Oh, the crushing weight of reality that lays waste to the treasured memories of nostalgia.
Developed by those arcade specialists at Sega and released to the baying mob in 1988, Altered Beast is one of those games I remember fondly from my youth. A simple scrolling beat ’em up at heart, its core appeal lay in the ability of your protagonist to upgrade, metamorphosing from wimpy guy to muscle man and then finally to a fearsome beast. It was like Manimal (look it up, kids) in video game form but with added headless zombies and fairly gross end of level bosses. What’s not to love?
Well just one thing sadly; it’s crap.
There’s no doubt some vague plot or other to set the background but you don’t need any of that guff to get going about your business. All you really need to know is that there are five levels of left-to-right scrolling thuggery to tackle, populated by an assortment of grim spectres to knock into oblivion, columns and platforms to leap on and power ups to grab.
Gameplay is simplicity itself. Your manbeast can punch, kick or jump, most adversaries taking no more than a couple of hits before bursting into flame. Enemies come from all sides and in relentless waves so you need to react quickly, kicking to the left, punching to the right and even swatting dirty great winged beasts out of the sky.
Periodically a weird throbbing pig shows up (I’m not making this up you know). Give him a taste of your shoe leather and he releases an orb that powers you up. First, you put on some hunky muscles, your punches and kicks given an extra boost of power. Grab three of them and you complete your transformation into beast, a different one for each level, granting you extra abilities such as a devastating speed attack, electric shock field and deadly bear breath that turns enemies to stone.
Turning into the beast remains a thrill, the extra powers making you feel invincible as you tear around the screen, dishing out fiery vengeance. What a shame then that it’s such a plod to get there in the first place. Far from feeling like some other worldly demi-god, your avatar lurches round the screen with all the grace of an overweight gorilla. The slightest touch from one of the ghastly foes sends you reeling, often resulting in a bizarre game of Altered Pinball as you bounce from one enemy to another with nary a chance to recover, your only salvation coming when you mercifully crumple in a heap to the floor.
The end of level bosses are a suitably weird collection of the grotesque, including a mountain man that lobs copies of his head at you and a set of floating eyeballs. But there is little in the way of strategy. This is an old fashioned coin guzzler, nipping at your trouser pocket to tempt you to shove another 10p into its faded slot. Kick. Punch. Die. Morph. Die. Repeat. Carry enough spare change and you can get through the thing in under an hour but your brain might fall out before you reach the end.
It’s not even as though it makes up for weak gameplay with snazzy presentation. The background detail is non-existent, scrolling is appalling whilst sound is weak, the oft-derided ‘Rise From Your Grave’ command at the start of the game giving short lived comic relief, quickly replaced by a dispiriting shower of cold reality.
Some games are classics that defy the march of technological innovation to remain as fresh and playable as the day they first launched.
This one however is best left to rot in its grave.