Retro Revisit: Kid Chameleon
If there is one thing that cannot be denied about the Megadrive, it is that it has been able to offer many interesting platform games based on very cool concepts. Even if Sega never really managed to threaten Nintendo and its Super Mario Bros., in 1991, the Japanese company put a dent in this supremacy with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, the only character that was able to really compete with the Italian plumber because of its revolutionary gaming characteristics. Boosted by this success, Sega decided to attack Super Mario Bros. more frontally with the release, a year later, of Kid Chameleon, a character which, this time, displayed similar game characteristics than Mario: transformation into various iterations of the character all with their own abilities.
Sega decided to anchor Kid Chameleon into the concept of virtual reality, an idea which was still very fresh at the time but which would be explored until exhaustion in many films of the 90s such as The Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, Strange Days, The Thirteenth Floor). The plot revolves around a new virtual reality game, called Wild Side, in which players can be digitalised using a very realistic hologram system. However, things go awry when the boss of the game, Heady Metal, begins abducting players. The main character, Casey, goes in as well to beat it and rescue them. To do so he will need various masks to change into characters each with its own ability.
On the basis of this rudimentary, yet highly efficient, story, Kid Chameleon tackled the very foundations of the Super Mario Bros. series. From the beginning of his adventure, Casey will use his head to break bricks containing various jewels or power-ups. However, the real strength of the game was that, where Mario would limit his powers to a flower or a mushroom, Casey’s powers extend to a multitude of costumes each containing their own exciting specificity. Outside of his basic, yet really cool outfit (jeans, white T-shirt and dark shades), Casey will come in contact with various, and even cooler, costumes ranging from Iron Knight, a medieval knight outfit that allows Casey to climb and break blocks with his feet, to Cyclone, a character that can fly by turning into… a cyclone, through the charismatic Red Stealth, a samurai equipped with a sword that can both kill enemies and break blocks when jumping on them. One of the characters, Maniaxe, even sported a hockey mask and could throw hatchets, giving him a look reminiscent of Jason Voorhees, the killer with a hockey mask from the Friday the 13th saga, still considered as an icon of pop culture at the time, similarly to the likes of Freddy Kruger or Michael Myers, despite the declining quality of their respective saga.
In short, a total of ten “new” characters (in addition to the aforementioned characters, players could also play as Berzerker, Juggernaut, Micromax, EyeClops and Skycutter), all cleverly displayed by Sega on the box of the game to ignite the players’ imagination and reinforce their willingness to progress through a series of levels, each containing an array of deadly enemies and obstacles, to find all the masks. In addition, most levels were adapted to the specificities of the masks, creating a feeling of playing different games at once.
If the sheer amount of variety in gameplay, due to the number of characters, was definitely part of what gave Kid Chameleon such an addictive style, the game was also memorable for its lifespan; it featured more than 100 levels some which formed part of the main path and others which could be accessed via teleporters. The game was also very difficult as the levels were timed and there was no method of saving your progression. This led to a lot of frustration but also weirdly reinforced the implication of the players, making the game even more unforgettable.
On the plus side, Kid Chameleon also benefited from impressive graphics for 1992 which allowed to nicely render the characteristics of each costume worn by Casey, and to display various beautiful and detailed levels going from woods to alien isles.
On the minus side, Kid Chameleon’s characters were quite small on the screen, which was not a problem for the various iterations of Casey, but did diminish the impact of the enemies. The game also didn’t benefit from a memorable soundtrack.
In short, Kid Chameleon was undoubtedly an excellent platform game, featuring a great idea cleverly developed throughout the game, and I think it deserves its place in the pantheon of the best games released on the Megadrive. However, despite being very fondly remembered by some players the game didn’t manage to make a real impact on the console and, as a result, never benefited from a sequel which could have taken its great potential even further and maybe allow Sega to really compete with Super Mario Bros. or even Sonic.