Sunday 22 March 2015

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker for the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis

If you weren't a certain age in the late 1980s, it's difficult to describe how massive Michael Jackson was. Almost six years dead, he's a bit of a joke. The man with the plastic face and an alleged unhealthy interest in children. Yet at the peak of his powers in the late 80s Jackson was part of the elite of megastardom, a space he occupied with few figures - Madonna, perhaps Prince, assorted bankable Hollywood folk. He carried about him a venerable aura. The press, of course, had a field day with Jackson before those allegations came to light but then, rumours of oxygen tanks, purchases of the Elephant Man's remains, Bubbles, and the fairground attraction on his ranch made him all the more beguiling. Especially to kids.

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?

If anything, Moonwalker the game works much better than it ever did as a film. Based loosely around the Shinobi engine that was getting an outing in the contemporaneous E-SWAT, Dick Tracy, and, unsurprisingly, The Revenge of Shinobi, Sega's interpretation of Jacko's hubristic masterwerk is actually a jolly, competent and (whisper it) good action platformer. You take on the role of Jackson in his Smooth Criminal get up over five levels, offing goons, dogs, spiders, and zombies. You have to explore every nook and cranny, because you won't be allowed to progress unless you collect all the, um, children. Each level borrows a theme from the flick, with the exception of the third, which is inspired by the grave yard featured in Thriller. As per gaming conventions Jacko has to face a not-terribly taxing boss before progressing to the next stage. Four or five swipes with your magic powers normally does the trick. And then, with level five done and dusted Jacko morphs into a spaceship(!) and you do battle with Mr Big in a first person dog fight. All the while, the MegaDrive does an admirable job of rendering his big hits chip tune-stylee.

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.

It couldn't be any other way, really. Jackson was reportedly consulted on the development of Sega's titles so, if you like, the progammers had to work towards his ego. When you've collected the children, Bubbles appears and guides you to the end-of-stage face off. Attacking in the air sees Jacko striking a trademark supercool pose. Hold down the magic button without setting the dance bomb and your hat turns into a deadly projectile that can slice through several enemies. And there are a few moves that serve no game mechanic at all. You can grab your crotch, stand yourself on your tippy toes and, yes, moonwalk. In fact, there is an argument for regarding the Jackson sprite as the most studied avatar up to that time capable of multiple animations. Regardless of what he's doing he always looks effortlessly cool, a lesson Sega took and applied later to Sonic the Hedgehog.

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.


Waterloo Sunset said...

The Biz (written by Chris Sievey, better known as Frank Sidebottom, and backed by eight tracks by Chris Sievey and the Freshies) predates Frankie Goes to Hollywood by a year. It also offered the first person to achieve a number one single the chance to perform on stage with The Freshies. There were previous music biz management games (It's Only Rock 'n' Roll), but I'm pretty sure that was the first one to have a direct tie-in with a musician.

Paul McCartney's Give My Regards to Broad Street was released in the same year as Frankie (1985) and I think may predate it by a few months.

In 1986, we did have the threat of a game based on Sigue Sigue Sputnik (terrifyingly, it was said that it had been programmed by the band themselves), but they asked for too much money and so the apocalypse was averted.

The first game based on a celebrity (as opposed to a film, which was probably the godawful Time Bandits in 1982) however has two possible contenders, both released in 1983. You have the parody adventure Denis Through the Drinking Glass (Denis Thatcher) and My Name is Uncle Groucho, You Win a Fat Cigar (Groucho Marx). That's excluding games based on tv characters like Paddington and Postman Pat.

I just want to mention that I'm also available for weddings, funerals and academic conferences on the history of video gaming. ;)

Phil said...

Wait, Leisure Suit Larry wasn't based on a real person? You'll be telling me Duke Nukem isn't in Debrett next.

Phil said...

I bow to your superb geekery, Waterloo. We are, of course, forgetting the two Spitting Image games - can they be so classed as well? I had the face puzzle game, not the beat 'em up version. Perhaps I'll get round to visiting the latter for one of my video game slots ...