In 1992, I was 9. I was really into video games, I was really into sci-fi movies, and I knew who Nirvana was. Hell, I even had access to a copy of Nevermind (my sister’s). I thought I was a pretty cool little dude.
I was wrong. I didn’t know a damn thing about being cool. Not compared to this cat right here.
Released in May of 1992, Kid Chameleon was one of those games that didn’t get a huge ad campaign but nonetheless made its mark. Considered an iconic title for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, it is a challenging and action-packed game that has a lot of replay value. Sega produced a good number of platform-style games for the Genesis console, and most of them were at least playable, but Kid Chameleon easily outpaces most of them in terms of sheer awesome.
In Kid Chameleon, you play the role of a gamer. I don’t mean just you, holding the controller; I mean that the main protagonist, Casey, is a super-cool video game whiz. A malevolent AI called Heady Metal (no, not a typo) has taken control of a virtual reality game called WildSide and is kidnapping everyone who can’t beat the game. So far, that’s been everyone. However, Heady Metal didn’t count on a kid in a Ramones jacket running some product through his hair and heading over to start the VR world’s biggest jailbreak. Casey’s so good, he’s got a nickname. Even back then, “gamers” were a thing, and they took themselves just as seriously as they do now. So really, there’s an element of self-insertion here for everyone who wishes the world would suddenly somehow need their awesome thumb skills.
And thumb skills you will need! The difficulty curve of Kid Chameleon is gradual, but once you’ve made some headway you’ll know you’re in Big Kid Town. I think it also bears mentioning that the game has 103 levels. Let me type that out: one hundred and three. Not all of these levels are on the main “path” to the end, but there’s no way in hell you’ll know where to go the first time without some kind of guide. While this lends a lot to the replay value of the game and adds a mild exploration element, it can be confusing and frustrating to players who didn’t expect it. There is also, as with so many platform games, a time clock. If this runs out you are doomed. Add in the monsters roaming around, the lava and spikes, and it’s not a pretty picture. On the upside, you do have a life counter (however tiny) that expands when you pick up a helmet.
There are pickups that give you extra time, lives, and continues, but most of what you’ll find will be helmets and little crystals. The helmets each grant you a different set of abilities. Some of those are powered by the crystals, but your main one is usable at will. For instance, the samurai always has his sword, but he can use the crystals to fuel an attack that slows down enemies or spend even more of them to kill them outright by summoning a huge snake thing. Besides the samurai, there is a knight helmet that helps you scale walls, a rhino-type one that lets you plow through them, a winged helmet that lets you become a flying whirlwind, and numerous others. My personal favorites are the skull tank (whose gun shoots bouncing, laughing skulls of course) and a blatant Jason Voorhees rip-off who tosses around a seemingly infinite supply of hatchets.
To finish a level, you must reach either a flag or a teleport pad. The levels cycle through a set of themes, from caves and forests to cityscapes, beaches and even lava-filled chasms. The enemies are pretty generic and unexceptional, and usually their contribution to the challenge factor has more to do with HOW and WHERE they are placed. There are a couple foes who will give you real headaches; one of them is a big disembodied hand that will latch on to you and not let go easily. Another is a blackish pile of goo that will pop up out of nowhere to attack you. You will usually need the powers of a particular helmet, at least temporarily, to get through certain obstacles or areas. What immediately comes to mind is one of the early city-themed levels; it is necessary to keep the fly helmet for almost the whole thing, or you are trapped, because the fly’s size and wall-jump ability are the only way to move forward. There are other levels, like this one, where you are chased by a huge wall of death as everything else conspires to block your path however possible. When you hear that distinctive, intense background music, you know it's time to run.
There are periodic mid-bosses before you reach the final one, and all of them are iterations of Heady Metal. Now, imagine if someone took Dhalsim from Street Fighter II, detached his head, made it levitate, blew it up to about the size of a hot air balloon, and hit Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V like a maniac. That’s Heady Metal, and you’re going to fight him several times in several different environments. It’s not hard to beat Heady in most situations if you can get above him and exploit the game physics, and his offensive tactics are actually pretty slow. As far as bosses go, I feel like Kid Chameleon falls a little short on creativity.
The sound and music is typical of the Sega Genesis, high in quality and rich in depth. It’s also a very 90s score. Lots of 808-sounding drums, snappy bass, and back-hitched dance style hooks let you know that this game was made in 1992 and it’s proud of it! The graphics are pretty simple for most sprites, but the level backgrounds and interstitial screens are what really shine. It’s a great level of detail for 16 bit, and it’s a nice combination of cartoonish color and pulp-comic implied danger.
I’d like to mention something before wrapping up this article: it was cruel of Sega to design a game without a save function and then put 103 non-linear levels in it. It was also cruel to name 32 of those levels “Elsewhere” and not explain it at all. If you took a conventional approach to the game, you may have become convinced at one point that it was just infinite. Like some jerk at Sega cooked this up to torment us. But damn if it wasn’t fun to turn on and play.
Kid Chameleon gets six out of ten (6/10) stars from yours truly. It’s a great example of what the Genesis could do for platforming, and it’s a generally solid title, but the sheer length of the game and its anticlimactic boss setup leave me feeling a little flat on the true action.