Ah, the 80s. An age of immense nostalgia for the 20-30 somethings of the current generation. Constantly we look back on the era and its charming tackiness, its pointless, embarrassing, yet adorable fads, and its inane sense of materialism. Spearheading this movement was the King of Pop. Oh, today we see a different Michael. But no one can deny that he is one of the greatest entertainers to ever walk this earth. Back in the day, teenagers would've given anything for a sleepover trip to the Neverland Ranch, but now that he's older, they've changed their minds.
By the late 80s, Michael Jackson had been integrated into every form of entertainment. With the booming popularity of video games, making a Michael Jackson video game was a no-brainer. As part of a multi-faceted marketing ploy, there was a movie and several video games released based on Michael Jackson's exploits. The title was Moonwalker, and the subject was a confrontation between Michael and mobster Mr. Big (played by Joe Pesci), who has kidnapped a bunch of children. The film and game coincided with the release of Michael's new hit song, "Smooth Criminal", which it also revolved around in terms of its plot, with Michael being some sort of "good" gangster.
The movie still baffles people today. It's either a terrible, contrived mess or the greatest thing the human race has ever created. No one can decide for sure. But one thing that is undeniable is the game; it is awesome. Of course, when I say "the game", I mean the Genesis version, the other versions either being lazy ports or entirely different games that are completely inconsequential. The two best versions of Moonwalker; the Genesis and arcade versions, were developed by Sega. In particular, the Genesis game was developed by what would one day become Overworks, developers of Shinobi, Streets of Rage, and Skies of Arcadia, thus explaining its incredible quality and its somewhat eerie resemblance to Shinobi III. Some of the sound effects were even used later in Sonic the Hedgehog, including the famous "ring" noise. Of course, you wouldn't know the pedigree from the credits, who attributes the game's creation almost solely to Michael Jackson.
In Michael Jackson's Moonwalker, you, of course, take the role of Michael as he travels through a corrupt city rescuing children (don't worry, they're all girls, so they're safe). Although his adversaries; crooks, mobsters, gang bangers, and thugs, pack all kinds of heat, Michael chooses to face his enemies with a far greater power in hand: the power of dance. That's right, Michael's sheer power to dance is enough to topple almost any foe, and rather than shooting or beating his enemies to a pulp, the magic of his rhythm is more than enough to conquer the hordes he faces.
Moonwalker is a quintessential 16-bit platformer. You travel through primarily horizontal stages, looking inside trap doors, dumpsters, and car trunks looking for the captured girls, although you may also find Shinobi bombs. No, they're not just bombs. Look at them. They're the exact same bombs from Shinobi. I don't know how else to explain it. Each stage requires a bit of exploration to find everyone, but once you do, Bubbles the Chimp runs out, sits on your shoulder, and points the path to the level boss. Before you get to that far, many, many enemies will impede your progress, and to combat them, Michael has an arsenal of tricks up his sleeve. Pressing the attack button makes Michael perform a single dance move. Each move he performs throws out some "dance magic" (i.e. sparkles), which blows his enemies away as if they were made of paper. Michael can also do various other stylish techniques in certain situations, like sliding down banisters and other slanted rails, moonwalking along precarious surfaces, and dodging enemy fire by spinning. Everything controls pretty well, although it's a bit obnoxious to try to walk down staircases.
Michael has a single meter that indicates both his health and his special power. Pressing the dance button makes Michael spin. Just lightly tapping it does not use up any power, but you have to have a really itchy trigger finger to tap the button lightly enough. Depressing the button for too long makes Michael lose power. Press it longer and Michael throws his hat once he's done spinning, which instantly destroys anything in its path. Finally, we have Michael's greatest power. Hold down the button long enough and suddenly, the entire game stops. The enemies cease their aimless meandering and gather around Michael, and then, it happens. A beautifully choreographed and synchronized dance number begins, at the end of which, Michael no longer needs his gathering of foes, and they die, instantly. It's the coolest thing ever, and the enemies are more than happy to give their lives for a moment to dance with the King of Pop. Not even the dogs can resist Michael's dance. And who can blame them?
All the spinning and dancing you do exhausts Michael's health meter pretty quickly, but the game is built around this aspect. Every little girl you find restores your health, and each stage has a quite a few girls. Basically, you can play the game safely and not use any powers, or you can have fun with it and constantly teeter on the edge of death, but get your health restored every few seconds. It's quite exhilarating to practice the latter.
When you gain a certain number of points, something very peculiar happens; a shooting star flies across the screen. If you manage to catch it, Michael will suddenly be turned into a giant robot. This is very hard to do though, as the star can be fairly unpredictable and you only have about a second to get to it, and unless you constantly monitor your points, you wont be able to foresee its coming. It appears Michael turns into a car and drives himself between stages, but during the last stage, thinks get even weirder when Michael boards a spaceship in order to have his final showdown with Mr. Big, who also inexplicably has a spaceship. This battle is done from a cockpit perspective, with an overly complicated HUD. It's so off the wall that it's unforgettable.
The most awesome aspect of Moonwalker is its music. Most of Michael Jackson's greatest songs from the 80s are played during every stage of Moonwalker. Every song you could possibly ask for. Aside from "Smooth Criminal", which is the game's centerpiece, you have "Billie Jean", "Bad", "Another Part of Me", "Thriller" (which is delightfully subtle here), and my personal favorite, "Beat It". Despite the fact that the music here is digitized, it's still every bit as awesome as the real thing. This is where you really get a feel for how amazing Michael's music was; it's still awesome even in MIDI, coming through the Genesis' crappy sound card, no less. Every time I get to stage 2 and Beat It starts to play, I almost lose it. I mean, seriously, it's Michael!
Moonwalker looks amazing if you consider the fact that it came out before the SNES. It looks even better than Revenge of the Shinobi. Michael's sprite is amazing and shows incredible animation without even being rotoscoped. Michael's sprite itself looks every bit as good as anything in Shinobi III, which wouldn't come out for another 3 years. In terms of sound effects, Moonwalker is also more competent than the average Genesis games, with some very crisp voice samples for Michael.
The Sega Master System/Game Gear version of Moonwalker, like most SMS/GG ports, is essentially a dumbed down version of the Genesis game. Most of the cooler aspects have been removed, such as the sparkles when Michael attacks, and awesome dance scenes have been brutally scaled down. Plus, the SMS's lack of ability to produce anything more than beeps and boops hurts the greatest aspect of the game, that being its music. It's still not a bad game, and it actually looks pretty good for the platform, but there's no real point in playing it with the Genesis version out there.
Additional Genesis Screenshots
The arcade version of Moonwalker is the only other version worth playing, and it's not nearly as good as the Genesis game. It's some sort of mix between a shooter a la Commando and beat'em up, but it luckily has most of the elements that made the Genesis game so awesome. By default, Michael can zap enemies with an electrical force, which can be charged by holding down the fire button. You can still lure foes into dance numbers, although these don't drain your lifebar any more, and can be replenished by rescuing kids. When you find Bubbles the Chimp, you'll turn into a robot and can zap enemies with missiles and lasers. Everything is viewed from an isometric perspective, with three player simultaneous gameplay (players two and three are different versions of Michael Jackson in red and black suits, respectively.) It also has many of the same stage motifs, although in a somewhat different order, and also many of the same music pieces, although it doesn't sound like the quality was improved upon much. It's undoubtedly the best looking version of the game, though, with some pretty crisp visuals, although I'm not a big fan of the perspective.
There is, however, lots of unintentional hilarity. At the beginning of each stage, there are a few comic book panels, along with a map of the stage showing all of the hostages. These scenes show a portrait of Michael doing his trademark "WOOO!" apparently to intimidate Mr. Big, as if we were some kind dog howling against his enemy - there are similar scenes in the Genesis version. The robot transformation is abnormally creepy, with Michael growing into a huge pixellated monstrosity, morphing into metal, then shrinking down to standard size. You turn into a robot by picking up Bubbles the Chimp, which makes absolutely no sense. When you reach the Graveyard, Mr. Big taunts with a voiced speech sample proclaim "I love you Michael.... to DEATH!" One of the later enemies is a mech with a gigantic phallus between its legs - it attacks by thrusting, which it does repeatedly when you use your dance moves. Also, due to some unfortunate color choices, it appears that certain enemies are wearing jackets but absolutely no pants. Plus, there are both boys and girls to rescue here, which is awfully questionable.
Michael Jackson's Moonwalker / Michael Jackson: Moonwalker / Moonwalker - DOS, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MSX, ZX Spectrum (1989)
The other computer versions of Moonwalker were published by U.S. Gold and have nothing to do with any of the games created by Sega. There are several different segments - the first two are based off the "Speed Bunny" live action/claymation film, where Michael has to run around a maze-like city to find parts of a bunny costume, all while running from overzealous fans. It's basically an overhead stealth game, as the only thing you can do is run, since you can't attack anything. A radar will tell you where all of the enemies are items are at, which is helpful. Unfortunately you have to collect everything in a specific order, which is infuriating. Also, whoever put the horse-riding cowboys in there should be destroyed, because it's nearly impossible to outrun them.
The second segment looks similar, except you control Michael on a motorcycle as he collects orbs to turn into a car. Once you do that, you have ten seconds to get to the barrier and destroy it, otherwise you die and have to start again. Although you can run over random people, leaving a blood splatter on the ground (are pop stars allowed to do that?), this section is also pretty annoying. The third section is a side-scrolling area that takes place in the Club, where you need to shoot bad guys while keeping an eye out for children. The fourth takes place in Mr. Big's lair, where you turn into a robot and need to shoot more bad guys. None of these areas are fun at all. You get a ton of lives, but losing all of them means starting from scratch.
The MSX and ZX Spectrum versions look the worse, while the C64 and Amstrad CPC versions look OK, with the C64 version having some OK music. The PC version looks only slightly better, and crappy PC speaker music, but does have some nicely animated scenes between levels (though I'm not sure why the fans have such exaggerated heads.) The Amiga and Atari ST versions have all this, although the Amiga is the best sounding of the bunch.
There were rumors that have now been proven true that Michael Jackson contributed music to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, but he was quickly dropped from the project after all of the allegations started to surface. However, he did reappear in guest roles as "Space Michael" in both Space Channel 5 titles