Altered Beast is another of those arcade ports which made its way to the sixteen bit Megadrive back in the early nineties. This classic beat em up was developed by the same bloke responsible for the excellent Golden Axe (one of the Golden Axe mountable beasts actually makes a cameo appearance as a level two enemy.) Players take the role of a mighty warrior who has been resurrected by the Greek god of thunder Zeus and tasked with saving the deity’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by the demon Neff. I feel for poor Athena. Her daddy is an all powerful being but he cannot be arsed to rescue her, opting instead to send some smelly corpse to do his dirty work.
Compared to other fighting games, Altered Beast is rather basic. The player can only move left and right to avoid dangers or close in on enemies, but he has no direct control of where he is going. The screen scrolls automatically to the right revealing the stage and any creatures lurking there. Using punches and kicks you must down the legion of undead, monsters and mythical beats that are doing Neff’s bidding. Our hero can also jump to get over pitfalls or perform a super jump to reach flying foes and high platforms, which are beyond the reach of his regular leap.
The game’s unique selling point would have to be the transformations. Although Zeus didn’t provide the would be rescuer with any weapons he did at least grant him the ability to change forms. Vanquishing blue wolves releases a floating orb that when collected powers up our hero. The player starts off as a scrawny guy, but after grabbing an orb he decides to prove his manliness by ripping off his shirt Hulk Hogan style. Any ladies hoping to see pixilated wang will however be disappointed to learn that the warrior keeps his pants on. Collecting a second orb sees the player juice up, Chris Benoit style, into a muscle bound beefcake that would put Arnie to shame. Upon picking up the fourth and final orb the player turns into a powerful beast for the duration of the level (unfortunately you revert back to the wimp after downing the guardian who resides at the end of the stage.)
In total you have five levels to overcome before you can rescue Athena :-
STAGE 1: Things start off at the cemetery where the player rises from his grave. The game eases you in with a fairly straightforward opener. Slow moving skeletons and decapitated zombies impede your progress. In stage one you transform into a fireball casting werewolf who faces off against an end boss that tosses an endless supply of heads at you.
STAGE 2: We then move underground to a monster lair guarded by bouncing slimes and snakes that drop down from the ceiling. The boss of this stage is a giant plant that spews out eyes, but it doesn’t pose much of a threat. The dragon transformation you get in this level comes equipped with an electric shock attack that puts Pikachu to shame. By spamming the overpowered move it’s possible to turn the boss into ocular fertilizer in a matter of seconds.
STAGE 3: A cave populated by giant ants and snails with boulders for shells. Fans of the carebears will be delighted to learn that you change into a grizzly in this stage. The bear form comes with petrifying breath that turns enemies into stone and a spin attack that reminds me a little of Sonic the Hedgehog. The end of level boss resembles a mutated seahorse that can fly and spit out fireballs.
STAGE 4: Once you hit the ruins the game’s difficulty really starts to ramp up. Watch out for the undead and flying creatures that patrol the area. The level’s boss, in my opinion, is the most annoying one in the entire game due to the firebirds it summons. To progress you will have to master the abilities of the humanoid leopard you transform into.
STAGE 5: The final hurdle to overcome is the city of the dead. I guess they run out of ideas at this point as you once again transform into a werewolf after collecting four orbs. Here I saw the game over screen many times due to the fiendishly tough enemies that swarm you. Watch out for boxing goats and unicorns that perform flying kicks (there is nothing worse than getting killed by My Little Pony.) If you get to the end Neff awaits in the guise of a charging rhino.
Graphically speaking Altered Beast isn’t going to win any prizes. By today’s standards the sprites and backgrounds come across as blocky. It’s an early Megadrive game though so you cannot be too critical, especially as there are worse looking titles which came out at around the same time. I give credit to the makers for coming up with many different enemy designs and backgrounds, which give every level a unique feel. The animation is however lacking and the sluggish pace at which things move really makes the controls feel stiff.
I was far more impressed by the sonics. The game features some excellent tracks which I still enjoy listening to. The sound effects on the other hand are nothing to write home about. The game features some digitized speech that may have been impressive back in the day, but now is laughably bad. Zeus mispronounces “grave” when resurrecting you and Neff’s sinister appearance is somewhat hampered by his taunts that are delivered in a fruity accent. The only speech that I found passable was the manly “Power Up” whenever you come in contact with an orb.
To be perfectly honest this game has not aged well. Modern gamers can still have fun with beat-em-ups like Streets of Rage, but I am sure most would dismiss Altered Beast as garbage. I however have a soft spot for it. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but the cheesy speech and simple combat has a certain charm to it. I still play Altered Beast from time to time so I think it is worthy of three stars. The game is rather short, but most players won’t finish it in a hurry. Three lives and no continues is rather unforgiving so you will have to practice a lot, to memorise the level layouts, if you intend to see the ending without a cheat.
If you weren’t around during the sixteen bit era you should probably give this a miss, but I think the title is still worth recommending to the retro gaming crowd. You can pickup the Megadrive cartridge cheaply online or download a virtual console version of the game for not too much. Another option would be to buy the excellent Megadrive Ultimate collection (for PS3 or 360) as it is included there. Twenty years after its release Altered Beast continues to rise from the grave to captivate players. Yes it is primitive, but with lasting power like that it must be doing something right.