As the retro bandwagon picks up steam, we're starting to see more and more old games hitting a variety of different platforms. The Tapwave Zodiac, theoretically, is powerful enough to run a lot of emulated 8- and 16-bit games at full speed. That's the theory behind Altered Beast for the Zodiac, which is an emulated Sega Genesis game. However, flaws in the emulation and lack of two-player support make this one a real drag.
Altered Beast is a game based on a solid premise. Nef, one of the minor demons of Hades, has kidnapped Athena and is using her as a bargaining chip for control of Mount Olympus. Zeus, powerless to stop this menace, summons you--an undead warrior--to his cause. The fact that Athena is one of ancient Greece's two gods of war was apparently a fact unknown to Sega in 1998, as the demure lass is helpless to escape Nef's foul clutches. Zeus has chosen you because of your unique ability to polymorph into several different fighting beasts by harnessing the power of "spirit orbs," floating power-ups dropped by the taupe-blue bulls that proliferate in each of the game's levels. While that may sound like a bit much, the game is really just a pretty standard side-scrolling beat-'em-up.
The Zodiac port of the game is simply an emulated version of the Genesis Altered Beast. As such, it is technically identical Sega's 16-bit port of the game. However, the game runs a lot slower than the original game. The game also lacks the two-player simultaneous play of the Genesis game, a fact that sorely robs the game of most of its value. As if to taunt you about this fact, the game's rolling attract mode demo even shows the game being played by two-players--all fun you can never have. This should be regarded as cruel and unfair.
Each of the game's stages follows a similar format: You must battle your way through hordes of undead minions until you have collected three spirit orbs. The first orb you collect transforms you into a muscleman, the second, into a superman, and the third and final orb transmogrifies you into one of several horrific creatures, depending on the level. As these creatures, you'll gain new powers, like dash attacks, electrical fields, and the ability to throw fireballs at your foes. Once you've attained monster form, you get to square off against one of Nef's forms. In one level, he becomes a terrifying, eyeball-spewing plant.
It should be noted that Altered Beast is an unforgiving, difficult game. You have three lives--no continues--and your health does not recharge in between levels. The Zodiac version is made even more challenging by the fact that you have only a mediocre analog stick to work with in lieu of a more 2D-appropriate directional pad.
Graphically, Altered Beast looks like the Genesis game. The characters are large and reasonably detailed. However, the game doesn't run at full speed, especially if you run the game in the emulator's full screen mode. In windowed mode, the overall game speed is still noticeably slower than it should be. As for Altered Beast's sound, it is identical to that of the Genesis game, which featured equally itchy highs, particularly in the second level, in which your dragon creature uses a shock technique to damage enemies. As the Zodiac already tends to sound a bit tinny in the high end, you may find yourself disabling the game's sound to save your ears.
The original arcade version of Altered Beast was a terrific game, and this emulated version is a pale, weak version of the game it tries so hard to be. The game's slow speed and the lack of a two-player mode are inexcusable flaws. The Zodiac's Bluetooth feature would have made cooperative play simple to include. But as if to rub it in, the game actually asks you, before starting up the game, to be sure you have disabled Bluetooth. In its incomplete, single-player state, Altered Beast is inferior to its predecessor and not worth buying if you're a Zodiac owner.