Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (US Gold, 1989 / Sega, 1990)


US Gold version developed by Emerald Software and Keypunch Software, and released for the Commodore Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MSX, ZX Spectrum and IBM-PC compatibles in 1989.

Sega's arcade version designed by Michael Jackson, developed by Sega and Triumph, and released in 1990.

Sega's home console version designed by Kotaro Hayashida based on Michael Jackson's concept, developed by Sega's AM7 department, and released for Master System and Mega Drive (Genesis) in 1990.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS, PLURAL


It's time for another three-for-one comparison, this time about a set of games that has been talked of plenty of times, and is again based on a movie, as was the previous similar entry. I'm writing this comparison mostly due to the request made quite a while ago by my girlfriend, because she's a Michael Jackson fan, and naturally, she wanted to point out that Moonwalker is the best game in the world. Well, understandably, I am in a bad position to argue about that, but I will admit that some of these versions are rather nice, although I cannot say if any of them have much of connection to the movie, but more about that later. Another reason would be to finish this comparison around the time Michael's second posthumously compiled album "Xscape" has been released worldwide, or at least in most countries. Once again, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker has been featured at Hardcore Gaming 101, but I'm writing this to expand on it. It's all about the details, see.

As with the movie, the first game was received with confusion as the primary emotion. Currently, though, unlike the movie, all the versions of the US Gold game are considered to be just plain horrible, no exceptions. I think this list speaks for itself: Lemon64 - 3.5 with 33 votes, World of Spectrum - 3.8 with 21 votes, LemonAmiga - 2.72 with 29 votes, CPC Softs - 8/20, Generation-MSX - half a star with 2 votes, Abandonia (DOS version) - editor's rating is 2 out of 5 and the peoples' rating is 2.5 out of 5. Surprisingly, the Atari ST version has been given a whopping 6.3 with 4 votes at Atarimania. Anyway, that should give you some sort of idea what is to be expected from the comparison below.

Strangely enough, I couldn't find much of current ratings for the Sega games, but a Wiki-based website called SegaRetro has some information on how the games were received in the gaming press back in the day. The arcade game was given a score of 90/100 by Computer & Video Games magazine, the Mega Drive game has an average of 83/100 based on 18 reviews, and the Master System version has an average of 73/100 based on 10 reviews. Certainly more positive than what the US Gold game ever had. Of course, if you want a more entertaining review of the Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American) game, see the video review by the Angry Video Game Nerd from 2009.

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DESCRIPTIONS & REVIEWS


The games' plotlines are sort of based on the story of the film, if there really is one to speak of. The film itself is a segmented collection of music videos coinciding with multiple plotlines, that appear to have more to do with Michael's inner child trying to make itself known through a fantastical imagery in form of series of seemingly unconnected adventures, much like a child would imagine things to develop inside their heads: sporadically and without deeper intention, but for the purpose of fun and spending time with their friends. Although, of course, this is just one interpretation of the movie, and it could very well be something completely different - I'm pretty sure the clarity of the movie died along with its creator. What the main segments are like, are basically two things. The first bit is more or less Michael's retrospective and his struggles against the pressure of his fame, ending with the music video for "Leave Me Alone". The second, more fantasy-based part of the movie starts after about 37 minutes of the movie has already passed, leaving less than an hour for the actual meat of it. In this bit, an evil drug lord called Mr. Big (whose real name in the movie is Frankie Lideo, and is played by the inimitable Joe Pesci), tries to conquer the world by making everybody addicted to drugs, starting with children. So, of course, Michael is out to save the children, and put a stop to Mr. Big's evil plans.

Contrary to what many believe, or might have thought of, the arcade game wasn't the first one to have been released, although it was the first one in development. Instead, the US Gold home computer version was the first one out in 1989. This game is a multi-genre endeavour, with the most prominent style being a top-down maze/avoid-and-collect type of a thing, which takes the first two out of the four levels. The other two levels are shoot'em-ups, the first one a side-scroller and the latter one a crosshair shooter, but the gameplay is prime material to make any gamer frustrated and bored, even before they get angry at it. Unlike the Sega games, however, it utilises the "Speed Demon" bits from the movie as well as the "Smooth Criminal" bits.

The only one of the lot which had some more direct input from Michael Jackson himself, is the arcade version, which also happens to be the only one of the lot to not be a multi-genre game. Instead, the basic style of the game is a mixture of a brawler and a commando-type shoot'em-up in isometric 2D/3D-view. The reason why it is so, is that although the game plays more like a beat'em-up, you rarely need to actually engage in melee combat, because you have a default weapon that bursts some sort of energy in your chosen direction, and when you get to pick up Bubbles the chimpanzee, you will turn into Mecha-Jackson, who shoots laser beams. In addition to all that, you can perform special dance moves that will kill every enemy on the screen. It's a very straight-forward game, but one that at least console gamers should enjoy reasonably well, particularly as the game can be played by three players simultaneously. Strangely, though, this game follows the movie's plot less literally than the US Gold version, but then, the same could be said of the third game of the lot as well. I suppose Michael had a good reason for having the game concept built strictly around the Smooth Criminal segment of the film.

Sega's home console version was originally designed and made into a concept by Michael Jackson, but the actual work of getting it into a fitting game for the home consoles was made by Kotaro Hayashida. This time, a large majority of the game is a multi-directionally scrolling side-viewed action-platformer, with a similar idea as is in the arcade game. The final stage, however, is a duel between Michael and Mr. Big in a completely different style. Of course, having only so much hardware capabilities compared to the arcade, the Megadrive game had to deal with less special effects and a lower quality midiesque soundtrack. For its time, it was still a brilliant achievement to get so much out of the Megadrive, but sound quality-wise, it was still miles behind Sega's first proper "killer app", as they say - and of course I'm speaking of Sonic the Hedgehog, which would come out the following year. Still, in the turn of the 90's, having a game in which you could play as the lead pop star of the time, performing dance moves to vanquish your enemies, while listening to surprisingly well programmed versions of Michael's hit tunes, was a new and novel thing. No one from the music world of that calibre had done anything even nearly as exciting for their fans, and if you were a Michael Jackson fan, you HAD to buy a Sega Megadrive in order to be able to continue living. Although it isn't mentioned often, there was a Master System version of the game released as well, but we will get on it a bit later on to see why it is so.

Both of the Sega games are basically the very heart of their genres in their own specific way, touched with a little bit of magic from the dancing shoes. If I were to be honest, I couldn't say the games have aged particularly well, but the music saves a lot here. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the US Gold games. But considering how it was in 1989, and the movie having only been out for a couple of months, how could you have ever made a good game based on a seemingly random movie, without the direct involvement of its creator for a bunch of machines that didn't necessarily have the means to produce anything resembling what Michael Jackson was on about?

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LOADING


Since the US Gold game is the only one to have been released on tape and disk, the other ones will not even be mentioned here. Not that the US Gold game has much use in being compared, since it's a multi-loader on every platform (and for those of you who only ever lived with consoles, this means that the game has to load from the tape or disk between every level), although naturally, the loading times on DOS are rather minimal, so it's the automatic winner here. So, long story short, consider yourself lucky, if you had a disk version instead of a cassette. The game doesn't even have an initial loading screen, which makes this section very useless indeed. Moving on, then.

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PLAYABILITY


*SEGA*

Screenshot from the arcade version by Sega.
As it turned out so well the last time, let's start the three actual comparison sections with the one version that has only one version out there: the ARCADE. Although the game is shown in isometric 3D, the playing area moves in all 8 main directions, and Michael is moved around very directly - up actually is up, instead of some diagonal, and so on. Unlike most beat'em-ups, you are unable to perform any sort of jump at all, but instead you are given a special attack called Dance Magic, which can be activated at any time from the second fire button, if you happen to have any of those MJ's Dancing Shoes icons in your possession. You will always have one when you respawn, and they can sometimes be collected from the children you are set to rescue all over the areas. At least the game is linear all over, so you need not worry about roaming all around the maps, trying to find any lost children. Another speciality this game has is Michael's pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, who appears in each level. Once collected or rescued, the chimp transforms Michael into Mecha-Jackson that is able to shoot laser beams and absorb a significantly larger amount of damage. Although the game has enough variation in enemies and has a few properly extravagant features that suit the artist himself, it becomes repetitive and boring quite quickly. Luckily, it's not an unfairly difficult game, nor is it difficult to control, and it can be played through with a few coins, if you happen to be good at these kinds of games.

The home console version by Sega is a strange twosome, but I will try to explain this to the best of my abilities to understand it. It is clear, that the development team's primary version of concentration was the one for Megadrive/Genesis (let's just call it MD/GEN from now on), judging by all the graphical and gameplay elements that are missing from the MASTER SYSTEM (SMS) version. But first things first - some of you will probably need a more detailed description of the game.

You start from Club 30's, clearly stating that the game is based around the Smooth Criminal story arc of the movie. Your mission is to rescue a number of children from behind closed doors, windows, gravestones, car trunks, bushes, caves, cabinets and some sort of containers, depending on the level, while fending off Mr. Big's evil henchmen or all sorts - even zombies and thugs in a car park, although they weren't present in the movie in anything more than a passing clip in the retrospective collage. I'm guessing the programmers just wanted to include a proper nod to MJ's Thriller period there. Controlling Michael in all the different environments is mostly quite intuitional, as you walk left and right, go diagonally through stairs, jump on platforms and perform a few different sorts of punches and kicks with the few buttons that the Sega controllers allow you to do. Opening doors and other containers is done by pushing up when in front of the said objects. Performing the Dance Magic move can be done by pressing down the spin button (A on MD/GEN, 2 on SMS) long enough, but it will drain half of your energy bar. On a rare occasion you might see Michael's lucky star fall out of the sky, and if you catch it, you will turn in to Mecha-Jackson that shoots lasers and is invincible for a short period of time (this is more of a straight reference to the movie than picking up Bubbles in the arcade version). While being a mech, though, you cannot rescue children. Then you have the final confrontation with Mr. Big, which I will get back to later on. Thankfully, both versions have an unlimited number of continues, but depending on your skill level, you might have to continue your game from the first stage of the current area after a game over.

Screenshot from the Sega Megadrive/Genesis version.

Now, the differences between the two versions are surprisingly numerous. Michael moves slightly quicker in the SMS version, but that's just about the only thing that can be counted as something better there. Well, the rather pointless bit where Bubbles will lead you to the end level gang fights has been cut down from the SMS version as well, but whether or not you actually want to see the chimp in the game so badly is an entirely personal matter. On the SMS, once you have rescued all the children, you will be transported straight to the end level fight area. Also, since the 8-bit machine only allows for one type of enemy on the screen at a time, this makes the end level gang fights much easier. However, this could be considered a bad thing, because it offers very little variety.

What is probably the biggest letdown in the SMS version is the weaponry. You start with nothing but your fists and feet, making melee fighting necessary for a good amount of time. Once you have gotten an upgrade, you can shoot your hat around like a boomerang, which is effective, but slow. In the MD/GEN version, you are given some sort of magical dust that shoots out of your shoes and gloves when you perform your basic attacks, so that you don't need to make such a close contact with your enemies. You can also throw your hat by pressing down the A button for a short period of time, but pressing it down longer will make you perform the Dance Magic, and doing so will gradually drain your energy anyhow, so I wouldn't recommend to do it very often. Other than the comet turning you into a mech, there are no actual upgrades to be picked. Both versions do have energy boosts lying around behind closed doors and such.

The final confrontation with Mr. Big is a different sort of a thing in both versions. The 8-bit version resembles more of the 3rd person 3D'ish scenes from Contra. There, the finale is also split in two sections, both levels involving shooting things that shoot back at you in a solid location. The 16-bit version is a 1st person space shooter with a radar, and you have be very active in shooting and avoiding Mr. Big's henchmen in their spaceships and locate Mr. Big himself, and shoot him a number of times until his ship explodes. I have only managed to beat him in easy difficult setting in the MD/GEN version, but it felt quite difficult enough. I haven't been able to finish the SMS version, although I did get to the final battle. So the screenshot of the ending you will see in the Graphics section is taken from YouTube. I have to say, the SMS version of the final battle is more in line with what happens in the movie, but the MD/GEN version is more fun to play.

Downgrading a decidedly 16-bit game to an 8-bit platform is a tricky business, and often goes horribly wrong. I think that in this particular case, the translation isn't too bad, but the SMS version does feel like a prototype compared to the MD/GEN version. A very few things are better on the 8-bit, but then it is only natural, because it's the inferior machine. Frankly, I was surprised that it plays even as good as it does. For those of you who require some sort of clarity without the need of reading all of the above, here you go:

MEGADRIVE/GENESIS - 1
MASTER SYSTEM - 0


*US GOLD*

Comparing the US Gold game is a lot trickier thing to do, mostly because the game is every bit as bad as it has been said to be, and I certainly don't mean "bad" in that Michael Jackson kind of "Bad" way. The first version I tried out of this bunch was on the C64, and I did this about a year or so ago. I was so utterly bored before I had finished the first level, that I decided I didn't want to play it any more unless I did something as stupid as a comparison blog, and here we are.

Screenshot from the Atari ST version - Stage 1.
I guess the only way I can start this with any measure of dignity is by describing the levels. The first two levels basically follow the "Speed Demon" storyline, as I mentioned earlier, and both are top-down viewed mazes. In the first level, you walk and run (with the fire button pressed down) around the MJJ Studios area, avoiding collision with tourists, fans, angry film crew and I know not what. It's all in the movie, watch it if you want to know better. Your mission is to successfully escape the area by collecting the rabbit suit and four other items. Some versions require you to pick them all up in a specific order, others do not. This, curiously, depends entirely on the number of colours used by the version at hand. For instance, all the 16-bits have an order, and at least the C64 version has an order, but the less colourful versions are more free-form. The motorcycle can be found at the top right corner of the map, but first you need to have everything else collected. What makes the level so difficult is that you will have a hard time figuring out which of the computer-guided characters move in what sort of speed, and how do they act around you. The second level puts you on the streets, still on the run from your fans and haters, on your motorcycle. You need to collect a number of orbs to transform yourself into a car for a very short period of time, during which you must get through a jump to the next section. The level consists of five sections, the last of which takes place on water, in which case you are a water scooter. Also in this level, some of your enemies are shooting at you for the first time, so you need to look out for more than just head-on collisions.

Screenshot from the Commodore 64 version - Stage 4.
The two latter levels are based on the "Smooth Criminal" storyline, the first of which is the most reminiscent in style of the Sega home console games, and the second one is a shooting-based whack-a-mole variant. To be more specific, level 3 takes place at Club 30's, and your mission is to walk back and forth, collect machine gun clips and shoot 30 Mr. Big's minions popping out from windows and archways in the background. The level is actually circular, although it doesn't look like it at first, so it doesn't really matter all that much in which direction you choose to run. What I meant with the whack-a-mole-like gameplay conserning level 4, is that the only thing you do is move a crosshair all over the screen, and shoot at Mr. Big's henchmen and occasionally his own laser gun that pop up randomly. It is very little more than Duck Shoot, really, but this is more awkward to play, because your crosshair moves somehow in steps, and... well, it's just awkward and awful.

Well, how do the games compare then? Frankly, I'm not entirely sure, because even though you get 20 lives (!!) at the start of the game, you would need time and collision cheats for some of these versions in order to get through the game, mainly because of four reasons: the enemy behaviour is so unpredictable; half of the time in the first two levels you are unable to see in front of you for more than a few centimeters; the maps are so huge you would need to play the game for weeks in order to remember everything; and because aiming the crosshair in both Smooth Criminal levels is so slow and/or awkward, the randomly appearing targets are nearly impossible to kill before they disappear. It's just so much easier to get killed a few times while keeping your aim at a comfortable area. Depending on the version, you are without doubt going to have either a bad time, a very bad time, or a horribly bad time.

Let's start with the bad ones. The C64 version is the only one, which I was able to actually finish after two weeks of gradually playtesting all the US Gold versions, which is a bit strange, because that's the one I started with and let it go until this blog entry. The first stage here is a bit on the slower side, compared to some, but manageable. Also, as I already mentioned, you need to pick all the clothes in a feet-to-head order. You can find them on your map as the blinking, non-moving dots. The second stage is fairly quick, which is a relief, because there are so many sections to go through. You need to have a good order for destroying all the drug pouches and collecting all the orbs, that will turn you into a car that can jump over the designated passages to the next section, because the car will automatically turn back into a motorcycle in less than 10 seconds. In the third stage, which takes place inside Club 30's, we get a fairly good side-scroller with shooting and jumping. The scrolling isn't too bad, although it could be called a tad sluggish. What makes this stage a bit uncomfortable, is the aiming and shooting, because the crosshair always appears in the same place when starting to fire, and you need to slowly drag the crosshair to where the enemy is, and waste tons of bullets while at it. I would like to quote the Angry Video Game Nerd here, as ask, "What were they thinking?!" I mean, would it have been too difficult to program the aiming to have started with one push of the fire button and start firing with the next, and get back to walking mode after releasing the button? Well, the same problem is in every version of this game, so they are all in the same mud here. The final stage puts you in control of the Mecha-Jackson, who will have to shoot a certain (large) number of enemies, who will pop up on the screen as if you were playing whack-a-mole. Mr. Big's laser gun will show up every now and then, and you will have to shoot it before it shoots you and drains half your energy. It is recommended that you have at least 5 lives left when getting to this stage, because it will be difficult to get a good shot of anything, really. Still, since the C64 version is the only version I have managed to complete, I suppose it's the least unplayable version of the stage.

The ATARI ST version is the only one of the 16-bits in which I managed to get to the last stage. Stage 1 plays noticably faster than the C64 version, but there is one big problem with it - you can't walk diagonally against the walls, which can become a nuisance in tighter spots. This goes for the Amiga and DOS versions as well. Stage 2 plays much like the C64 version, and feels as comfortable as it possibly can. Stage 3 has slower aiming than on the C64, and you also need to shoot through glasses, which increases the possibility of wasted bullets. Really not good. Since I was only able to get to stage 4 with 3 lives, I couldn't get the hang of it then, and I don't intend to play it anymore. It just felt jerky and awkward, and I didn't like it much. Would it have been too much to ask to make it mouse-controlled?

The AMIGA version is superbly awful. In stage 1, Michael moves so slowly, he feels like a pensioner. Nearly everything moves quicker than him, and avoiding enemies has been made ridiculously difficult. Still, with perseverance, you will be able to get to the next stage, which isn't half bad, really. Much like the previous two versions, to be honest. Unfortunately, due to my having lost so many lives in stage 1, I was unable to reach stage 4, and my experience with stage 3 was unsatisfactorily slow and jerky. Not recommended at all.

For the duration of the first stage, you might think the DOS version is pretty good, since it actually plays rather quickly. It follows the same collecting pattern as the previous contestants, so this is perhaps the best version to practice this stage. The second stage, however, is stupidly quick, and due to the action screen's top and bottom borders being so close to your character, you will have an infuriatingly hard time avoiding all the enemies with their unpredictable movements. I gave up after getting myself killed in the first section about 8-10 times, so I can't be sure whether the rest of the game is any good. I suppose, with a lot of practice, one might be able to get through the second stage more easily, but I, for one, really don't have the patience. I took a look at a walkthrough video of the DOS version on YouTube, and the player had an infinite lives cheat. Now you don't have to wonder about the two screenshots that look a bit off in the DOS version in the Graphics section. Anyhow, the game looks to be potentially playable, if you can get the emulation speed in DOSbox to a more comfortable area.

Easily the slowest version of the lot seems to be on the MSX. I needed to turn up the emulation speed to over 200% to get to the same speed as the DOS version, but then the timer got too fast. So, even if you know the maps for the first two stages by heart, you will still lose quite a few lives just because of the time limit. At least you have no obligation to collect all the clothes in any specific order in the first stage. Surprisingly, it's still one of the more playable versions of the game, as I was able to get to the last stage in this one. To make it more playable, some of the graphics and gameplay elements had been taken down a notch, but nothing too drastic. Of course, my experience with this particular version could be not entirely trustworthy, because I found a video on YouTube of someone playing the MSX version, and it was a bit faster than what I had on 100%. If anyone can confirm that it actually isn't as slow as it was for me, I shall make adjustments to the end results accordingly.

Luckily for the SPECTRUM users, although their version is pretty much the same one as the MSX gamers got, the Speccy version is a lot faster. In fact, it's even slightly quicker than the C64 version, but the scrolling is a bit jerky in comparison, and although this has more to do with graphics, Jackson's animation has been cut down to only 3 frames, most likely to achieve the speed of the game. But, it's not bad, really. One could easily prefer this version over the C64 one due to the free clothes picking order in stage 1, but the MSX version is too damn slow to be called even remotely enjoyable without the aid of emulators. Sadly, the rest of the game isn't quite up to scratch with the C64 version, mostly due to scrolling issues.

Although the AMSTRAD version has quite as many colours as the C64 version, it follows the rules of the Spectrum and MSX versions, in that you don't need to collect the clothes in any particular order. The scrolling and animation is similar to the Spectrum and MSX versions, but falls somewhere in between the two in terms of speed. For some reason, though, they have made the first stage a bit less unenjoyable by giving more running time for Michael before he gets tired and resumes walking. The scrolling is jerky and uncomfortable throughout the game, at least up to the third stage, which is the worst of all. I couldn't get to the final battle, but judging by a YouTube longplay video of the Amstrad version, it's unplayably slow, and controlling the crosshair seems to be awkward and not very precise.

Because there is so much singular badness in all of these versions, it's difficult to put them in any sort of order. I would like to think the C64 version is the best one out there, because it's the sole example of the game where I actually managed to beat it. The Atari ST version, however, is more comfortable to play, all things combined. The rest of the lot is more tricky, so I will not revisit the specifics here, because everything worth saying has been said above, and just move on to put them in order.

1. ATARI ST
2. COMMODORE 64
3. SPECTRUM
4. DOS
5. AMSTRAD
6. AMIGA
7. MSX

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GRAPHICS


The most difficult part of comparing a game to a movie is to connect the scenarios if possible. As both the Sega games concentrate solely on the "Smooth Criminal" story arc of the movie, they are the easier ones to start with.

*SEGA*

Screenshots from the arcade version.


It shouldn't come as that much of a surprise that the ARCADE version has the more convincing representations of the locations in the movie. Club 30's looks more like an actual club as opposed to an apartment building with a million doors, decorated with a jukebox, pool tables and pinball machines. Also, the arcade game gives the only connection to where in the storyline of the movie would the carpark be placed. Apart from the graveyard section, everything looks more like they are connected with the movie. The arcade version is also the only game of the three to actually point out the storyline proceedings more specifically between levels in comic book styled collages over the map of the level you are about to enter. All the graphics in the arcade version are masterfully drawn, and resemble their live counterparts as closely as you could possibly expect from a video game from 1990. There are so many things I could still talk about, but since the arcade version is the only Moonwalker of its kind, I will let the screenshots speak for themselves, and move on to the home console versions.

More screenshots from the arcade version.


Strangely, apart from the lesser quality overall look of the graphics, the most obvious difference between the two home console versions is that the 16-bit version has the customary information bar at the bottom of the screen, featuring score, lives, energy and the number of children to be saved. In the 8-bit version, you only get the energy bar on the in-game screen, but you need to press the pause/start button (not located in the controller, but the console itself) in order to see all the other info. Luckily, this is not that much of a problem when using emulators.

Screenshots from the Sega Megadrive (top row) and Sega Master System (bottom row) versions,
showing the intro, level 1 start and a random shot of level 2.


The things you wouldn't necessarily pay that much attention to when playing any of these games once every few years might be more numerous. For instance, neither version has the dancing feet intro that the arcade version (and even the US Gold version) has. The SMS version has been given a unique start-up picture, which is a nice rendition of the cover art. The MD/GEN version just jumps straight to the title screen. Then, the number of the types of enemies in each level might come as a slight surprise, as the SMS version seems to only have one type of enemy on screen at a time, and the earlier levels only have one type of enemy per level, in contrast to a good variety in the MD/GEN version. One of the most ridiculous effects of de-evolution in the SMS version is the Dance Magic bit, in which the screen turns completely dark apart from Michael himself, who at least performs the moves, while the MD/GEN version keeps the screen bright and makes every enemy sprite dance along with Michael. Since the final confrontation bit is so different in both versions, I will not go into that any more than showing the screenshots.

Screenshots from the Sega Megadrive (top row) and Sega Master System (bottom row) versions,
showing examples of the Dance Magic screens, level 4 and the final battle.


Still, keeping in mind that it's supposed to be the same game on two machines of clearly different calibre, I have to say the 8-bit version manages to look surprisingly close to the 16-bit version, even if the generation gap is clearly visible. I really don't think that we need to contemplate any more on the Sega games.

MEGADRIVE/GENESIS - 1
MASTER SYSTEM - 0


*US GOLD*

Before we head off to the actual in-game graphics of the US Gold game, the intro bits need to be taken a closer look. I think I mentioned this before, but unlike the Sega home console games, all the US Gold game versions share the MJJ Productions' logo sequence in a full regalia as anyone would expect. The biggest difference comes once the walking and the magical dance move have been performed, and the MJJ logo appears along with the game's title.

Intro sequences


Interestingly, the colouring of Michael's attire is the closest to the original in the DOS version, while the Moonwalker logo is the closest in the Amiga/ST version. It is more difficult to say, which one of these gives the worst representation, because the colouring is mostly very wrong. The C64 version tries, but looks only messy, and the "Michael Jackson" text looks singularly wrong; the Spectrum and MSX versions don't really try too hard to get the shading even remotely correct, but are stylish; Amstrad's logo has a weird laser-beam-like colouring going through the middle, which is interesting, but not as stylish as the original.

Title sequences, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, MSX, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST/Amiga, DOS.


Not only do we get more of the same logo in the title sequence, but we also get a clear indicator that this is not the console game - this is Moonwalker: the Computer Game. The same handwriting style has been utilised with the Hi Score list as well, at least on the C64 and the 16-bits. The credits have been spread out to two screens in various different ways, which, to be honest, looks as if the programmers couldn't decide even in this simple bit, what to do with it. I like the actual title screen (middle bits) more when they're simplified, as they are on the Amstrad, Spectrum and MSX versions. However, their credit screens (lower bits) are a bit too busy. The C64 version looks just silly, with Emerald Software getting their own whole screen, as opposed to getting equal amount of advertising space, as they have in the 16-bit versions. Well, no matter... it's not as if you will ever be wasting too much time looking at the title screens.

Screenshots from the Atari ST version.


Keen-eyed enthusiasts might have noticed that I purposely chose only the ST screenshots here, because the Amiga version looks exactly the same, apart from having the Moonwalker logo planted solidly to the bottom of the screen for the duration of the entire game. But, as you would expect, there is no contest here as such: ATARI ST and AMIGA win this round easily, the most obvious reason being the cutscene animations before every level - for every 8-bit version, the cutscenes have been cut down to just loading screens. The animations are very well made, and all the sprites look crisp and clear, if not quite as good as in either of the 16-bit Sega versions. All the maze sections have a different ground colour, enabling a better recognition and rememberance of all the areas. Club 30's has a surprisingly authentic look, although it could have been a bit darker. I only got as far as Club 30's in most versions, so I had to look for screenshots from the internet, but from what I can tell, the final scene looks quite a lot like the final battle scene from the movie. The DOS version has been programmed by the same team as the two aforementioned ones, so the DOS version looks and feels much like them, only less colourful and messier.

Screenshots from the CGA DOS version.



Screenshots from the EGA DOS version.

The DOS version has options for CGA, EGA and Tandy, but the DOS version I found had the Tandy version corrupted, and couldn't display the most significant bits of the game properly, so I will forgo a comprehensive DOS modes comparison this time. But just for a quick reminder for anyone who doesn't know or remember how the CGA version looks, here are a couple of screenshots from the two working screenmodes.


Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.


The real contest here is between the 8-bit computers, and the main focus is really on the animations and colouring, since most of the versions have a very similar look to them. The C64 version is a good place to start, since it has both aspects very well made. Michael's animation in stage 1 is very smooth and of so many frames that I'm not able to count. Considering the animation quality, the scrolling is surprisingly quick and smooth. Stage 2 doesn't offer much, but it should be said that for both the first stages, all the sprites are hi-res, and nicely coloured. The buildings and roads that make up the maze, are coloured in friendly and undisturbing colours, although the western movie set area perhaps should have been coloured brown or orange instead of green. The information panels in the first two stages are uniquely set up for the screen, which could be considered either a good or a bad thing, but it doesn't really bother the gameplay. Stage 3 looks a bit awkward - the sense of depth has been made badly, and Michael's sprite, while bigger for once, is also ugly, and the animation looks clumsy. At least the stage plays relatively well, and two of the most important things look well enough: the crosshair and the enemies. Considering the source material, the final stage looks surprisingly good, if not exactly pretty. Michael's transformation sequences have been well made, and it is probably the only thing that makes this game really worth playing. Other than that, the gameplay elements of the final stage are so elementary, that the use of graphics in it aren't worth much telling about, but I think they're more than adequate. I almost forgot about the loading screens, because usually they are dealt with at the Loading section... well, they're ugly, mostly focusing on brown, yellow, blue and grey, but do their job. Strangely, stage 4 doesn't have a loading screen, but such is the case with all the 8-bits.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.


In contrast, the SPECTRUM loading screens mostly focus on yellow, cyan, black and red, and although they are more hi-res graphics, I still can't really call them all that nice, particularly the stage 3 loading screen. But let's get into the in-game graphics, for they are more interesting. The information panels in the first two stages take the more familiar look here, but my eyes always wander off to Michael's face here - it looks somehow wrong. More like Ted Nugent or something, but not entirely Michael Jackson. At least that rabbit looks like that rabbit in the movie. The mazes themselves are more sharply coloured than in any other version, but that's the way Spectrum games are. Either you like it or you don't. However, the C64 version clearly wins this round with coloured hi-res sprites, and the amount of animation frames in Michael's walking, but also for its less piercing palette. Stage 3 is a bit of a mixed bag. The colours are scarce, because the attribute clash thing would make everything look like moving vomit, but the illusion of depth has been made better here than on the C64. The final stage is again mostly monochrome, which serves its purpose just fine, and at least it doesn't make the gameplay any worse.

Screenshots from the MSX version.


There really is no need to talk about the MSX version, because other than having lighter palette than the Spectrum, it looks pretty much exactly the same. Only the scrolling is slower. Moving on, then.


Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.

AMSTRAD's biggest problem, particularly in this case, is the inability to mix graphic modes within the same area of the screen. All the sprites are lo-res, and are animated with just as little amount of frames as the less colourful 8-bit versions. Throughout the game, the primary colours in use are orange, yellow, different shades of grey and blue, white and black. Sure, it's not a bad thing if you want continuity, but considering that the movie itself had very little continuity between the "Speed Demon" and "Smooth Criminal" sections, the decision to use the same set of colours throughout the game feels like a hardware restriction. I can understand this in the cases of Spectrum and MSX, but I sort of expected more from the Amstrad. Added to the lo-res graphics and relatively restricted use of colours, the game scrolls slowly and jerkily. It's nothing if not a bad combination.

1. ATARI ST / COMMODORE AMIGA
2. DOS EGA
3. COMMODORE 64
4. SPECTRUM
5. MSX
6. AMSTRAD
7. DOS CGA

---

SOUNDS


Possibly one of the biggest reasons why any of the Moonwalker games actually sold as well as they did, is the soundtrack, which is all Michael Jackson, naturally. Most of the songs are from his Bad album, which was half a soundtrack for the movie Moonwalker. All three games feature renditions of "Bad" and "Smooth Criminal", but the rest of the music is sort of scattered around strangely. The US Gold versions are the only ones to feature "Speed Demon" (in level 2) and "The Way You Make Me Feel" (in level 4). Sega's home console versions are the only ones to feature "Thriller", but only in the original versions, not the later revisions. Even then, it can only be heard when performing the special dance attack in levels 3 and 5. Some say, this is due to the song not having been written by Michael Jackson (it's by Rod Temperton), and Michael only wanted songs he had written to be in the game, so this was fixed for the later revisions. Anyway, the other featured songs can be heard in both Sega games: "Another Part Of Me", "Beat It" and "Billie Jean". It is a bit strange, that so few of the songs from the "Bad" album were featured, but at least it's all Michael Jackson, so there's little to complain about.

As for the sound effects... well, naturally the ARCADE version beats every other game by a mile, because of its digitized speech samples and the sheer amount of every sort of noise coming from every imaginable thing, except for people walking around. Of course, for a Michael Jackson fan, the most important bits are all the woo-hoos and owwws and all the rest of the trademark MJ ad-libs, and for that, this would be the game of your choice. All the explosions and laser blast effects etc. have a very familiarly plastic quality to them, which can be traced to a similar, if newer, Yamaha YM-chip that the MD/GEN uses. But the whole issue with sound quality and quantity cannot be really explained with that alone - there are a surprisingly great amount of differences in hardware between the MD/GEN and the Sega System 18 (Moonwalker's arcade system board) that I will not get into here, because it's boring.

Having said that, the MD/GEN version gets surprisingly close to the arcade version in the quality of all the sound effect. There aren't quite as many of them, but you do get a good dosage of Michael's voice samples, and all the other sound effects feel as good as you could normally expect from a Sega game, if not slightly better.

The SMS version feels like a cheap imitation in comparison, having less of everything in both quality and quantity. The music has no percussion, and most of the rhythmic elements of the music, which are so important specifically in Michael's music, are pretty much gone. Even the inferior sound hardware of the Sega Master System cannot be blamed for the lack of spirit in the music or the effects, but I suppose the programmers didn't have enough of time or space to get the sounds any better, without compromising the gameplay even more drastically.

MEGADRIVE/GENESIS - 1
MASTER SYSTEM - 0

Automatically, one would think that the 16-bits would easily win this round once again, and I do agree they have an advantage in certain aspects here. However, while the AMIGA plays looped sample clips of the original songs (although "The Way You Make Me Feel" is missing and is replaced with another loop of "Speed Demon") in the game's soundtrack, the samples are only a few seconds long, and grow old in less than half a minute, because the clips only have the basic beats going on to infinity. At least the versions of the songs in the ATARI ST version loop only after about 25 seconds, which is preferable in this case, even though the songs have a very midiesque sound. Naturally, both versions play sound effects on top of the music, and naturally, the Amiga effects sound better. Still, out of these two, I cannot but prefer the ST version, because the songs are less irritating.

On the C64, the soundtrack starts off underwhelmingly. The first song, "Bad", only uses three similar twingy sound forms simultaneously, which starts off as annoying and gets stupendously irritating after a minute or two. At least the other three songs in the game use a rudimentary drum track and something like a bass line in addition to the melody line, much like on the Atari ST. Unfortunately, you can only listen to the sound effects (which are quite nice, if unsurprising), if you choose not to hear the music by pressing M while in the game.

Considering the above, it is rather interesting that the SPECTRUM version manages to beat C64 in its usual area of expertise. Not necessarily the music bit - that is more a matter of opinion, because the songs are pretty much the same in both versions, although the instrumentation is more basic on the Spectrum, but that might actually be more fitting to the game. I take no part in that argument, but the really interesting thing here is, that the in-built Spectrum beeper is still used for the same sound effects in the 128k version, as they are in the 48k version, and the music is played from the AY-chip on top of the effects. Because the 48k version only plays the effects, and is the only version to not have music, it will automatically be placed last. You just can't not have music in a game based on a very musical concept.

Again, the MSX version is pretty much identical to the Spectrum version in this regard as well, except that there is a similar choice between the effects and music as the C64 version has. Because the music doesn't sound quite as good as on the C64, and the MSX cannot boast with simultaneous sound effects as the 128k Spectrum did, it will have to settle for the fourth place.

Sound-wise, the AMSTRAD version falls between the Spectrum, MSX and C64 versions. All the tunes have a more Spectrumesque quality to them, and there are sound effects as well, but slightly less of them than in the Spectrum version. All in all, surprisingly enjoyable, considering the competition.

Finally, we have the DOS version, which is unique for a couple of reasons. First, the MJ walking intro sequence has "Smooth Criminal" playing instead of the sounds of digi-Michael walking and finishing off with a magical dance move. Also, the in-game sounds are set for effects by default, but you can change to music by pressing M, but honestly, I dare anyone to prefer single-channel beeper versions of MJ's tunes than the surprisingly cheery sound effects, which aren't many, but will do just fine. Still, no music, less score.

1. ATARI ST
2. SPECTRUM 128k
3. COMMODORE 64
4. MSX
5. AMSTRAD
6. COMMODORE AMIGA
7. DOS
8. SPECTRUM 48k

---

VIDEO


Update! - 16th of September, 2015.
Gaming History Source has uploaded a video comparison of all the versions of Michael Jackson's Moonwalker on YouTube, so here's the link for it, in case you need validation for anything what I have said so far.


---

OVERALL


It really is useless to compare the three games with each other, since they are so different. If you want to know, which one of them has the most entertainment value, I would say it's the Megadrive/Genesis game, but the arcade game isn't too bad either. The entertainment value in the MD/GEN version of the said game is added with the ability to perform unique trademark MJ dance moves, such as crotch grabs and the Moonwalk itself, although they have little use in the game itself - to be honest, they usually end up with you getting hit. But it's fun to have the ability. Anyway, let's look at the mathematical end results...

*SEGA*

MEGADRIVE/GENESIS - 3
MASTER SYSTEM - 0

Okay, that's a bit harsh, but that's the way it is. The SMS version isn't a bad game at all; in some ways, I even prefer it, but the MD/GEN version is technically so far ahead of its little brother, that there really is no contest.

*US GOLD*

1. ATARI ST: Playability 7, Graphics 7, Sounds 8 = TOTAL 22
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 6, Graphics 5, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 17
3. ZX SPECTRUM 128k: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 7 = TOTAL 16
4. IBM-PC/EGA: Playability 4, Graphics 6, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 12
5. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 2, Graphics 7, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 12
6. ZX SPECTRUM 48k: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 10
7. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 9
8. MSX: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 9
9. IBM-PC/CGA: Playability 4, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7

I suppose that's truthful enough. Now, as for the other, less-known information: there was supposed to be a conversion of the arcade game in the works for the cartridge-based Commodore 64 Games System, which would have been an interesting thing to behold. Not that I have much faith in it having been even potentially very playable, but still. But there does exist an unofficial (pirate) version for the Sega Game Gear, which apparently is merely a straight port of the SMS version, but is very rare. No screenshots available, but some man has uploaded a video of him showing it on YouTube; take a look if you can see anything from it.


Now, as if that weren't enough, it's time for a special treat before signing off.

---

XSCAPE ALBUM REVIEW

After the first posthumous album from MJ flopped so spectacularly, and for good reasons, the expectations were not very high at all for the follow-up. Imagine my surprise, when the first single to be released from the album was a 70's styled disco number called "Love Never Felt So Good". The initial reaction was confusion, but not necessarily in a bad sense. The most obvious problem with the song was that it really needed to be blasted out from a big hi-fi system to enjoy it fully. From a relatively good computer speaker set-up, the production sound felt a bit too dark and muddy, but that's the way with lesser quality soundclips you find on the internet. At least the song was very catchy, if perhaps lacking a proper hook to make it sound like a finished song. Also, when I found out that Timbaland, who had some plagiarism controversy with the C64 scene back in 2007, was doing most of the producing for this album, I wasn't very excited. Also, the initial clips of "Xscape" and "Slave To The Rhythm" didn't exactly ignite any sort of feelings in me.

Happily, once some of the full tracks started appearing online for preview, I became more optimistic. I was so suspicious of the reworkings, that once the album became available for full listening on Spotify, I first listened through the original versions to get some sort of idea what Michael was on about. My instant favourites were "Chicago", "A Place With No Name" (which I had heard before, thanks to the internet) and to my surprise, "Xscape", which sounded like it could have easily belonged to the Dangerous album, even though the original version of it was done during the Invincible sessions. Also, "Loving You" sounded like a potentially amazing song, but the listening experience was not very pleasurable due to the intense tape wowing. Structurally, the album is a trip through Michael's Epic period in discarded demos, from around 1982 to 2001, but somehow the first single sounds more like it belongs to the late 1970's period with Jackson 5. It's not a bad song by any means, but it just feels conceptually out of place with the rest of the songs. But maybe that's just my opinion.


So, when I finally got around to listening to the whole reworked album, I found that the end result is really something amazing, and most of the reworkings have really served the songs in a very positive sense. As the album's producers say in the "making of"-video on the deluxe edition DVD, their job was to remind people that Michael is still the King of Pop, and I dare say they have succeeded in their job quite well. While it's not even nearly the best work Michael ever put out during his lifetime, I still think it's easily the best work from him since disc 2 of HIStory - Past, Present and Future: Book 1, and that is quite a lot. And on a final note: even though I'm more of a Queen fan than a Michael Jackson fan, I'm very happy that the Freddie + Michael duets were not released in this context, because there is no way that the duets would have fit in with the rest of the songs. Now, go buy the album and enjoy some damn good pop music, but I warn you - a good hi-fi system is highly recommended.

My rating: 8 out of 10.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it!
Comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome as ever!

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