Friday 18 March 2016

Mega Drive Review - Moon Walker (Game 102)


Developed by Sega AM7
Published by Sega
Released in 1990

Were you to sit in front of the 'Moon Walker' arcade machine its likely you'd raise an eyebrow at the title screen's claim. "Game concept and design by Michael Jackson" it declares. 

What does the "King of Pop" know about video games? Well quite a lot as it turns out. 

For years, the Internet debated if this self-confessed Sega fan actually created the music for 'Sonic 3'. With websites devoted to comparing tracks to Jackson hits. It was a popular rumour that was finally confirmed by Roger Hector (former project-manager at the Sega Technical Institute).  "Michael Jackson was a very big fan of 'Sonic'" Hector recalls. "He wanted to record a soundtrack for the game [so] came to STI and met with the team to discuss the design theme, story and feel of the game. He then went away and recorded an entire soundtrack that covered all of the worlds. It was fantastic. The music fitted perfectly for the game, and they had a distinctive Michael Jackson sound." 

Of course, he was never officially credited and the internet is alive with speculation about the reason. Hector suggests it was because 'Sonic 3' was released shortly after Jackson had been accused of child molestation. However, a Huffington Post report claims that Jackson asked not to be associated with the work after he was unhappy hearing his music compressed. "It all had to be squashed down for the game" sound designer Doug Grigsby says. "They had more data happening with the graphics and they had very little allocated for audio." "Michael wanted his name taken off the credits if they couldn't get it to sound better," composer Brad Buxer adds.

Regardless of the reason why Jackson's involvement was never publicly acknowledged, Buxer, Grigsby and another credited composer Cirocco Jones remain adamant his music remains on the released cartridge." It did get in the game," Grigsby insists, "the stuff [Jackson] handed in, made it. To. The game."

Naturally, music was Michel Jackson's forte but an ability to write a game soundtrack doesn't mean he knows much about gaming. While I doubt he could program he was undeniably a well informed gamer.  Matt Forger, a sound engineer who worked on Sega projects recalls social gatherings with Jackson where games were discussed.  "Michael was probably the one who did play video games to the greatest extent. The rest of us, we knew of 'Sonic the Hedgehog' but Michael really [knew it to] the core". After his tragic death it was revealed that he owned the "world's largest private arcade". But it wasn't filled with just the most well known machines. Nestled amongst the 'Dance Dance Revolutions' and full size 'Daytona USA' machines were obscure titles, merchandise and rare collectables. Pride of place in his impressive collection were copies of the 'Space Channel 5' games and 'Ready 2 Rumble : Part 2' which all featured a Michael Jackson character, voiced and approved by the man himself. Evidently Michael was a fan of the games and approached the developers directly begging to be included. 

While it will never be known how much input gamer Michael Jackson had in the arcade or Mega Drive version of 'Moon Walker' we do know that it was created by a team that would later become Overworks Studio; developers of 'Shinobi' and 'Streets of Rage'. This certainly explains both its graphical splendour and its resemblance to 'Shinobi III'. 

Ironically given Michael's later legal problems, 'Moon Walker' is best described as 2D side-scrolling hide and seek. The King of Pop, dressed in his Smooth Criminal white suit, must find kidnapped children. They can be hidden in all sorts of places; locked in car boots, concealed in cupboards, buried in graves, but more often than not they can be found behind doors. While the object of every stage remains constant, the environments differ. Michael must save children in a club, on the street, in woods, caverns and even lost in a criminal hideout. Each stage is loosely based on a Michael Jackson music video, featuring the music from that video. Stopping Jackson are a range of enemies reflecting the stage they inhabit. Zombies, dogs, gangsters all either physically restrain Michael or hurt him with projectiles or physical attacks. Fortunately, Jackson has the power of dance on his side. His standard attack is the stylised high kick that was commonly incorporated into his dance routines. A pelvic thrust will stun those nearby and an up-attack sees the famous crotch grab. As a hidden bonus, if the player continues to holds the kick button and moves Jackson backwards, he performs his Moonwalk dance move. It may leave him vulnerable to attacks and cause no damage to foes but it's worth it simply because it's what Michael Jackson would do. 

The player has a combined health and magic bar and the actions performed effect its depletion. Using some of the bar by making Michael spin for example makes he immune to enemy attacks. Stopping the spin provides a range attack, as Michael will throw his fedora killing most enemies it hits.

Holding the spin button down also eventually unleashes Jackson's special "Dance Magic" attack. In a way that will later be reused by Overworks Studio in 'Streets of Rage', the special attack uses a great amount of the health meter but once activated it's devastating. A heavenly spotlight shines while Michael performs several of his hallmark moves. In a master stroke of design that could only have come from Jackson himself, all of the onscreen enemies also start dancing with Jackson, mimicking his moves. Naturally they all collapse at the end of the dance routine though, presumably  because they cannot keep up with Jackson's dance moves. 

In most stages, Jackson can also become a robot by rescuing a certain child first and then grabbing a comet that falls from the sky. For no readily explained reason this temporarily transforms Michael into a giant cyborg that can cut through foes with ease. It's really not a benefit to you though; the enemies respawn continually and since you're unable to rescue the kidnapped children you're unable to advance the game. 

It's not the only time in 'Moon Walker' when Michael transforms into a machine though. Randomly, the final level is actually a first-person "flight sim" where the player controls Michael in the form of a space ship. It's fairly terrible and thankfully over quickly, but it's a stage that's radically different to the rest of the game. Perhaps, it were a conscious attempt to vary the gameplay, something which couldn't have been seen by Mean Machines Magazine. They believed that 'Moon Walker' was defined by "predictable repetitive gameplay. The basic search-the-landscape-finding- the-kids gameplay stays the same throughout". 

However even without the terrible last level it's unfair to say that 'Moon Walker' is "repetitive". Yes the goal across all stages is to find a set number of lost children, but the style of each level does mean completing this objective often feels different. The street levels where you get to listen to "Beat it" play like 'Elevator Action Returns' for example. The "Billie Jean" caverns are mazes, where passing through doors takes Michael to various secondary rooms that interlink with one another. The finally levels are by far the most complex. Set to the song "Bad", the player has to mentally map a stage and remember which teleporters you need to use to access various platforms. These stages feel somewhat like the ghost houses of 'Super Mario World' where success depends on a player's memory. 

Continually adding new game mechanics does present problems though. As Electronic Gaming Monthly wrote "while 'Moon Walker' is constructed fairly well the problems rest in multiple [level] options that bring more confusion than action." All too often you'll find yourself stuck simply because the game allows you to do something new and you've not realised.

In the club stages for example, time can be wasted before you realise that Michael has to look for children behind windows as well as doors.  I also got rather stuck on the last stage of the street level before I worked out that Michael could use his spin to lift manhole covers and venture into the sewers. Who knew there was a secret room behind a waterfall in the caverns? Well after twenty minutes of hunting now I do! It's not the only time when design choices cause frustrations though. Levels often depend on leaps of faith, jumping into open space hoping you'll land on a platform you can't see below you. Similarly, Michael seems to struggle with stairs, partly because his "go up stairs" button is very similar to his "pelvic thrust" button. There was clearly a need to include as many dance moves as possible, but with so few buttons available on the Mega Drive controller you have to wonder why the priority wasn't precise character control. 

At least when he dances the Michael Jackson sprite looks superb. Although small on screen, there's over a hundred individual frames of animation for the main character which allows for the iconic dance routines to be so faithfully replicated. It's easy to be blasé about the look now, but it's worth keeping in mind that this game was released more than 25 years ago. 'Moon Walker' came out within the first year of the Genesis' life and the graphics were leagues ahead of anything on a Nintendo console at the time. "'Moon Walker' looks brilliant" Sega Power magazine said at the time. "Michael doesn't walk he struts. He doesn't turn he spins. Michael moves better than you'll have ever seen before". 

Damian Scattergood was the programmer on the Spectrum version of US Gold's different 'Moon Walker' game. He recalls just how important visuals were to the Jackson estate. "Michael Jackson’s people had instructed us that graphics had to be brilliant. The best seen on the system. We were under pressure to deliver a very high quality product."

Of equal importance was naturally the music within the game. Michael Jackson was after all the King of Pop, and at the time the game came out he had the greatest selling album of all time with 'Thriller'. Fans expected faithful replications of recognisable tracks and according to Scattergood the Jackson Estate demanded audio excellence. "They wanted “All the music” – not just a few nice snippets" he once said. "We felt their influence!" Accordingly, a total of five tracks are used in the Mega Drive's 'Moon Walker' which without lyrics sound like chip tune karaoke versions. Songs play at the same tempo as the original versions and though they typically only include the first verse and chorus on repeat even the most casual of Jackson fan would be able to recognise them. Critics loved it. 'Moon Walker' has "a fantastic soundtrack that pushes the Mega Drive to its limits" wrote Sega Power, "second to none".  Jackson's music seems rather well suited to the brash sharp metallic audio produced by the Mega Drive's sound chip, something critic Julian Rignal agreed with. At the time he said the game offered "some great tunes and sampled speech (all the "aaows" and "ooohs" you could possibly want, and even a "who's bad?" thrown in for good measure)".

So it's not just the backing music, 'Moon Walker' also reigns supreme when it comes to incidental sound effects. It set a new audio standard that all following games had to measure up to. Developer Sonic Team have even admitted that some of the 'Sonic the Hedgehog' sound effects were lifted from 'Moon Walker'. This includes the famous "ring" noise which is actually the same sound as Michael's coin toss (heard at the start of the first stage).

That being said, there are a few odd selections of level backing music. The Woods stage clearly should have used the "Thriller" song as its soundtrack rather than "Another Part of Me" - you're fighting balletic zombies after all. The iconic tune can be heard for the group dance, but for one of Jackson's most famous tracks it feels under used. 

Of course everyone knows 'Thriller' because the song has what many describe as "the greatest music video of all time." Michael Jackson pioneered music videos and turned them into an art form. In 1988, two years prior to the game's release, Jackson made the film 'Moon Walker' which is little more than a series of unrelated music videos and vignettes. A loose story attempts to tie the whole thing together and its this narrative that's used in the game 'Moon Walker'. Essentially mobster drug dealer Mr. Big (played by Joe Pesci),  has kidnapped three children; Sean, Zeke and Katie (the blonde girl that Michael rescues continually in the game) believing that if he is to get the whole world addicted to drugs he should start with those still in school. Michael (who is dressed like a white "good gangster") of course rescues the children. Like the Mega Drive game, he dances enemies to death but can only stop Mr.Big by turning into a car, robot and eventually a spaceship (which may explain why these things are shoehorned into the game). 

Even the largest Michael Jackson fan would struggle to say too many complimentary things about the film. It's as eccentric as Jackson was, which isn't surprising since he wrote and financed the 93 minute film himself, reportedly to the sum of $20 million. Bizarrely though the film was released only in UK and South African cinemas. In the US  'Moon Walker' only became a phenomenon following its VHS release, generating millions of dollars in sales. As a result by the late 80s Michael Jackson had been integrated into every form of entertainment. With the booming popularity of home consoles, Jackson video games were inevitable. U.S. Gold may have published various games for home computers in 1989 but it was with Sega a year later that Michael really found a home.

It was a mutually beneficial relationship as Keith Stuart explains in the authoritative book 'Sega MegaDrive : Collected Works'. "In September 1990 an advert was screened coast to coast [in America] showing clips of 'Moon Walker', the voice over proclaiming the awesome power of [Sega's] new machine. The Genesis represented the birth of a powerful new vision of gaming, it didn't need to compete with the outdated Nintendo Entertainment System; the console had its own original games that gave modern gamers something different".
Sega sold their 16 bit machine on the promise that "Genesis does what NintendDon't" but that wasn't simply because Sega' 16 bit machine was significantly more powerful than the ageing NES. "It wasn't just technology, it was about attitude" wrote Stuart. "Sega wasn't Nintendo and it didn't want to be. Nintendo didn't do licensed sports sims, Nintendo didn't do violence and Nintendo didn't have Michael Jackson. Sega did." If Nintendo consoles were seen as toys for children, then Sega wanted to be the gaming platform-of-choice for young adults. Indeed, there was a time when teenagers admitted they would lie about owning a NES or Snes but weren't ashamed to say they had a Mega Drive or Genesis. It was a marketing strategy that worked; Michael Jackson's appeal had helped reduce Nintendo's dominance in America and ultimately changing the public's perception of video games. 

We will sadly never know how much influence the late Michael Jackson really had on the 'Moon Walker' game. For Sega it was a name on a box that ensured sales, but how wonderful it is to imagine one of the greatest entertainers of all time really sat down with a group of designers and insisted his pet monkey was included in some way. Whoever did design the game, clearly knew how to craft something wonderful though. 'Moon Walker' despite being an early title, remains one of the finest and most unique experiences you can have on a Mega Drive.

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