Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker
“I see God in the face of children. If there were no children on this Earth, if somebody announced that all kids are dead, I would jump off the balcony immediately. I’m done.” – Michael Jackson during 2003 TV interview
Mr. Big is such a Smooth Criminal. He’s built a massive laser on the Moon, aimed it at the Earth with the intention of global domination, and, to top it all off, kidnapped scores of blond, teddy bear-hugging little girls – just because he can. You’d think that in dire times like these, the world would turn to Superman, James Bond, or heck, even Ernest P. Worrell, but no – Sega and developer Ultimate Productions decided on Michael Jackson as the man of the hour. Michael Jackson … rescuing children … in a game called Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker? Right-O. Nowadays, pushing out a game like this would be something akin to releasing an O.J. Simpson dating sim, but back in 1990 – during the height of MJ’s popularity – it must have seemed like a golden idea. Controversial and just plain wacky premise aside, Moonwalker is a decent platformer with great music, but not enough variation to keep even fans of the genre interested for more than a few days.
Moonwalker for the Genesis was actually modeled after an arcade game that features the same title and premise, but with vastly different gameplay. The arcade version is played from a three-quarters view and features a mix-up of beat-em-up/shooter gameplay elements, while the home version is a more traditional 2D platformer (with one decent shooter bit thrown in as the game’s last level). Essentially, the player takes control of a smartly dressed MJ straight out of his “Smooth Criminal” music video, and pits him against an army of Mr. Big’s cronies. You take on enemies with a handful of classic MJ dance movies, such as his snap kick, hat toss and the like, and, while these moves are animated quite well, it’s easy to get the feeling that there just aren’t enough of them in the game.
And that pretty much sums up the Moonwalker experience – there just isn’t enough. As you dance your way through the game’s five levels (which are each broken up into three sub levels) kicking thugs with your sparkly blue feet (no really, blue sparks fly off your shoes when you kick) and rescuing little girls, it’s easy to wish Ultimate had put more time into varying the level and enemy designs. For example, the stages only come in five basic flavors: Club, Street, Woods, Cavern and Enemy Hideout – most of which don’t have a whole lot going on as far as environmental traps or gimmicks to keep you curious as to what’s coming next. The baddies themselves are extremely limited in variety, with the classic “thugish looking dude” showing up on the Street level, and clichéd zombies and spiders harassing you on the Woods stage. To make things worse, many of these enemies are recycled during later stages with no change in their simplistic AI patterns. Add this to the fact that your goal in all levels but one is to discover the location of all the kidnapped children – a task which is just as simple as walking up to a door, bush, or other conspicuous looking background element and pushing up on the d-pad – and you have a recipe for monotony.
That said, not everything about Moonwalker is Bad; there are some elements of sheer craziness that are definitely worth experiencing. For instance, after finding the last kid on any particular level, a chimpanzee named Bubbles flies onto the screen – riding a shaft of dazzling blue light, no less – lands on your shoulders and then begins flailing his arms around in an attempt to lead you to the level’s exit. Seriously. Or how about MJ’s special move that drains a chunk of his life but forces all enemies on screen into a synchronized and self destructive dance routine? And then there’s the best part of the game – at a certain point you can snatch a power-up and transform Michael into a large white robot, capable of flying freely about the level and blasting bad guys with a barrage of lasers and homing missiles. It’s during these moments that Moonwalker transcends its blandness and actually becomes fun.
Sadly though, the whole things ends so quickly you don’t really have time to savor the interesting, quirky little touches. Moonwalker is not incredibly challenging, and most gamers should be able to Beat It in only one or two hours. It’s really too bad, because the last level is definitely the best of the bunch, and one can imagine that if the difficulty and complexity of the stages kept ramping up for five or six more levels, the game would have been much, much better. As it stands, the only real reason you’ll want to come back after completion is to to show your friends some of the more Off the Wall elements, or possibly listen to the excellent midi versions of MJ’s music (though if you don’t own both Bad and Thriller albums … well, shame on you).
So basically, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker is fun at times, but even compared to other platformers of the 16-bit era it can be a bit on the monotonous side. If you are a diehard fan of The King of Pop or are dying for another Genesis platformer to add to your collection, Moonwalker isn’t a terrible choice; but it almost certainly won’t be a game you’ll keep going back to, even for nostalgia value.