Developed by Sega (AM7) / Disney
Published by Sega
Released in 1990
There's no point denying it, nostalgia is the reason that most retro collectors start buying old games. We get to a point in our life where we have a bit of excess cash. With it we want to buy the things we had or missed out on in our youths. We want to recapture the moment of joy we had playing these games or we want to finally get to lay our hands on the titles that eluded us. Some games were so important to us as children that it’s impossible to play them now without basking in happy memories. The music and the visuals whisk us back to a moment of childish glee and we fail to see the game's failings and readily forgive its frustrations.
"'Mickey Mouse [Castle of Illusion]' ranks as the greatest platform game available for the Sega" critic Richard Leadbetter once said. "The playability is a close rival for the Nintendo 'Mario' series" he added. Released in 1990, a year before 'Sonic the Hedgehog', 'Castle of Illusion Staring Mickey Mouse' gave potent proof that the Mega Drive was quite a powerful machine. "When we made the game, we had a clear vision of what we wanted to make" game director and designer Emiko Yamamoto recalls. "The Genesis game is the best we were able to do technologically to bring that vision to life" she adds.
'Castle Of Illusion' formed part of the second wave of released software in America and was a launch game in Europe, a showpiece that was often paraded by Sega to convince loyal Nintendo fans to defect to their system. It certainly wowed critics. "Unbelievable! 'Mickey Mouse' ranks as one of the most stunning carts available" noted Computer and Video Games magazine. "This Mega Drive cartridge combines the playability of 'Super Mario' with all the cartoon charm of Disney's favourite rodent superstar - buy this - it'll blow you your mind out of this world!" Reviewer Julian Rignal seemed to agree with C&VG saying "it is the superb game play that makes this such a winner. If you've got any sense, get hold of a copy of 'Mickey Mouse' now! "
In each of these worlds is a rainbow gem, which Mickey needs to collect so that he can build a rainbow bridge to the castle's tower where Minnie is being held. Once here he can defeat Mizrabel (who seems to resemble the Wicked Witch in 'Snow White') and rescue Minnie, presumably to live happily ever after. As is the case with the majority of platform games, the story is nonsense, though it is nice to have a motivation. It's the same motivation that Mario had of course, but playing 'Castle of Illusion' as if it were 'SuperMario Bros' can only lead to ruin. Simply jumping on an enemy will harm Mickey rather than the minion of Mizrabel. Instead Mickey's main method of attack is to either throw a limited number of projectiles at enemies or kill them by performing a 'bounce' whilst jumping. This fiddly process involves an extra button press once in the air and it'll feel very unnatural to anyone used to the more streamlined mechanics of a 'Mario' game. According to designer Yamamoto it was a conscious, if ill advised, design decision. "When we were testing the game, we felt that just having the jump happen automatically without input didn’t make players feel like they were the one doing the [attacks]". Much like Scrooge McDuck's pogo stick in the 'Duck Tales' Nes game, Mickey's bounce attack serves other functions as Yamamoto explains. “One of the key elements in the original are the enemy sets and they are set up in ways that allow you to bounce from enemy to enemy in a row – adding that timing mechanic and input made the players feel good and in control." Mastering this bounce attacks is also vital if the player wishes to complete the game, as killing an enemy propelled Mickey up to higher platforms that he can't reach with basic jumps. Indeed this technique is the only way to defeat some of the game's varied bosses.
The desire to offer a player the best graphics caused other problems though. 'Castle of Illusions' is very slow and ponderous. There's no run button so the player must get used to watching Mickey stroll beautifully at a leisurely pace. As impressive as stages may be, they are at times perhaps too elaborate. "As a platformer, it's always in our mind to make sure that the background elements never make it confusing to know where to jump next" Yamamoto said. "A background that is too busy could cause [confusion], so there is always a balance you need to maintain. There are various techniques we do, like added lighting to edges, to make sure that you can see where you can jump to next." This design philosophy must have been forgotten when designing a stage in sweet world. Our plucky mouse hero ventures into milk bottle and find him in a world of vibrant confectionary, with platforms made of sweets and fountains of sugar. Problem is it's very tricky to tell what's a platform you can use to navigate through the level and what is simply decoration.
For example, Standing in milk will hurt Mickey, standing in purple jelly will kill him instantly but standing in identically looking red jelly won't harm him at all. There doesn't need to be a realistic logic to a game but there should always be constant one. It's a problem caused by each level offering different play styles. Similar things function different on different stages because they are there for a different purpose.
Levels can suddenly switch upside down, giant apples will roll after Mickey and there's even a swimming section in one level. Unlike other game that will keep re-using creative ideas until they lose their magic, more often than not something surprising only happens once in 'Castle of Illusion'. As a result the player is always kept on their toes and eager to see what will happen next. The inventiveness of the stages was evidently simply the result of no-one reigning in designer Yamamoto. "This was my first time making a game, so I came up with ideas I thought might be interesting; things I thought would help flesh out the fantasy world, without being hesitant about how unconventional they might be or how difficult." Indeed, difficulty is a problem for many players of 'Castle of Illusion'.
With its cogs rotating against the direction Mickey is walking and it's pendulums demanding precise timing, I found this final stage far more difficult than I expected in a "children's game". The final boss fight is also brutal, where a careless mistake can lead to instant death. I certainly wouldn't recommend choosing hard difficulty especially as the extended ending you get for competing it is just a single screen (which insultingly is now the first screen you see in the modern HD remake).