Monday, July 6, 2009

Oddities: Michael Jackson's Moonwalker

This one has been on my to-blog list for a while, but Mr. Jackson's recent passing has given it relevance, something this blog generally strives to avoid. Based on the odd 1988 "movie," really a collection of music video-style segments, Sega reportedly worked closely with Michael Jackson to bring his unique persona to videogames.

I quote: "HOOOOOO!"

The game sends Michael out to battle evil in his Smooth Criminal costume; to Sega and Jackson's mutual credit, this is clearly not a generic action platformer with new graphics slapped onto it. For example, Mr. Jackson does not employ any violent weapons -- while his enemies have guns, he ducks to avoid their bullets, throws his hat Oddjob style, and dances his enemies to death. This sounds silly, and it is completely ludicrous, but it somehow feels right -- while the sprites are on the tiny side, and the backgrounds simple and repetitive, the animation is impressively varied and smooth. Clearly a lot of effort and cartridge space was put into capturing Jackson's dance moves. The Thriller level is a particular favorite of mine, and the Smooth Criminal dances are nicely handled as well.

The music is nicely rendered given the limited capabilities of the Sega Genesis; Jackson's infectious pop hooks come through loud and clear. Unfortunately, the game is also infected by Mr. Jackson's trademark weirdness. For instance, Bubbles the chimp shows up to ride around on his shoulder, and makes a strangely ambivalent cameo on the Game Over screen, boogeying and clapping like a demented monkey whether the player chooses to quit or continue.

And then there's this... the reason it's hard to play this game today without feeling complicit in all manner of yuck. The ultimate object of Michael's quest is to find all of the young, blonde, male children hiding in each level. He fends off pretty dance hall girls, slamming them into walls before ignoring their advances, and breaks through all manner of obstacles to find the children's hiding places. Sometimes they're just sitting out in the open, crying uncontrollably as they see Michael Jackson approach.

He's supposed to be rescuing them, of course. But when Michael touches each boy, he shouts "Michael!" before jumping and running away to safety; it's supposed to be a squeal of delight, but it's very hard to hear it that way with contemporary ears.

Still, seeing the video Michael's defeated body turn into a ball of light and zip offscreen, only to return after a fade out, restored and vibrant, one can't help wishing that the boy who never grew up never had to. No one wants to be defeated.

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