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Better than the Original?: Altered Beast
By: Ken Horowitz
Way back when Sega released the Genesis, they included Altered Beast as the pack-in game. No one at the time cared that it was a shallow, fifteen minute-long snorefest that was utterly lacking in game play. It was free with the system, it talked, and it had huge sprites. Plus, those nifty transformations looked so spiffy! The game was a blast in the arcades and most gamers were happy to finally have it at home to play at their leisure.
After playing it a few times, however, it became clear that what it had in flash, it lacked in substance. There were little more than a few kicks and punches to the whole thing. It was too simple for its own good but hey, what'd you expect for free? As one would expect, Altered Beast has not aged gracefully. The simplistic game play and plain graphics simply don't hold up in today's eye candy-oriented world of gaming. So what did Sega do? Why, they brought it back!
"Wise fwom your gwave!"
So, you're probably telling yourself "yeah, I played the GBA version and it sucks." For shame! You do realize what the basis for comparison is here, don't you? The original game had a measly five levels and was designed to be long enough to grab its fair share of quarters but not so long that it would take forever to play. This didn't work too well at home and most gamers found themselves looking at the ending credits their first time through. A collective sigh of "what the hell?" blanketed many a home that September.
Sega and 3D6 games took the original formula and beefed it up significantly. You're still a dead warrior brought back to combat a great evil but now there are more levels, more power ups, more transformations, more of everything! Sadly, the one thing that they left alone was that which needed an upgrade the most: the repetitive and boring game play.
Now, sit back, grab a Mountain Dew (or other sugary beverage) and relax as Sega-16 takes a look at how the GBA version of Altered Beast fares compared to the original.
This almost a no-brainer. Just placing the two games side by side shows the obvious difference between them. The GBA's powerful hardware allowed for 3D rendered characters ala Donkey Kong Country, which seems like an odd choice for this series. I personally prefer the sprites from the Genesis game to this new style but the overall enhancement cannot be denied. The stages have also been given a facelift and this is immediately evident by the inclusion of scrolling foregrounds and backgrounds that appear almost digitized. There's plenty of color (sometimes a bit too much and this leads to some bleeding) and everything is a decent size, given the small screen.
The only problem with this new style is that it's not as imaginative as it seems. After a few minutes, you'll notice that the same area just keeps scrolling by, never adding anything new. There is no visual sense of progression and the stages just go on and on, slowly draining your will to live. When you consider a boss to be sweet release, the developers were definitely doing something wrong.
The bosses themsleves are also extremely underwhelming in the sequel. I remember the first time I saw the level one boss in the Genesis game and how impressive he looked. Many of the newer ones are about as threatening as my year-old daughter, before she started teething. None of them are well animated, threatening, or even cleverly designed. What can you say about a boss that just sits there while you demolish the columns around him, thereby crushing him with the roof? Lame.
The problem with this series is that it has excelled in its mediocrity. Simplistic graphics can be forgiven when there's game play to fall back on, which is not the case with either Altered Beast. The graphics in the new version are not the best the GBA has seen nor are they a significant step up over the original. The increase in the level of color and detail, however, gives the GBA game the edge.
No one can forget the classic sound clip from the beginning of Altered Beast. Seemingly recorded by Elmer Fudd, it has become a classic sound bite. The odd thing is, all the other voice clips sounded very clear and loud. Only that opening line was flubbed. For what it's worth, the voice has been retained in the handheld version, for the most part, but somehow just doesn't sound the same. I can understand the tiny Genesis cart having only a few voices, given the newness of the hardware at the time and the fact that the arcade version was basically the same. I can't say the same for the new game, which adds nothing new at all. There are fifteen stages here! How many times can you hear "power up!" and "welcome to your doom!" before they lose any appeal they may have had?
Moreover, 3D6 games did little to take advantage of the superior hardware and actually improve the droning tones of the original. I doubt anyone wants to be lulled to sleep when they play and nostalgia aside, this simply should not be the case in a revival. The music, much like the stages themselves, simply goes on ad nauseam, doing little to keep you motivated. I played most of the time with the sound off and it made no difference to me at all. I know the GBA can put out some great tunes and there's simply no excuse for this.
Let's see. In Altered Beast on Genesis, I could punch, kick, and jump. Once transformed, I could shoot a projectile weapon and use a body attack. That was it, nothing more. It seems that our hero failed to take advantage of all that time he's been dead since 1989 to learn new moves. The GBA rev plays almost exactly like the classic cart, with only the slightest of improvements. Aside from the normal selection of attacks, you can now use an uppercut, high kick and do a double jump. Pretty plain, wouldn't you say? The fact that these new moves (with the exception of the double jump) are pretty useless means you'll be doing your regular two-button jig throughout the whole game.
There are ten basic beast forms in the GBA version, which is double the amount found on Genesis and these can be upgraded by finding a talisman hidden in each stage. Aside from a palette swap, there is no physical difference between the variations. Only their level of destructive power improves and although you start out with four lives, you can attain up to nine. With the power ups, this isn't much of an issue though.
The Game Boy version also noses ahead in the power up department. The three transformation icons from the first game are here but there is also a plethora of new items to be had. 1ups, adrenaline orbs for increasing speed, health restorers, extra continues, and powerful magic can all be obtained by destroying various items that litter the landscape.
Again, this is an area where the aged Genesis cart cannot compete. As a very bare bones port of the arcade game, it lacks any of the flair and pizzazz we take for granted today. Heck, it didn't even have the cool ending from the coin-op. On the GBA, however, a bit more has been added. Granted, it's not much but it's better than nothing. There is an ending, albeit not a very good one, and there are also a smattering of cut scenes to round out the package. Everything takes place out of a central pub, from which you can enter each area and reenter once completed. This is essential for finding those nasty talismans that never seem to be around when you need them.
As nice as the semi-linear game play sounds, it's not so good in practice. The stages, which are about four times as long as they were on the Genesis, are too long and extremely repetitive. Having to go back to each one to find ten talismans is more of a chore than an incentive. Thankfully, there is a save feature which records your progress automatically.
I guess it all comes down to what you prefer. Fewer, shorter levels that can be played through in little time or more and longer levels for a game that takes a while. Honestly, if it weren't for the save feature, I probably wouldn't have given the GBA Altered Beast a second glance. As things are, I would have to at least give 3D6 points for trying to expand on the original concept.
Better than the Original.
With enhanced graphics, more levels, power ups, and a save feature, the GBA version appears to be better than the Genesis cart. I only wish that meant more than it does. I guess the most important thing to consider here is whether or not the new version retains the feel and game play of the original. In this case, it does. The problem is, the game play of the original was nothing to get excited about. Though many people questioned why Sega chose to revive this franchise when there are so many other worthy ones that they could have chosen, like Streets of Rage or Wonder Boy, I can see what they were trying to accomplish here. Lamentably though, when the original product is lackluster, it takes more than just a few extra levels and power ups to create a franchise. I guess it isn't all bad, as both Out Run and Shinobi have made their return (look for those in future editions of this feature). Maybe someday someone at Sega will stumble across the company's huge library of sleeping brands and actually bring more of them back. I would love to see the lessons hopefully learned with Altered Beast applied to other revivals. Until then, we'll just have to keep marking time.