To say Michael Jackson was kind of a big deal from the time Thriller was released until about 1993 (When his legal troubles really ramped up) is an understatement. Thriller has sold approximately 87 trillion copies since its release, and the follow-up, Bad, is a Diamond-certified album in the US as well. Toward the end of the Bad tour, Jackson also released a direct-to-video movie, Moonwalker, which was less a long narrative than a collection of shorts and music videos. One of these, the “Smooth Criminal” segment, would spawn its own video game.
Released by Sega in 1989, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker involves saving a bunch of kids from a drug lord. More specifically, in this version, all the kids resemble Katie, one of the children Michael rescues in the aforementioned “Smooth Criminal” segment of Moonwalker. The drug lord is named “Mr. Big” (Not the Mr. Big with a sweet car in Rush’s video for “The Big Money“. Also not the Mr. Big from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle [Although Moonwalker’s Mr. Big is played by Joe Pesci, so the height is at least correct].), and in the movie, he wants to get the world’s kids addicted to drugs. To save the “Katies”, you play as Michael Jackson in his sweet “Smooth Criminal” getup, and you have to open doors, windows, car trunks, caves, and peek behind gravestones and bushes to find them. You can also find powerups that will restore your life, and others that allow you to throw your hat as an attack. You’ll have to deal with various thugs, too, of course. To dispatch them, you can crouch and punch, or kick, or jump and stick your arm out in a dance pose. Your special attack is…dance magic! Holding the attack button will make Michael spin around, damaging all enemies on-screen, but draining his life. The longer you hold the button, the more damage is done.
The game has 17 stages in all, broken up into 6 worlds, and most of the stages are themselves broken into two parts. The first part involves rescuing the Katies, while in the second, Mr. Big taunts you that you’ll never catch him before sicking a large number of minions on you. Defeating those moves you on to the next stage.
This changes in the final two levels, in which Michael Jackson transforms into a giant robot (Yes, really) and engages Mr. Big’s defenses in two first-person battles. The second one, in particular, is as much puzzle as action sequence, as dodging the attacks will seem impossible at first. With patience, though, you’ll eventually learn how to dodge and counter the attacks. Fortunately, the game offers unlimited continues, although it is an all-the-way-in-one-play game, with no save system of any kind.
Actually getting all the way in one play, once you figure out that you need to open windows as well as doors early in the game (I came across this game as the result of Speed Runs Live‘s Mystery Tournament. While it wasn’t the reason I lost my race, as my opponent got stuck in roughly the same spot, while it’s obvious you can open doors, it’s not nearly as obvious you can do the same to windows), will probably take between 60 to 90 minutes to finish. Due to the unlimited continues, it’s not a very difficult game either, except for the final stage.
The best reason to play the game isn’t the plot (Which is “wtf-worthy”), nor the controls (Which are fine, even if it’s not obvious what causes you to begin throwing your hat if you don’t know ahead of time). It’s the music. Even Sega Master System-i-fied, 80s Michael Jackson songs are incredible, and that’s what you get to listen to as you moonwalk your way through the game. The Master System has a distinctive sound set, and hearing MJ songs filtered through this instrumentation gives them another dimension, revealing how well-crafted and catchy they really are.
Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker is a fascinating artifact of his utter dominance of pop culture in the 80s. Fortunately, while his tunes are the best part of the game, the rest of it is solid even if you remove Jackson himself from the equation. Unfortunately, the game was never re-released, and the Sega Master System itself wasn’t a huge seller in the US, meaning emulation is likely the way to go to experience it (This is only the second game in this series I’ve emulated, after Lawn Mower). If you decide to try to experience it legally, note that the game is not exactly cheap. At those prices, it’s better to emulate, or simply take a pass on if your moral compass is that strong.