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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack - Michael Jackson's Moonwalker

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How much do you love a conspiracy theory? You do? Great, cos here’s a humdinger. LaToya Jackson said that her brother Michael had told her that he would be killed for his money. He told her this in apparent seriousness. You see, Michael Jackson wasn’t just rich, he was very rich. Filthy, stinking, dirty rich. Offensively rich if you like. What’s more, he could have been even richer.

Not only was he rich of his volition and successful in his own right, but he had invested very wisely. He had his fingers in some very interesting pies (steady) He had stakes in Sony and he owned more than a little piece of The Beatles, and it was this that caused him to tell his sister LaToya that they would kill him for his money. You see, The Beatles back catalog would make somebody very, very rich if it were to be released onto a new market. A market something like, Oh I don’t know, iTunes let’s say.

What’s that? Michael Jackson dies under dubious circumstances and before you can say “The Doctor did it!” The Beatles make their appearance on iTunes and the Phoenix rises from the flames? No, surely not!

Said it was a humdinger didn’t I?

Anyway, onto surer ground for a while as we take a look at the video game Michael Jackson's Moonwalker.

Unless you've been living under a rock you'll know that Michael Jackson made a small foray into the movie business and while I wasn't a huge Michael Jackson fan in recent years I did like his earlier material. The Jackson Five made some great songs and his Off The Wall album had some great tracks on it. Thriller obviously needs no introduction and it was an album I listened to a lot back then. The album Bad was for me the start of the slippery slope. Things were starting to look and sound a little weird and you could tell from what we saw and heard that all on Planet Jackson was not well.

My memories of Michael Jackson will be around the Thriller era and sitting up late to watch the Thriller video because we really hadn't seen anything like it up until that point. I remember going to the cinema to watch the Moonwalker film too and hearing the song Leave Me Alone which I'd never heard before then and I liked it straight away, it was one of the film's highlights.

Obviously on the back of this film, which let’s be honest was average at best and little more than a bunch of music videos strung together, was the game of the same name, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker. It's not surprising to find Jackson associated with video games because he forever seemed to be on a mission to recapture his lost youth, and he amassed a collection of some pretty impressive arcade games, pinball tables and arcade memorabilia, including the Zoltan machine we talked about in May.

The story of the film, for what it’s worth starts with Michael Jackson singing "Man in the Mirror" then there is a montage of Michael starting as a kid and changing to present day before we get the video to "Bad" performed by child performers and given the name "Badder." Next a young Michael walks out of a building and walks through a mist cloud that turns him into present day Michael when he gets spotted by people on a tourbus who begin to chase him.

Michael runs onto a film set and hides in a wardrobe room before sneaking out dressed as a rabbit and riding away on a bike which turns into a motorbike and we get the video for "Speed Demon" followed by a little scene with Michael, the rabbit suit and a police officer then we get the video for "Leave Me Alone" which like I said, I’d never seen or heard before.

Now we see three kids on a rooftop looking at a building, one of whom is Sean Lennon and Michael walks out of the building they’re looking at before people start shooting at him. Next is the kids playing football with a dog who runs into the woods so Michael goes to look for him with one of the kids, Katie and they find a secret tunnel that leads to Mr Big’s hideout, and Mr Big wants to get every kid in the world hooked on drugs.

Now we go back to the shooting outside the building where Michael runs but gets trapped in a dead end before using his lucky star to go all Automan on us and turn himself into a fast car to escape.

Now the kids are inside an abandoned club with Michael and we get the video for "Smooth Criminal" but while that is going on Katie gets kidnapped and taken back to Mr Big’s hideout so Michael follows them to rescue her. Michael’s lucky star appears again and this time he turns into a space ship and kills Mr. Big before saying goodbye to the kids and flying away.

The kids think they will never see him again but he appears and they go back to the club where they find the missing dog before Michael performs the final song "Come Together."

To accompany the film Jackson worked on several different Moonwalker games for different platforms, and the home computer versions were made by Emerald Software Ltd and Keypunch Software, and published by U.S. Gold. The computer versions appeared on Commodore Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, MSX and ZX Spectrum. They came out in 1989 and they were all Beat 'em up/Platformer games for a single player. You could play multi player on some but the players would take turns.

They featured five different levels which were a mixture of genres from a top-down maze level based on 'Speed Demon' to a side scrolling platform level based on Smooth Criminal.

The home computer versions of the game were by far the most difficult and it was literally impossible to complete the first stage without losing at least one life because the time limit was so tight.

The following year, 1990, Jackson worked with Sega on versions of the game for the home consoles and the arcade. The console versions started with a single player SEGA Mega Drive game that was an action platformer where you controlled Michael and would dance your enemies to death and try to save children in the process. Graphically the game was OK with well animated signature Jackson dance moves and it had good sound too featuring songs from the Movie soundtrack as well as the Thriller album.

Console versions of the game appeared on the Mega Drive, the Master System and the Game Gear and were released first in the US on August 24, 1990 followed the next day with a Japanese release, the next day in Europe and the next day, the 27th in Australia.

The console versions of the game were all based on the side-scrolling Sega Mega Drive game and played in a similar fashion to something like Shinobi, and on certain levels rescuing a certain child first, would make a comet fall from the sky and if you grabbed it you would be transformed into robot Michael meaning you could fly with a rocket pack as well as use lasers and the missile special attack.

Michael automatically changes into a robot for the final showdown with Mr. Big's henchmen and finally into a space ship for the last battle, in a sort of flight-sim shooter.

The game involved the player controlling Jackson and saving all the kids that had been kidnapped by Mr Big. In the home version, all of the children are young blond girls termed "Katies" and in the arcade version, Katie was one of the three children who could be rescued.

Michael uses pretty standard controls up down left right and jump and he does a high kick as one attack type. His other attack moves are his trademark dancing moves and the player has a combination health and ability bar and one button will allow Michael to spin. While you're spinning you are vulnerable to attack and you will lose health, but if you hold the spin for more than two seconds, Michael will throw his hat like a boomerang that will destroy most enemies.

The longer you hold the spin, the further he will throw the hat, and if you hold it long enough a Dance Magic scene would play that features dance moves from whatever song is playing in the background. You can also slide down banisters and kill multiple enemies in the process.

Almost every stage has three levels but the final level of the Mega Drive version was a first person "flight sim" type battle between Michael in space ship form and Mr. Big's ship.

Stage 1 is in the club and set to "Smooth Criminal", Stage 2 is on the Street and set to "Beat It", Stage 3 is in the woods and set to "Another Part of Me", Stage 4 is in a cavern and set to "Billie Jean" and Stage 5 is in Mr Bigs hideout and set to "Bad".

The arcade version of Moonwalker was released on the 25th August 1990 and was played on an upright cab with a horizontal screen and raster graphics. The arcade version supported up to three simultaneous players with 8-way joysticks and 2 fire buttons and the game play was slightly more geared towards the beat em up aspects rather than the platformer aspects in the console versions, but you still used Jackson’s dance moves to beat up opponents, you could still power up, rescue children and transform into the robot. The arcade version used a three-quarters view and the game is essentially a beat-em-up where you attack with magic powers instead of physical contact.

In multiplayer mode all three players play as Jackson, dressed in his suit from the "Smooth Criminal" music video. The first player wears a white suit and hat, with a blue shirt and armband, the second player wears a scarlet suit and hat with a black shirt and armband and the third player wears a black suit and hat with a red shirt and armband.

Probably the most memorable thing about the game is it’s interpretation of the smart bomb, or the weapon that will clear the screen of enemies. In this game it is called “Dance Magic”, and when you activate it, a spotlight shines on the player and he starts to perform some signature Jackson dance moves. Now all of the on screen enemies will start to dance along with him and at the end of the routine they are destroyed. Bosses don’t dance and don't get destroyed by the move but they will take a big damage hit. Any children on screen at the time won't be harmed

One of the power ups that you can use is Bubbles the chimpanzee, Michael's pet. Once you collect Bubbles you are transformed into robot Michael and your weapons change from star magic and dance attacks to missiles and laser beams, and you can take more damage without dying.

The arcade version of Moonwalker had a suicide battery on it, and for an explanation of the suicide battery you can listen back to last month’s top ten debate where I asked Scott to explain what it was and what it did.

Like the console versions the arcade game also has five levels which are the same but in a different order. Level 1 is the cavern set to "Bad", level 2 is is the club set to "Smooth Criminal" Level 3 is the street set to "Beat It" 4 is the graveyard set to "Another Part of Me" and level 5 is Mr Big's hideout set to "Bad".

The game's soundtrack was criticised by some because you would have expected the graveyard level to be set to the song Thriller, but instead it uses the song "Another Part Of Me" with "Thriller" only being used as the clip for your Dance Magic attack despite it being his biggest hit.

If you play the game through to the end, you'll see what amounts to an advertisement for Michael's music, and a credit claiming that he came up with the concept and story for the game, which, given the plot, isn't that hard to believe, and it also put Jackson in a pretty exclusive club of musicians to have their own arcade games, other notable examples being Journey and Aerosmith.

So, how is the actual game then? In an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly Moonwalker was described as the third worst idea for a video game, yet the author admitted that "It wasn't that bad of a game."

In the June 2007 issue of Game Informer magazine, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker was number 8 on the "Top 10 Worst Licensed Game Ideas (ever)" yet Gamespot added it to the Hall of Greatest Games of all time. Opinions clearly vary but generally the arcade version is reckoned to be the cream of the crop.

I happen to think the console version of the game is very playable but I would avoid the computer versions, I’ve never played the arcade version either in original form or emulated so I can’t comment on that one.

Moonwalker wasn't the only game that Jackson appeared in though, he also featured in the Sega game Space Channel 5 and the sequel Space Channel 5: Part 2 as the character "Space Michael" where he also did the voice over. Those games appeared on the Sega Dreamcast and Playstation 2.

Jackson was also a hidden fighter in the game Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2 where he was included with a trademark white boxing glove.

There is also an unconfirmed rumour that Jackson floated the idea of a Moonwalker 2 game with Sega but they turned it down. Another rumour to surface recently was talk of a game that Jackson planned to release this winter for the Playstation 2, Playstation 3, and Wii. But work on that title may be cancelled or at least delayed, if it ever even existed at all.

Following Jackson's sudden death it's been wondered if he will ever feature in a video game again, certainly his music has shot to the top of the charts again so the Jackson name will live on, perhaps as long as that of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, perhaps longer, who knows but I wouldn't be surprised to see something like a Michael Jackson Dance Mat game or Guitar Hero Michael Jackson or something like that. Once it's been decided who owns the rights to everything obviously, by which time there may well be little or nothing left to fight over.

The question has been floated so much so that Sega felt they had to release a statement in response and their statement read:

"Lots of requests for a Moonwalker re-release, which is understandable, I’d imagine such a release wouldn’t be possible for a long time though,"

They also wondered who had control of the music rights and the Jackson estate and added "Those things won’t be sorted particularly fast you would have thought."

They are also aware that any re-release would be seen as cashing in and said:

"You have to weigh it up, some fans would like it, others would see a cash-in on the unfortunate loss.

So, whether or not you like my conspiracy theory, you have to admit, a Michael Jackson video game was never going to be all that far away was it?

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Updated 09-12-10 at 11:01 by miner2049er

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