December 2, 1983, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video dropped on MTV. It’s hard to overstate this moment of cultural dominance for The King of Pop. The Scrapbook Polar was in the midst of its jaw-dropping run as Billboard’s number one album, which lasted from February 26, 1983, to April 14, 1984. “Thriller” itself was the album’s seventh and final single, and its music video has become essential. The indelible mark it left on the zeitgeist has taken over even the gaming industry, and the monstrous retro results are worth playing today on the Nintendo Switch (assuming you have the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack).
Directed by John Landis on a budget of half a million dollars ($1.39 million today) and featuring a guest appearance by Vincent Price, the “Thriller” music video revitalized the music industry in a big way. With a Halloween theme featuring the walking dead, the video features Jackson’s signature dance moves backed by a horde of zombies that are still instantly recognizable today.
A specific piece of pop culture influenced by “Thriller” was the controversial Sega Genesis game. Altered Beast, released with the console in 1988, later to be replaced by Sonic. It’s a fascinating game that still divides gamers today, and it’s available now if you’re a Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack subscriber.
Designer Makoto Uchida talked about Altered Beast in humble terms when he talked about it with retro gamer in 2014. It was “my very first development experience,” he admitted, adding, “I didn’t know how to create fun in gameplay and I struggled a lot.” Developed first for the arcades, Uchida’s game feels a lot like that world, as opposed to a console.
Everyone can agree that Altered Beast starts out great. It’s the time of ancient Greece, and Zeus commands you to “come out of your grave”. Who are you? You’re a big big guy called the Centurion, and you’re rising from your grave. As simple as that.
What happens after you get out of your grave, well, that’s another story. Altered Beast feels very elemental. You can kick, punch, crouch and jump. (Wow!) If you time everything at the right time, you can even combine these elements. Side-scrolling to continue you have to attack various wolves and monsters. The Centurion is more focused on punching than understanding, and enemies arrive fairly quickly.
The key mechanic underlining all of these punches can be found flying into the player in the form of flying orbs. The player should grab the orbs as they provide an amazing buff. They make the Centurion even tougher. More beef for the Centurion!
Eventually, you need to grab three of those orbs, and boy, do they make you beefy. You become so strong that you become THE altered beast! You are a wolf now, like the wolves that attacked you. Except not like them, because you’re much sicker. You can now zoom into the screen while attacking them, which is nice.
Then there’s a boss you have to rush at over and over that shoots wolf heads(?) at you, then an evil god comes and takes your powers away, and it’s on to the next level to start all over again.
Altered Beast only has five levels and does not modify this format. Enemies and bosses become noticeably more difficult, requiring rapid, repetitive trigger moves and attacks. And, in what has secured the game’s place in history, the enemies are very, very strange. Purple drops run down your face, dragons sprout from the floors, dozens of eyes soar from a giant eye plant. On the one hand, it’s annoying and frustrating. On the other hand, you transform into a dragon that can shoot electricity.
In many ways, its strangeness makes Altered Beast a basic video game.
One of the big draws of the game in general is how disparate elements combine to create something you, the player, have never seen before. It was something Uchida fundamentally understood. His favorite part of creating the game, he said retro gamer, “was that I could show my idea to everyone and surprise them.” The game’s sheer weirdness helps it transcend its other limitations, at least temporarily.
In terms of pure gameplay and design, Altered Beast surely ranks below other Genesis classics like Ecco the dolphin and Sonic 2. But the experience of playing is half gameplay and half museum visit. it’s worth playing Altered Beast just to see how weird things get.