Every video game veteran has a title in its back catalogue which for unknown reasons keeps being dredged up for modern audiences. With Nintendo, it's arguably Urban Champion — a game so lacklustre that it wasn't wanted even back in 1984 — while one-time rival Sega has Altered Beast. A shallow 2D brawler in its original arcade form, the 16-bit Mega Drive conversion was faithful in that it was just as repetitive and uninspiring. However, its status as a pack-in title — and, for the time, a visually impressive one — seems to have granted it a place in Sega's history that is totally out of proportion to its actual quality.
Which is no doubt why we're still being asked to play Altered Beast on the 3DS, a full 25 years after the game first graced arcades. Updated as part of Sega's 3D Classics range, 3D Altered Beast benefits from expanded options and a subtle 3D effect, but nothing has been done to rectify the biggest single issue with this title: besides a few amusing voice samples, it's simply not that much fun to play.
At least the setting is relatively unique, even for today. Placed in the sandals of a resurrected Roman centurion, you're asked to rescue Zeus' daughter Athena from the clutches of the Demon God Neff. To aid you in your quest, Zeus grants the power to transform into various beasts — hence the title of the game — which drastically improves your chance of success against the numerous monsters which stalk each of the game's five levels.
In human form, you can absorb two magical orbs to boost your power, while the third triggers the beastly metamorphosis. As a human, you can punch, kick and jump, as well as perform upwards kicking attacks when crouching — very handy for dealing with airborne enemies. Each beast has special powers which are mapped to the punch and kick buttons. For example, level one's wolf can hurl fireballs and perform a charging attack, while level three's bear can turn enemies into stone with its breath. The variety on show is one of the title's few redeeming qualities, but even in this respect it falls a little short — level five's golden wolf is almost identical to the transformation from the first stage.
Each stage is incredibly short, and the entire game can be completed in a single sitting — we managed to clock the end credits in under 20 minutes. Local co-operative play is available, but this only serves to make things even easier, and the cramped nature of the levels sometimes means it is hard to keep track of the action. Once you've rescued Athena there's very little reason to return to the game; developer M2 has included the option to randomise the beast transformations, but this isn't as enticing as it might sound — many of the levels are designed with a specific beast in mind, and by switching these around it actually makes it less appealing to play — which is a pretty amazing achievement, when you think about it.
The 3D effect employed in Altered Beast is so subtle that you might even miss it, and aside from being able to re-map buttons, overlay a CRT-style screen effect and listen to the admittedly atmospheric soundtrack, there's little else to tinker with here. While M2's other 3D Classics titles have been made even more enjoyable thanks to a raft of settings and toggles to mess around with, Altered Beast is such a trudge that it would have taken something pretty special for the same magic to work.
M2 has done a typically peerless job of porting Altered Beast from the Mega Drive, and proves once again that it is the master of retro emulation. However, one has to question the wisdom of wasting so much time and effort on converting such a dismal game; Altered Beast fails to entertain during its criminally short length and really should have been relegated to the mists of time by now. It would have made more sense to port the arcade original, which at least boasts a humorous ending similar to the one seen in the coin-op version of Golden Axe. Long-time fans of the game — and yes, they do indeed exist — will no doubt wish to own this purely for nostalgia's sake, but everyone else should retain their pennies and spend them on one of Sega's other, more worthy 3D Classics.