By 1988, Michael Jackson was on top of the world as the “King of Pop”. Radios everywhere were playing his music, he was feted (and hounded) by the press, and the megastar was only getting ready for his next act on the road with his first solo tour.
It was also the year that the movie, Moonwalker, was released. Consisting of an anthology of clips, it was a potpourri of extended music videos and unrelated story material which could make it confusing as there was no underlying arc tying it all together. It was Michael Jackson for fans. It saw a theatrical release in Europe and South America, but when it came to the United States, it ended up on VHS tapes. But it was still a big thing selling over 800k copies.
Gaming also took a bite out of the King of Pop’s reign with a number of titles centered around his music and persona. Adapting pieces of the Moomwalker film, a game appeared on PCs ranging from MS-DOS machines to the powerful Amiga in 1989. It was a top-down, collect-a-thon title that saw Michael do everything from pick up pieces of a costume to hide from fans to assembling the parts needed to transform himself into a car. Yes, he does that in the movie (the transformation bit, not the collecting). It even had a shooting gallery scene where the King takes out bad guys with a Tommy Gun, inspired by the Smooth Criminal segment in the Moonwalker film where he is attacked by “Mr. Big” (played by Joe Pesci) and his thugs for getting in his way of selling drugs to everyone on Earth starting with children.
It would be that segment of the film that would inspire a collaboration between Sega and Michael Jackson in creating an exciting action arcade game capitalizing on the pop star’s name and music — and thus Moonwalker in 1990 was born, hitting arcades.
It was hugely different from the PC versions. This was akin to an isometric, beat ’em up with magic mist shooting from Michael’s fingertips to take down the bad guys coming at him with everything from machine guns and robots to zombies. Michael even had a special “super”, a dance attack that made everyone onscreen dance to the beat…even the robots which moved in place and did their own thing. The only things that didn’t dance up a storm was Mr. Big and his boss moments harassing Michael on his way through the game’s five “rounds” which were broken up into stages.
Michael also had some funky powers. He had that close ranged “magic punch” attack which could also be powered up by holding down the attack button for a projectile shot. Bubbles the Chimp (Michael Jackson’s famous pet at the time) also showed up to transform Micheal into a robot warrior with ranged lasers and a power-up attack of missiles. Conveniently, he’d show up just before a big boss fight.
Each round even had its own theme music set to the action. Round One had “Bad” playing in the background, Round Two had “Smooth Criminal”. Round Three had “Beat It”, Round 4 had “Another Part of Me”, and Round Five finished things off with another rendition of “Bad”. The closing credits had “Billie Jean”.
Between each round was a comic-style intermission telling a bit more of the story, sometimes with a panel showing Michael’s face going “wooooo!” at Mr. Big’s ugly mug, before diving right into the chaos.
The goal for each round was for Michael to rescue kids kidnapped by Mr. Big’s thugs who will either thank him or give him neat stuff ranging from heals to another dance special (Michael starts off with one with every life). Continues were infinite (and retained your score as opposed to restting it) and players could purchase extra lives simply by dropping quarters or tokens into their side of the machine as it supported three-way co-op with each player wearing a different colored suit and fedora.
At the end was the final battle against Mr. Big and defeating him saw Michael transform into a flying super jet and destroy his “doomsday” laser. The game even had ending text scrolling in front of Michael Jackson’ signature walking feet clip. It was a remarkably story-driven action game relative to many other of its peers at the time in 1990.
It wasn’t a bad game though the controls and that enemies in the game mostly had ranged weapons to Michael’s close ranged standard could make it a bit rough on solo players. Even with a generous life bar and buy-in system, it was often easy to die from simply being overwhelmed by so many foes. Good thing he’s a good dancer.
Presentation-wise, for the 1990s, the game looked and sounded great. With Michael Jackson’s hits playing in the backdrop and some decent beat ’em up action with co-op for friends, it could be an entertaining distraction for fans or beat ’em up advocates in general.
Moonwalker also made its way home to consoles with another adaptation cribbing again off of the film’s Smooth Criminal segment featuring Club 30 and gangsters kidnapping children for Mr. Big’s nefarious plans to take over the world by brainwashing them into soldiers. This time, it was a side-scrolling action adventure starring Michael, again in Smooth Criminal’s signature white suit and fedora, with music playing in the background. It was released in the same year as the arcade game for Japan and North American audiences offering a different experience.
The game roughly followed the arcade layout of its stages and music featuring a showdown at the club, a cemetery, battle on the streets, and a final confrontation at Mr. Big’s base of operations. It could also get pretty repetitive.
The goal in every stage was to find children who could be hidden behind doors, inside windows, in the trunks of cars, or even behind a waterfall in one stage all the while taking down enemies with Michael’s magic shotgun sparklies that had terrible range but could take down multiple enemies since hitting one didn’t make them disappear. He also had a dance attack (as long as he had enough health) just like in the arcade version.
In the end, instead of simply flying off like he does in the arcade, players are thrown into the cockpit shooting down enemy ships and chasing after Mr. Big for the final face off in space. Once taking him down, Michael flies off and the credits roll by with the King dancing in step with a fan.
The home version wasn’t a terrible game but it could turn into a repetitive scavenger hunt in looking for all of those kids. There were no boss battles, just mobs of enemies at the end of each area to fend off after Mr. Big briefly shows up and says that you will never catch him. Presentation-wise, though, for the time, it was fantastic with renditions of Michael Jackson’s hits like “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal” making up the soundtrack and the close attention paid to the animated detail of Michael’s moves and his signature yells. Even today, the pixel animation work still holds up reasonably well.
Moonwalker (the title of the movie wasn’t even Michael Jackson’s idea, but it worked) became an interesting game, based not only on a movie that was geared specifically for fans but using only one piece of that to tell an action-packed story. The arcade version had a lot more going for it by being a straightforward, action-heavy adventure with a wider variety of sheer craziness (Michael turns into a robot in the home version, too, thanks to a falling star that you have to be on your toes to catch since it appears really briefly in certain areas). But the home version, especially for the Mega Drive/Genesis, was remarkably solid despite some dull moments.
Michael would continue his collaboration with Sega on a few other projects such as Sonic the Hedgehog 3 where he is uncredited, though the story behind that is pretty convoluted as to why with reasons such as Michael wasn’t happy with the music leading to his request not to credit him to that it was also around the time he was confronted with child molestation charges. He also appeared on the Sega Dreamcast game, Space Channel 5, as the station chief, Space Michael. The series of games based around Moonwalker might not have been the greatest, but they join a small club of titles based around musical artists from Journey to Aerosmith (Revolution X). And in the late 80s and early 90s, anything with Jackson in it was seen as a solid gold moment in time.