This article concerns the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis version. This game was released by Sega in 1990 for the arcades, on Sega’s 8-bit console the Master System and also for the PC.
The Master System console version is a fair home port of the superior arcade action but suffers from monotonous sound and less-than fluid gameplay. The graphics, however, leaves a far lot to be desired. This article focuses on the Mega Drive version with its comparably better visuals, sound and gameplay.
We could start by introducing the protagonist. 80s pop star. Epitome of weirdness. Good reputation tarnished by making his fans anticipate what sort of antics he may do next rather than building on what he has done in the past. All cliched maybe, but I think most of us remember MJ for the novel ideas he may have infused into the 80s music and the dance moves which truly set him apart from his contemporaries. Jackson truly had the pop world at his feet in the mid-1980s with landmark ‘Thriller’ album that anyone could buy off the record shelves and listen to its entire musical contents with confidence.
The Mega Drive was just released in 1988 for Japan and the Genesis North American release was in 1989. Having a star name plastered into a game for the console may have been a little passe, and the game itself portrays MJ in a manner which does not convince its target audience sufficiently – all that trademark MJ whoops and crotch-grabbing goes into the limelight in this game but MJ’s strengths (probably the dance moves and ‘Smooth Criminal’ spontaneity) did not receive the exposure it needed to make this game a classic.
This game is available for 2 players, assuming that you can find another MJ + video game fan to partake in this little adventure. Note that the 2 player mode is not co-op. Having one MJ onscreen at any one time is already nerve-wrecking enough, let alone 2 of this persona ‘aowing’ their way to victory.
This game is really simple. Your primary task is to rescue little girls (strangely all of them are called ‘Katie’) from the captivity of your arch-nemesis Mr. Big. These Katies are all garbed in the classic red and yellow throughout the game and scream ‘Michael’ when you do rescue them. They are hidden behind most of the backgrounds found in the game – trash containers, windows, bushes and even behind gravestones. Each stage requires that you rescue ‘x’ amount of girls. For every Katie you rescue, you gain a fraction of lost life points back to the bar.
Here in this picture above, you can see a Katie after you open the door by pressing the ‘up’ button. Every element in the game which you can interact with are triggered by pressing the same button. Looks easy, yes?
The attack modes in the game are fairly ordinary. MJ kicks/punches out some sort of sparkling aura which, upon contact with enemies, would wipe them off the game screen for good. Some don’t get the message and require more than 2 of such attacks. Holding down the ‘special’ button would see MJ whirling around, expending his life bar and all nearby enemies would crowd around for a mini quasi-Smooth Criminal MV shoot. MJ would then show off his dance moves to a tune and then his co-dancers would fall down from exhaustion after a dance routine. Effective, probably but it certainly belongs to the seminal idea of a star who knows how to flaunt his worth for all he can. If Michael’s life bar is in the red, pressing the ‘special’ button would result in the infamous crotch-grabbing move. MJ on a low health bar is also bad news as his attacks suddenly lose the magic aura and become fairly ordinary. Almost as if telling us that Michael Jackson is no ordinary fellow unless his constitution is really bad.
Also, if MJ wants to take a shortcut down the stairs, he may opt to slide down the banister with the special button at no cost to his health bar, knocking off every enemy on the stairs. Pressing the special button may also activate secret entrapments or other installations which may aid his mission.
When you are done rescuing all the Katies of a stage, Bubbles the chimpanzee would hop onto MJ’s shoulder and play navigator, pointing its master to the boss arena. If you’ve played thru a stage before, the locations are all the same and are not random. Mr. Big then comes on with the only text he knows how to say in the ordinary stages and its boss showdown time.
The Bosses in the game are nothing more than a hotch-potch of the common enemies in the game, and with a larger team to make things harder for MJ. The zombies in stage 3 are a real pain the ass but aside from that, the other stages should be fairly easy to complete.
But is this all fun?
If you like hunting down Katies all over the place and retracking your path if you happened to miss one, then MJ and Sega sure got this game spot on. For the most part, the Katie-hunting sessions are repetitive and not to mention, frustrating. The caves mission had lots of hidden cavern rooms and missing out on one of them would require you to backtrack to any point of the stage for the odd Katie out. Having said that, the level design is quite good, given that the premise of the game is so weak. There are some interactive elements in the game, including a teleport network and also a car park ‘beat it’. Ostensibly, Sega did focus on the little touches here and there, like the robot transformation sequence and the bombs littered all over the map. Yes, you can be a robot ingame (another MJ idiosyncrasy) and shoot lasers at baddies. There’s a catch though, you can’t rescue Katies this way – they are probably afraid of robots that fly. You can see them in their hiding places, anyway, so you could clear the path of enemies and get on the rescue trail.
(Pic above) There’s also a minigame to finish off Mr. Big once and for all. This harks to the ‘Afterburner’ series by Sega as well but in a more simplistic view. Overall, this came too little too late to redeem the frustration of rescuing scores of little girls all curiously named Katie and garbed in the same gear et al.
If it’s of any interest to you, MJ can also moonwalk in the game by pressing the attack button 1st and then holding it down in the opposite facing direction. Ok, this looks quite cool, especially after you need to get to another batch of enemies fast.
Graphics – 3/5
The visuals in Moonwalker are not bad but they aren’t eye candy either. Most of the background drawings may even be drawn better on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Take the ‘townhouses’ above to see what I mean. Looks like ‘Urban Champion’ to me.
MJ himself is rather well-represented although his face is hardly visible. Oh, wait, there’s the shot of his face making those inexplicable ‘woo’ sounds before starting a stage.
‘Woo’ indeed. There’s even a brief moment where he mouths ‘Who’s Bad?’ in a rather rigid position. Very MJ-like. Take a look at this MJ face shot when he transforms into a robot:
Yes. These sorts of things going on in MJ’s head can go on and on. However, we have to remember that this game was his other vehicle to display his persona via video game, where fantasy is more often welcomed rather than belittled. In this case, weirdness and his real-life case study seemed to go hand in hand which accentuates the gnawing thought at the back of your head that God knows how much other ideas were rejected by Sega while developing this game with MJ as co-developer.
Sound/Music – 4/5
Ok, this is where the game really shines. MJ is about music and this game should not be less than the perfect showcast of his dance moves and the tunes we were familiar with in the 80s.
The MIDI tunes are good for a console not renowned for its sound quality and fidelity. ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘Beat It’, ‘Another Part of Me’, ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Bad’ are featured and the translation is top notch. Bad thing is – the music is recycled for the 3 stages of a level but then again, you could be more driven to look for Katies rather than counting down the number of times the songs have looped.
Preventing the score from achieving a perfect 5/5 is the fact that the ingame sfx is not really that great. Michael yelps and whoops his way thru the levels and the other elements sounded just as stale as the umpteenth ‘Woo!’.
Overall – 3.5/5
This is a peculiar game to rate. On the one hand, we all know who the protagonist is – his striking ability to make us spellbound by his dancing and musical career as a whole but also his apparently bad judgment in projecting his other side of his personality. Playing him as a character is a new experience. Only MJ can command such a possibility – can you imagine taking on Britney Spears in her very own personal-themed game (notwithstanding that their oddities are comparable) or featuring the Beatles in a video game? Whitney Houston could be the video game star for the ‘Bodyguard’ but no one has since explored this probability.
The way anyone wishing to review the game can tell you is – the gameplay is a foil over for MJ’s desire to be encapsulated in video game folklore. I mean, since when has MJ been interested to rescue kids? It’s lame and it’s so Nintendo in both execution and demonstration.
Despite this, you may appraise the arcade version of this game for yourself. The way I see it – the arcade version is more fun to play with, although you still have to rescue children (ugh) and rely on Bubbles for support. Concept-wise, both versions are similar but the gameplay in the Mega Drive / Genesis version ended up with certain economic cuts to its fun factor. Frustrating to look for the kids, yes, but the enemies are also quite good to toy around with your special attack. Make them dance! Hit them once and moonwalk away.
It’s a crazy game, sure – but it has a place in my games library. Oh, yes and the music too.