I've never been entirely sure why, in many conversations I've had with gamers, the mention of Altered Beast is often met with a groan of derision. My admittedly vague memories of playing the game start in a bowling alley, where I was attending either a birthday party or some kind of special summer camp event.
Upon first play, I was utterly blown away by it. The graphics were amazing and I don't think I'd ever seen anything as gory in a game before. It's also my first recollection of digitized speech in a game. Although the concept had existed for many years both in arcades and home consoles, Zeus' exclaimation of, "Rise from your grave," remains one of the most vivid recollections of my gaming youth.
I had to own this game and, when I was given a Genesis for Christmas, it was past the point at which Altered Beast was bundled with the console. It did not take me long to find a copy and play it and, since my experience with the arcade version was limited, I failed to notice many of the complaints about the port.
And, honestly, I don't really want to think about that. I'd much rather play the way that I really remember it in my mind, which means playing the arcade game.
Altered Beast is the story of a centurion who is brought back from the dead by Zeus. It seems that the demon God, Neff, has captured Athena and Zeus needs you to go and rescue her. This means beating up tons of demonic and undead monsters.
Now, I understand why Zeus would delegate the task, as he's probably one of the laziest, most hedonistic gods in the Greek pantheon next to Dionysus (you could probably make a case for Zeus being worse; a good party takes a lot of effort, after all). What I don't get is how Athena would be kidnapped. She's the goddess of wisdom and strategy. How the Hades did she manage to be caught by surprise?
To succeed in your quest, you'll have to take on four beastly forms and continually defeat Neff in his own demonic forms in five levels of side-scrolling combat. To transform means killing two-headed white wolves (as opposed to all the perfectly normal, brown, two-headed wolves) and catching magical orbs that they release upon death. The first two you grab make you more muscular, while the third changes you into the beast form for the level you're on.
The funny thing about the transformation is that, as you get bigger and beefier, your head remains exactly the same size. It was already pretty tiny to begin with, barely in proportion to your weakest state of being. Once you become the size of a mid-sized sedan, it reaches the point of absurdity.
Apart from that heady issue, the game actually still looks really good. I love the way that monsters explode sometimes when defeated with portions of their body flying out of the screen. Boss enemies are massive, detailed monstrosities and look awesome. The wolves are probably my favorite in terms of appearance just because of their animations. They look around almost as if the two heads are in an argument at times and that appeals to me for some reason.
The wolves aren't my favorite enemy, though. That distinction goes squarely to the massive snakes in the game's second level. Their rattles will appear at the top or bottom of the screen to warn you where they'll be coming from before they leap vertically across the screen. If you can take out the tail before it disappears, it dies right away but you also get a second opportunity to take out the head as it passes. Trying to get to them before they fully manifest on screen is fun for me.
The beastly forms that you take on are rather hit and miss, especially since they start you off with two really cool forms and then force you to play two levels with the less useful ones. The werewolf and dragon forms are great fun. Using the werewolf to barrel across the screen with it's kick attack, obliterating everything in your path, is great. The dragon might be less cool, but it has an area affect attack where it disperses electricity around its body and can fire a lightning bolt. Nothing to complain about there.
Sadly, these two forms give way to the werebear and weretiger forms. The bear has no ranged attack whatsoever. His nasty case of halitosis can turn enemies to stone, which is nice. The second attack where it curls into a ball and bounces about twice the width of its body without any distance control just sucks, especially on a level which is full of bottomless pits for you to fall into. And the tiger is just like the werewolf except that his dash goes vertically instead of horizontally (greatly lessening its usefulness) and his projectile attack moves in a waveform that widens as it travels. Whoopee.
One of the coolest things about the beast forms in Altered Beast is that you don't even have to use them at all. Getting the orbs will automatically transform you but killing white wolves and grabbing orbs are entirely up to you. If you reach Neff in a level before you have transformed he'll walk away. Twice. The third time, you'll just have to fight him the way you are.
The reason I think it's such an interesting way to play is that it's kinda like an optional difficulty mode for players. The game really wants you to transform, even going so far as to put stationary white wolves directly in your path on your third approach to Neff and it can be difficult to avoid powering up. But the bragging rights for completing the game without ever using the special powers would be considerable indeed.
There are other problems. I find the music to be positively wretched most of the time, for one. If I hadn't just played the game, I would only be able to clearly remember the first ten seconds of music in the first level looping over and over again. But, since I have... well, I can still only remember that first ten seconds of music and it just won't go away.
Another issue is the forced scrolling. I don't even know if there's anything that could have been done about that. The pace at which it moves makes the game feel really slow in comparison to other beat-em-up games. But the sprites used for characters and environmental objects take up so much real estate on the screen that moving any faster might have rendered the game unplayable. Regardless, the game drags quite a bit.
That right there is why I'll probably never play Altered Beast again, which is something of a shame. I really like a lot of the concepts in there but it's actually pretty boring to play when it comes right down to it. I can't call this a bad game, though. It's just one where a couple of design tweaks would probably need to have been made in order for it to be really enjoyable.
So, it isn't a great game or even one that's all that good. I do think it has a bad reputation which is only somewhat unfounded but certainly not worth more than a few quarters' worth of nostalgia.