Thursday, April 24, 2014

Altered Beast - Welcoming My Doom
My 16-bit genesis: How rising from my slumber altered the beast within.

If you've been keeping score, you've probably noticed that I've many times described my past self as being oblivious to the world around me, which was never more true than in the latter half of the 80s when it came to video games. Though I'd on rare occasions pick up an issue of Game Players or GamePro from a local mom-and-pop store, I wasn't an avid reader of gaming magazines, nor did I know much about the console scene outside of what was going on in directly in my sphere of knowledge. I knew about "the past" (an era I had condensed down to the 2600, ColecoVision and Intellivision, three platforms with which I was familiar), and I was sure the current field of competition was limited to the NES and "the Sega" (the Master System as owned by my friend Mike, who apparently also wasn't aware of console's correct name). 

So I was a bit puzzled when I went to my friend Dominick's house one day and he showed me his new black box bearing the name "Genesis," which he had gotten sometime during the late-autumn months in 1989. "Was this the 'new Sega'?" I wondered upon seeing the company's name branded below the cartridge slot. Dominick's family was far from rich (they were sort of on the low end of the middle-class spectrum), so it always amazed me how we has able to get a hold of these new systems and games so close to their respective launches; that it played out this way was to my benefit, as I would otherwise have missed out on so many of the games and experiences that I've since come to cherish. Thereby, if a new high-profile release had recently arrived in stores, Dominick likely had it by at least week two and was excitedly displaying it for me whenever I'd next visit, as if Q to my James Bond. While he didn't yet possess any new releases for his Genesis machine, he was happy to share the system's pack-in game with me.

Altered Beast, which came bundled with the Genesis until Sonic the Hedgehog arrived in 1991, was my introduction to the world of 16-bit gaming. I could see its cartridge protruding from the system as Dominick began hooking it up to the TV, whence I started trying to process what I had witnessed in the previous two or so minutes: "When did this happen?" I silently questioned. "When did these machines become more advanced than our NESes and Segas?" It didn't make too much of a difference to me, as I had always considered games to be "just games," regardless of the format; hell--my friends and I were playing 2600 games into the mid-90s! Still, Altered Beast was something truly new in the sense that I had never seen a console game that so closely resembled those I had played in arcades.

I was impressed by what I saw (maybe even a little envious) and fascinated by this glimpse into a new world where an undead muscleman in a sleeveless shirt could suddenly buff up, his physique bloating to ridiculous proportions, after kicking a blue buffallo to death and collecting a floating, spinning orb. The slight pause following the transformation, accentuated by the narrator's famous "Power up!" line of commentary, was a favorite first moment in my Genesis plus Altered Beast experience. Hours before not knowing what this day had in store for me, I was suddenly playing a great-looking beat-'em-up that featured a ton of on-screen activity, lively characters, and no flickering or slowdown, and I was doing so from my friend's couch using a three-button controller for a system about which I had never heard. 

Exploiting the game's main gimmick--the heroes' ultimate transformation into a range of beasts that includes dragons, tigers, werewolves and bears--and tearing through hapless enemies with electrified air-dashes and all kinds of deadly projectiles was some of the most fun I'd had with a new game. The "altering" transition screen--where the fully muscled hero morphed into a specific beast, the action replete with a cool screen-filling animation and roaring sound effect--also left an imprint on me and was the hallmark of an in-game status I couldn't wait achieve. It wasn't a game I ever saw in arcades (at least not until months later), but I'm glad my first encounter with it was on the Genesis.

It was a rather short game, so we completed it in one play-session and then played through it again on a harder difficulty. We had a little trouble advancing in the "Harder" mode, since we had yet to memorize the enemy patterns or master the controls, but Dominick knew a few tricks that gave us a better chance; namely, he knew a code (B plus Start) that granted us access to a secret menu that allowed us to increase the number of health units and lives. And that's how things went that day: We had a grand ol' time electrifying, pouncing on, and horizantally or vertically ripping through a bizarre troupe of miscreants as we pursued the purple-robed, lightning-emitting albino who kidnapped Zeus' daughter. I'm pretty sure we did the same thing the next day and then the day after.

In those early and middle months of 1990, Altered Beast joined the likes of Double Dragon II: The Revenge, Contra and Mega Man 2 as one of those "go-to" games to which we were sure to return anytime we headed to Dominick's house after school and engaged in a long play-session. One of our favorite aspects of the game were the ironically iconic voice samples, which we'd lovingly mock any chance we got. We didn't even need to be playing the game--we could find any excuse to squeeze a "Riiiiiiiiise from your graaaaves!" or "Welcome to your doom!" into a conversation or use them as an utterance in place of even a simple greeting. My best memories of Altered Beast include any of those cool spring evenings when we'd pop open the windows, let the night air augment our playing atmosphere, and randomly holler out these newest entries in our vernacular (like "Power up!" shouted before taking a swill of Dr. Pepper) in hopes that a passerby would hear it and know where the action was.

Altered Beast was a showpiece created for a system whose identity wouldn't be fully formed until two years later. It was a simple arcade-style game, more a test case to gauge consumer interest in darker-themed titles from genres not popularly associated with consoles, and has flaws indicative of its type. For one, it's painfully short; we were always able to complete it in about eleven minutes, which you have to figure is the average when considering that every stage scrolls automatically, always at the same speed, and only the times for the static boss-battle fights can fluctuate. The measure of time would be negligible, anyway, since we routinely overwhelmed bosses using our beasts' overpowered attacks. Also, it's not a terribly difficult game once you realize that you can stand in the center of the screen and low-kick non-flying creatures to death while almost never taking damage, particularly when you're fully muscled. Positioned as such, Altered Beast was inevitably going to be maligned even though its creators probably intended for it to take off and become the face of the Genesis, like Super Mario Bros. became for the NES. It obviously didn't achieve that goal, but I'm still glad they gave it a shot.

It was for us a game that arrived at the perfect point in history, at a time when its novelty and arcade values could be fully appreciated in a pre-hardcore world; it mixed in nicely with the assortment of NES and Commodore 64 games we enjoyed replaying again and again, serving well to provide us a concise, fun-filled experience, which was all a bunch of kids could ask for. It was eventually brushed aside, dropped from our weekly ritual, as we turned our attention to more-realized beat-'em-ups like Golden Axe and Streets of Rage, but its influence on our personal game culture wouldn't soon be forgotten. Considering how it was eventually replaced as a pack-in, "being pushed aside" seemed to be its lot in life, but it did its job to entertain us in an era whose climate was slowly, increasingly being influenced by the winds of change, as were both the console industry and me.

I played through it a few days ago in preparation for this blog entry, which is the first time I've revisited it since the mid-90s. As you would imagine, a game whose sentimental value was founded on childlike interaction and good times with friends doesn't hold the same weight as a quiet single-player experience on an uneventful April night in 2014. It's just not the same without Dominick, Mike, or my brother's friends by my side to quip about my doom being met or my power being up after another visit to Silver Star, our favorite Chinese restaurant. It's another of those games I'll load up every few years simply for nostalgia's sake, to remember, sometimes painfully, what those times were like.

Like quite a few of the games I've enjoyed over the decades, some of which I've covered in this space, Altered Beast has been labeled "mediocre" and is usually spoken about derisively by critics and Youtube's legion of bile-spewing cretins, but I think they're being a little too harsh; it's as if those who claim to love this medium don't understand the significance of period pieces, which are sometimes flawed but only noticeably so in retrospect. Personally, I'd slot it as a game I'm not likely to revisit often, but it's one I'll always appreciate in memory for both the fun times I had and the way it helped change my perspective on consoles.

1 comment:

  1. Re: A little too harsh - my thoughts exactly. Wise fwom your gwabe!

    I first experienced this game in its arcade form in the lobby of a department store alongside a Galaga cabinet. They were probably the first arcade games I ever experienced, me having missed the early 80s heyday of arcades. Fortunately I was able to form some similarly nostalgic memories in high school with a friend who was into collecting older games.

    This friend is now dead and I've never since been able to find someone who had his level of skill in playing retro games. Ah, yes - there is a reason that one of the root words for "nostalgia" is a word for "pain" - and a reason why we write out these old memories. :)