This is a crazy, side-scrolling 2D beat ’em up in the linear style of a game like Irem’s Kung-Fu Master, only set in Ancient Greece and featuring superior magic powers. Released to arcades in 1988, it’s another beat ’em up. This time, from the arcade veterans at Sega.
Altered Beast starts off with the usual punches, kicks, and jumps with basic attacks after Zeus resurrects you from the grave. Tombstones would rumble up from the ground like rotted teeth bursting from Gaia’s gums at the start as the restless dead stalked our hero, wolves would attack, and your evil nemesis would mock you before morphing into a massive boss at the end of every stage.
Somehow the villain has stolen away Zeus’ daughter, Athena, and it’s up to you and your power to become a beast to save her by battling through five levels of various dangers, each separated with a still adding to what passed for its story.
Players had a health gauge made up of three blocks that changed color with damage and disappeared, one by one, until there were no more. Continues picked up right where you died so if you had enough quarters or tokens, you could grind through this without losing your score.
But kicks and punches aren’t your only weapons. White wolves, when killed, release magic spheres that act as power ups. The first one buffs you up. The next one turns you into a miniature Hulk. And the third one is the sweet spot — that transforms you into a beast. At that point, the real fun starts.
Each beast has its own strengths and weaknesses, but they all transformed an otherwise unfair advantage that juggling enemies pounded your human body with into a gallery of slaughter part shooter, part cheat code, and mostly fun. Melee with fists and feet were only preludes to the real joy in being one of these engines of destruction.
In the first stage, you were transformed into a Wolfman that could comet rush from left to right and punch fireballs from his fists. The Dragonman in stage two’s swampy world could fly, emit an electric field wrapped around him, and blast bolts of lightning. In the underground tunnels of the third stage, you get to become a bear that can petrify enemies with a short-ranged breath attack and smash into enemies with a spinning jump.
Heading deeper, the fourth stage set in an underground palace opened the tiger man form who could shoot a wavy energy ball and do a vertical rush attack similar to the Wolfeman’s . The last stage was the showdown and earning enough spheres turned you into the Golden Wolf who had a devastating rush kick that was incredibly useful against the cheapness of the enemies found there like the jump kicking purple unicorns. The game even had two player co-op with both players competing for magic orbs.
The game ran on Sega’s System 16 hardware, the B revision, which featured the incredibly popular Motorola 16-bit processor, the 68000, and Zilog’s Z80 in a power pairing that would also see use in their Sega Mega Drive/Genesis console as well as other hardware platforms in the arcade such as Capcom’s CPS-1 board. It would also use another standard piece, Yamaha’s YM2151, for sound and the voice samples in the game. The 16B was also physically different from the 16A, but the two were very similar in many respects, and this similarity also enabled Sega’s Mega Drive years later to approximate decent ports of the arcade hits Sega had put out using its far more powerful arcade cousin.
They also used encryption to defend against piracy using a Hitachi FD1094 chip which was one of the earliest examples of using a battery in a copy protection scheme — much like what later revisions of Capcom’s CPS-1 boards would use and which their CPS-2 hardware would adopt as a standard feature.
Altered Beast’s arcade popularity made it a prime candidate to find its way over to any platform that wanted it from the Amstrad to IBM PCs running MS-DOS, though with some severe changes limited by whatever hardware it would call home.
It was even a pack-in for the North American launch of the Sega Genesis in 1989 which only helped its popularity spread. The manual for it laid out the actual backstory which named the player as a Roman Centurion resurrected to do battle against Neff, Hades’ stand in as the God of the Underworld, something that a number of these ports often added to by actually creating fiction for said manual.
The Genesis version wasn’t too bad. It even used parallax scrolling, which the arcade version didn’t, and included quite a few voice samples from its stand-up cousin for added wow factor. It also had two-player co-op. But the sound test was amazingly fun especially when you could make Zeus rap his famous opening line, though you had to access it (and the options) via special key combos as opposed to having them immediately available up front.
Even today, it’s been re-issued for the Nintendo 3DS via its eShop, but does it hold up compared to other beat ’em ups that have arrived since then? I’d have to say that it hasn’t quite aged as well as some others, especially those that came later adding in 3D depth to their stages, faster action, and bigger venues such as Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons adaptations which are still amazing fun. For the time, though, it was great in the arcade, grabbing players’ attention every time it intoned “Rise from your grave” there and in the opening days of the 16-bit Console War.