To understand what was seen as the height of cool in the 1990s, look no further than the cover art for Kid Chameleon. The titular star of this Sega platformer is wearing a leather jacket, stonewashed jeans, a crisp white tee, and high-top Reebok Pumps. He's riding a skateboard, his hair is slicked back, he has sunglasses on, and he's flanked by a samurai, a knight, and other characters the teens of the day would consider to be, in the parlance of their times, totally bitchin', dude. It's the '90s distilled into a single image.
Kid Chameleon was developed by Sega Technical Institute, an American development division of Sega based in California. The studio was founded by Mark Cerny, who is better known today for his work with Sony designing PlayStation hardware and consulting on first-party games. Cerny worked as a coder on Kid Chameleon alongside director Graeme Bayless (now a producer at Mortal Kombat dev NetherRealm) and Yasushi Yamaguchi, an artist famous for designing beloved Sonic character Miles 'Tails' Prower.
The story is extremely '90s too. An arcade game called Wild Side arrives in town, and any kid who plays it mysteriously disappears. Casey, the real name of Kid Chameleon, journeys into the game to investigate and encounters the villainous Heady Metal. This rogue AI has been kidnapping anyone who wasn't able to beat the game, forcing Casey to beat the game himself, defeat Heady Metal, and free his trapped friends. This was an era when being the only kid in the arcade who could beat a tough game was something to aspire to.
When Kid Chameleon launched in 1992, side-scrolling platformers were all the rage on 16-bit consoles. Super Mario World had taken the world by storm on the SNES a couple of years earlier, inspiring countless developers to take their own stab at the genre. A lot of them were bad, but some managed to stand out from the crowd. Kid Chameleon was one of these, thanks mainly to its neat shape-shifting system. As Casey's nickname suggests, he's able to transform into different characters, each with their own unique powers.
Iron Knight, an armoured warrior, can break walls and take extra damage. Maniaxe, a hockey mask-wearing serial killer blatantly inspired by Friday the 13th's Jason Vorhees, can throw axes. Red Stealth, a samurai, can use his katana to attack downwards. Micromax, a fly, can cling to walls and squeeze through tight gaps. Juggernaut, a tank decorated with an intimidating chrome skull, can shoot bombs at enemies. You change into these forms by picking up masks scattered around the levels. A gimmick, but a cool one.
A lot of platformers in the '90s were pretty one-note. You'd experience everything they had to offer in the first stage, and from that point on the levels just got harder. Kid Chameleon is unique in that you're constantly changing forms, and the level design reflects this. It's stuffed with shortcuts, hidden paths, and secrets, some of which you can only access by wearing a certain mask at a certain time. Compared to most 16-bit platformers of the day, where all you do is run, jump, and bounce on enemies, this was a revelation.
It's a shame Kid Chameleon isn't as fondly remembered as classic platformers like Super Mario World, Earthworm Jim, or Donkey Kong Country. It had a reputation for being difficult at the time, which is saying something in an era when most games were, by modern standards at least, tough as diamond-tipped nails. But don't let that put you off. If you want to experience a solid example of the genre with more imagination and creativity than most—and witness the true essence of the 1990s—it's worth digging this relic out.
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