Michael Jackson has been a reclusive, tortured figure for years, and his death comes as a surprise but certainly not a shock. For the latter half of his career Michael has been haunted by the fame he chased in the first half, as well as health problems and personal demons, but despite all this, he wanted to have fun. Michael's "inner child" was always the subject of controversy, but deep down, the King of Pop loved toys, rides, and of course video games.
During the height of his stardom, he finally realized his dream of starring in his own game. After the release of Michael's cinematic vanity project, Moonwalker, British publisher U.S. Gold secured the rights to bring the game to home computers. They handled to project with as little love as most other movie adaptations at the time, and Michael remained blissfully unaware as he performed at sold out shows around the world.
The U.S. Gold game was a literal interpretation of a movie that was little more than a stream of consciousness weaving together music videos and vignettes. It was played mostly from a top-down perspective, and made for an uninteresting exercise in trial and error. It was met by dismal reviews, but the brand alone was enough. Michael wouldn't make the same mistake twice, however.
When he returned from the Moonwalker tour, he found the right partners. Sega was getting ready to launch the Genesis in America, and they needed big names. Since Nintendo's anti-competitive license agreements kept names like Mega Man and Simon Belmont off the table, they had to turn to the likes of Joe Montana, Tommy Lasorda, and yes, Michael Jackson. The deal they offered him was too good to refuse: he'd actually get to sit down with Sega's staff and design his own game.
The first release made it straight to the arcades on System 18 hardware. It was true to the spirit of the movie but made no attempts to follow it to the letter. Joe Pesci's "Mr. Big" played the dope-slinging villain (with a less-than-spot-on impersonator doing the voice, of course), while MJ's "smooth criminal" personal danced around levels based on some of his greatest hits and rescued children from a life of drug addiction. It was a fun, silly game where Bubbles the Chimp could turn Michael into a laser-shooting robot and dance moves were deadly. It was a fun, unique beat-'em-up that held up well against other games of the day, thanks largely to Sega and Jackson's creative vision.
Of course, the Genesis release was the whole reason Sega inked the deal in the first place. Their home version wasn't a port of the arcade game, but it did follow the same theme. This time the action was moved from an isometric, pseudo-3D view to classic side-scrolling. Michael still rocked the classic white suit and fedora and had most of the same powers, but the game was longer, and better-tailored for the console experience. It certainly wasn't Sonic the Hedgehog, but in the early days of 16-bit, the graphics, animation, and soundtrack managed to impress, and it proved to be an early hit for the system, still struggling to make its way onto store shelves.
In the years that followed, Jackson kept in touch with Sega. Though talks of a Moonwalker sequel never materialized, the King of Pop loved to stop by Sega of America's San Francisco headquarters to check out the latest games and offer his two cents. He even developed more personal relationships with some of the staff, inviting them back to the famed Neverland Ranch. Some accounts even claim Michael was involved in composing the music for Sonic 3 at one point, although others have made it clear that nothing formal was discussed.
After the 1993 controversy surrounding Jackson's alleged sexual abuse of 13-year old Evan Chandler, the pop icon became increasingly reclusive, and his visits to game developers stopped. He never stopped playing, though, and he followed the latest games as closely as any real fan would. When Sega took their first steps into the world of rhythm games, Jackson was intrigued.
When he saw the funky day-glow dance-fest that was Space Channel 5, he asked to lend a hand. Sega could hardly refuse, and MJ became "Space Michael," one of the many hostages Ulala has to rescue. It was a brief appearance, but it helped lend some heat to the new property, and Sega knew they wanted to have him back for part two.
In the Space Channel 5 sequel, Michael was promoted to a main character, appearing about halfway through, and accompanying Ulala to the end of the game. The new scenes borrowed all of Michael's trademark dance moves, made some nods to his music, and even had him do a little "singing."
Michael also made cameo appearances in the Ready 2 Rumble series around the same time. Not only did he lend his likeness, but he even did motion capture sessions for the second game so that Midway could capture his unique moves. The games had other unlockable celebrities like Shaq and Bill Clinton, but only Jackson lent his actual support to the game.
After that, Michael faded from view in the gaming world (and in many ways from the world at large), but he never stopped playing games. Earlier this year much of his arcade collection went up for auction, but Michael filed a suit to stop the sale. Rumors even persisted that Michael was involved in a new game, but, much like his future album and farewell tour, it will never come to be.
We all mourn in our ways. When you're listening to Off the Wall tonight, as I'm sure many of you will be, don't forget to fire up Space Channel 5, Part 2 and Moonwalker, and remember the kid at heart behind the depression and the stardom.