Monday, May 25, 2020

Arcade Review: Altered Beast (1988)

The following review was requested by chewman. I was very fortunate to play this game at Grinkers before the city shut down for the pandemic!


In 1988, Sega brought Altered Beast to the arcades, with high hopes that players' minds would be blown by the newest release for their System 16 board, hardware responsible for the successfully notable first iteration of the Shinobi series.

Altered Beast was a beat 'em up, a genre that was actually pretty new at the time. There were fighters and action games, but before Double Dragon's release in 1987, the idea of fusing these two genres hadn't really caught on. Filled to the brim with kicking, punching, and morphing, Altered Beast is widely considered a classic entry in the beat 'em up genre.

Altered Beast arcade cabinet


In Altered Beast, you play a Roman Centurion summoned by Zeus to defeat Neff, the God of the Underworld. Neff has imprisoned Athena, Zeus's daughter.

The mythological theme of the game is very cool, and I think the game looks fantastic for a 1988 release. It almost feels like the levels you're playing are paintings. It's appropriately colorful, the animations are solid, and it's an attractive and alluring cabinet. 

The game has you fighting your way through hordes of enemies, left to right, to the end of each level. It's pretty standard beat 'em up fair, but the action is all on a single plane, so you can't move between the background and foreground to avoid enemies.

Each level has the occasional "glowing wolf" roaming around: kill three of these, and you become the Altered Beast: you transform into a ferocious beast (a different one depending on the level) that gives you unique powers to wreck everything in your path on the way to the level's boss. After each level, Neff turns you back to the Centurion.

Altered Beast looks fantastic.

This all sounds great on paper, but the main problem with Altered Beast is honestly how pathetic the protagonist is before he transforms. You move, kick, and punch pretty slowly, and while some enemies are just as slow as you (yawn), some are much faster, which means that your timing needs to be perfect if you want to avoid taking damage. Perfect timing in this game is easier said than done, because doing anything precisely feels clunky.

Now... the Donkey Kong cabinet that is potentially right next to this one features a pretty sluggish character named Mario, too. However, in Donkey Kong, you don't feel powerless: the game lulls you into a sense of security until you get pummeled by a barrage of unfortunate barrels, an experience that is fun to this very day. In Altered Beast, you get the feeling you never have much of a chance against what's coming. Your only hope is getting to that third wolf quickly so you can have some semblance of mobility. The ebb and flow of difficulty is kind of awkward, and it hasn't aged well.

The wolves in the game are pretty fast, and sometimes they can run on and off the screen in a blink of an eye, which is really frustrating. You do get enough chances to make the transformation, though, and when you do (probably about halfway through the level), you become a beast god.

Being the Centurion isn't much fun

Being the Altered Beast is the truly excellent part of the game. You are immediately faster and have two powerful abilities at your disposal, most of which are a blast. It's so much fun (relative to the rest of the game), that it's kind of mind-boggling that the game really makes you work so hard for it. Once you reach the end of the level and you transform back into a puny human, you can only sigh in disappointment. I found this transformation extremely regrettable heading into the final level, a point at which I found it impossible much of the time to avoid getting hit by jumping centaur-like creatures.

The boss fights are definitely one of the stronger parts in the game. The game's large bosses are appropriately weird, intimidating, and memorable. However, the game's final boss is a joke. Not only is the angry rhino pretty easy compared to much of what came before it, it's completely underwhelming in stature and design... definitely a puzzling choice for an end-boss.

Most of the bosses are messed up - in a good way

The sound in the game is great, especially the combat FX, but the cheesy voices are laughable. This is pretty much par for the course in 1988, though, so I enjoy them. "Welcome to your doom..."

Overall, I think the game is challenging but not nearly one of the hardest entries in the arcade, depending on how stingy you are with your quarters. The length of the game makes this especially true, ending after only five stages.

I've been a little harsh to this game. To be fair, beat 'em ups were a pretty new thing in 1988, and Altered Beast was really a marvel for its time. I think we as gamers tend to excuse the shortcomings of a game that really brings something new and fresh to the table, so I think I would have been a little less harsh with this one back in the day. However, there are some games that still stand the test of time, and Altered Beast doesn't hold up that well. In fact, the dawn of the age of beat 'em ups was just around the corner, and this entry hardly held up to games such as Golden Axe and Final Fight.


Altered Beast was and is a divisive game. To me, it's a beautiful video game that feels like a missed opportunity when you play it. At times, it's fun, and at times, it's frustrating and boring. When you're the Altered Beast, it can be exhilarating, but when you're not, it can be painful. Make no mistake: this game is a classic, but it's unfortunately one of those classics that became outdated very quickly.

Retrodrunk Rating:          (5/10 Bloody Marys)

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