Welcome To The Fantasy Zone Presents: Altered Beast

Release date: 1988

Systems: Sega Master System, PC Engine, PC Engine-CD, Famicom, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Commodore Amiga, DOS

Altered Beast is one of those games that everyone remembers through a fog of nostalgia. Before Sonic The Hedgehog, it came as the built-in game on the Sega Megadrive. Like last week’s Bad Dudes Vs DragonNinja, it’s a 2D sidescroller where, for most of the game, the screen is divided into two tiers which you can jump between.

You take on the role of a dead centurion, resurrected by Zeus to rescue his daughter, Athena, from the demon-god Neff in the Underworld. It’s not clear why Zeus, as the mightiest being in existence, needs to rope you in – perhaps it just appeals to his sense of theatre.

And who can blame him? Throughout the game’s five – count ’em – five auto-scrolling levels, you get to transform into a variety of monsters by kicking white wolves in the head and collecting the corruscating power orbs they drop. With each power orb, your guy packs on the muscle. Seriously – it turns out that ‘1 weird tip to getting ripped – fast’ is just ‘boot a beautiful wild animal in the skull till it collapses then feast on its essence’.

Collect enough orbs and you metamorphose into a – frankly ludicrously over-powered – beast. On level 1, it’s a werewolf. On level 2, you become a dragon that can fly, spit lightning and surround itself with a shield of electricity, which basically makes you invincible for the rest of the stage. On level 3, you turn into a bear – surely everyone’s favourite – which can turn enemies to stone with its bad breath. On level 4, you become a tiger-man, with an annoying up-down flying kick, and in level 5, you become a golden werewolf, which is just the werewolf from the first stage with jazzed up moves.

Altered Beast is an okay game, friends! It’s kind of like the fat kid at the school sports day who isn’t very good at anything, but tries so damn hard. (full disclosure: I was that fat kid) All the ideas are great, especially given hardware limitations at the time, but the game balance is just horrible. In your weedy human form (which accounts for at least 70% of the game) your character is slow and unresponsive, with just a few moves. Your kicks land at weird, counter-intuitive heights – if you duck, you kick up into the air; if you stand, you kick low. Punches and kicks are laggy – if you throw one, you’re left vulnerable for a clear half a second, during which time an enemy will probably blunder into your massive, cumbersome sprite.

As soon as you level up, most of the stages become embarrassingly easy. Since they’re designed to be beatable in human form, once you can hurl fireballs across the screen or perform flying kicks surrounded by an invincible shield of energy, the whole thing starts to feel like assaulting a child’s treehouse with stun grenades and howitzers. (i.e. initially thrilling, tailing off to a glassy-eyed nihilism against which the release of death glows with a sweet, bewitching light) I say that, but if you watch the gameplay video above what you’ll actually see – in the later levels, at least – is me getting my jacksie repeatedly handed to me by muscular horse-soldiers. Which is less hot than it sounds.

Chalk this one up as an ‘interesting failure’. The previous year’s Shinobi – where you ninja-star and sword-slash your way through ranks of goons, rescuing hostages – uses a similar mechanic (without the plodding, pointless auto-scroll) to far greater effect. Like Strider, Altered Beast is a game that reaches high, only for a passing buzzard to bite off its wedding ring finger.

Increased processing power and the success of Final Fight would soon put paid to the 2D sidescroller as a beat em up subgenre. But before we – finally! – embrace that extra plane and wade into the technicolour melee that is 3D sidescrolling brawlers, next time I want to take a last look at a 2D example: the spiritual sequel to Bad Dudes Vs DragonNinja.

But hey – if you’re reading this, shouting: ‘Tim, you cackhanded twerpzilla! What about [insert video game here]? How could you miss out such a classic example of the 2D sidescroller genre?’ please, do not suffer in silence. Let me know via the ‘Contact Me’ button on the right or the comments below, or via Facebook or Twitter. Arcade examples are good, but I’m especially interested in home console and 8-bit computer versions. Any SNES, NES, Master System, or even ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 2D sidescrollers I’ve overlooked? Let me know, children. I need you.

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