While Altered Beast is not Sega’s entry in the beat-em-up genre (that honor goes to the Master System/Mark III Hokuto no Ken/Fist of the Northstar game), it is the first entry into the genre for them using an original property. Sega was already known for their high quality arcade games (at least on average) at this point, but they were entering into a genre that had some real heavy hitters in recent years (most notably Nekketsu Kouha Kunio kun/Renegade and Double Dragon, both from Technos Japan). Would Altered Beast innovate in the brawler genre the same way Sega had innovated with some of their other arcade games?
As it turned out, no. It certainly did some interesting things, but ultimately plays similarly to any side-scrolling brawler on a single plane, with light platforming elements. One first it achieves in the beat-em-up genre is that it has as close to a fantasy setting as we’ve seen so far. Not that you get too much of the story from playing the arcade version, but we’d later find out with the Genesis port of Altered Beast that this is set in a version of Ancient Greece. You are a centurion resurrected by Zeus himself to save his daughter Athena from a demon god named Neff (who is just called “majin” (魔神), or literally “evil spirit”), who has taken her to the underworld. In fact almost all the voice samples to be found in the game are of Zeus telling you to “Rise from your grave” (maybe the thing this game is known best for) as he resurrects you, “Power up” when you get a power-up, and telling you to “Never give up!” when you die and need to continue. Apart from these, you also get some beast howls during transformations and laughing/”Welcome to your doom!” from Neff.
And if the whole game was just the beefy looking human centurion walking and sort of sluggishly kicking or punching (while possibly crouching or jumping as well) all manner of creatures (undead and otherwise), you really wouldn’t have anything too original at all. However as you progress through each of the five levels, you’ll encounter some white wolves that are flashing red. Each of these wolves drops a power-up (I love that the power-up says “Get It” right on top) that gradually beefs up your centurion even further when collected. After three of these, you transform into a werebeast! The beast you transform into is different for each level (wolf, dragon, bear, tiger, and golden wolf), and your attacks completely change so that you’re practically invincible against normal enemies. You can get to the bosses themselves in a non-powered up state, but it really takes quite a lot for that to happen. The game will loop parts of the level for awhile in an attempt to get you to collect the power-ups before throwing you into the boss. If you’re powered-up and you’re even a little bit good at observing simple attack patterns, the bosses shouldn’t cause many problems at all.
Now the whole transformation thing probably sounds awesome, and to a certain extent it is. The most fun you’ll have in this game is absolutely when you’re playing as the werebeasts. The designers absolutely did a great job when it comes to them, and a lot of the monster designs as well. The problem is how the game feels until you get up to that point, which is just a bit too sluggish. Rapid firing attacks like you might in something like Double Dragon or Bad Dudes/Dragon Ninja isn’t going to work here because of the game’s speed. You have to plan out your attacks a little bit more carefully based on enemy range, position in relation to you, and what they might possibly do to attack you. This game supports two players simultaneously, and it doesn’t seem like the number of enemies scales up in two player mode. So that would probably make things more manageable.
The first level is relatively kind compared to most brawlers we’ve seen so far, which lulls you into a false sense of security that this game will be a breeze to get through. But as the game goes on it quickly throws more difficult enemies at you, and in increasingly greater numbers. The white power-up wolf will often appear exactly where you’re not (either atop or below a platform), or amidst a group of enemies, making it impossible to get if you don’t know exactly where they spawn. This can result in the later couple of levels being incredibly frustrating, because it takes so long to get powered up.
It remains kind throughout by not taking away whatever power-ups you’d collected when you die though, and unlike some other brawlers it will just let you keep feeding in money to continue from the same spot that you died in (Zeus really doesn’t want you to give up). So if you really want to clear Altered Beast, it’s very achievable despite the frustrations.
The music was composed by Toru Nakabayashi (who sometimes used the pseudonyms “Master” and “NAK”, and has had his name written as both “Toru” and “Tohru”), a prolific composer for Sega on both home and arcade platforms during the 80s and 90s. Nakabayashi is a good composer, but Altered Beast is absolutely not one of his best works. I’m sure he thought this kind of tone was appropriate given the story of the game or something, but most the soundtrack is largely a collection of down-beat songs (sometimes bordering on dirges) that don’t drum up much enthusiasm during play. The big exception to this is the song that plays during the ending, which is a really great piece.
Speaking of the ending, it does something that I like a whole lot: It reveals that this whole thing was just a play! You get little hints at it with the between-level scenes found only in the arcade version, but the ending is all of the werebeasts and monsters taking off their costumes and revealing the human actors beneath. It even features them all toasting with large mugs of beer. So I guess no one should invest themselves too much in Altered Beast’s lore! It’s also notable that this image reveals that Team Shinobi were behind the development of this game. The Shinobi arcade game was released by Sega in November of the previous year (1987).
Even though I’m pretty down on it, this game definitely has its fans. I don’t think this has much to do with the arcade version of the game, but rather the much more well remembered Sega Genesis/Mega Drive port of it that was a pack-in game for the first part of the Genesis’ launch in the west. This version itself was also included in various collections over time.
The best way to play the arcade original was via the Wii Virtual Console, since it was ported by M2. It was also brought to the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 as a part of the Sega Vintage Collection series of downloadable titles, but was ported by Backbone Entertainment. It may be because the PS3/360 generation brought about a new lust for old games in downloadable format fairly quickly, but this is an absolutely horribly emulated version of the game. The sound quality is bad and the levels are all over the place. The sound effects at the end of the levels were always a little loud, but they range from extremely loud to extremely quiet here. The smoothing filter is terrible (thankfully it’s off by default), and the game just looks bad letter-boxed down into the frame as it is. It also stutters occasionally for reasons I’m not completely sure of. It features local (which the Wii VC port has as well) and online multiplayer (which I’m sure you haven’t been able to find a game on in years), but I don’t think that’s worth all the other drawbacks.
Though I haven’t played it, this is also likely the same version of the game that appears in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection on the PS3/XBox 360, since both were developed by Backbone Entertainment. An emulated version of the arcade game also appeared on the 2006/2007 Digital Eclipsed developed PS2 Sega Genesis Collection that was released only in the US, Europe, and Australia.
If you’d rather play a less accurate port though, you have your choice. Altered Beast was also ported to the Sega Master System, PC Engine (with both a standard HuCard and CD version), Famicom, MSX, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64. There have even been ports on iOS, Android, and Steam.