Altered Beast asks the impossible from the second it starts when a pixelated Zeus commands players to “Wise from your gwave.” But cheating death is the least ridiculous demand Sega’s arcade classic makes of us. You’re apparently supposed to take this game seriously—very, very seriously. Striking a dire tone halfway between the fantasy schlock that remained a gaming staple and the stone-faced pulp of Robert E. Howard, Altered Beast is full of vile swamps, grotesque head-throwing demon lords, and heavy-metal transmogrification. But it’s all a feint. Get to the end and there’s a cast party, with heroes and villains raising a toast to a great show, subverting the self-seriousness of fantasy and action games by diffusing the tension Altered Beast demanded up front.
Truth to tell, Altered Beast is kind of terrible. It’s beautiful, even now, thanks to Sega’s fibrous pixel art and booming, acidic music. But playing Altered Beast is vintage arcade misery, with enemies that come out of nowhere, instant deaths, and boss fights built for the sole purpose of bilking you out of a quarter. Why it’s remembered now comes down to both the novelty of its premise and its unforgettable opening moments. What follows that ridiculous introduction is so strange, yet soberly presented, that you either have to walk away immediately or surrender to the idea that this is totally righteous.
Beast’s in-brawl hook is equally dynamic. Not only does Zeus actually bring the two main characters back to life—apparently a couple of leotard-wearing Barbarella extras were buried in ancient Greece—but these guys turn into massive beefcakes when they touch floating blue balls that erupt out of dead albino wolves. Get enough balls, and the musclemen will morph into a werebeast, one for each of the game’s five stages: wolf, dragon, bear, tiger, and the sweet golden wolf. The beast modes dominate the regular enemies that cause problems throughout the stages and are essential for getting past Neff, the demon lord who kidnapped Zeus’ daughter, Athena, in the freaky giant forms he takes.
Gods with speech impediments, demon lords that turn into giant plants made of eyeballs, towers of flesh that rain devil heads down on wolf men—Altered Beast is deeply, deeply silly. Just look at the mystified expression on the character after his transformation into a bear. But the game’s slow pace, the heft of your strikes, and the ooze creeping up your spine after kicking some man-eating blob in the face contributes to a convincing air of stoicism.
This just makes Altered Beast another self-serious blip in the video game pantheon. Comic book absurdity and tonal severity were already a ubiquitous pairing when the game hit arcades back in 1988. Foundational arcade games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man tended to marry goofy premises with comedy: The conquering ape falls on his head; the dot-gobbler delivers a satisfying bloop when the ghosts catch him. Most others leaned into solemnity. Castlevania was deeply fun and sported the same evocative pixel art that makes Altered Beast so striking, but it doesn’t stray from a straight man-versus-monsters tone. If you manage to best Dracula at the end, you’re treated to a common ending for games of the era: some reflective music and imagery with the only break from seriousness being the credits’ references to actors like Boris Karloff and other filmic inspirations.
Altered Beast bends expectations to great effect during its ending. As the adventure rolls on, things get increasingly desperate. The heroes dive ever deeper into the underworld, hoofing it through caves of human-sized ants and tearing apart giant alligators wrapped around glowing orbs of fire in underground temples until they end up literally in hell. By rights, the final stage should find you toppling Neff, rescuing Athena, and maybe ending with a shot of her and the golden werewolf staring off into the distance, waiting for the day Zeus asks you to do something totally insane again.
That happens for a few seconds, but rather than cap things on a shot of Athena reuniting with Zeus, the little ending revue keeps going. The hero strips off the wolf head and shakes sweat from his head. Athena pulls off a blonde wig, revealing a mane of ginger locks. Some of those gargoyle enemies turn out to be props on strings, and a hand leans in from the side with a director’s clapperboard that says “The End.” And it still doesn’t stop. Neff, Athena, and the musclemen—still half in their monster costumes—raise up giant mugs of beer to toast. Finally, there’s a single shot of the game’s creators, credited only with nicknames or abbreviations and with the eyes of their portraits blocked out (all to protect their identities from rival companies’ headhunters, which was a thing developers actually worried about in the ’80s).
This is Altered Beast’s attempt to release the player of any pent up frustration from its unfair difficulty, from the burn of how many quarters it took to plunge toward that ending, from what seemed like overbearing sobriety in something so outwardly ridiculous throughout the game that preceded it. It’s an ending that reminds its audience that the whole thing was a game, but doesn’t downplay their efforts. Instead, it invites us into a celebration of what took place. You weren’t just Player 1; you were a player on the game’s stage, right there with the characters, the freaks and beasts, and even the Sega staffers making it. Sure, you were supposed to take that goofy bear face seriously, but Altered Beast explicitly acknowledges it knows how goofy it was, and it slaps you on the back saying, “Hey, wasn’t that fun?” The ending earns Altered Beast its place in the gaming canon, even more than the absurdity of its famous opening.