After fey overlord Michael Jackson conquered earth, he set his sights on the moon.
More of a moonstroll, really.
GENRE: Action platformer
RELEASE DATE: 08/25/90 – (JP), 08/90 – (US), 02/91 – (EU)
Outside of the Jackson 5 and not including his early teenybopper solo work, Michael Jackson made 6 albums across a 30 year solo career during his lifetime. Two of those albums – Off the Wall and Thriller – have sold nearly 100 milion copies combined worldwide, and are two of the best pop albums of all time. The other four – Bad, Dangerous, HIStory, and Invincible – are definitely lesser works, but none of them sold less than 10 million worldwide.
Nintendon’t, all right. Imagine Michael Jackson’s Mariowalker. The scandal!
Even though only three of those albums had been released by 1990, those sales statistics show why Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was a huge deal for Sega. Released three years after Bad and one year prior to Dangerous, Jackson was still at the height of his powers. Sega could hire as many sports stars as they wanted to reach sports fans and still miss large portions of the consumer market. With Michael Jackson on their team, they could reach millions across the world who loved the man’s music.
Playing on a legit Mega Drive, no less.
Moonwalker was based on Jackson’s 1988 “film” of the same name. Less a movie and more of a showcase for Jackson’s music videos for Bad, “Moonwalker” was a straight-to-video affair, not a major motion picture event. Even today, consensus is divided as to whether it’s a work of troubled genius or a complete disaster. But like any product released with the man’s name attached, “Moonwalker” was a rousing success, selling like gangbusters upon release.
Loving montage by PopOptiq.
Listening to Jackson’s music and watching a movie starring Jackson are enjoyable, if not passive forms of entertainment. Would Jackson’s fans – men, women, and children of all ages – be willing to play a video game starring the man? Jackson himself bet they would. He was a huge fan of Sega’s arcade games and signed on with Sega to make “Moonwalker” games prior to the Genesis’ release. He also oversaw the making of both the arcade version and the Genesis version with Sega of America’s head of marketing, Al Nilsen.
After a fulfilling bathroom break, Jackson’s ready to find those kids.
As in the film, Jackson’s eccentricities are present throughout Moonwalker. Rather than attack enemies head-on, Jackson sprays magical sparkles at them. A dance routine is a screen-clearing special move. The goal of each level is to rescue children from the villainous Mr. Big and his cronies. Bubbles the Monkey – one of Jackson’s favorite pets at the time – leads you to the boss of the level. When you collect a shooting star, Michael turns into a robot that can laser blast his enemies. And the final battle against Mr. Big is a spaceship battle.
You ever dance with a doberman in the pale moonlight?
In addition to the aforementioned ridiculousness, Jackson can also perform his famous moonwalk and crotch-grab. Neither of these moves do anything for your health nor are they special attacks; they’re included solely because of their prominence in Jackson’s repertoire. The Jackson sprite’s animation is some of the best on the Genesis and eerily replicates the man’s own movements. Fantastic synthesized versions of Jackson’s songs play throughout each level. Without Jackson’s personal involvement in the making of the game, Moonwalker could have been a completely different entity.
It’s safe to assume that a “Woo!” was uttered here.
If it hasn’t already been made clear, Moonwalker worships at Jackson’s altar. If you’re not at least a mild fan of the man’s work, there’s not much for you here. Indeed, it’s because of his bizarre, personal touches that the game remains a cult classic. The gameplay – which involves fighting off thugs, gangsters, zombies, and animals, while rescuing kids hidden within each level – is very much of its time and doesn’t hold up.
*checks watch* Yup, it’s close to midnight.
The 1993 and 2003 child molestation allegations all but destroyed Jackson’s public image. Those who believe Jackson is guilty of those allegations (the man was never convicted) might balk at the thought of rescuing children as Michael Jackson in Moonwalker; especially since they replenish your life once you find them. That’s understandable. From a historical context, it’s important to note that, upon the game’s release in 1990, the concept of Jackson saving children wasn’t perceived as any more or less strange than anything else the man did.
The monkey is not my son.
While the Genesis version of Moonwalker is an exploratory platformer, the arcade version is a top-down isometric brawler. Up to three players can play as different versions of Michael. The basic story and enemies are the same, though the enemies are faster and tougher (gotta get them quarters). The levels have a grittier, more urban look than the home ports. The kids are also hidden in plain sight, as opposed to the Genesis version which places them behind bushes, in the trunks of cars, or deep within caverns.
The arcade version also features comic panels to advance the story between stages.
Moonwalker wasn’t the system seller Sega needed to turn the Genesis into a powerhouse, but Jackson’s presence did succeed at drawing more attention to the console. While other console developers, like NEC and SNK, seemed content to carve out their own niche, Sega was hellbent on competing with Nintendo. With Jackson and sports icons firmly in Sega’s corner, Sega had something Nintendo didn’t have: star power. And while it would take the company one-upping Nintendo at the mascot game to truly make the Genesis a success, Moonwalker was a crucial step in establishing Sega as a true contender within the console industry.
For the handful of American kids still hanging onto their Master Systems…
Those expecting the arcade game will be disappointed.
DEVELOPER: Sega (port by Arc)
GENRE: Action platformer
RELEASE DATE: 1990 – (US), 02/91 – (EU)
Moonwalker for the Master System is a downgrade that sacrifices some of the Genesis version’s charm. Gone are the pixie flourishes that accompany each of Michael’s attacks. Children no longer give him additional health once found (that honor goes to the mini-Michael icons). Bubbles doesn’t point you in the direction of the boss. And the 8-bit renditions of “Smooth Criminal” and “Another Part of Me,” while still good, can’t compete with the Genesis’ chunky synth renditions.
He can seeee youuuu.
Surprisingly, the Master System controls are superior to the Genesis’. In the latter, MJ controlled less like the elegant, graceful dancer he was in real life and more like an aging gangster trying to act cool. In the Master System version, his attacks hit quicker, he moves smoother and faster, and he just feels easier to maneuver.
Jackson’s creditors come to collect.
Moonwalker is, by necessity, a smaller, less ambitious game on the Master System, but I’m still surprised at what Arc was able to do here. Jackson’s sprite still has fantastic animation, the songs aren’t aural trash (given the Master System’s awful sound, this is a compliment), and the meat of the game, such as it is, remains intact. While I prefer the flash of the Genesis version, this is one of the few times Master System kids weren’t totally screwed over by a 16-bit port.