altered beast

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

2 stars

Bottom line: Altered Beast is “the world's best pack-in game.”

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.


Like this. See? Heads. 

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


23 Responses to altered beast

  1. I used to LUST after this game in the arcades. It… definitely fits better there.

    We could never get past the first level. And the cheapness of the gameplay did little to dissuade us from how awesome PUNCHING ZOMBIES IN THE FACE while transforming into a TOTALLY SWEET demon was.

    Those were the days.

  2. Yeah, that’s the thing. The game looks and sounds terrific. The premise is great. It’s cooperative. The only thing it does wrong is suck.

  3. Can you imagine it with some Gunstar in it, though? Think for a second: red for wolf, green for dragon, blue for bear, yellow for tiger. Okay? Each of them has two unique attacks. Pick up a red ball and you can throw fireballs. Swell. Pick up a yellow one and you can do a vertical zoomy thing, like a tiger. Pick up a blue, and you’ll be a bear with the aforementioned powers. Maybe the bear is slower and has more health?

    Find the perfect combination for every level, or just screw around. With two players it’d be even better, mixing and matching powers.

  4. Man, and Gunstar throwing-things physics!

    Hm . . . there’s another example of an almost-done game.

  5. Someone should rip Gunstar Heroes apart.

    Actually, that would make a great series — mercilessly critiquing every Treaure game, in order.

    I don’t wanna do it! Someone else do it for me, so I can read it!

  6. You want notoriety for this site-o-writery, that’s a fun way to go about it.

  7. brendan: if you want to play a FINISHED gunstar heroes, may I recommend gunstar super heroes for the gba?

    it doesn’t even have throwing at ALL. and it’s better than the original GH for my money.

  8. God I already had to sit through how “bad” Symphony of the Night was. Now Gunstar Heroes is on the chopping block. Weren’t there any good games back then? Judging from the games that have been getting good reviews on Action Button I’m guessing that in order for it to be a game worth playing it’d have to have an amnesiac hero and a band of quirky adventurers to level up.

  9. I had this game on Master System. There were only three levels of Power Up! I think in the Genny version there are four, correct?

    Also, hearing Power Up spoken on the Master System sounded like:

    ~ccccckksh PPPPPRR P ccccckkkssh~!

  10. Dear Teknohead:

    First of all, welcome.

    Second of all, heck you.

    Third of all, this website has not been “announced” to the “public” yet. It was linked on one blog with a bad name, for all I know so far.

    Fourth, I was just telling my friend Brendan earlier today that I wouldn’t announce this website to the public until I put up my four-star review of Gears of War, with the bottom line “The game of the decade”, because otherwise we’d get a hundred thousand hecking comments about how this website only likes fruity Japanese RPGs.

    Thanks for proving me sort of right, jack-off.

    And please stick around, otherwise we’ll get very lonely 🙁

  11. Someone linked it on SB with little fanfare and now I am here 🙁

  12. this is all james’ fault.


    “Judging from the games that have been getting good reviews on Action Button I’m guessing that in order for it to be a game worth playing it’d have to have an amnesiac hero and a band of quirky adventurers to level up.”

    oh ho ho ho HO.

  13. Nah, the arcade and Genesis versions had three levels: shirt-burst, muscles, fur. It’s like a lopsided scale of Interhomoeroticism.

    Also, that guy: hur hur.

  14. Mr Nine Dozen wrote: Thanks for proving me sort of right, jack-off.

    And please stick around, otherwise we’ll get very lonely 🙁

    Dang, it’s painful how you toss out straight lines like that, and have a detestment against kotaku-style comments. Well, not knowing kotakuy comment sections the reply may have been more SBish but still not infantile.

    Suffice to say that Eric’s closing comments are mostly correct, except that Jet Set Radio Future was a greater packl in and more &^#$#ed at the same.

  15. Oh man. There’s a game to review.

    I’d have to finish playing it, though. I don’t know if I have the spirit.

  16. I will review JSRF

    I will talk about the graphics and gameplay and assess them

    I will do this

  17. Please do!

    You can even talk about how the game killed Cibo Matto.

  18. “the world’s best pack-in game.”

    Don’t feed the troll… don’t feed the troll… don’t feed the troll…

  19. Yeah the soundtrack in JSRF is bewilderingly stuffty, despite it using awesome material.

    It’s a definite O.o situation.

  20. “You can even talk about how the game killed Cibo Matto.”

    Yes I will put this in the “+” column

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *