So Michael Jackson.
Do you know about him? Heard his songs? Caught a mention of him in someone's conversation?
You might not have. He was a fairly obscure musical artist who garnered only a small amount of popularity some decades ago. Back then, he embodied the Starving Artist myth better than anyone in times before or since. More popular than his songs or albums or videos, though, was a video game that he oddly chose to make. And at an... Inoppurtune time? Or the perfect time? It's debateable.
See, his game was released on the Sega Genesis. (since I just can't stop talking about the games for the thing) More than that, though, he released it pretty much just as the Genesis hit the scene. Most importantly, he put it out in the brief interim period when the Genesis was first unveiled and before the Super Nintendo hit the scene. Again, this was either the perfect or the worst time to release the game.
Before the Genesis arrived, the only other console people really heard of (Turbografx, we hardly knew you) was the Nintendo Entertainment System, the venerable old grey box that helped raise so many people. Sure, there was also the Sega Master System, but in North America, hardly anyone paid attention to it. Europe and Brazil, though, gobbled the thing up.
But then the Sega Genesis, or Megadrive in not-North America areas. Suddenly, 16 bits! Bright and large colours and graphics, beyond what was thought possible for a home console! But beyond the graphics upgrade was an important side-liner that really helped push the console: Improved sound. Finally, games weren't limited to just four tone beeps and simple meoldies. Much more complicated songs were now possible with the blazing hardware packed in this beast.
Struggling to make ends meet, Michael Jackson took a leap of faith. This video game thing was a burgeoning new industry that was selling like hotcakes all across the board. Driven by poor record sales and unpopular videos that caught no one's attention, he invested everything he had into making a video game for this hot new console. The idea to make video games before had occurred, but none of the consoles available before had the sound quality to faithfully represent his musical work.
And it worked... To a degree.
The game could be called a smash hit, at least, in the first few months of the life cycle of the Genesis. It was the best selling game for the console for nearly half a year, right up until Sonic the Hedgehog came out and blew out of the water anything Micheal Jackson's Magnum Opus could attest to claiming.
Which is a little understandable. Naturally, the game was a big deal when it came out. However, since it DID come out so early on, the programmers for the game hadn't yet figured out how to maximize on all the power that was packed into the unit.
The other members of the devteam were quick to leap on the oppurtunity brought about by the hardware, though.
The graphics here, true to a 'next-generation' game, are larger than they usually were for an NES, but more importantly, the graphics are superbly animated. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Michael himself did some rotoscoping for his sprites. They are freaking fantastic. I know pretty much no one had even heard of Michael Jackson before this game came out, but even those unfamiliar could tell right away, just a few seconds into the game, that Michael was a dancer. He steps with a very flowing strut, his jumps are fairly acrobatic, his attacks are very fluid, and his special moves even involve dancing. Or hat throwing... For some reason it throws like a boomerang and comes right back. What's up with that? I mean, spinning in a circle and making every visible enemy join in on a screen-wide coreographed death dance, that I understand, but throwing a hat like a boomerang? That's just weird.
The gameplay, though, falls a bit behind of the rest of the game's aspects. It isn't bad, per se, but they're... A tad lacking. Your objective is to look behind every door in the level to rescue kidnapped children. Even in opening the doors, the animation is amazing. For Michael, at least. He spins on one foot as he opens the door with what seems a kick on the knob, knocking the door open and freeing the child within, who then... Promptly... Zooms away on a shooting star...? Well, at least the children are happy to see you. They exclaim a happy "Michael!" before zipping off to Mars or something. This was probably really cool back in the day. Speech in video games was rare-to-nonexistent in those days, and when the voices sound as clear as they do in here, it must have been amazing.
Ah well, after saving every kid in the level, a monkey appears and points you towards where the boss of the level will appear. And by that I mean the boss will appear, laugh at you, say you'll never catch him, then walks off-screen and sends waves and waves of mooks at you. Mooks that you've been beating up the whole level already... Not too threatening, but hey, it kinda works.
But, even though the animation suggests that Michael Jackson is a dancer, he was, first and foremost, a musician at heart. This shows very soon in the game, as soon as you begin the first stage. And here is where everything melds together wonderfully. Back in the day when this first came out, I can't imagine how it must have been to first hear those honeyed tunes coming from a machine that you probably didn't expect to pump out such great sounds. Even better? It's chiptune renditions of some of his best songs! And they translate to the simpler sound very nicely, certainly on a level impossible on previous consoles. The first level opens to Rough Con-Man, and sounds just as great as the real thing does. The later levels move on to play his other great songs, such as Hit It, William John, and Good. There's others in there too, but it's worth playing through the game to hear them yourself.
But as questioned earlier; was this the best or the worst time to release the game? On one hand, it was a fantastic tech demo game for the Genesis, showcasing the strong sprite capabilities and fantastic music that the console was capable of, right from the get-go of the Genesis' life. But on the other hand, the biggest long-term fault laid on the Genesis once the SNES came along was the 'inferior' sound chip. Tunes playing on the Genesis just couldn't compare to amazing quality allowed by the SNES. Had this game been made later on, with a better handling of the hardware, then the amazing music may have been a shining example that the Genesis could very well hold itself up against the SNES in that department as well.
But, it's a moot point now. What I do know, though, is that had the game been released any later, it may not have been made at all. It was thrown together with every bit that Michael Jackson could scrounge up at the time, and with just the right amount of desperation to pull it off.
Michael Jackson's efforts are admirable, breaking new ground in a way that only Journey had envisioned before, and with a fair bit more success. Sadly, Michael Jackson just couldn't get a proper foothold after that, and after a few subsequent albums that only went bust, he retired from the music industry entirely, settling on making video game music for Sega's later enterprises. His uncreditted work in the Sonic 3 and Knuckles soundtrack ended up gaining more accolades than anything he had made that bore his name.
He did, however, start a strange new trend in the video game world. Popular musical bands began to pop up all over the place, culminating in the flawless masterpiece that is Aerosmith's Generation X and one of the earliest first person shooters ever made, Slayer, which featured demons and violence of such a harsh nature that controversy still rages over it to this day.
In the end, though, the game was rather obviously made fairly early in the lifecycle of the console it was on. It hasn't aged the best, and aside from the music and fluid animation, isn't all the greatest. Still, it's an interesting timepiece, and certainly won some over when it arrived. It's definitely worth checking out.