Easter traditions are usually about catching up with family, celebrating the religious side of the holiday if that’s your thing, having a long weekend off work, eating chocolate and, my favourite, scoffing down stacks of hot cross buns.
For a number of years now, I’ve made it a habit to do something a little unusual at Easter – without fail, I’ll walk over to the nerd shelf, grab my copy of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and plonk it into the Mega Drive. It is an utterly daft tradition, but like clockwork – off to the nerd room, switch all the goodies on and fire away.
It’s not as though Moonwalker is the kind of game that’s so intense you need to break from it regularly, nor is it an especially amazing game the warrants an annual playthrough. Developed internally at Sega as part of their ongoing collaborative relationship with Michael Jackson, the Mega Drive game based on the music video compilation/cult movie release from 1989 takes a few elements and scenes from the film and folds in a solid if repetitive 16-bit platformer. As Michael, it’s up to you to strike dance move poses to cause a flurry of sparkles to issue from your foot or fist to defeat gangsters (Smooth Criminal), dogs (Moonwalker), street toughs (Beat It) and shock trooper robots (Moonwalker) in order to rescue missing children dotted through levels from Mr Big. You also have a special attack which drains your health in order to throw a magic hat projectile, or you can sacrifice a bit more to create a flash mob dance troupe out of nearby enemies, which are so amazed by your dancing they can’t help but join in and then die due to the excitement of it all. If you’re awesome you can land on a piano after completing your dance routine so that after a dramatic jump you ruin the music by landing on a keyboard which strikes a key at odds with the excellent chorus you’ve just danced through.
The premise is eccentric and the gameplay is solid, not surprising given the game’s production staff were involved in other internally developed platformers on the Mega Drive including Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. However, it is very much the excellent music and my affection for Jackson’s 70s and 80s solo output that really bring me back. Hiroshi Kubota took care of translating the original tracks onto the Mega Drive, with Tokuhiko “Bo” Uwabo credited as a sound adviser. The former was responsible for some great technical and original work on the Mega Drive, and Uwabo will always have a fond place in my heart for his amazing compositions for the 8- and 16-bit Phantasy Star games, which have phenomenal soundtracks. The audio hardware in the Mega Drive was oft-abused, but in the right hands it could sound great – the combination of excellently programmed FM synth and some very crisp PCM samples make this a treat for the ears. The FM synth’s work in the low-end of the audio spectrum in particular is great to experience, so noisy stereos or fancy headphones do this a great service.
So why the Easter tradition? Back in March 1993 my brothers and I pooled our resources by selling off our beloved Master System and all our games to get enough money to pick up the Mega Drive 1 pack featuring Sonic 1 and mail-away coupons for Columns and Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle. Easter hit a few weeks later and I had borrowed a friend’s copy of Moonwalker, keen to see how it compared to the Master System version which I sunk countless hours into a year earlier. The combination of soothing, cool Easter weather, a belly full of hot cross buns, 4 days in a row off from school and a game that blew my chubby ranga mind left an unusual and lasting impression on me, clearly.
So every Easter going back a number of years I’ve made a habit of firing it up for a game and indulging in a little nostalgia. Interestingly it was only until recently I was able to finish the game as the final few rounds have a habit of being quite cheap compared to some of the earlier levels. The ending itself isn’t much to write home about either – it’s sparse, no frills but that’s okay as it hasn’t put me off playing it every year. As the adage goes, it’s more about the journey than the destination.
So yes, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on the Mega Drive at Easter. A silly tradition, but fun nonetheless.