Have you ever heard someone say something out of context and take it the wrong way only to find out later it was nothing like you expected? That moment of it all coming clear in a rush of understanding…that was my experience with the Altered Beast Sega Genesis box art.
Even as a little kid I was a bit critical of game artwork. I would pour over game magazines looking at the pictures, many games I would never get a chance to play until recent years, but that never stopped me from trying to get to know the characters and story just from the still images presented in those magazines. For Altered Beast I did have a chance to play it as a kid, I think a relative had it, and when I saw the box art I thought, “what an amazing painting but such a weird layout and pose for the main character, what is it trying to tell me?”
Just look at it, the painting is excellent and I really love that monochromatic palette it has with all the golden yellows and oranges. The problem, for me, is – what’s the hell is the werewolf looking at and why would they pose his right hand like that? As an artist myself these two questions have always bothered me. Before this painting went to final I’m sure it had rounds of revisions, other sketches made and all the other prep work that goes into making a piece of art. How could this awkward pose have made it through to the final version? What were they trying to convey? Well after a little digging, that was not available to me as a child, I finally understood what was going on…mystery solved!
For the US release they took the Japanese box art and severely cropped it down basically changing the storytelling aspect of the image completely. As you can see with the Japanese box art (on the right) there is so much more to the image. Now the werewolf pose makes a bit more sense. Instead of looking like he’s holding an invisible staff, about to make a crude gesture or getting ready to roshambo, you can now see that his arm is going up in defense from the monster that’s about to attack him or is at least noticing it approaching as he continues to punch holes in the monster’s face on the ground.
Seeing this expanded art blew me away because it went from an image that was cool but odd to an amazing piece of art that perfectly fits with the story and style of the game. I love the drama and story elements going on in this piece. You have the greek columns in the foreground hinting at the setting of the game which is in fact set in ancient Greece. There’s this beautiful color shift from a very warm orange and yellow right side (cover) to a very cool blue left side (back cover). This helps create a lot more depth and direct your eye around the image. It also shows you a path the werewolf has to travel to reach his far off goal. In the blue there is a sad almost frozen looking female face that leads you to believe she is the reason the werewolf is fighting hordes of beast like monsters. In fact this is exactly what’s going on in Altered Beast.
The story goes that Zeus’ daughter Athena has been taken by a Demon God of the Underworld called Neff. To save her a Roman Centurion who fell in battle has been resurrected from the dead in order to mount an attack. To aid the warrior he is granted the ability to absorb the spirit of slain enemies in order to transform into a super human beasts that are part human and part creature. Throughout the game you can transform into a humanoid wolf, dragon, bear, and tiger.
Even as a kid I thought this was a great idea for a story. In most games you only get to fight beasts, like werewolves, so that was one reason for my feeling a little cheated by a beautifully generic box art for what sounded like a unique game. Even that being said I still felt the Mega Drive/Genesis cover was the best version I had seen made for the game (until I saw the Japanese version) with its Frank Frazetta like realistic painting that really inspired me as a young artist. As a kid a realistic cover, like this always gave me the impression that a game was being taken more seriously and treated more like a work of art than a cash cow aimed at me. Obviously that is a huge generalization and there is plenty of evidence proving that games with silly or more cartoon-ish art are taken just as seriously by developers…what did I know I was like 10 when I developed that theory.
Altered Beast was a game that was ported from the arcade to home consoles like crazy. In a very short time span it showed up on the Sega Master System, PC Engine, PC Engine-CD, Famicom, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, Amstrad CPC, and DOS. I would like to share some of the other box art that came out for this game to show the diversity for different systems across different markets. I find it very interesting that a single game can have so many vastly unique styled images associated with it.
As I wrap up I would like to point out a few other interesting bits about the game. Altered Beast was created and designed by Makoto Uchida and released for the arcades in 1988. Uchida went on to design the Golden Axe franchise the following year (which we covered in our first episode). The two games share some similarities, one being the Chicken Stingers that appear in both games. In Altered Beast they are an enemy to fight and in Golden Axe they appear as a ride-able beast.
There are also references to other games and art within Altered Beast. Throughout Altered Beast there are headstones that have the name Alex on them. Some people believed it was Alex from the opening of the Golden Axe arcade game. He was the dying soldier that approaches you at the start. Later after realizing that other headstones had the name Stella on them it led people to believe it was a reference to Alex Kid with Stella: The Lost Stars which was a 1986 Sega release. The connection is further strengthened by Rieko Kodama. She was the video game designer behind Alex Kidd and Altered Beast.
One final interesting Altered Beast cameo is in the 2012 video game based Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph. In Altered Beast the final form of Neff, a pinkish purple rhino, can be seen in the Bad-Anon Villains Support Group along side Dr. Robotnik (Sonic), Zangief and M. Bison (Street Fighter), Bowser (Super Mario Bros.), Clyde (Pac-Man), 1011001 (Cyborg Justice) as well as characters based on Cyril (House of the Dead), Kano and Smoke (Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3) and Satan (Satan’s Hollow). Its great to see Neff dug up, dusted off and seeing some new light along with the many other video game references in that movie…which I own and like.
I’m not sure about you but I’m glad to have a better understanding of Altered Beast now. Its hard to know what you will learn just by randomly picking a game and doing some research but getting to know games like this just feels good. It’s always been a great game but now I have a bit more appreciation for a game that is a classic from a time when Sega dominated the arcade world and exploded on the console scene.
Thanks for reading! – James
Jame Brunner Artwork – manovermars.com