There are plenty of games out there that have transformations in them, be they powerups, special forms for navigating specific stages, or the dramatic introduction of a boss. In the vast majority of cases these transformations are simply managed with a flash of light, clever camera cuts, or simply happen off screen. Exceptions where the transformation is fully animated or otherwise shown on screen do exist and they tend to stand out, even if the game might be, unfortunately, lacking in other merits. This list isn’t the best games with transformations in them, simply the best animated transformations in games. I’ll be the first to admit that some of the games in the list are downright bad in terms of gameplay, but the transformations in question are at least worth watching on YouTube.
And now, without further ado, the five best animated transformations in games:
Animorphs: Shattered Reality: Back in the late 90s if you were a kid who liked animal transformations you probably read at least a few of the books in the Animorphs series thanks to their eye-catching covers. For better or worse, in 2000 this tie-in game, developed by SingleTrac, was made for the Sony PlayStation and the opening cutscene was every bit as attention getting as the covers of the books. Showing Marco, Rachel, Jake and Cassie morphing into their respective combat forms of a rhino, a bear, a tiger and a wolf in great detail the sequence was bound to get you excited for the game. The full depiction of Marco’s transformation into a rhino, watching the character model fluidly increase in size and mass, and the close-up detail of Cassie’s hands becoming paws, rendered so carefully that you can actually see the bones of her hands shifting before fur grows in, as she turns into a wolf are positively astounding for the overall graphics quality. Unfortunately the game itself failed to live up to that opening and that one scene is the only reason it made it onto this list. The gameplay was tedious, consisting of basic platforming and the occasional scripted combat sequences. Fans who got the game because of the shapeshifting powers shown in the books were sorely disappointed. Brief moments in combat, as well as a few scripted obstacle avoidance sequences were the only points where the characters could transform and those moments were few indeed. Overcoming the boredom of repetitive platforming in unimaginative levels was regarded as the largest challenge that the game had to offer, thanks to the ease with which extra lives could be obtained and there was no replayability. Still, the opening cutscene is worth watching, especially if you’re feeling nostalgic for the books.
Primal: There was a time in the early to mid-2000s when there were all sorts of odd PlayStation 2 games coming out, many of which would fade into obscurity, while others would go on to become cult classics. Primal, made by SCEE Cambridge, was one of those games that gained enough of a following that it was rereleased on PlayStation Network in 2016. In this action-adventure game the main character, Jen, gains four different ‘aspects’ which allow her to take on different demonic forms, useful for combat and navigating the environment. All of the initial transformations are shown in cutscenes and the first one she gains, the Ferai, is shown in an especially detailed scene. It starts with Jen falling to the ground and writhing as the changes wrack her body, setting the stage. The tattoos on her back glow with magical energy and horns grow from her head. Changes to the color and texture of the character model’s skin and there’s an excellent view of Jen’s face with obviously feral and demonic looking features. The transformation to her aquatic Undine form is also a fun one and all of the different aspects are well rendered. The graphics still hold up well for the age of the game, the voice acting is great and the environments you must navigate through are interesting enough that the game is worth picking up. Primal is a game where it’s clear a great deal of effort was put into it and that’s not just my nostalgia for the days of the PlayStation One and Two.
Resident Evil 2: There’s just something about those older games in the late 90s through the early 2000s, though maybe that’s just my nostalgia speaking. This survival horror classic was originally released by Capcom in 1998, with a remake that came out just this year. The series has always had excellent monster design, but hands down the most frightening transformation in the whole series is William Birkin, better known as ‘G’. Through five different forms, each more horrific and misshapen than the previous, this monster pursues you through the game for some of the series’ most iconic boss battles. Starting out relatively human when you first encounter it, G mutates further and further during each encounter as it’s damaged, extra eyes opening on its body, claws and a new set of arms sprouting and the vast majority of it is shown on screen. In the original version of the game, if you can ignore the decidedly dated graphics you can truly appreciate how much effort was put into G. Thanks to the, by current standards, very low polygon count of the model, it was possible to twist and stretch it for drastic and dynamic changes. The fact that these transformations would take place immediately before a boss battle G inspired a true sense of dread to those playing through the first time. Injuring this monster only made it change into something stronger, so that after a boss battle against it you were left to wonder if you’d really seen the last of it or if it would be back more deadly than ever. If you love horror this is definitely one of the best transformations shown in a videogame.
Worth mentioning is that the vastly improved graphics of the remake are a double-edged sword. G’s design was drastically changed, making it far more malformed and asymmetrical as well as much more graphic and gory looking. Unfortunately these improved graphics made that having G’s mutation process actually be shown on screen would be far too difficult to make look good. Parts of the model twitched and stretched during some cutscenes, but very little in the way of actual transformation was shown.
Parasite Eve: Released for the original PlayStation in 1998 by Square, this horror game with RPG elements is one of the oldest games on this list. Despite its age it has held up well and there’s more to that than just nostalgia, though the plot of out of control mitochondrial power causing a sudden outbreak of monsters in New York City is kind of absurd when you look back on it. There’s more to it than that, but the game is so fun and so easy to get caught up in that absurdities of the story are easily ignored. The cutscenes were topnotch for the time, used for great effect to introduce some of the enemies before you fought them. The framing of the scene where you see Melissa transform into the antagonist of the game, Eve, is very well done, showing a close up of her hands growing claws and her skin changing color. Throughout the rest of the game the majority of the enemies are normal animals mutated by Eve’s power and the cutscene where a rat transforms into a dog-sized monster was remarkably detailed, though this pales into the introduction one of the bosses gets. In this scene a German Shepard violently mutates, in graphic detail, into a giant Cerberus-like monster. Yes, the best transformations shown feature animals becoming monsters rather than human subjects, but the quality of the cutscenes of this game and the detail in which the transformations ae shown make it stand out and can safely be described as some of the best animated transformations in a game.
Worth mentioning is that thanks to this game’s popularity, as well as Square’s remaking of Final Fantasy VII, another of their classic games, there are rumors going around that there might be a Parasite Eve remake in the works. If those rumors turn out to be true it will be interesting to see how the cutscenes featuring transformations will be handled.
Altered Beast 2: Yes, there was a sequel to this arcade classic, or at least a sequel in title. There’s no actual connection between the original Altered Beast and this game, created by Sega and released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2, other than the title and the fact that the protagonist can turn into various were-animals. It’s a fairly standard entry to the beat ‘em up genre, but this article isn’t about this game’s gameplay merits, because they’re certainly not what makes it stand out. The beast transformations are shown in excruciatingly graphic detail, and that’s not a term that’s being tossed around lightly. The main character, Luke Custer, has nine different transformations, starting with the ever popular werewolf. This transformation, though smoothly animated, isn’t some smooth, graceful change from man to beast. Luke’s hands twist and contort, skin shredding and muscles stretching as he literally outgrows his human form. An extreme close up of his face reveals his eye rolling and bulging, actually bursting with a spray of blood as the skin of his face tears away to reveal the beast within. All of the transformations in this game are similarly violent, the transformation into a Garuda, a bird like monster, shows the exposed bones of his hands stretching into those of a bird’s wing before muscle and feathers grow over them, and the transformation into a merman, which is more monstrous than the term would imply, has Luke’s practically head explode as a reptilian snout bursts forth. Bloody and violent, these transformations are not for the faint of heart or squeamish, but if you’re into messy, painful transformations this game has what you’re looking for, the number of them and how detailed they are putting the game firmly on the top of the list of best animated transformations in a game.
So there you have it, my top five transformations that were show in games. It’s by no means exhaustive and I know there are plenty of ones that I’ve left out. If you feel that I’ve overlooked or maybe simply never heard of a game that deserves to be on this list, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to see what’s out there, and who knows, the games you give might even make it onto a future “Best Transformations” list here.