So a funny thing happened on the way to writing this. Though I am trying to rush through this earlier slog of games to have time to write about entry #6 (which most people would eagerly attest to being the best game in this ill-conceived experiment and that I should probably just pack it up and be done with the whole ordeal) I am doing my best to devote an hour to each game I play. And since almost all of these early games are arcade ports, spending an hour throwing yourself at a brick wall helps develop a Stockholm syndrome-esque fondness to the game in question. Or at least, that’s the only reason I can come up with that would explain why I am suddenly so fond of Altered Beast.
I mean, I am almost entirely sure that if you are reading this that you have played Altered Beast, given that it was the original pack-in game for the Western releases of the Mega Drive (On the Ultimate Genesis Collection for Xbox 360, a substantial portion of the interview with Altered Beast’s creator Makoto Uchida saw the man bitter about how he was unable to find a launch model American Genesis.) The game puts you in the role of the recently reanimated corpse of a Greek centurion, brought back to life by Zeus in a flattering one-piece to rescue Athena from the “demon-god Neff,” which mostly involves walking in short loops around various stages until you find a blue Cerberus to kick and find power orbs that see your character become swollen to proportions that would make Tom of Finland blush before transforming from a BCE muscle daddy to any number of anthropomorphic werebeasts to fight off Neff’s various stop-motion minions at the end of each level. Why the game calls you a centurion despite obviously taking place in Greece, or why Zeus’ bombastic voice sample resembles Elmer Fudd in a cave, or even why Athena is a helpless song bird caught in the grasp of a demon-god with a Czech name who bares more than a passing resemblance to the Emperor of Star Wars fame is never really explained beyond the fact that this is 1988 and we just want to watch some beefcake punch a zombie until it explodes.
And on that front, Altered Beast doesn’t disappoint. Sure, the auto-scrolling makes an already very short game even pushier, almost every form but Wolf and Dragon are useless, and the action is stiff, but these sins were much more forgivable when the game essentially looked arcade perfect well over twenty years ago. While everything is a little cramped compared to the arcade, and little flourishes like heads flying toward the camera are gone largely due to hardware constraint, everything looks more or less like you brought the arcade home, especially on a 13 inch television with fading color and an RF connection.
One of the biggest draws of Altered Beast in the game’s prime, and arguably the only reason to play it in these more enlightened times, are the various forms you can assume after beating enough blue cerberuses (cerberi?) to death (As a child, I always assumed that they were just Babe the Blue Ox from American folklore, showing the same mixture of ethnocentrism and a tenuous grasp on mythology that Japanese game designers would come to embrace). Each form replaces your punch and kick with different attacks of varying use. First off is the wolf, which can throw fireballs and zip around with a dash attack that is still rather fun to use. The dragon is even more useful, as the secondary attack engulfs your body in an electrical storm that makes pretty much any part of the game utterly trivial. The bear, featured above in a hilariously sincere transformation cutscene, is both the most creative form and where the designers either started running out of ideas or felt the need to embrace the gay camp undertone the game proudly wore on it’s tastefully piped sleeve. The bear can breathe on enemies to turn them into stone, do a precursor to Sonic’s spin jump, and just stand idly in a hilarious kung-fu stance. The tiger just uses vertical variations on the wolf’s moves, and the last level just features a golden wolf. Like most arcade games at the time, Altered Beast is remarkably front loaded.
But even then, the whole experience takes all of twenty minutes, especially if you’ve figured out that you can hold down A to continue when you inevitably run out of lives around the awful platforming segments halfway through the game. To insult the player further, the game even seems to lack the bizarre non-sequitur ending of the arcade original, showing off the cast of the game as a bunch of high-functioning alcoholics who moonlight as creatures to afford more of that sweet, sweet fermented grain:
Like most of the early Genesis library, Altered Beast does very little to justify the 5,800 yen sticker price (A hair over eighty-one US dollars after inflation), but is entirely worth a quick playthrough on any of its dozens of rereleases. What one should take care to avoid, really, are the sequels. Developer 3d6 Games (whose cleverness began and ended with their name) released a turgid pre-rendered GBA sequel under the dire misunderstanding that a twenty minute game on a television would be even more fun as a 8 hour game on a cramped Game Boy Advance. Not one to be daunted by utter consumer apathy, Sega released a next-gen reimagining called Project: Altered Beast in 2005, just in time to watch the gory survival horror gravy train chugging past the horizon. As for the original, it can be found just about anywhere for pennies on the dollar (or eight dollars on the eight dollars if you have Virtual Console and a pressing need to get the worst deal possible) and is far worse than you remember it being, but not necessarily less fun.