During the 80s and most of the 90s, console games were designed to appeal to a young audience, while home/personal computer titles were – usually – meant for an older public. Still, as most gamers know, this doesn’t imply in the slightest that console titles were simpler or, god forbid, kid friendly; Ninja Gaiden or Contra are still the benchmark for hair tearing impossible to complete games.
As for platformers, Disney was generally a very safe bet for kids of the 80s and 90s back then: they produced some of the best titles around, cranking out gem after gem, both for 8 & 16 bit consoles. The house of Mickey chose to work with talented developers, like Capcom and Konami on Nintendo, while also keeping a close watch on the products’ quality.
The Illusion series (released in Japan as “I Love Mickey Mouse”… yes) is arguably the pinnacle of quality platformers in the 90s, a series exclusive to Sega consoles.
The 16 bit Illusions
Emiko Yamamoto – from Castle to Kingdom (Hearts)
The first Disney games to be licensed by Sega were two platformers: a tie-in for the anniversary of the movie Fantasia, for its then newborn 16 bit console, and a yet to be defined title with Mickey Mouse as the protagonist. The Fantasia anniversary game ended up in the hands of an external studio, Infogrames, and wasnot only marred by development woes, but also cursed by legal problems, which led to a short shelf life.
Castle of Illusion, instead, went on to be one of the best platformers on Sega Genesis/Megadrive. It was the first time Disney had conceded its mascotte to star in a game, only after a particularly lucrative deal was drawn up by Sega and certain reassurances were given. Developed by a small internal Sega team, headed by designer Emiko Yamamoto, working under the watchful eye of a Disney producer who gave precise directions.
Among the requests made by the megacorporation: Mickey couldn’t die (hence the lives are called “tries”), there would be no violence and the style had to be kept in line with classic Disney imagery. Despite all these caveats, Castle of Illusion fascinated young audiences with colorful 16bit graphics that turned many kids’ heads in 1990 and the inspiration Yamamoto took from classic 40s Mickey Mouse cartoons and Snow white, among others.
Mickey is tasked with saving Minnie from the cruel hands of the witch Mizrabel, by collecting all seven gems of the rainbow and using them to reach the evil witch’s castle for the final showdown. Since it was meant to be a family experience, it comes as no surprise that Castle is pretty easy and takes little more than 30 minutes to complete. Still, should the “normal” game be too difficult, there’s a practice mode that features only the first three stages in super easy mode, then it just kindly advises to play the “normal” mode.
Mickey is equipped with the infamous non-violent “butt attack”, but can also throw apples and other objects found throughout the levels. Each room that Mickey explores has its own theme, like the toy room or the dark forest; it really feels like visiting a magical unpredictable world. Even after 30 years, the graphical effects look especially good, the team managed to push the Genesis’ graphical capabilities to its limits with transparencies and parallax scrolling.
Shigenori Kamiya, one of the pioneers of synthethized music in Japan, was the music composer for both versions of Castle, with the Megadrive tunes having a slight advantage, perfectly suited to the magical atmosphere.
Looking back on it now, Castle weirdly clashed with Sega’s post-Sonic edgyness: It was a fairly straightforward family friendly platformer meant to showcase the power of the console while offering solid gameplay and a quirky magical atmosphere. At that time, Sega was still only about what “Genesis does”.
Yamamoto and her team were proud of their work and, after going on to work on the sort-of sequel Quackshot starring Donald Duck and, later, the frankly great Lucky Dime Caper on Master System, they would reunite one last time, in 1993, for the direct sequel.
World of Illusion, another Sega Genesis exclusive, stars both Mickey and Donald, working together to escape the dangerous magical realm where they’ve been trapped by the evil magician Pete. This time Disney’s pressure wasn’t as strong since the team had proved pretty capable of handling the subject matter with grace and experience.
The inspiration from Disney movies is still present, featuring several characters like the mad hatter from Alice in Wonderland and Madam Mim as the final boss of sweet land. Still, it wasn’t gonna be just a simple retread of the first game. The best feature implemented by Yamamoto’s team is how Mickey and Donald are developed to be both different experiences, while also functioning as difficulty levels.
Instead of the rather useless “practice mode” featured in Castle, playing as Mickey works as the “easy” mode, with Donald’s run being slightly harder and going through different stages. That is not all: the 2 players co-op game is different from the single player experience, requiring to work in pairs to overcome certain obstacles. It is definitely similar to how Nintendo, during the Wii period, would implement co-op in their Super Mario titles. While each playthrough is shorter than the original Castle of Illusion, finishing the game at least twice to see everything makes World the longest Illusion game yet.
Gone for good are both the throwing and butt attacks, instead Mickey and Donald share the same magical (non violent, obviously) mantel sweep to dispose of enemies. For some reason, the attack seems to work sometimes at random, which could make sense if the player was engaging harder enemies with more health, but no.
It might have something to do with the range of the attack itself, even though it is never entirely clear how and why. Consulting the manual doesn’t solve the mystery, since it just recites “sometimes it takes more than one sweep with the cape to make the enemy disappear”. Well, thanks for nothing; luckily it is not a problem which gets in the way of the gameplay. The player can grab health restoring items and one ups, there are also cards to be collected; a full 52 deck grants an extra life, which is something I don’t think I managed to do once in my years of playing.
As a whole, World of Illusion feels more mature and less uncertain, proof that Yamamoto’s team had made great use of their previous experience. Every trick used for Castle (and in Quackshot) is upgraded and improved, the game is overall more intruiging and better balanced for every kind of player. The flow is especially grandiose, with each level naturally rushing into the next, feeling more like a single whole picture rather than various little puzzle pieces to piece together.
The mountain level, the (fantastic) underwater level, the hedge maze… all memorable and with great level design.
Yamamoto’s team would – sadly – disband after the release of World of Illusion, she went on to work full time for Disney as a producer, since then she’s been dedicated full time to the Kingdom Hearts series.
The 8 bit Illusions
Yoshio Yoshida – the 8bit platformer veteran
Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse was also released in 1990 for Sega Master System/Game Gear but developed by a different team: this one is Yoshio Yoshida’s brainchild, the designer also responsible for the fantastic Alex Kidd in Shinobi World. Yoshida kept close contact with Yamamoto’s team but, in the end, Sega decided that each game should feel unique, even though sharing the plot and overall look and feel of the gameplay.
The Master System version features different levels, enemies and bosses; still, the only real notable difference in playing is that Mickey can’t collect projectiles, but he can still throw everything found lying around: chests, rocks, etc.
This, along with the sprites being smaller, entails that the game is slightly more difficult than its 16bit counterpart.
A design feature that I really appreciated when I played it as a kid – and I still do – is choosing the order in which to tackle the stages, instead of following a strict path. A zero cost design choice, sadly missed in the Genesis version, that brings just a tiny bit of personalization and variety to the gameplay flow.
The stages are all colorful and filled with original ideas, with the library probably being my favourite: the cup of tea that Mickey swims in, the book bugs, the letters that split into smaller letters when pounded on. The confectionery level – unique to the 8 bit version – is also a stand out, with chocolate seas to traverse, candies to pound upon and a big chocolate block boss to defeat… with blocks! The clock tower, on the other hand, brings strong Castlevania vibes which are always interesting in what is otherwise a cutesy Disney platformer.
Even if it is slightly harder, the 8bit Castle of Illusion stays manageable and features similar longevity to other Illusion titles: a thirty minutes playthrough basically. The final level will undoubtedly test even the more experienced players’ reflexes. As opposed to the simple final bosses of the 16bit version, the 8 bit Castle of Illusion sports two slightly harder bosses to beat without any health pickups.
Even though the game looks and feel to be aimed at a younger audience, its balanced difficulty is pretty similar to other platformers on the system like Alex Kidd in Miracle World. Yoshida’s team would return one more time to work on a unique 8 bit sequel.
Land of Illusion is the second 8bit game in the series, released in 1993, again for both Master System and Game Gear.
This is where the series branched out with unique titles for the less powerful SEGA consoles, therefore the story goes for a different fairy tale vibe. Mickey falls asleep while reading a book and is thrown into a medieval world where he will meet many other Disney characters like Goofy, Daisy Duck, Donald Duck and so on. In order to defeat the evil Phantom – from “the Black Cauldron” – that has enslaved the land, our hero has to travel through different levels, in mostly linear fashion, in order to collect various items that will help him in the quest.
Graphically, Land uses several of the sprites from the previous game and doesn’t seem to improve anything from the previous title; the animated sequences between levels are a pretty nice touch though. Not that I think Land of Illusion really needed to feature a detailed story but, it doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay. It is, still, slightly perplexing that the developers went to the trouble of designing and animating sprites for many different Disney characters, only for the purpose of making them appear a couple of seconds at the end of certain levels.
Gameplay is identical to its predecessor, with level design being less varied and colorful and, thus, closer to that of a classic 2D platformer of the eighties. That familiar feeling gets stronger when one is confronted with all the classic level styles in Land of Illusion : ice level, underwater level, desert level.
The items that Mickey collects in order to progress grant new abilites, adding a tiny bit of variety to the gameplay, even though coming into play only after a good chunk of the game. Mickey can climb walls, swim underwater, shrink by drinking a potion. If the gameplay had been designed around these new abilities, Land of Illusion would have been a very different kind of sequel, but they end up being sadly underused.
There is some backtracking involved when collecting a new ability, but it is just a small portion of a level required to open up the path to the subsequent stage. Land has a system of checkpoints since the levels are longer, but, overall, difficulty is similar to Castle, with most of the levels being relatively easy, only to get brutally hard at the end with a labrinthine stage that has to be completed before the clock runs out.
Mickey starts with only two stars as health, he can collect another three during the game as a sort of small RPG-like element. He also retains the same attacks, “butting” enemies and throwing items. Even though featuring a developed plot and abilities to unlock, Land ends up being a much more straightforward sequel than even World of Illusion. Yoshida’s design experience in platforms is clearly on display but he missed the opportunity to innovate on Castle’s classic gameplay.
Still, even though less memorable for its stages and ideas, Land still manages to be playable and fun. It’s really a case of “if you liked the first one, well here’s more of that”. The only true disappointment is the anticlimactic ending in which Mickey gets kissed by Minnie, the princess, as soon as the end boss is defeated and well, “THE END”. He never even gets to wake up from the dream so I guess… it was all real?
We’ll never know. Or care.
A new challenger appears!
Sega & Aspect studio together at last
Legend of Illusion, released as late as 1995, first on the Game Gear and then later converted for Master System, would end up being the final game in the series for the next 17 years. It was designed by a different team (which included Yuichirou Yokoyama, designer of Sonic CD), with Aspect studio joining Sega in development, the same people who had already worked on Deep Duck Trouble in 1993, another 8 bit platformer starring Donald Duck.
The three years difference and the new team are immediately noticeable, since, while it mostly plays like Land and Castle of Illusion, it feels like a platformer from another series altogether. The graphics have been redesigned from scratch, from the Mickey sprite to everything else, only the chests have been left untouched since the original game. This time our dear mouse is a humble cleaner, tasked with saving the kingdom because he is, of course the chosen one.
The plot connects every level in which Mickey progresses in a linear fashion with no backtracking. Gone is the “butt attack”, the focus is instead on throwing unlimited projectiles: bars of soap and, later, rocks. Another new move is the possibility for Mickey to grab an item (a block, usually) out of the air, a move that is required maybe two times in the whole game. But the player would do better not to forget about it, since it is required to beat the final boss.
Another new feature is the “sort of” inventory system, similar to the one in Super Mario Bros 3, where the player can store health restoring items when they are not needed: they will be used automatically when Mickey’s health runs out.
Legend of Illusion’s design feels rushed, like all its little nifty ideas were glossed over because of hurried development. The sidescrolling shoot ‘em up level where Mickey rides a dragonfly is a neat little touch, but ends up being a really short diversion, never coming back again after it ends. Same goes for the scrolling level, which is trying to give the illusion that Mickey is running (not a very good one, at that), and features the same sequence of enemies repeated twice. After that, the level just ends with no boss fight, leaving us to wonder what was that all about.
The bosses are all generally pretty easy, repeating a couple of moves ad nauseam without any random variation whatsoever. Legend is probably the easiest Illusion game, at least on 8 bit: there’s no big difficulty curve in the final level, everything stays pretty easy and manageable, even in the fight against the final boss.
All that said, the final Illusion game of the 90s ends up being a bit of a mixed bag: on one hand it is graphically gorgeous and the gameplay is still solid. Unfortunately, on the other hand, it squanders its potentially interesting design ideas and seems, at times, to be content in just being forgettable.
In conclusion, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Illusion series making a comeback in 2012/3, with the remake of Castle of Illusion and the Epic Mickey 2D platformer on the Nintendo 3DS, which is closer to an homage. While they are both above average platforming experiences, they seemed to fail to recapture that magical period and that feeling of wonderment.
The Illusion series proved that Sega was more than capable of releasing solid licensed titles and, of course, developing seriously solid platformers that, while not in direct competiton with the Mario series, could impress on their own terms.
Disney also made the right choices in producing games that, while mainly aimed at a younger audience, could also be fun for the whole family. After the 16bit generation, Disney decided to create its own publishing company, Disney interactive, which meant that the focus was shifting on simpler titles, with Sega losing the licenses altogether for their later consoles.
The Illusion series, then, still stands today as a great consolation for the player. The great design of most titles in the series still shines brightly, offering a reassuring cocoon when the world outside and these moments when the current videogame industry get a bit too much.
Mickey is still waiting there for us with open arms, to take us into the magical land.
Once upon a mouse…