Remembering Michael Jackson's video game legacy

While he was best-known for his personal eccentricities, pet monkeys, and legal problems (and some music, too, we suppose), Michael Jackson has a small but important footnote in video game history as well.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
2 min read

While he was probably best-known for his personal eccentricities, pet monkeys, and legal problems (and some music, too, we suppose), Michael Jackson, who died Thursday at age 50, has a small but important footnote in video game history as well.

Back when Jackson was merely a semi-eccentric star, Sega created a video game property for him, named Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (actually separate games for the arcade and Sega Genesis/Master System consoles). Moonwalker was notable for being an early example of real-life celebrities appearing in video games, and for using digitized versions of some of Jacko's songs.

The game is also unintentionally ironic because Jackson is tasked with rescuing helpless children from a crime boss named Mr. Big (although in hindsight, perhaps it was Mr. Big who was doing the rescuing).

The arcade version was a basic isometric beat-'em-up, with two players able to play as dual Jackos, one in a white suit, one in red (similar to his "Smooth Criminal" music video). Jackson's special attack was a dance move, and when activated, a spotlight from the heavens illuminated him as he pulled off some signature spins and kicks, destroying many of the onscreen enemies.

Even stranger, Bubbles the Chimp made a cameo, and if you picked him up, Jackson would be briefly transformed into a laser-shooting robot version of himself.

The somewhat more pedestrian home console version behaved more like a standard side-scrolling platform game. Again we're rescuing kids from a mobster, but the real appeal is hearing Jackson shout "Woo!" with each attack--usually a dance-like high kick that causes tiny stars to shoot from his foot.

The music in the home console version was a letdown for anyone who had played the arcade version--essentially MIDI-style pinky versions of tracks such as "Smooth Criminal" and "Beat It."

The game went on to become a cult classic, more for its cultural kitsch value than its gameplay, with its animated Jackson appropriated for funny Web videos and retro-'90s talking-head TV shows.

Subsequently, Jackson made only a handful of video game appearances, in Space Channel 5 (also from Sega) for the Dreamcast, and as an unlockable fighter in Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2.

At the time of his death, rumors had surfaced that Jackson was involved with a new video game project for the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3, but the game was never officially confirmed.

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