Altered Beast originated in the arcades and was the original pack-in game with the Sega Genesis console, way back in 1989. For a mere $200, which was how much the system cost back then, thousands of people were able to look on in awe as multiple layers of scrolling and huge monsters filled their TV screens. To play it today, you can't help but laugh at the sluggish controls and simplistic gameplay and wonder how so many people were taken in by graphical gimmicks that quickly became commonplace in every subsequent side-scrolling beat-'em-up. Nostalgia is a powerful beast in its own right, however, and it is for that reason that the name Altered Beast triggers such warm memories for those who grew up during the era of 16-bit gaming.
THQ's Altered Beast: Guardian of the Realms for the Game Boy Advance seeks to capitalize on this type of franchise nostalgia. It's a brand-new side-scrolling action game with all-new characters, enemies, and levels, but the overall design isn't much different from that of the original game. You play as a dead guy who's been resurrected by Zeus for the purpose of rescuing the realms from an evil monster named Arcanon. There are 15 different realms to visit, and your job is to make your way past the dozens of monsters in each one in order to battle and defeat the boss creature waiting at the end of the level. Your attacks include a decent variety of kicks and punches, and you can jump or duck to avoid nearby enemies. One welcome addition to this modern revamp is the inclusion of attack items that you can gather throughout each level. These items offer all sorts of useful abilities, such as regeneration, increased speed, and shields, although they're just temporary enhancements that wear off quickly.
Like in the game it's based on, the twist in Altered Beast: Guardian of the Realms is that Zeus has, for some reason, given you the ability to transform into a variety beasts in order to fight Arcanon's minions. Each spirit orb you gather within each level will boost your strength. When you collect three of them, you'll morph into a creature that comes with its own set of superpowers. Playing in beast form requires a touch of strategy, since most superpower techniques have their drawbacks. For example, the ability to dash headfirst as a rhino is great, but you might just fall into a bottomless pit if you're not careful. These beast transformations are easily the best aspect of Altered Beast: Guardian of the Realms. Another bonus, related to these transformations, is the multiplayer brawl mode. Using a link cable, you can battle your friends with the creatures you collect in the story mode. It's a small inclusion, but it's still a fun diversion.
Even with the numerous beast forms and power-up items, however, Altered Beast: Guardian of the Realms is held back by its adherence to the bland design of the original game. Movement is sluggish and combat is insipidly simple. There are plenty of different enemies, but they still repeat far too frequently and share the same set of two or three attack patterns. The backgrounds offer little real variation--a pit here or a hill there--and scroll by so slowly that it can feel like forever between the start of a stage and the boss at the end. It's a shame, because the boss battles are actually really good. Each boss has a handful of attacks that you need to learn how to avoid. At the same time, you have to figure out their weakness and hit them a good 50 times before they'll give up the key to the next realm.
By using the original Altered Beast as a blueprint, every aspect of Guardian of the Realms suffers somewhat. The scenery is colorful and full of depth, but the forced scrolling makes the characters feel pasted on. The characters themselves look fine, and they're certainly large enough, but their color schemes don't really match the backgrounds. The animation is somewhat choppy too. In the same vein, the audio is a similar merger of good and bad. The digitized sound effects that support the onscreen action are superb. You'll hear a wide array of screams from the various monsters, as well as spoken comments such as, "rise from your grave," "welcome to your doom," and "power up," the same lines from the original game. Conversely, the background music is dull and quiet, and its attempt to deliver a somber note just comes across as an aggravating high-pitched tone. For the most part, Altered Beast: Guardian of the Realms looks and sounds OK, but it could have been much better with little additional effort.
Despite its flaws, Altered Beast: Guardian of the Realms is still basically better than the game it's based on. Fans of the original Altered Beast will probably enjoy the nostalgia brought about by this enhanced remake, though purists will think the changes to the graphics and sound are sacrilege. For everyone else, the inclusion of attack items and a larger number of beast morphs gives the game a decent amount of replay value. It's not the best game on the shelf by any means, but it is OK for what it is.