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Michael Jackson: A Gaming Tribute

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Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Now I know the realm of pop music isn’t really this blog’s purview (and lord knows we don’t need another piece adding to the media jabber) but I thought those caught up in the massive wave of collective mourning might be interested to know of the video game-related tributes to the King of Pop.

As timelines go the rise of Michael Jackson and that of video game popularity are fairly similar, and in 1990 they finally met in the form of a very strange game for the Sega Megadrive. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was a tie-in of sorts to the film of the same name and, just like the man it honoured, the title was very weird indeed.

The game, set in a city overrun with violent thugs and gangsters, starts as a dark screen until the glint of a flipping coin cuts through the gloom; it lands neatly in a jukebox and lights bathes the environment as Smooth Criminal belts out of the speakers. Michael, decked out in his pimp white suit, emerges to teach the hoodlums of this town a thing or two about… well, about dancing.

MJ’s aim in the game (no sniggering please) is to save children who have been harassed by the city’s bad elements. He’s up against violent criminals (and occasionally zombies) who are armed to the teeth, but Michael’s packing something far more powerful; he’s reclaiming the streets with the power of dance. Many of the singer’s signature dance moves are converted into a bizarre sort of fighting style including flourishing high kicks, spins, fedora throwing, and the moonwalk of course.

His greatest attack, however, is a real showstopper; if the dance button is held down long enough the entire game pauses, any on-screen enemies cease their menacing activities and gather around MJ who then leads them in a spectacularly choreographed synchronised dance, at the end of which all baddies fall down stone dead.

Of all the games insane trappings, including Bubbles the chimp as radar, a bitchin’ Thriller-inspired level, and much shouting of “woo!”, the singe best aspect of the game is its wonderful, clinking 16-bit MIDI soundtrack, comprised of simple digitised versions of the singer’s greatest hits.       

You can download the amazing soundtrack here (hat tip: Sexy Videogameland); you know your iPod is gagging for it.

You might find it a little difficult to actually track down the game at this point but clicking around in the shadier parts of the Internet would probably turn something up, I imagine.

If the Man in the Mirror still haunts you then maybe a replay of Sega’s classic music game series Space Channel 5 would do the trick. The Dreamcast games featured intergalactic space reporter Ulala dancing her way through dangerous assignments galaxy-wide, some of which made use of a certain singer.
Ulala saves an imperilled Michael Jackson (here using the clever pseudonym Space Michael) from a gang of ‘Rhythm Rogues’ in the first game, a kindness he repays by lending his vocal talents to defeat a dastardly singing robot. Space Michael returns in an even bigger role for the sequel, Space Channel 5: Part 2, when the dancing fiend Purge kidnaps him and the rest of Ulala’s fellow employees.   

While that’s about as far as Michael’s physical appearances go, the King of Pop’s tunes have also appeared in a number of games including Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Elite Beat Agents, and Lips, and he is also rumoured to have been involved in creating some of the idiosyncratic soundtrack for Sonic the Hedgehog 3, oddly enough (there’s an intriguing little documentary on the subject here).

 Say what you will about the man but there’s no denying his impact, even on a medium as divergent as video games. He was also a huge gaming fan (as most of us developmentally stunted man-children tend to be) as evidenced by his gigantic collection of arcade machines, which sadly had to be auctioned off in the face of the fickle star’s crippling debts.

The King may be dead but his exceptionally weird digital memory lives on in our hearts and Internets.

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