Altered Beast

Introduction

Sega’s third-generation console, the Sega Master System, was released in 1985 to compete with Nintendo’s Family Computer (Famicom). Although it didn’t come close to dethroning Nintendo’s juggernaut console, it is estimated to have sold over ten-million units worldwide. It became especially popular in Europe and Brazil where the Famicom – known abroad as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) – didn’t have as much presence due to a less extensive marketing campaign in those regions on the developer’s part. Regardless, Sega realized that they needed to do something drastic in order to stand even a small chance of capturing Nintendo’s market share – especially after NEC entered the business and released the PC Engine.

Sega’s console research and development team, led by Masami Ishikawa, began work on a successor to the Master System almost immediately after its launch. They faced two especially daunting opponents: one that had a majority of the market share and the other rapidly gaining a lot of domestic popularity. Therefore, they decided to integrate a 16-bit microprocessor into this new system. The company had experienced a lot of success in the arcade scene, so Mr. Ishikawa and his team adapted the Sega System 16 arcade board, retooling it for a home console. Through shrewd negotiations, the team was able to procure a Motorola 68000 to use as the system’s central processing unit in exchange for an upfront volume order. The team originally wanted to call the console the Mark V, keeping consistent with the naming convention the company had been using up until that point. However, the management wanted a stronger name, so after going through nearly 300 proposals, they dubbed it the “Mega Drive”.

In contrast to the Famicom, which was primarily aimed at children, they sought a mature look for their console in order to advertise it to all ages. To accomplish this, the console’s design was inspired by audiophile equipment and automobiles. That way, when placed side-by-side with a Walkman or a CD player, it would blend right in. To demonstrate the significant technological leap compared to the Master System, the words “16-BIT” were proudly emblazoned upon the console’s surface.

The console was first announced in the June 1988 issue of Beep! magazine. It would see its domestic release the following October before launching in North America in 1989. From there, it would see releases in South Korea, PAL regions, and Brazil in 1990. It was known as the Mega Drive abroad but would be renamed the Genesis in North America. The exact reason for this name change is unknown, though some speculate it may have been a result of a trademark dispute. Much like how Nintendo made Super Mario Bros. a worldwide phenomenon by bundling it with every NES unit sold, Sega knew they needed to follow suit – and they had the perfect game for the task.

A developer by the name of Makoto Uchida had recently created a new arcade game on Sega’s behalf. It was known as Beast King’s Chronicle domestically and Altered Beast abroad. Mr. Uchida felt nervous, as it was the first game he developed, but to everyone’s surprise, Altered Beast became a hit – especially after it had been released overseas. As the System 16 arcade board served as the basis for the Sega Genesis’s hardware and the game proved to be a hit, it was the ideal choice for the developer to port to their newest console. It was ported to nearly every active platform at the time, including the Famicom ironically enough, yet the Genesis port would be the main point of pride for the company, who claimed it to be a perfect conversion. To this day, the game is considered a hallmark of both Sega’s arcade lineup and the Genesis’s library. In the face of fierce competition, was Sega able to make a grand entrance in the fourth generation of consoles?

Analyzing the Experience

Athena has been captured by Neff, the ruler of the underworld. In response, the Olympian god Zeus has resurrected a dead centurion to act as his champion.

When discussing its gameplay, Altered Beast can best be compared to Irem’s Kung-Fu Master. Like Kung-Fu Master, it is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up game with a linear level design. In addition to the traditional joystick, the cabinet features three buttons: one for punching, a second for kicking, and the last for jumping. By holding down on the joystick, the centurion crouches. This allows him to punch enemies on the ground more easily. Kicking while crouching causes the centurion to direct his attacks upwards.

Although superficially similar to Kung-Fu Master, Altered Beast affords less agency to the player, for stages scroll automatically rather than as a result of the character reaching the edge of the screen. In fact, not only do the stages scroll automatically, they appear to repeat endlessly. Following the scrolling screen to the end ensures the centurion meets up with Neff whereupon he will simply retreat. From here, the stage repeats from the beginning. This is because unlike most contemporary games, stages don’t necessarily end when you reach your destination. There is an objective you must fulfill in order for Neff to even consider fighting the centurion.

Each stage has a unique set of enemies, but one you will encounter two-headed wolves in all of them. While most of them are just standard enemies, some of them can be seen flashing. Successfully striking these wolves will cause them to drop an orb. These orbs, as suggested by the accompanying voice clips, are indeed power-ups. You are meant to collect three orbs per stage. Anything less, and Neff will refuse to fight the centurion. The first two orbs increase the size and strength of the centurion, but the third causes a more drastic change to occur.

For his inaugural game, Mr. Uchida had taken inspiration from Joe Dante’s 1981 horror film The Howling, the music video for Michael Jackson’s hit song “Thriller”, and the works of Ray Harryhausen. On the surface, these inspirations would seem a bit strange for a beat ‘em up – particularly when you consider pioneering examples such as Double Dragon were set against a present-day backdrop. However, when you collect that third and final orb, the influence these works had on Mr. Uchida becomes clear as day – assuming you somehow went into this game without looking at the arcade cabinet artwork, the box art, or the label of the cartridge it was housing.

Collecting that third power orb will transform the centurion into a werewolf. In this state, the centurion can dash forward in a damaging tackle or throw fireballs when the punch button is pressed. The centurion still takes damage at the same rate as before, but with these new abilities, you can make short work of the enemies.

With the centurion actually posing a challenge, Neff decides to jump into the fray at the end of the stage whereupon he undergoes a transformation of his own. Owing to its side-scrolling presentation, the boss fights in Altered Beast resemble something you would find in a fighting game. It’s not quite a perfect comparison, as the centurion doesn’t face Neff by default and the latter has an unequivocal advantage over the former in terms of raw strength. Still, the idea of having encounters that genuinely felt like boss fights made Altered Beast something of a mold breaker. By contrast, boss encounters in Double Dragon typically pit the main characters against stronger variants of standard enemies. You would have to change up your tactics, but only in the sense that you were encouraged to play a little more conservatively. This makes the player character of Altered Beast needing to weave in and out of Neff’s barrage of projectiles – which he accomplishes by repeatedly tearing off his own head and throwing them – stand out quite a lot by comparison.

Because allowing the centurion to remain in werewolf form would trivialize the duration of the experience, Neff conveniently relieves him of the power orbs upon completing a stage. This prompts the player to begin the process anew in the next. Those who only looked at the cover of the game’s Genesis port may have been taken aback when, upon collecting three power orbs in the second stage, their character undergoes an entirely different transformation.

When making the game, Mr. Uchida sought to create a product with flashy visuals capable of surprising the player. To those who expected the power orbs to have the same exact effect in every stage, altering the beast form would certainly help accomplish such a goal. To have a new surprise await the player upon reaching the end of the stage is one of the most effective methods of ensuring their engagement. This dragon form grants the centurion the ability to fly, fire a beam of lightning, and project an electrical barrier, damaging anything within its parameter. Later stages confer the centurion a bear and tiger form. The former allows him to turn enemies to stone with his breath while he can perform vertical kicks and throw fireballs that travel in a wavy pattern in the latter form.

One of the deepest compliments one could pay Altered Beast is that it had little trouble standing out from the crowd in 1988. During that time, monsters were a little more than obstacles for players to defeat on their way to saving the princess. To have the main character transform into a monster on their journey without it being treated a status condition meant to be cured was rather unusual back then.

Altered Beast also undeniably stood out in terms of visuals. Games implementing full motion video such as Dragon’s Lair could rival or surpass it, but the key difference is that Altered Beast didn’t sacrifice player agency to achieve this feat. Sega went as far as claiming that the Genesis conversion was a perfect port, although this is not the case, as comparing the two versions side-by-side reveals several significant differences – particularly when examining the spritework. Still, compared to the kinds of arcade conversions common on the Famicom at the time, the Genesis version of Altered Beast had a significant advantage, making it an ideal choice to show off the new hardware.

Unfortunately, with all of the emphasis on flash, it’s poetically fitting that Altered Beast is seriously lacking in substance. The central concept is intriguing, yet it means nothing when you find yourself fighting the controls every step of the way. There tends to be a slight delay between the moment you press a button and the action is carried out. Delayed attacks in a beat ‘em up game are usually far costlier than delayed jumps in a platforming game when you consider the frequency you press the buttons for the respective actions. This is further exacerbated by the highly questionable hit detection. Don’t be surprised when playing this game to see attacks fail to register when they should or even vice versa. One of these problems would be bad on their own, but combined, it is absolutely insufferable.

To a lesser extent, this applies to the joystick as well. While basic movements are simple enough, many stages have a higher platform the centurion can jump onto from the ground. In a manner comparable to Rolling Thunder or Shinobi, this is accomplished by holding upwards on the joystick and pressing the jump button. Two things make this otherwise simple action unnecessarily difficult. Because of the slight delay, you need to hold the control stick slightly longer than you would normally. One might wonder why this would be an issue, but Altered Beast never gives the player a chance to catch their breath. At any given moment, an enemy is breathing down the centurion’s neck. Attempting to negotiate these platforms properly while also dealing with enemies coming from all directions is a bit much.

I also must comment that I admire the concept of the main character having multiple beast forms far more than I do the actual execution. Doing so would normally open several avenues of gameplay, giving each stage a unique identity. In practice, however, there are three aspects that prevent this idea from being fully realized. To begin with, the stages are so lacking in personality and the beast forms do little to complement them. Each one comes with a unique skillset, yet once you have obtained all three orbs, you are just waiting for the stage to finish so you can fight Neff. It is not as though you use the mechanics to navigate the stages in interesting ways. This is especially annoying if you missed any of the flashing wolves. If you do, the already tedious process is dragged out even longer.

The second problem with these beast forms is that the balance between them is horrible. While the idea of throwing fireballs or turning foes to stone with the bear’s breath sounds impressive on paper, none of them compare to the dragon’s power. It is both a good and a bad thing that the form only makes an appearance for a single stage because it breaks any semblance of a challenge when you have it. The fact that it allows the centurion to fly freely with no drawbacks is bad enough, but the electric barrier’s area of effect and lack of a cooldown time ensures nothing can stand up to it. The boss fight is just a matter of flying up to Neff’s weak point and spamming the attack button. Whatever tactics were meant to be employed are therefore redundant.

Finally, and most importantly, these disparate beast forms speak to the game’s lack of synergy. While there is room for the occasional portion with wholly self-contained elements, a good game builds on itself. With Double Dragon, the straightforward control scheme could be picked up by anyone, but only those who mastered them would have the honor of watching the credits roll. From there, the stage design throws many curveballs whether it’s by switching from three-dimensional to two-dimensional planes, lining the areas with traps for the player to avoid, or even requiring them to platform. One could make a case that the platforming sections are themselves poorly implemented, but it is still an admirable effort to blend various gameplay idioms and make something fairly cohesive out of it.

Conversely, Altered Beast discards a beast form without a second thought once the respective level is over. This forces you to relearn how the centurion plays at the beginning of each stage. Even if you spam the centurion’s jump kick, which is by far the most effective method of dealing with enemies in his normal form, it still means getting used to being relatively powerless. Not only does this kill any sense of momentum the game may have had, it also directly results in an incomprehensible difficulty curve. The first half of the stage is fairly challenging, yet the second half can be utterly decimated with the beast form. The lack of a proper incentive for the player to develop their skills only accents what a shallow experience Altered Beast is.

I think these problems could have been avoided by giving the centurion only one beast form. He could have obtained it around the halfway point and kept it for the duration of the experience. Better yet, the player themselves could choose which beast form to use. Granted, this would invariably lead the savvy players to choose the dragon form, but lopsided weapon balance is present in good games as well. In this hypothetical scenario, the dragon form would merely be the Altered Beast equivalent of the spread gun from Contra.

As it stands, while completing Double Dragon felt like an accomplishment, reaching the end of Altered Beast merely requires the player to go through the motions until the game runs out of material and stops on its own accord – something that doesn’t take long at all considering it can be completed in less than ten minutes. By this point, arcade game manufacturers were trying to give players more substantive experiences for their quarter in order to compete with the increasingly viable home console scene. Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which was released one year prior to Altered Beast, went as far as providing players with an action role-playing experience that could take an hour to complete. Compared to the efforts of Technōs Japan and Westone, Altered Beast simply doesn’t measure up, coming across as highly backwards looking in terms of gameplay and design. “Good graphics don’t make a good game” is a common mantra you will hear from enthusiasts, and works such as Altered Beast demonstrate why, exactly, it was formed.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Decent music
  • Interesting boss fights
Cons:

  • Stiff controls
  • Bland level design
  • Dubious hit detection
  • Extremely short
  • Bad balance between forms
  • Inability to switch forms

If you were to take the older enthusiasts’ words at face value, you could get the impression that the 1980s was an incredible decade for gaming. While I can accept that much more innovation occurred in the 1980s than in the early twenty-first century, it was also a time in which, for want of a globalized computer network, gamers were stuck with what they got. Altered Beast may not seem impressive now, but for many people in 1988 who received the console representing Sega in the fourth generation, the alternative, for the longest time, was to play no game at all. Combined with the impressive graphical presentation, which was about the closest one could get to brining an authentic arcade experience to a home setting at the time, Altered Beast had little trouble becoming a classic.

While I can respect that many people have fond memories of this game, there is no escaping the obvious conclusion – Altered Beast has not stood the test of time. Even in 1988, it was demonstrably outclassed by Double Dragon, and recommending it becomes increasingly difficult the more it ages. Only the most diehard fans of late-1980s gaming will be able to look past its flaws and enjoy what they experience. Even then, they would have to deal with the game being over in ten minutes – assuming they could quickly adjust to the bad controls, that is. The only advantage the game truly had over its contemporaries was its graphical presentation, which, while impressive in 1988, only belied its distinct lack of substance. If Altered Beast played as well as it looked, it would have a legitimate claim as one of the greatest games of its generation. As it stands, the game’s strong points were timely, thus preventing it from becoming timeless.

Final Score: 2/10

9 thoughts on “Altered Beast

  1. I was only a couple years old when Altered Beast and the Genesis/Mega Drive were released, so I hardly knew of anything Sega before Sonic the Hedgehog. I remember hearing later on how Altered Beast had become somewhat of a punchline towards Sega, though the arcade version was still supposed to be good.

    I just happened to notice that my local theater has an old Altered Beast arcade machine in the lobby a while back, maybe when/if it re-opens I’ll have to give it a try…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t grow up with the Genesis, so my first opportunity to play it was when it was released on the Virtual Console. However, even then, it didn’t look too interesting to invest in, so I wouldn’t get a chance to actually play it until it was released on a compilation disc. Either way, it’s not very impressive – especially compared to Golden Axe and, later, Sonic. The latter was clearly the superior pack-in title.

      It’s cool that your theater has arcade machines. One of my theaters does as well, though they seem to be more recent. One has various Namco games, but it was clearly a relatively recent rerelease.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a lot of Genesis-owning friends who would swear up and down that this game was better than Mario. When I was a kid, they built up this grand story for it, and how great it supposedly was. I got to play it a few times, and yeah, that was shattered. It’s just so, incredibly not fun to play. The spritework is good, but the animations really aren’t, so it doesn’t actually look as good as it does in the screenshots. And the gameplay is simultaneously so simple and so frustrating. With the clunky controls, you’re just not given the resources you need to really respond to the challenges before you. So no. Not better than Mario. In case anyone was wondering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not even close. It has better graphics than the Mario games at the time, but style never prevails over substance in the long term. I was actually going to write that the animation was good, but then I actually took another look and realized how clunky it was, so I saved myself there. The controls by themselves disqualify any realistic claim this game has to being better than Mario, but even if they were better, it’s still just such a nothing experience that it’s kind of amazing that Sega considered this a finished product. It would’ve been forgivable had it predated Double Dragon, but because it does not, they really had no excuse. Either way, this game really has not aged well at all.

      Liked by 1 person

    • In that regard, it is serviceable, but as always, I’m going to be recommending the heavy hitters first. As it stands, there are plenty of contemporary games that can give new gamers insight to the scene at the time that also happen to offer much more substantive experiences. As a beat ‘em up, Altered Beast really doesn’t do anything that Double Dragon hadn’t already a year prior. In fact, I would go as far as saying that Kung-Fu Master was better if for no other reason than because its controls were more responsive.

      Liked by 1 person

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