Friday, April 9, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Altered Beast CD

I know, I know.  Sega's Altered Beast has been made available in North America on many different platforms at many different times; both the Sega Genesis version and the original coin-op arcade version remain commercially available for download on modern consoles.  And beyond the title logo, the game is presented entirely in English, so there are no blogworthy language issues to document.

But what you might not know is that the Japanese PC Engine alone saw two different versions in 1988 -- a CD-ROM version, and a HuCard version.  I imported the CD version recently, and what's really disappointing about this release is that it's scarcely different from the cartridge edition -- the in-game music is still chip-based, without so much as a CD-audio remix to make the experience unique.

The ability to select the difficulty level (NORMAL or HARD) makes the game somewhat more palatable than its cartridge counterpart; even the normal level is pretty difficult compared to other editions, as there are no mid-stage continues allowed, but the HuCard edition plays strictly on hard.

And there is a new "story mode", which uses the CD medium for story segments between levels; they're not animated, but there's some scrolling and fading to bring the images to life.  These often include the arcade music in the background under the Japanese narration, and while some of the artwork uses enlarged and recolored sprites from the game proper, there are some new illustrations fleshing out the basic rescue-the-maiden-from-the-evil-wizard plot:

Once the game is underway, though, it reverts to plain old Altered Beast again.  It's a decent conversion, but the parallax background scrolling is missing here, as the PC Engine had only one background layer to work with.  At least the voice samples are more faithfully reproduced from the arcade, so Zeus sounds less like Elmer Fudd than he did on the Genesis when urging the player to "Rise from your grave!"

But there are no surprises to be found here -- just as before, we walk from left to right, punching and kicking our monstrous adversaries into the dust while we seek the three magical orbs necessary to transform us into a stronger beast warrior and take on the wizard in his multifarious forms:

After the battle, we revert to human form and proceed to the next stage:

Kick, punch, jump, transform, kick harder, punch farther, fight wizard, repeat.  I was expecting more -- there's a lot of dead space going to waste on the CD.  But the game was designed for the PC Engine CD's original 1.0 System Card, which didn't provide much onboard memory, and judging from the frequent disc access I witnessed, Altered Beast has to spool in new graphics mid-level on a regular basis.

So it's likely that CD-based music would have been interrupted periodically, and certain technical compromises therefore had to be made.  The PC Engine's sound chip was capable and the music sounds decent enough, but with a competing version planned on the card format, one wonders why this CD edition was developed at all.  The strategy might be an artifact of the PC Engine technology transition at the time -- unsure of which format to target, the developers decided to release Altered Beast on both, perhaps with market testing in mind.  Judging from today's collectible market, the CD version sold better than the card edition -- at least it's easier to find, and brand new copies still turn up on occasion.  But that doesn't make the CD version seem any less lazy. 

I'm not surprised that NEC didn't pursue this one for U.S. release -- Altered Beast was Sega's flagship Genesis title in the pre-Sonic the Hedgehog days, so would likely not have approved it despite allowing some of its titles like Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone to turn up on the competing TurboGrafx-16 and NES.  And a direct comparison between the platforms would not have helped NEC's cause in any case.  Still, it's not a bad conversion, and I enjoyed playing it for a while -- it just doesn't make any interesting use of the newfangled CD format.   

As so many better versions are available these days, including the coin-op original, I really don't recommend this one -- but if an odd version of Altered Beast fills a gaping hole in your collection, you may be able to find a copy for purchase at this affiliate link.

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