Once upon a time new video game systems came with two controllers and a game. That is a pretty foreign concept to the younger gamers out there who unfortunately missed out. Usually the pack-in title was a game designed to show off the new hardware and in most cases after that initial honeymoon period has worn off are not looked upon favorably. Altered Beast was that game for the Genesis and perfectly encapsulates everything I just mentioned.
It’s funny to think of Altered Beast as a killer app for any system. I’m sure there are still many who do not realize that Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t show up until 2 years into the console’s life. The task of selling the system fell to Altered Beast, a hit in the arcade but not what any sane individual would call a system seller. As a means of showing the difference between the NES and Genesis it succeeded. But as a game it is strictly average and would probably not be remembered if it were not packed in with the system.
At its heart this is a pretty simple beat em up confined to a single plane rather than a belt scroller like Double Dragon. Your scrawny centurion is armed with a few hand to hand attacks with limited range. Blue Oxen drop orbs that beef up your character, literally. The first will bulk you up a bit, the second causes you to hulk out with slightly longer range and power. A third will cause you to change as the game’s title suggests.
The beast forms are definitely the game’s highlight. Once you’ve collected three orbs you are treated to a cool cutscene as you transform into that level’s beast. Each form (wolf, dragon, bear, tiger, and golden wolf) has different powers and means of attack needed to beat whatever form the boss Neff has taken in each level. It’s actually mandatory to even reach the end of a level; if you run into Neff as a human the levels loop infinitely to give you a chance to power-up.
I’ll admit that in 1989 this was pretty damn impressive but even back then I quickly realized Altered Beast had little substance and was rough around the edges. The hit detection is not very good leading to many cheap hits and deaths. Enemies attack in groups and if you miss one it is easy to get caught in a loop and die. There are no health power-ups to heal the ridiculous damage enemies inflict either. In the same way that transforming is the game’s greatest asset they are also its biggest failing. The Were forms are all pretty cool and that rousing music gets you pumped up but you simply don’t get to enjoy it that long. You’ll blow through the fodder enemies in seconds only to reach the end level boss a minute later. This is exacerbated by the fact the game is far too brief.
Regardless of how difficult the game is at times it is an arcade game at heart meaning it is incredibly short. The levels are incredibly brief; once you’ve picked up three orbs you are almost immediately taken to the boss battle. Unless you miss one each stage will last a scant five minutes or less. That doesn’t leave much time to enjoy being a bad ass in whatever animal form you’ve assumed. To top it off there are only five levels. Even though I probably wasn’t very good at video games back then (I’m lying I was awesome!) I was still able to finish the game in under thirty minutes, in coop no less. And I hate coop.
The Genesis version is far from arcade perfect but for its time was incredible. Some background detail has been lost however the addition of a layer of scrolling makes them look better. The sprites are about the same size and detail which to my young eyes at the time was mind blowing. One area that it comes up short is in the voice clips. There are a number of audio clips that are garbled and nigh indecipherable. Its almost as though they were spoken by someone with a lisp. Wise fwom yo gwave will forever live on in video game history.
You could say that time has not been kind to Altered Beast but in truth it was only average at best. Strip away its graphics and you are left with a simple, mediocre beat em up that is over far too soon. I would have loved to see a sequel that did more with the concept as this only scratches the surface. We still remember the game because it was free at the time and not because it was great. In my opinion Golden Axe would have been a far better pack-in.