Monday, February 16, 2009

Altered Beast

NEC Avenue / Sega

Before purchasing PCE Altered Beast, I took a look at screens of it lined up against caps from the Genesis version, and the comparisons left me disappointed with (and very critical of) the HuCard's visuals. So I was absolutely amazed to find that said visuals are extremely appealing when viewed firsthand, mainly thanks to the gorgeous colors the artists employed. Some of the foreground objects and backgrounds that I'd scoffed at ended up looking not so bad onscreen. Even without parallax scrolling, the PCE version of AB looks fantastic. In fact, the colors add so much to the experience that I'd say I prefer the graphics here to those in the Genesis game.

I was also shocked by just how wonderful the tunes sound. This was crucial: one of the main reasons I'd bothered to hold on to the practically worthless Genesis cartridge for many years was that it has quality music--music I believed would be stronger than whatever the PC Engine's sound chip could manage to crank out. As it turns out, the tracks here sound very rich, "lacking" only the shrillness and tin of their Genny counterparts.

And then there's the challenging gameplay. Altered Beast in any form is a mechanically simple beat 'em up at heart (for those unacquainted with it, your bruiser punches and kicks his foes prior to evolving via power-ups into a stage-specific beast with remarkable attack capabilities), but studying the ways in which the levels play out is necessary here if you hope to make it through all five stages. I had to memorize the exact locations where my enemies would appear and determine the most effective techniques to utilize against them. And the bosses in this version require that you come up with strategies; some schemes I devised actually made me feel proud, as each of the big beasts can really put up a fight. Yes, this is an Altered Beast that actually makes you think.

But make no mistake about it: this is rough-and-tumble stuff. While the Genesis AB was the laughingstock of every seventh-grader back in the day because of how easy it is, the PCE version will pummel you over and over again. Using the directional pad rather than a button to leap might not feel intuitive to players weaned on the Genesis version (although I was surprised by how well it works). Much more of a concern are the enemies who'll knock you to the turf and stomp on your helpless avatar until your life has been drained completely. Frankly, the game can feel cheap at times. Be aware of what you're getting yourself into before you buy it. Heck, I love it and I've mastered it, but even I get pissed at it every now and then.

But I can forgive it for its annoying aspects. In fact, it's a version of Altered Beast that I can actually say I own and enjoy for the game itself and not just for reasons related to nostalgia, which wasn't the case with the Genesis cartridge (which, by the way, I came to view as expendable and eventually disposed of, as the PCE rendition endeared itself to me to such an extent that eighteen years' worth of Genesis-version sentimentality had been effectively obliterated).

Familiar enemies and backgrounds look extremely nice in this version.

The simple interludes exhibit no overt alterations.

Creatures most of us know well. The eyeball guy who goes down so easily in the Genny version is a bastard here.

The first boss battle is as far as most people get. I kid you not.

Only the hardiest of champions will live to evolve into a golden werewolf and be able to finish the job.

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