Times were simpler for Michael Jackson in the early nineties. Long before he was ostracized for his…questionable actions, he was known as the king of pop and was regarded as a magical person in the league of say, Mickey Mouse or Peter Pan (sans tights). So not to be one-upped by lesser musical, yet equally as magical acts such as Journey, it was only fitting that he get his own video game sooner or later. Enter Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, a game based off of the movie of the same name and released in 1990 as a Genesis first-gen title.
In Moonwalker, you don the glove of Mr. Jackson as he sets out to save children from an evil gang lord. He’ll battle through five chapters which consist of three levels each as he does battle with the evil goons that are out to put a stop to Michael and silence his voice once and for all. Sure, I may have blown it out of proportion, but it was enough to pad an otherwise small paragraph.
The Genesis version of Moonwalker differs from its arcade counterpart as the action is side scrolling as opposed to 3/4 overhead. Your goal is to rescue a set number of children per level. Some children are out in plain view, while others are stashed away behind bushes, windows, inside of dumpsters and in trunks of cars of all places; though this would be all-too-easy if there weren’t mindless goons getting in the way of this crusade of child liberation. Michael will take on vile gangsters, dancing zombies, armed guys in gas masks, spiders, and dogs among other beings and beasts don’t take well to his brand of pop music. Once you collect all of the required youngsters for the level, Michael’s ever-so-helpful chimp Bubbles will guide you where the evil gang lord is hiding out. Upon encountering said gang lord, he’ll send a wave of goons after you followed by a level boss and exit gracefully leaving Michael with the cleanup.
Luckily, Michael doesn’t come into battle unprepared as he depends on an assortment of punches and kicks laced with pixie dust as well as the power of his dance to help him overcome his adversaries. Performing certain actions in certain levels will cause a shooting star to fall, if Michael catches it, he transforms into the technological and uber powerful nightmare known as the Moonwalker that will allow him to shoot lasers and fly anywhere in the level.
When Michael finds himself surrounded, he can play his ace in the hole, his dance moves. You charge up your move with the A button, and depending on how long you charge, Michael will either spin and cause anyone near him to end up on their asses, throw his hat destroying all enemies in its path, or summon the dance’s ultimate power – the power of choreographed dancing, what else? Every enemy onscreen will dance a number with Michael before ultimately falling over dead. The longer you charge, the more power is drained from your dance meter, which also doubles as your life meter. Once it runs dry, you’re down a life. You can gain more health/dance magic by saving more children. Go ahead and insert your own molestation joke here.
While the controls are simple to pick up and learn, attacks are way too slow, especially for someone so light on their feet. Levels throw a constant supply of enemies at you and can be overwhelming at times.
Each chapter is host to a different environment. The first chapter has Michael battling through the building seen in his Smooth Criminal video where he opens random doors to find the captive children. Level two takes place in the same building, this time with more floors and even more random doors to check. Level three has even more doors as well as windows harboring even more small children. Are we noticing a pattern here? Chapter two takes place in the streets as Michael battles through more thugs and even shows his love for animals as he deals kicks and pixie dust to ill-tempered stray dogs. Chapter three is called “the woods”, which is obvious as the levels all take place in a graveyard where Michael battles zombies with nay a tree in sight. Chapter four takes place in some caverns teeming with spiders and armed guards. Michael finally reaches the enemy hideout in Chapter 5 where even more armed guards and gun turrets stand in the way of you and the evil gang boss. Level design seems thrown together and can get overly complicated as each section of the level looks the same as the last. This makes levels overly complicated to navigate and when coupled with the constant searching for kids behind similar looking bushes, cars, and cavern walls, the gameplay gets tiring quickly and you’ll be wishing it was all over by chapter four.
The game’s visuals are nowhere near the arcade version of the game. The characters are small, level details are repetitive, and there are only a handful of enemies to fight in the game. Boss designs are also uninspired since they consist of waves of the same thugs you fought throughout the level, palette swaps of existing enemies, or palette swapped enemies with special abilities. The only original boss is in chapter two level one where you fight some sort of spirit dog that summons other dogs to do his bidding. On the plus side, dance moves vary from level to level as Michael will perform dance moves from the smooth criminal video in the first chapter and thriller moves with the zombies in the third chapter. All the moves are nicely animated and can give some sort of inspiration to move onto the next level. Though the animation of Michael as the Moonwalker robot is unintentionally laughable, it brilliantly mimics the stop motion ridiculousness of the Moonwalker robot in the movie.
Sound fares better than the visuals, though not by far. There are only a few sound bites of Michael and they all consist of “whooing”. He’ll yell “whoo” when he attacks, he yells “whoo!” when he gets hit and he’ll “whoo!” in between levels. Once in a while you’ll get an “ow!” or some other noise, but they’re barely distinguishable from one another and get old. The main redeeming factor (or not, depending on if you’re a fan) is the games soundtrack which consists of a few of the popular Jackson tunes prior to 1991 in all of their MIDI glory like Beat It, Bad, and Billie Jean just to name a few. Aside from the soundtrack, which is debatable in the first place, you’ll get generic death sounds from enemies that sound like a shoe scuffing on the ground and not much else.
On one hand, this was a great opportunity for Sega to cash in on Jackson’s popularity and promote their new console at the same time, on the other, the game feels like an obvious quick cash-in. The arcade game wasn’t much more than what the Genesis was doing a year after its release and this game could have benefited from the extra development time. A version of the game was also developed for the Sega Master System and there was a sequel for the Genesis and Arcade planned a couple years later, but the first child molestation scandal killed that idea quickly. In all, if you’re not a fan of Michael Jackson, the generic platforming elements mixed with the repetitive gameplay will do little to hold your interest here.
- Brad Hicks (aka Dr. Swank), SwankWorld Media