The back-to-back success of Thriller and Bad was followed in short order by Moonwalker. As a film, I remember thinking it an unholy mess, an opinion that hasn't been assuaged with the passage of time. It's a series of extended videos threaded together without any narrative fidelity, except for the figure of Jacko getting into scrapes and capers. Most will remember Moonwalker for its bizarre main segment, a wee adventure that sees Jackson defeat an evil plot. A Mr Big (not that Mr Big) wants to conquer the world, and plans to do it by getting children addicted to drugs. Queue some dancing and bad guy killing that sees Jacko transform into a death-dealing robot.
As per most action-oriented films from the late 80s on, the license went out to tender and it was promptly snapped up by Sega. They churned out a creditable arcade game, and the topic of this very blog post. Moonwalker landed on the MegaDrive not long after its North American launch. As Nintendo had all the big stateside publishers locked down with a dodgy and subsequently illegal set of agreements that prevented them producing the same game for rival formats, Sega attempted to command attention by getting top celebs (mainly, nay almost exclusively major sports stars) to put their name to their games. Who then bigger than the King of Pop?
This wasn't the first game to be based around a celebrity or pop star. That accolade probably belongs to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but what Moonwalker managed was the capture of an artist's image. In contrast to other film adaptations, this was a slickly programmed affair full of fantastic - and even then unintentionally hilarious - little touches. Contemporary reviews waxed lyrical about Sega's rendering of the smart bomb mechanic, which by then was a staple of gaming. Keep your finger down on the magic bottom and boom! Jackson leads the assembled bad dudes in a synchronised dance performance, after which they all drop dead. Brilliant. Even dogs and spiders merrily join in too.
The second point is the in-game scenery. Being able to manipulate your environment is standard in modern games, but back then, not so much. Sure, Mario was able to bump along breaking open boxes with his bonce. Players were familiar with traversing obstacles and the like, but interacting directly with it was less common. Not so in Moonwalker. It sees you opening doors and windows, breaking into car boots, and smashing down walls of rock all in the background scenery. What is better though are small, unnecessary, but delightful touches. Walk on the baby grand on the first level, and you get the plinky-plonk of random piano notes. Stand on a fire hydrant and spin, using the water to kill off your enemies. And why not smash up Mr Big's computers just for the hell of it? Okay, such interaction with the backdrop is strictly limited, but it was virtually unseen in 1990. If environmental manipulation had an originating point, this was it.
Moonwalker these days is one of the more sought after titles for the MegaDrive and Master System, possibly because of the notoriety attaching to Jackson's name as it isn't particularly rare. Au contraire, it sold well in all of Sega's key markets. For my money, Moonwalker is an important game, though not recognised as such by the keepers of the video game canon.