Retro Respawn – Altered Beast

It’s strange to think about now, but during the first three years of the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive from 1988-1991, Altered Beast was actually the pack-in-game that came with the console.

Oh yes, it wasn’t until 1991 that SEGA finally started boxing Sonic the Hedgehog in with the console, and that was after SEGA execs in the West had basically begged SEGA Japan for months on end to finally stick Sonic in there. Altered Beast had never truly been popular with the SEGA of America hierarchy and they saw Sonic as a much more marketable game. And indeed, the Genesis saw a definite spike in units moved once Sonic was boxed in as opposed to Beast. It was a sad addendum to the story of an arcade port that, though it has cult popularity amongst its fans and scored relatively well with critics of the time period, just never found itself a place in the hearts of the higher ups once it found its way into living rooms from the arcade. It’s also a game that doesn’t particularly enjoy much love in wider critical circles during this current era.

But why does Altered Beast not get a pass with certain critics that other games powered by nostalgia seem to get? Let’s face it, fun though other arcade beat em ups from the same period such as The Simpsons or X-Men are, are they really that much better suited for home consumption? Most arcade hits will generally have a slimmer shelf live once you get them home in comparison to other titles which are specifically made for home gaming.

At their very heart, arcade games are designed more for shorter thrills, mainly because they ultimately exist to be coin sponges. Arcade games naturally have steep learning curves and high tempo gaming for that very reason. They amp up the difficulty so you die and have to stick more money in the cabinet to keep playing and they keep everything at a nippy pace so that you don’t get bored. That works great when you’re in an arcade with something like 50 other cabinets to try once you’ve finished, but it hardly works as well once you place it in a domestic environment, especially if you’re charging full retail price.

Altered Beast is your typical side scrolling arcade beat em up. You play a Greek Centurion who has been brought back to life by the God Zeus in order to rescue his daughter who has been kidnapped by nefarious forces. You kick and punch your way through hordes of zombies and monsters until you face an overpowered boss at the end of the stage. During his level you can collect power ups that beef your centurion up until he finally morphs into a vicious beast, such as a wolf or dragon.

Overall, the game works just as you’d expect it to and it has little surprises. Its solid arcade action that also comes with a two player option should you have a friend who wants to join in. The game has a limited appeal yes, but surely don’t most games in this genre after a certain amount of time? Sonic certainly made more sense as a pack-in title and the SEGA of America execs were wise to push for it to be so, but does Altered Beast really deserve the negative press it gets in certain circles these days?

The game is certainly eye wateringly difficult even for a game in this genre, and the graphics are hardly anything to write home about. That being said, I liked the haunting nature of the music and I think the game certainly has merit. I played it as part of the X-Box 360 Mega Drive Collection, and as one game in a bundle, it’s inoffensive enough. Would I be happy if I paid full price of £40 for it? Probably not but then again, standards for what you’d expect from a home console game have changed significantly and that would certainly have an effect on my opinion.

I do find it ridiculous that “MEGA” magazine went as far to list Altered Beast at #1 in its “Top 10 Worst Mega Drive Games of All-Time” list though. It’s this sort of hubristic and undeserved hatred of Altered Beast that draws me to want to defend it. Considering some of the cack that found its way onto the Mega Drive during its run, its laughable that a serviceable arcade port would receive so much scorn.

The game has also received harsh critiques from places like IGN and Gamespot when it has been re-released on both the Wii and the X-Box in modern times, some going as far to call it a “relic” and denounce it as a game that doesn’t hold up. And there we find the eternal rub, do we not? The age old argument of what constitutes “good retro” and “bad retro”. The moment where you can separate a “Classic” from a “Relic” with little more than a Rizla Paper™.

The question is, does Altered Beast do what it was originally designed to do while doing it with some modicum of skill? My answer to that would be a resounding “yes”, and I struggle to see how others couldn’t also see it thus. The game loses very little in getting ported from the arcade to the home console in terms of graphics and gameplay. Yes, the music is better in the arcade version, but this wasn’t uncommon at the time when it came to arcade games getting ported to the Mega Drive or Super Nintendo. Altered Beast hits the beats it needs to, and is in fact designed to do, without taking the genre in a particularly new direction. Is that worthy criteria to be classed as the very worst game in a console’s history?

There seems to be an undercurrent with some people that Altered Beast was the game that held the Mega Drive back. It was the game that took up space before Sonic came along and shot the console off to the stratosphere. This ignores the fact that, when it first came out at least, Altered Beast was relatively well received and the console steadily built up a loyal following of fans without much difficulty. Yes, Sonic was the stick of dynamite that blew the new-fangled “console war” wide open, but Altered Beast did much better than some today would have you believe.

Altered Beast isn’t an amazing game, but it does what it’s supposed to and does it reasonably well. It’s certainly worth playing if you pick up the Mega Drive Collection, and it will hardly break the bank if you want to get the actual Mega Drive cartridge either. It certainly doesn’t deserve the scorn it seems to retroactively have acquired, even if it isn’t the stone cold classic its fans declare it to be either.

I’ll be away on a STAG next week, but you’ll be pleased to know that I have something all lined up and ready for that week. It has the possibility of being quite controversial in fact, but by the time it all kicks off, I’ll be drunk in the Scottish countryside and won’t give a flying feck!

As always, I’ll post some footage of the game below.

Thanks for reading

Nil Satis, Nisi Optimum

You can view YouTube Footage of the game, courtesy of World of Longplays, by clicking right HERE

While I have your attention, why not take a goosey gander at some of the other great content here on the site? Ah, go on!

You can read Alec’s review of the recent UFC game by clicking right HERE

You can read Jorge’s excellent feature on Prince of Persia by clicking right HERE

And Stephen looks at the cautionary tale that is ROAM right HERE

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