It's somehow fitting that Altered Beast is among the first games available through the Wii's Virtual Console service. After all, back in its day, the game came bundled with the Sega Genesis. Unfortunately, the Genesis version of Altered Beast turned out to be a disappointingly stripped-down translation of the 1988 arcade original, which sported far superior graphics and sound. On the Genesis, Altered Beast still looked and sounded better than a lot of other games that had come before it, but it proved that the Genesis had a way to go before it lived up to its promise of delivering arcade-quality experiences at home. And besides, you could tear through its five short, action-packed levels in a casual afternoon. Two-player simultaneous gameplay and multiple difficulty options padded out the lasting value a little, at least. Today, Altered Beast is a relic, and the Virtual Console version will be worthwhile only to nostalgic fans of the Genesis version in particular.
For what it's worth, it's a perfect emulation of the Genesis game, warts and all. Even the cheat codes are in there, and the game looks nice and crisp when viewed on a progressive-scan display. You'll want a GameCube controller or the Classic Controller in order to play it, because the three-button gameplay isn't a good fit for the Wii Remote--the punch button, mapped to the A button on the Wii Remote, is too close to the D pad and not close enough to the jump and kick buttons. The game plays ideally with a GameCube controller. The action itself is mostly smooth and responsive.
Altered Beast is loosely based on Greek mythology and casts you as a man resurrected by Zeus and charged with rescuing his daughter from the nefarious wizard, Neff. You do this by punching and kicking any weird demons that get in your way and collecting power-up orbs dropped by these glowing wolves that occasionally show up. The first two power-ups make you bigger, beefier, and stronger. The third transforms you into some sort of anthropomorphic creature, depending on the level, like a fireball-throwing werewolf or an ice-breathing werebear. Each level scrolls automatically, and you'll run into Neff a few times along the way. If you're in animal form, he'll transform into some sort of sinister-looking boss opponent, and if you can defeat it, you move on--but shrink back to wimp size for the next stage.
This is a pure, side-scrolling action game, the likes of which symbolized video arcades for years. Altered Beast distinguished itself with its fairly original premise and its unique art direction--it even had a surprise twist ending. Some of the bosses and animal forms are quite memorable to this day, and the original arcade version featured some excellent music and audio for the time. It's too bad that the speech clips got butchered in translation to the Genesis, and the music suffered in translation as well. But unless you have the arcade version as a frame of reference, you wouldn't know the difference. At any rate, 800 Wii points ($8) seems rather steep for a short, simple action game that came free with the $200 Sega Genesis more than 15 years ago.