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Altered Beast (Sega Master System) artwork

Altered Beast (Sega Master System) review

"Altered Beast in all its forms has always worried at my psyche. It's a game for which I have strong pangs of contrary feeling. I say to myself 'I admire this game! It's very nasty and I like it!' But whenever I play it again, I'm never really sure if I do. It's resolutely novel and resolutely weird, with awesome nightmarish monsters and crazy flourishes. It's an important game in console history and in Sega history. It's the game which shipped with the Megadrive and was many a console-hea..."

Altered Beast in all its forms has always worried at my psyche. It's a game for which I have strong pangs of contrary feeling. I say to myself 'I admire this game! It's very nasty and I like it!' But whenever I play it again, I'm never really sure if I do. It's resolutely novel and resolutely weird, with awesome nightmarish monsters and crazy flourishes. It's an important game in console history and in Sega history. It's the game which shipped with the Megadrive and was many a console-head's first 16-bit experience at home. Yet playing it always reminds me that the Altered Beast experience is akin to beating my head against a pane of glass in a vain attempt to smash it. Insanely unfair attacks by the bad guys, controls that are both overwrought and lumpy as porridge, the inexorable yet slow-as-molasses creep of the playfield to the right!..

It's original but weird, punishing and frustrating. There's platform game presentation but nobody really cares about the platforms, because it's just ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK! I marvel at the ancient Crete-like backdrops, the hellish visions of underworld beasts, and at a wizard's head rising on a pillar of light from a hole in the ground. But moments later I'm gritting my teeth as another unavoidable assault by 5 monsters at once munches off another life.

If I may speak like Ren of 'Ren and Stimpy' fame for a moment, the quintessential 16-bitness of Altered Beast is probably the reason why the 8-bit conversion of this game for the Master System is such a horror. In being forced to jump up and down on every part of the game to fit it into the less colourful, less sonorous, slower and grainier 8-bit world, Sega have managed to distill all of those nasty things about Altered Beast that you suspected drove you crazy, and slap them upfront. In fact, there is nothing else here. This is Altered Beast, but played out as a barren isolation of every factor about Altered Beast that might ever have pissed you off.

Let's quickly run with the Altered Beast story for those who might never have been graced with its presence. The game is set in ancient Greece and its fictional underworlds. Not enough people stop to make this next comment for my money, but the world portrayed in Altered Beast is quite a horrible one, and remains a remarkable feat of dark imagination to this day. If I lived in this extraordinarily unpleasant world infested with these disgusting monsters and vindictive gods and wizards, I'd question why I was even alive. But for the sake of this game, I do live here, and as a fantasy I can enjoy it! We play the part of a muscular and legendary - but dead - ancient hero. The wizened Zeus commands us to 'rise from our grave' to rescue his daughter.

Normally our hero fights with his fists and feet. But by collecting power orbs ripped from white bulls, we can grow through 2 levels. The first level is us on steroids, with muscles of a size which is both off-putting and amusing in relation to the size of our head. Collect a 2nd orb and it's Altered Beast time! We can transform into such supercharged monsters as a fire-spitting werewolf, a dragon, a bear, a tiger or a golden werewolf... a new transformation for each level of the game. It always was a terrific concept.

BUT! You can't have 2 players at once on this version, which was a huge feature of the original game. It is now one huge void, and the first hint at the deep resentment and frustration this edition is going to create.

Level 1 is the mossy graveyard area. The details of the gravestones and the cracked and vine-covered walls are okay relative to the 16-bit versions, but the colour is pretty foul here. I think I would have found the morose purple texturing ugly even in this game's heyday. The screen always creeps to the right creating a slow-shifting battlefield, and the gravity of all the action is bottom-centre, as it's here you'll spend most of your time. You'll quickly note that your character's animation in this version is disturbingly ropey, pretty much just being two frames that lard their way across the screen as if on ratchets.

Controls in Altered Beast were always potentially unintuitive, with 3 buttons controlling punches and kicks both high and low, a vertical kick to fend off overhead attacks, and jumps of several degrees from which you could launch further punches and kicks. On the Master System you have to hit both buttons at once to get a jump. And to jump high you have to remember to hold up while doing so. Then mess around with the always leaden punches and kicks. It's not very pleasant.

The enemies such as the famous shuffling zombies, wasted ogres, leaping dogs, bulls, wolves, Bizarrians making a guest appearance from Golden Axe, and grotesque blobs that jump onto your head Aliens-style, are all here. They all look probably about as good as could be expected given that we're moving from 16-bit back to 8-bit. However they all move as ropily as the hero, too. Punching and kicking them produces almost no physical reaction, which is truly unsatisfying. You just hear a churny noise on the soundtrack and the monster hesitates - that's it. No flicker or explosion or flashing. Disappointing, not to mention it makes telling what's going on a real chore. At least they still fly to pieces when they die. But all of the sounds are churny, given the limitations of the time, which produces an indistinct swamp of 'KCHHHHH' sounds that in no way afford clarity to the action. The music fairs a little better. The high octave 'stressful' themes in levels 2 and 3 for instance are reasonable at creating atmosphere. But such high-faluting features as music become moot in the face of the atrocious gameplay.

Fighting was always damn hard in Altered Beast, at least in the arcade version. Creatures attack from all sides, they will pop up beneath you very cheaply at times, bulls and dogs leap at you too fast, and because of the confusing controls you'll generally have trouble pulling the 'vertical kick' out of the bag in time to ward off attacks from descending bird monsters or valkyries. The double whammy in this version is that your horizontal placement on screen, which is so crucial in this combat-heavy game in determining whether your attack succeeds or fails... is hopeless! You bump from position to position onscreen, moving probably 10 pixels at a time. With no finetuning available there are endless positioning mistakes to be made.

And when you get creamed, BOY do you get creamed. When you're injured, you are stunned and/or thrown backwards. While you're stunned you can be beaten some more. And you never 'flash' with invulnerability after being floored. You can in fact become trapped in a minefield of monsters where it's physically impossible to break out. You are clubbed to death. At this point I usually scream out at the top of my voice in language that would make a sailor blush, sometimes repeatedly.

Now here's a surprise - The boss battles actually translated okay! Maybe it's because by nature they dominate the screen and the console can devote itself to putting on a good show. The highly imaginative head-throwing earth demon is here in all his glory. In the 2nd boss battle with the huge and gross multi-eyed demon, the small eyes no longer seem to pose as much of a strategic problem as they did on the 16-bit problems, but once again they're here and they look quite good. Your own supercharged forms are solid as well, and trust me, when you achieve them you will experience supreme relief as it's the only way you have a chance against the cheap onslaught of monsters.

But these few nice features can't save the day. Basically, Altered Beast in this version is not a game - it's a form of torture. Stupid endless cheap attacks, leaden controls, ugly to look at, bland sounds. No amount of skill can negotiate this mess, and we don't even have 2 players anymore. The limitations of 8-bit technology aren't up to recreating the attractive graphical and atmospheric appeal that the original game can offer. And whatever flaws in the gameplay you might have worried about before, they're now amplified and shoved down your throat.

Even with cheating it's too hard! There are actually no continues in the regular game!! Use a code and you can continue several times - which won't be enough to make inroads, and then again you won't want to continue once you cotton on to the fact that this game is actually an instrument of punishment. The code to amp your life meter by a couple of bars doesn't help much either. I couldn't even be bothered to complete the game for the sake of this review, which is a first for me.

Conclusion: This particular version of Sega's famous (infamous?) and unflinchingly weird game of battle between transforming dead heroes and nightmarish monsters is rancid. If you've played the arcade original or the Megadrive version, avoid this one as you've absolutely nothing to gain but a headache. If you've not experienced Altered Beast at all, definitely do NOT start with this Master System version; you might jeopardise your first impressions of an important game.

I'll stop splitting hairs now. Whoever you are, whatever your personal history or predilections, AVOID THIS VERSION OF ALTERED BEAST!

-- Altered Beast -- 4/10 --

P.S. Thanks to Pat Uhler, from whose Megadrive/Genesis review of 'Altered Beast' I subconsciously borrowed the joke for my tagline!

bloomer's avatar
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)

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