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Next-Gen Games Still Can’t Hold A Candle To The Wow Factor Of Altered Beast

Altered Beast is celebrating its 35-year anniversary today, June 14, 2023. Below, we look back at why the highly derided game is so memorable to a generation of gamers.

Altered Beast is one of those games that most hardcore gamers know and probably don’t actually like. Most retrospectives focus on how terriblly it’s aged, a legacy cemented by a couple of atrocious sequels on the GBA and PS2. And yet somehow, it’s a game that is still considered an undeniable classic. So why is a game so widely regarded as a joke still enjoy such high name identification? Like many games that awkwardly found their footing when the medium was in its infancy, the shortest answer is “you had to be there.”

Unlike poorly aged breakthrough games like Adventure or the original Street Fighter, Altered Beast doesn’t have the easy cultural cache of being the first at anything, aside from being the very first Genesis game ever produced. But anyone who was a self-aware gamer at the time remembers the first time they heard Zeus-as-played-by-Elmer-Fudd telling our nameless Roman champion player character to “wise fwom his gwave”. Everyone laughs now, but at the time? It sounded like the future being born. It’s hard to really explain to anyone younger than 35 what lo-fi voices coming out of a video game in your home felt like in the ’80s. Arcade games had been doing it for some years, of course, but the gulf between what arcade games were doing and what home consoles were capable of was enormous. Playing a game on your NES was lighting a firecracker in your backyard. Arcade games felt like NASA.

What’s been forgotten over the years, and what Altered Beast should stand as a persistent reminder of, is how little of that gap had to do with simple graphical fidelity. There were tons of games that looked worse on consoles, and gamers didn’t care; just the simple fact of bringing an arcade experience home in any form felt special. For proof of that, look no further than the fact that the notoriously terrible Pac-Man port on the Atari 2600 is that system’s best-selling title by a wide margin. Altered Beast had been in the arcade for a bit of time before it launched on the Genesis/Mega Drive, and it had been reasonably popular, but for the Genesis, it was an eye-opening statement of intent. The number of colors and 16-bit graphics were certainly part of the appeal, but didn’t matter as much as the entire package. There was nothing on NES at the time where the characters and enemies took up so much real estate on-screen, where every little action had a voice sample attached, and where every stage was a build-up to the cinematic shot of our hero changing into a mythological powerhouse of a beast.


Therein lies the real magic, the reason why Altered Beast remains fondly remembered in ways that defy its flaws. Altered Beast, at the time, was a vibe, mechanically beholden to its arcadey-quarter-munching roots, but a triumph of strong art direction, with an eye towards the cinematic during gameplay. It was, slight as it is, an advancement in how games could tell stories, a unique experience among anything else we’d seen in the comfort of our homes. When Sega of America started advertising the big black box by saying “Welcome To The Next Level”, even after the more technologically advanced Super Nintendo hit shelves, this is the type of thing they were talking about.

Fast-forward 35 years and “The Next Level” has never been more elusive. When the current generation of consoles launched, what they launched with was largely more of the same, just prettied up to take advantage of the bump in horsepower. Some credit does have to go to Sony for loading the brilliant Astro’s Playroom onto every PS5 to showcase the new DualSense controller features, and having the refreshingly weird Bugsnax at launch. The former, in particular, understood the assignment. It’s a game that’s certainly bright and appealing, but graphically, it could easily have been pulled off on the PS4. Neither game was a showcase for photorealism, but the former was a showcase for all the things about the PS5 that don’t translate into Twitter-ready photo mode spam. Meanwhile the objectively prettiest games at launch, the games showing off the PS5 as a visual powerhouse–for this writer’s money, the gold-plated Souls-lite Godfall won that beauty pageant–are fine games that made absolutely no impression otherwise.

In 2023, it’s been made abundantly clear that the graphical arms race has sustained heavy and brutal casualties beyond anything we can imagine. Chasing that particular dragon has cost developers their blood, sweat, tears, sanity, and even lives over the years for a sense of accomplishment so thoroughly ephemeral it almost might have never happened at all. Meanwhile, many of the most popular, critically acclaimed, and lucrative games of recent memory have accomplished these things on the strength of new ideas alone, ideas that are most often possible even on the most meager hardware.

This is the lesson Altered Beast taught us years ago, and its enduring legacy. What we mean when we talk about Altered Beast as a classic was turning on a game and experiencing things we couldn’t get anywhere else but that game. No matter how creaky and ancient it seems now, the step forward was obvious to anyone who knew what other games felt like then. Without a doubt, Tears of the Kingdom will age better than Altered Beast, but it’s not the blurry, pixelated grass and smudgy texture mapping anyone’s talking about when they talk about how brilliant that game is. Looks rarely if ever last when it comes to games, but how that game feels, and what it makes you feel, is the stuff of legend.

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors.
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