At the height of his popularity, Michael Jackson was arguably the most recognizable person in the world. A polarizing figure, I wonder how history will remember him. Will future generations see the King of Pop as a sublime performer tantamount to genius, a troubled man tarnished by overwhelming celebrity or an eccentric whose behaviour baffled explanation? I also wonder how they will look back on his Sega Genesis title, Moonwalker; a game that ironically mirrors the different sides of Jackson. This is a flawed game that ingeniously makes use of a celebrity tie-in and eventually throws in a bunch of nonsense.
What Moonwalker Got Right (Jackson the Genius)
Games based around a celebrity are seldom successful. It’s a difficult balancing act to fit a famous likeness into a game that is fun and uses the person in a way that (even if stretched) makes sense. Obviously, for a sports star you slap their face on the cover and make them the best player in a digital rendition of their sport. But what do you do for Michael Jackson? This was a long time before the concept of rhythm and dance games had been thought of and the only genre that could even remotely fit was the platformer. In most cases, the result would be a Mario rip-off with Jackson jumping between platforms collecting records or some other esoteric junk… but Moonwalker thought differently. The game features Jackson’s dancing as a key mechanic for dispatching baddies. The whole thing actually works in conveying the King of Pop and passes the litmus design test such that no other character would make sense as the protagonist. I give a ton of credit to the designers for innovatively integrating Michael Jackson’s iconic moves in a way that makes sense (at least by video game logic).
Another aspect that Moonwalker got right was to draw inspiration for level design from Jackson’s music videos. In hindsight, this seems like a no-brainer but the reality is that many developers at the time would have been content to shove something generic in the background with little concern for their subject matter. Smooth Criminal, Beat It, and Thriller, all make for a reasonable backdrop and further help to sell the game as Michael Jackson and not some cheap knock-off. Again, I have to praise the design team for making smart choices for a celebrity tie-in. Initially, the prospect of fitting Jackson into a game while maintaining a cogent understanding of what makes him so famous must have looked impossible. To design a game that viably pulls off such a difficult task is nothing short of amazing.
What Moonwalker Got Wrong (Jackson the Troubled Man)
While the game succeeds in making the most of Michael Jackson, it fails on a few points. For example, the music is horrendous. The awful Genesis sound processor butchers its way through the pop classics. Although the tracks are recognizable, I think I have heard better renditions programmed into cell phones. Of all the things to get wrong, it seems like the music shouldn’t have been one (it’s a game about a musician after all!). While it’s easy to chalk the crappy music up to hardware limitations, the crappy level design is another story. Labyrinthine stages that feature heavy backtracking with ambiguous interactable features? No thank you. Also, while I applaud the music video tie-ins, some just don’t make sense; especially puzzling is the use of Billy Jean for a level set in a cave with spider enemies (ardent fans will note that Jackson did not fight spiders in the music video). Given that all the preceding levels were reasonably close to the source material, this one comes out of left field. Finally, the game itself isn’t particularly fun and amounts to little more than an Easter egg hunt as Jackson traipses around finding kidnapped children until he’s found enough and Bubbles jumps out to guide the way to a mediocre boss fight.
All of the game’s faults are somewhat forgivable; this was a launch title for a new console and Sega was just starting to show what was possible in the 16bit era. Personally, I will take a not-very-fun platformer that tries to innovate any day of the week over some shovelware knock-off. In the same way that many forgave Jackson’s minor indiscretions (such as his ludicrous spending) I can forgive Moonwalker for failing to be a great game.
What Was Moonwalker On? (Wacko Jacko)
Oddly, the few points were the game actually does venture into decent gameplay are the ones that are the furthest removed from Michael Jackson. At a few points you transform into a robot that can fire lasers at enemies and the final stage has you flying through space in a modified car outfitted with rockets. Not joking. It’s almost like the developers wanted to pad the gameplay and shoved in some code from a half-finished game they were working on before they got the call that they would be working with the biggest celebrity in the world. The first half of the game is a subpar platformer that makes the most out of a difficult licence, the second half just throws it all out the window in the name of crazy. What was so wrong with being one of the finest examples of the use of celebrity in gaming? Couldn’t we just stick to that? Why did it have to get weird? Perhaps we will never know what was going through the developer's minds and what unfathomable pressures to get a title out in time for launch they were under but the crazy bits are entertaining (if for the wrong reasons) nonetheless.
Moonwalker is an allegory for Michael Jackson’s life. You have the prolific artist (the amazing use of a celebrity licence in a game) who is obviously flawed (the game itself isn’t all that great) and dogged by the insanity of tawdry rumours and scandals (the bizarre second half of the game). Whether it was intended as such is another story.