a review of Altered Beast
a videogame developed by sega
and published by sega
for dos, iOS, the arcades, the armstrad cpc, the atari st, the commodore 64, the commodore amiga, the famicom (nintendo entertainment system), the microsoft xbox live arcade, the msx, the nintendo wii virtual console, the sega master system, the sega mega drive (genesis), the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system, the sony playstation network, the turbografx-cd and the zx spectrum
text by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
By no means is Altered Beast a highbrow game; by neither means is that important. The game’s problem is that no one finished putting it together.
The premise: one or two players, formerly living Roman centurions, are reanimated to interfere with Greek mythology. They do this by punching and kicking zombies, and a touch of randomized lycanthropy. Today you’d call the game a “walk-and-punch”. Not a brawler like Double Dragon; think Bad Dudes. Punch, kick, jump. Press up and jump to jump to a higher platform. Duck and kick to attack upwards. It’s clumsy and stupid, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The characters are big and glisteny; the levels are gorgeous, usually. Enemies explode in a shower of bones; it’s visceral, cathartic.
Kick a blue Cerberus, and a swirling orb emerges. Grab that, and your shirt bursts with the rapture of digitized voices. Grab another, and you become Hercules in New York. Complete the trinity, and be treated with a “hey, check this out” full-screen transformation sequence… two fifths of the time. More on that later.
The game throws you all three orbs early in a level. Miss one, and the level keeps auto-scrolling at the pace of a Miyamoto text box, until you hit your transformation. Then at the next checkpoint, Hades (aka “Neff”) appears, taunts you, and alters his own beast into a drippy, crusted boss monster that in two cases does in fact resemble nightmares I’ve had.
The bosses are inspired in their grotesquery. The first one consists of an enormous torso melting into a puddle of dirt and corpses, that attacks by repeatedly, rapidly ripping its regenerating head from its hunched housing and heaving it aloft, again and again, resulting in a rain of torn, screaming, horned faces. The second is an enormous mushroom filled with projectile eyeballs.
Likewise, each of the player’s were-beasts has its own, bold powers. The werewolf can throw fireballs and zoom across the screen, destroying everything in his way; the werebear can turn enemies to stone.
What’s wacky in this picture is that the player’s powers are never matched to the bosses’ weaknesses. Rather, it seems the designers chose the absolute worst beast form to use against any given boss, making the game’s central conceit a kind of a pain in the ass.Unless you miss a “spirit ball”, there isn’t even much time to play around with the beasts; the boss appears moments later, and there you are stuck with a crowbar in a gunfight. If you do miss a power-up, the slow scrolling and lack of any real level design make you wish you hadn’t.
Weird thing is, the game almost has a Mega Man-style “rock, paper, scissors” thing going on with the player and enemy transformations. Through some debug codes, you can see that certain beasts are perfectly matched to certain bosses: werebear in the first level, weretiger in the third. And then none of this was implemented.
It’s crazy; it can’t have taken more than a few minutes to finish the game. Just make the spirit balls cycle colors; a color for each beast. Maybe the first spirit ball bequeaths that beast’s punch attack; the second, its kick attack, and the third its form (with associated increase in health). Bingo, the game is half-decent. Plenty of time for udon.
Or maybe not, since that’s hardly the only loose end with the beast modes. The reason you only get a transformation animation in the first and last levels is that the game repeats the werewolf; it swaps the palette and hypes you up about the legendary “golden werewolf” that you get if you make it to the end. As the debug codes tell, there ain’t no such beast. It’s all a lie. Likewise, the bear’s stone breath has no effect outside his home level. It looks like the whole lycanthropy thing was fully thought-out then half-executed. Considering it’s the central premise, this might be a problem!
Sega had all the ingredients for a &^#$#ed masterpiece: co-op play, big sprites, digitized voice, happy-punching men in loin cloths, amazing bosses. Then they stopped building, twenty seconds before it was interesting. Result: the world’s best pack-in game. It’s pretty enough to show off the system, and it’s free — because once you’re past the sounds, visuals, and any nostalgia, who on Earth would buy it?
For a free game, it’s got some charm.
–Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh