On December 2, 1983, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video dropped on MTV. It’s hard to overstate this moment of cultural domination for The King of Pop. The album Thriller was in the midst of its jaw-dropped run as Billboard’s number one album, which lasted from February 26, 1983, to April 14, 1984. “Thriller” itself was the seventh and final single of the album, and its music video became unmissable. The indelible mark it left on the zeitgeist invaded even the video game industry, and the monstrous retro results are worth playing today on the Nintendo Switch (assuming you’ve got the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack).
Directed by John Landis with a budget of half a million dollars ($1.39 million today) and a Vincent Price cameo, the “Thriller” music video revitalized the music industry in big ways. With a Halloween theme featuring the undead, the video showcases Jackson’s iconic dance moves backed by a horde of zombies that is still instantly recognizable today.
One specific piece of pop culture that “Thriller” influenced was the controversial Sega Genesis game Altered Beast, which was released with the console in 1988, only to be replaced later by Sonic. It’s a fascinating game that still divides players today, and it’s available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
Designer Makoto Uchida spoke about Altered Beast in humble terms when he talked about it with Retro Gamer in 2014. It was “my very first development experience,” he admitted, adding, “I didn’t know how to create the fun in gameplay and struggled a lot.” Developed first for arcades, Uchida’s game feels very much of that world, as opposed to a console.
Everyone can agree that Altered Beast starts off great. It’s ancient Greek times, and Zeus commands you to “rise from your grave.” Who are you? You're a big beefy guy called The Centurion, and you rise from your grave. Simple as that.
What happens after you’ve risen from your grave, well, that’s a different story. Altered Beast feels very elementary. You can kick, punch, crouch, and jump. (Wow!) If you time everything just right, you can even combine these elements. Side-scrolling to proceed, you must attack various wolves and monsters. The Centurion is more focused on punching than understanding, and the enemies come in pretty quickly.
The key mechanic underscoring all this punching can be found flying around in the player in the form of flying orbs. The player has to grab the orbs because they provide an amazing buff. They make The Centurion even beefier. More beef for The Centurion!
Eventually, you have to grab three of these orbs, and boy, do they make you beefy. You get so beefy that you turn into THE Altered Beast! You’re a wolf now, like the wolves that have been attacking you. Except not like them, because you are way sicker. You can zoom around the screen attacking them now, which is sweet.
Then there’s a boss you have to rush over and over again who is shooting wolf heads at you (?) and then an evil god comes and takes away your powers, and it’s on to the next level to do it all over again.
Altered Beast has only five levels and doesn’t modify this format. The enemies and bosses do become noticeably more challenging, requiring hair-trigger movement and rapid, repetitive attacks. And, in what has secured the game’s place in history, the enemies are very, very weird. Purple blobs leech onto your face, dragons pop out of the floors, dozens of eyes fly out of a giant eye-plant thing. On one hand, it’s brain-melting and frustrating. On the other hand, you turn into a dragon that can shoot electricity.
In many ways, its weirdness makes Altered Beast a fundamental video game.
One of the great appeals of gaming at large is how disparate elements combine to create something that you, the player, have never seen before. This was something Uchida fundamentally understood. His favorite part of making the game, he told Retro Gamer, “was that I could show my idea to everyone and surprise them.” The game’s sheer oddity helps it transcend its other limitations, at least temporarily.
In terms of pure gameplay and design, Altered Beast surely ranks below other Genesis classics like Ecco the Dolphin and Sonic 2. But the experience of playing it is half gameplay and half museum tour. It's worth playing Altered Beast just to see how weird things get.