Michael Jackson's Moonwalker
With the release of the 1982 album Thriller, Michael Jackson became the biggest pop superstar of all-time. Not only did he write great pop songs, he also pioneered music videos, turned them into an art form, and sold an insane amount of albums along the way. For over ten years, The King of Pop could do no wrong. Then in 1993, his public image was badly damaged by allegations that he molested 13-year-old Jordy Chandler. Michael ended up settling the case out of court, but new financial and legal troubles emerged that continued to stall his career; Jackson did not properly follow up 1991's Dangerous until 2001. The double album HIStory which was half greatest hits, half new material doesn't fucking count. It remains to be seen whether or not Jacko* is a pedophile, but his reputation has already been irreparably damaged by the accusations. It doesn't really matter to most people whether or not Jackson is innocent; until the day that he dies, Michael Jackson jokes will remain a staple of late night TV because they garner the type of cheap, predictable laughs that Conan O'Brien et al thrive on.
Jackson is partially, if not entirely, responsible for the suspicions that the general public harbor about him. Sick fuck or not, it's more than a little creepy to invite little kids over to your magical ranch to ride the rollercoaster. No matter what your intentions are, people are gonna talk. As everybody knows by now, Michael Jackson is a weird guy. These days he looks more like a Mortal Kombat character than the guy in the "Thriller" video. But he was weird even before the surgeries, the baby-dangling, the ill-fated marriages, and the whispers that he likes little boys a little too much. In 1988, Jackson made the film Moonwalker. It stands as a testament to his eccentricity and popularity at the time. The movie is little more than a series of unrelated music videos and vignettes featuring Michael Jackson. For the most part, the segments are done well but they don't add up to anything. So while the movie rivals the sheer ambition of Pink Floyd The Wall, it lacks the coherency and intellectual depth that made that movie great. Although Moonwalker lacked profundity, it made up for it with dancing claymation rabbits. What could possibly be more bizarre than a Michael Jackson movie? How about a video game loosely based on the movie and designed by Wacko Jacko himself? There were two completely different Moonwalker games, both of which were made by Sega: one for the arcade and one for the Genesis. I'm going to the arcade version because it is far superior to the Genesis version for the following reasons:
1. It has better action.
2. It has better dancing.
3. The Genesis version is tedious as hell to play through.
4. Some arcade cabinets supported up to 3 players, which means up to 3 Michael Jacksons on the screen at once.
If those reasons aren't good enough, too bad. They should be. Now let's begin.
Round 1: Cavern
Each round in Moonwalker starts off with a comic book-style intro that gives some semblance of a plot. In this round, we're introduced to Mr. Big, an evil drug dealer who has kidnapped dozens of children for no apparent reason. In the movie, he was played by Joe Pesci and his goal was to recruit new customers to buy his evil wares. In the game, he looks more like Penn Jillette and his main goal appears to be fucking with The King of Pop. To complicate things further, the awful voice actor they hired sounds like neither Penn nor Pesci. Round 1 takes place in a cavern that Mr. Big presumably owns or something. For the sake of argument, let's pretend it's a secret drug lab. A SEXY secret drug lab.
The round opens with Mr. Big taunting you from inside a ridiculous flying machine. This is a Sega game after all, so the main villain is contractually obligated to have unnecessarily wacky Robotnik-style gadgets. The bastard isn't ready to face off against Jackson quite yet, so he jets off and leaves you for his lackeys. For the duration of the game, MJ wears a white suit that he wore in the "Smooth Criminal" segment from Moonwalker. But while Jacko used guns to defend himself in that scene, he shoots magical blue fire from his palm in the game. You can even charge the attack so it does more damage. There are several potential explanations for this. Maybe Michael didn't want to come across looking like Rambo. Perhaps he thought a gun was too generic for a quirky game like this. Or maybe, just maybe, The Gloved One truly believes he has magic powers. We'll never know for sure. In this level, Michael faces off against the game's most basic enemies: Capone-style gangsters, guards in purple riot gear, and weird little yellow robot hovercrafts. He also rescues a few of the dozens (three different sprite sets!) of children that Mr. Big has arbitrarily left lying around in the cavern. Freeing the captured children is the socially responsible thing to do, but it can also net Mikey extra health or a power-up. Also, the level won't scroll forward until you rescue the stupid little brats.
Want more proof that Mr. Jackson's not all there? He has a pet monkey named Bubbles... and he put the little guy in the game. But wait, it gets better. When MJ comes in contact with Bubbles, he turns into a robotic killing machine. Regular Michael was pretty badass with his fire attack, but Robot Michael has friggin' lasers and nothing beats lasers. Totally random? Sure. But he turned into The Jacksonator in the movie as well.
The first level is really short and pretty easy. It shouldn't take more than two or three minutes to beat and you'd have to suck pretty bad to die during it. The level doesn't even have a proper boss; the final enemy is a red robot that shoots saw blades at Michael and dies after it takes five or six hits. If you fully charge your lasers, you can actually kill it in one hit. On the plus side, you get treated to a brief, bizarre cut scene afterward where Michael screams at Mr. Big while children dance in the background on a map of the next level. Speaking of the next level, here it comes.
Round 2: Amusement Quarter
Music: Smooth Criminal
Round 2 is the amusement quarter, but what the fuck is an amusement quarter? A bad translation? Actually, it's not. Although it is rarely used in this fashion, the word quarter can be used to mean a district or neighborhood. The only example that I can think of is the infamous French Quarter in New Orleans where those out of control Mardi Gras parties take place and where Candyman went on at least one of his killing sprees. Conveniently enough, quartier is the French word for district. The amusement quarter is home to a video store, a nightclub, sandwich boards, a sign for an arcade, and plenty of Michael Jackson posters. It's nowhere near as impressive as the Neverland Ranch, but I guess it's OK. At the very least, no one's ever claimed to have been molested by Michael in the amusement quarter.
Michael has another attack besides the blue fire, one that also manages to defy logic: Dance Magic. When you use the attack, MJ will begin to dance like only he can. Without explanation, all enemies onscreen will begin to dance as well. Since they are unable to keep up with Michael's frenetic pace, they explode. To see the move in action, click on the picture above. Be warned, the animated GIF that will pop up is about a megabyte in size, so if you have a shitty connection then you're pretty much fucked. Jacko gets once Dance Magic attack per life unless a rescued child gives him another one.
Unlike Round 1, this level takes more than two minutes to beat. It also has an actual boss. Michael must defeat not one but two armored guns that roll around through their own volition. They each absorb a decent amount of damage and provide an actual challenge for Terminator Michael. He still wins though, because he's Michael Fucking Jackson. It turns out there's a third level, so let's take a look at that one.
Round 3: Night Street
Music: Beat It
Level 3 takes place on a street, just like half of Level 2 did. The difference is that it's at night. Night Street is an even longer level than Amusement Quarter. You fight more gangsters and guards than ever before. This level is also a lot heavier on the robots than the last two. There's even a few new robots to fight, including poorly designed T-Bob rip-offs that pop up from under manhole covers as well as giant gyroscopes. This level also features "Beat It" as its background music. Even as a crappy MIDI, it's still catchy as hell.
Night Street is home to many new enemies. For example, there's a green rip-off of the AT-ST walker from Star Wars that tries to rape you with its giant robot penis. Theoretically, it's a just an innocent hydraulic battering ram of sorts, but Sega and MJ should have known better. Also new in this level are angry shirtless redheads that send armored dogs at you. Fear not; the dogs are not immune to your showstopping Dance Magic. Unfortunately, the Round 3 boss is.
At this point in the game, Mr. Big finally decides to confront Jacko. It's a classic boss set-up: the primary enemy is protected by a semipermeable and highly destructible shield. Biggie flies around in a brand new hovercraft and shoots at you with the obligatory laser attacks. Also, I lied when I said that Mr. Big is immune to Dance Magic. He is immune to it in so far as he won't actually dance. He still takes damage, however. Now that I think about it, the Round 2 bosses were the same way. You can try and kill Mr. Big, but he escapes in typical villain fashion. The game then takes a somewhat unexpected turn.
Round 4: Graveyard
Music: Another Part Of Me
Level 4 is a graveyard, which means I must fight with all my might to resist making some cheesy pun about how good help is hard to dig up. If there was any ever doubt that this game was supposed to be silly, this level should erase it. I mean, for Christ's sake... YOU FIGHT FUCKING ZOMBIES! This level contains one fatal design flaw: "Thriller" is not the background music. Instead, it's some song I've never heard of called "Another Part Of Me". When you have to be a fucking Jackson aficionado to recognize the background music, something is wrong. A game based on a musician should have songs that casual fans and random passersby would recognize. "Thriller" would have fit that criteria a hell of a lot better. Oh well, at least you can almost recreate the music video.
"I love you Michael... TO DEATH!" screams Mr. Big when you encounter him in Round 4. This time around, he has some fucked-up machine that pulls souls out of the ground and shoots them at MJ. The previous bosses were rather run-of-the mill, but this one is just odd enough to be interesting. To win, you need to destroy all three of the barrels on Mr. Big's ghost cannon. Then he runs away again. For the record, there was absolutely nothing like this in the movie. Whatever. Now there's only one level left to go.
Round 5: Evil Fortress
Music: Bad (Reprise)
The last level takes place in Mr. Big's evil fortress. His evil outer space fortress. In true arcade fashion, most of Round 5 takes place on an elevator where rehashed enemies attack you at a fantastic rate. Unlike Streets of Rage, you won't have to fight the old bosses again. After all, it's kind of hard to make a ghost cannon drop on to an elevator out of nowhere and most of the old bosses are Mr. Big anyway. After you finish with the elevator action, it's onward to the final showdown.
If you had actually played the game yourself, you would have noticed random spider logos emblazoned on the walls throughout the game. The reason? Mr. Big has a spider fetish. With that information, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Big's final weapon is a giant robotic spider. I've gotta say, I've seen a lot of robot spiders in my day and this by far one of the least impressive looking ones that I've ever seen. As far as arcade bosses go, he accomplishes his primary goal of eating several of your quarters. He's not as tough as Shredder or Mr. Burns, but he's adequate. Mr. Big does have one big advantage over those tougher video game villains: his demise is followed by one of the most um, "interesting" video game endings ever.
Music: Billie Jean
The game's ending involves Michael blowing up Mr. Big's giant moon fortress and then morphing into a ship and flying off into space never to return. He did rescue all those children though. In case you're wondering, yes MJ morphed into a spaceship in the movie as well. However in the movie, he actually fought Mr. Big as the spaceship. Also Mr. Big didn't have a giant spider robot. Instead, Joe Pesci shot at him with the doomsday cannon that can be seen in Round 5 but isn't actually used. Neither the game or movie bothered to explain why a drug dealer would possibly need a doomsday device. The ending hints that the story isn't over, but the high score screen shows Jackson looking suspiciously like he's been crucified. I guess Sega knew there wasn't going to be a sequel.
In the end, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker is a highly satisfying Sega title. It combines the gadgetry of Sonic The Hedgehog, the gameplay of Streets of Rage, and the weirdness of Comix Zone into a fun albeit fucking bizarre game. Interestingly enough, Moonwalker predates all three of those games. Moonwalker is not without it's faults, however. The game is far too short for its own good and it doesn't make enough use of Jackson's hits or the Moonwalker movie. The movie's most memorable scene involved the lesser-known song "Speed Demon" and a leatherclad claymation rabbit on a motorcycle; the game fails to capitalize on this. The game also doesn't have enough voice samples. Sega should have ripped a page out of Data East's Bad Dudes playbook and had Michael scream "I'm bad!" or "Who's bad?". That would have improved the game by at least twentyfold. While Moonwalker isn't perfect, the Dance Magic alone is a pretty compelling reason to take the 30-40 minutes necessary to beat this game. Sega's Moonwalker recalls a simpler time, one when Michael Jackson was considered both popular enough and innocuous enough to star in his own video game. These days the only way you'd see Jacko in a video game would be if Rockstar Games decided to make an Amber Alert game. Hey, it's only a slightly more tasteless idea than State of Emergency. In any case, this review is over. Go do something else.
Posted by: Syd Lexia
*I almost successfully avoided referencing the "Jacko On His Backo" SNL sketch in this article. Almost.