (1989)

In essence, this Activision-handled port is more or less the same game as the Commodore Amiga version, only not as good. The graphics are just about as good as the Genesis version of the game, but some of the colors are off, and the animations just aren’t as smooth. And also, the sound here is much worse than it is on either the Genesis or the Amiga. The boss fights and animal forms are the same as in the arcade game, but some of the colors are changed up here and there. It’s playable, and it has some merits, but overall, it’s not really one of the better iterations of the game out there.

Altered Beast -- on the Commodore 64! (1989)

Sadly, this iteration of “Altered Beast” is nowhere near as good as the Commodore Amiga version, with obviously inferior visuals. Even worse, the game actually LACKS music, which is like, a million points off. As a plus, it does have all of the arcade stages, as well as the various animal forms and familiar boss fights. Considering the ancient (even at the time) hardware, I suppose it isn’t too bad, but it’s certainly one of the worst versions of the game out there, as well.

Altered Beast -- on DOS! (1989)

Visually, this one is pretty good, although it lacks some of the original arcade game's  scrolling effects. The music is decent but it also lacks sound effects, which clearly takes out a lot of the fun of the experience. For the most part, it plays a lot like the Sega Genesis version, with a few graphical changes -- perhaps most noteworthy among them being a new game over screen and the inclusion of red Cerberuses in addition to the blue ones we all know and love. Great graphics, passable sound, enjoyable (but not optimal) gameplay -- it’s an all right experience, nothing more, nothing less.

Altered Beast -- on the Amstrad CPC! (1989)

Considering the hardware limitations, this version of “Altered Beast” is actually kinda’ impressive. Of course, it looks like pure crap compared to other iterations of the title, but like I said…with hardware limitations in mind. On the surface, the title is quite faithful to its source material -- you get all five stages from the arcade game, with the corresponding animal forms and boss fights -- and the music, while warbled considerably, still feels pretty authentic. Where the game falters, however, is in the gameplay, which is stiff and absolutely plagued by periodic slowdowns. Even for the most hardcore fans of the franchise, I’d probably advise skipping out on this one.

Altered Beast -- on the PC Engine AND the PC Engine CD! (1989)

The PC Engine, known as the Turbo Grafx-16 here in the states, was a really popular (and completely underrated) Japanese console. The PC Engine iteration of “Altered Beast” never left Nippon, which is a shame, because it’s a really good version of the game that I think is almost on par with the Genesis version. In a lot of ways, the graphics on the PC Engine version are markedly superior to the Genesis iteration, with more defined sprites and smoother animations. Oddly, the color fades out during boss battles, however, and the overall sound is not as good is it is on Sega’s 16-bit hardware. The levels and animal forms are identical to the Genesis version, if you were wondering.

Visually, the PC Engine CD version of the game -- which also never made it to the States -- looks pretty similar to the PC Engine version of the game, but it has some notable differences, the first being the inclusion of a really weird opening cutscene. Of course, the audio on the PC Engine CD version is an improvement over the PC Engine software, and there are even a few subtle changes to the level layout -- namely, the inclusion of some breakable obstacles in the second level. More or less, it’s the same game as the PC Engine version, just with better audio. Needless to say, If you’re a hardcore “Altered Beast” fan, you might want to track down both iterations right here…

Altered Beast -- on the Nintendo Entertainment System! (1990)

Now here’s where shit starts getting W-E-I-R-D. First off, in case you didn’t notice, this is an officially licensed Sega game, making an appearance on a Nintendo console -- that alone would be enough to raise one’s eyebrows. Even weirder, the Japan-only release was produced by Asmik, the company that would later go on to make some of the absolute best pro wrestling games ever on the N64. As for the game itself, it does have some interesting content, to say the least, including several bonus stages and animal forms that weren’t included in the arcade/Genesis version. In one stage -- which resembles a forest/park at night, you turn into what appears to be a pony-man, and you do battle with this robotic, red hippo thing that uppercuts lighting balls at you. Another NES-only stage sees you navigating an underwater temple, where you transform into a shark(!) and go fin-to-tentacle with a Kraken. In yet another stage -- which looks like it takes place on a mountain of some kind -- you transform into a flying red demon gargoyle monster and battle a bad-ass looking purple statute demon with breasts. To be fair, the designers here managed to put in a ton of content -- there’s even a neat little “Easter egg” ending after the post-Neff credits roll -- but all of that extra stuff can’t mask two unfortunate truths about the game. First, the graphics here are pretty disappointing (way, WAY worse than the Master System’s visuals, made worse because half of the screen is dedicated to a completely needless status bar.) And secondly? The game just plays pretty poorly, with stiff controls and game play that’s far from optimal. It’s an interesting diversion for the hardcore, but at the end of the day, it’s got to be one of the worst “Altered Beast” titles out there.

Super Altered Beast -- on the MSX! (1990)

Despite the inclusion of “Super” in the title, no, this isn’t an unauthorized SNES port of the original “Altered Beast.” Rather, it’s a really, really shitty Korean knock-off for the MSX, which takes some extreme liberties with the source material. The first stage takes place in a pastel colored graveyard (with your character turning into something that resembles one of those guys dressed in green stockings at NCAA basketball games), and the third and final stage concludes with your avatar doing battle with Neff’s giant head -- you know, the one that taunts you at the end of every level in most other versions of the game. Needless to say, it’s a pretty awful game, that was made by people with a pretty poor grasp of how video games work. Its amateurish design -- not to mention its sheer WTF value -- may provoke some gamers into giving it a whirl, but take my word for it; even as a novelty, it’s still a squandering of your free time.

Altered Beast -- The Tiger Electronics LCD Game! (1990)

That’s right, “Altered Beast” even got the Tiger handheld treatment! Of course, there’s really not much I can tell you about the game -- there’s a static background which somewhat resembles the first stage of the arcade game, and you navigate your blinking LCD dot beast across an endless terrain fighting other blinking LCD dot creatures. Yeah, it may not have the visual appeal or long-term quality that some of the other iterations of the game had, but as far as sheer nostalgia goes, this version is hard to top. Even more mind blowing? Tiger even released an LCD wristwatch version of the game!

Altered Beast -- The Matthew Sweet Album! (1993)

How awesome was “Altered Beast,” you may be asking yourself? Well, it was so awesome that it inspired the absolutely amazing (and criminally, stupidly underappreciated) Matthew Sweet to release an album with the very namesake in 1993. And if you haven’t heard it, for the love of all that is holy, you really ought to, as it’s far and away one of the best alternative records of the 1990s. Hey, why not play “Altered Beast” on the Genesis while listening to Sweet‘s “Altered Beast” on your iPod -- or better yet, portable CD player? I wonder if you turn into a dragon in level two right when “Devil with the Green Eyes” starts playing -- you know, like how stoned college kids think “The Wizard of Oz” synchs up with “Dark Side of the Moon” and stuff…

Altered Beast: Guardian of the Realms -- on the Game Boy Advance! (2002)

Well, it only took Sega a decade and a half, but the finally gave us a true sequel to “Altered Beast” with “Guardian of the Realms” -- on of, all pieces of hardware, the GBA. In some ways, the game is both a pretty reverential homage to the original game, and at the same time, a complete bastardization of it. In concept, the gameplay is similar to the 1988 game, with your character -- still rocking the sandals all these years later -- traversing left to right on a non-stop mission of kicking things’ asses, turning into mutated beasts, and kicking things asses while turned into mutated beasts. Some of the stages here are clear throwbacks to the original title -- the first two stages take place in a graveyard and a cave, respectively, and both entail transformations into wolves and dragons...also respectively. However, beginning with the third stage, things start to make a turn towards the unexpected, with forest, desert and swamp levels that see your character turning into electro-lizards, scorpion warriors and turtle-men that kind of look like the Incredible Hulk with a mullet. The final couple of stages get insanely difficult, but the animal forms are pretty cool, with transformations into, among other beasts, a shark-monster, an eagle-dude and, perhaps the game’s absolute coolest power-up, a very Neff-like rhinoceros gladiator. As an overall game, it’s fairly enjoyable, with decent visuals, OK music and a lot of cool tweaks to the “Altered Beast” formula -- you know, things like “health upgrades” and shields that most certainly would’ve been helpful in the original title. The only real problem with the game is the tough-as-nails gameplay, which is ultimately more frustrating than challenging. Still, it’s a good game despite its flaws, although you really have to wonder how much fun the game could’ve been sans the “Altered Beast” license.

Altered Beast -- on the Tapewave Zodiac! (2004)

While doing research for this article, there will plenty of versions I never knew existed before, but in this case, I uncovered a CONSOLE I never knew existed before. Per Moby Games, there is indeed a version of “Altered Beast” on the short-lived handheld known as the Tapewave Zodiac, which failed so spectacularly it made the N-Gage look like the Nintendo DS. Of course, photographic evidence of the game’s existence is pretty hard to come by, with nary a single video of the title on YouTube, nor a single Google Image Search return. Did this game ever actually exist? For that matter, did the Zodiac ever actually exist? A mystery for another day, I suppose…

Project Altered Beast -- on the Playstation 2! (2005)

A 128-bit, action-adventure remake of “Altered Beast?” What could possibly go wrong there? This Sega re-imagining completely rewrites the “Altered Beast” mythos, eschewing the Greek thematic for a more sci-fi tinged, “Matrix”-like storyline that involves some generic military experiment guy as he goes on a quest to figure out why he’s turning into a werewolf at random intervals and uncover some government secrets and stop a tyrannical man-beast from taking over the world and shit. As the case with many PS2/Xbox/GC era games, there’s perhaps a bit of plot overdose here, which at least distracts from the pretty bare-bones gameplay -- it’s your standard hack and slash title, at heart, although the monster power-ups are a neat diversion from the genre norm. At certain junctures in the game, you’re character transforms into your classical “Altered” forms -- a dragon, a werewolf, etc. -- as well as some updated forms, which includes, among other things, a yeti and a bald eagle. A lot of people rag on the title for being uninspired (because it is), but all-in-all, it’s not really a horrible game, per se. The real tragedy here is that North American gamers never got to experience this one, as for some reason, Sega decided to keep the game a PAL and Japan exclusive.

Altered Beast -- on the iPhone! (2010)

With the app revolution taking the gaming world by storm, it’s probably not surprising that Sega released a Genesis-port of the title for iOS systems. Basically, it’s the exact same game as the 16-bit classic we all know and love, albeit with a much less fluid control setup…sorry, Apple, but I just can’t enjoy a game using a triangular control pad scheme. I mean, kids nowadays have fat fingers and everything, but was it really impossible to give us a virtual “lima bean pad” setup on this one?

Of course, I left out quite a few compilation discs, which all contain the Sega Genesis version of “Altered Beast” on them. As far as the future of the franchise is concerned, it’s somewhat unlikely that we’ll ever see a full-fledged Altered Beast remake/sequel any time soon, although the odds of some high-definition permutations hitting the marketplace are rather likely. Allegedly, a 3D version of the game has been in the works for the 3DS for quite some time, and considering the game’s surprising presence in “Wreck-It Ralph,” it seems pretty sensible to assume that the franchise will be resurrected in some form -- maybe a special racer in the next Sonic racing game, perhaps? Considering today’s hyper-nostalgic retro market, you never know; the venerable series might just be rising from its gwave any minute now…

1 comment:

  1. Altered Beast is a pretty decent game. Everyone loved it at the time, so I'm baffled that people today are so harsh on it. If you like Altered Beast try Mystic Defender, it has a similar aesthetic.


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