Fans of Nintendo’s home consoles were treated to top-quality pack-in games during the 8- and 16-bit years. Super Mario Bros., Tetris, and Super Mario World are among the best games on their respective systems, and were included with the systems to add extra incentive to purchase the console. Even Sega’s own 8-bit home console came with decent pack-in options: the Base System came with arcade port Hang-On and the abbreviated-but-hey-it’s-free shooter Astro Warrior, while the Master System came with Hang-On and light gun game Safari Hunt. At the time of the Genesis launch, Sega was trying to clearly differentiate it’s fledgling console from the NES juggernaut by showing that it was capable of reproducing the arcade experience at home, as well as market it to an older audience as the system that NES gamers should grow into. Altered Beast was included with the console because it helped to accomplish both of those goals.
I have a vague memory of playing Altered Beast on a demo kiosk at Toys ‘R Us sometime after the console’s launch, but at the time the Sega Genesis might as well have been a Ferrari Testarossa, such were my chances of getting one as the 12-year-old kid of a single mom. My entry into the word of Sega would have to wait another three years, when for my 15th birthday my mom drove me to Circuit City and bought me a model 1 Genesis with Sonic The Hedgehog, which was my whole reason for wanting the console, as the bundled freebie. My high school years were spent oscillating back and forth between my Genesis and my DOS PC (when there was nothing good on TV), but not once did Altered Beast appear on my radar.
By the late 90’s, after I had moved onto Sony for all of my gaming needs, I re-bought a Genesis on eBay (a model 2 this time, as it’s what Banky and Holden were playing in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy – a story for another day.) I spent the next several years both re-buying the games I grew up with, and filling out my library with all of the games that I either wanted but never got or would have wanted but never got had I been aware of them. By this time I was in college, and was palling around with a classmate named Dan. Dan was the kind of guy who was born with a silver tongue and he used it to great effect, on the bartender at the campus pub who gave our entire friend group free beer whenever he could get away with it, or on the administration in our department who gave Dan his own office – with a couch in it! – that we all hung out in on a daily basis as though it were the basement on That 70’s Show. Dan would tell me about this old Genesis game “Altered Beast”, which sounded foggily familiar, that had awesome digitized speech in it; “Wise From Your Gwave” and so on. Such was Dan’s powers of persuasion that I soon found myself on eBay ordering up a copy, back in the days when you could get just about any run-of-the-mill Genesis game – mint and CIB mind you – for around five bucks.
The game is an arcade-style, side-scrolling action game in which the hero, a Roman centurion brought back from the grave (gwave) to rescue Zeus’ kidnapped daughter, battles mutants and undead creatures whose huge detailed sprites did certainly show off the Genesis’ graphical prowess back in 1989. The graphics are detailed and flicker-free, but perhaps more importantly a clear contrast exists between the dark violence of Altered Beast and the cartoony cuteness of the Super Mario series. Nintendo? That’s baby stuff. Still, the game is extremely short – a seasoned player can blast through the game in about 10 minutes – and for such a quick game it manages to at the same time be slow-paced. Although each level is unique in style and appearance, the game play remains the same; kill enemies with physical attacks until enough power-ups have been obtained to trigger a boss battle, rinse, repeat.
It is important to note though that for early adopters of the Sega Genesis, Altered Beast was likely their first exposure to 16-bit gaming, and the huge sprites, comparatively more detailed graphics, and digitized speech clearly separated it from the 8-bit pack. This game is worth the experience for its historical importance alone, but is the same as it ever was (Talking Heads reference); even calling it a “weekend rental” is a bit too generous. Unlike Nintendo’s pack-in games which offered enough meat on the bone to keep young gamers occupied and entertained (for now) in the absence of a second game, Altered Beast was never more than a one-night stand for anyone with opposable thumbs.