Friday 10 June 2016

Mega Drive Review - Castle of Illusion (Game 108)

'Castle of Illusion' is a Mega Drive game still loved by many. But, without nostalgia, is it really as good as everyone remembers?

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. 

We get into dangerous waters when nostalgia is replaced with expectation though. When you opt to play a game that others adored twenty years ago, even though it's one you've never played before. You're inspired to pick it up because so many people then and now loved it. The problem is that without nostalgia-goggles you see what's really there rather than what you remember being there. The faults and cracks aren't disguised by happy memory poly-filler. 

In the past, I've wrongly thought the Mega Drive's only standout exclusive platforming titles involved a blue hedgehog. 'Ristar' certainly proved that theory wrong. Yet even before 'Sonic', there were titles that showed that Nintendo didn't have a monopoly on games that involve running to the right of the screen and leaping.

"'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! " 

It is not just journalists at the time who adored 'Castle of Illusion'. In its 37th issue Retro Gamer magazine listed 25 platform games that every reader must play. Mickey's first Mega Drive adventure was included. Despite being as old as the system itself many fans believe there to be few games on Sega's 16 bit machine that top it. With such unanimous praise, it would be foolish for me to have ignored 'Castle of Illusion', but I must confess I was slightly disappointed when I started to play. 

Mickey Mouse has been forced to venture into the titular Castle of Illusion in order to rescue Minnie Mouse from evil witch Mizrabel, who wants to steal Minnie's youth and beauty. The game play solely consists of side scrolling platforming following Mickey as he opens doors in the castle that transport him to various worlds.
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. 

Every level ends in a boss battle against one of Mizrabel's henchmen; "the guardians of illusion" as they are called in the game. Each one differs, but for all, it’s a case of recognising their attack patterns and counter-attacking at the moment of weakness. Games historian Darren Jones once said "the bosses are as challenging as they are creative, back in 1990 this was cutting edge stuff and even today it manages to hold its own against more recent platformers". The size and detail of each boss really does emphasise just how good the game looked at the time, something every reviewer recognised. "The game is spectacular in terms of its graphics, animation and execution" Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine once noted. "There are so many frames to Mickey's movements that it actually looks like a cartoon!" 

Art director Takashi Yuda remains proud of his work on 'Castle of Illusion' but he acknowledges that the team struggled to get the best results out of the new Sega hardware. "The amount of memory that we had to work with at the time was really tiny, less than we thought" he recalls. "Games at the time were 8 bit or 16 bit so there wasn't really a lot of room to work with. Most people in the industry weren't putting a lot of work into graphics or creating animations that conveyed a lot of character emotion. When we worked on this game I was watching animations and focusing on the world of Disney. When we watched Disney movies and Mickey it seemed like such a waste to take their beautiful animations and fluid backgrounds and turn them into pixelated graphics. So we [felt obliged] to put a lot more work into the graphics than any other title". "The animation was unique in that it used a remarkable amount of frames for its time" Yamamoto adds. "We tried to use as many techniques from film animation as we could given the memory constraints and I think it paid off." Like Yuda, Yamamoto remembered the House of Mouse being a continued point of reference for the design team. "We studied the [Disney] films frame by frame and worked very hard to recreate it in the game. For example, with Mickey's jump, we wanted to fully express his body movement so we added more frames of animation." However, as the game designer realised, what worked in a cartoon didn't necessarily translate well to a game. "His jump ended up being longer than a jump would be in a normal game" she recalls "so we had to design the levels so that the distance of his jump worked." 

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. 

Waterfalls in the cave levels sometimes are simply the foreground and other times they are considered hazards that'll instantly kill you. Sometimes a chain hanging from the ceiling can be grabbed, sometimes you'll find an identical looking chain that Mickey passes through. For all the visual splendour, there's also no signposting of potential hazards. 

Falling down a hole sometimes is the only way to finish a level and other times doing this same thing leads to death. Everything in the game is inconsistent and often the only way to tell what the game permits is through trial and error.
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. 

It's essentially a shortcoming caused by a development team trying to be imaginative, as though there are few levels there's typically a new quirk to each. "Sega crammed so much variety into each stage that you just had to revisit them - if only so you could take everything in" recalled Darren Jones in Retro Gamer magazine. Light pull switches are used to traverse a ceiling in one stage but each time you touch one the level alternates between being illuminated and being dark.
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'. 

Modern developers are of the opinion that games that are attractive to children need to be easy. This was certainly the approach taken by Capcom when creating their Mickey Mouse game 'Magical Quest' on the Snes. 'Castle of Illusion' though is shockingly hard. "The original Genesis game is actually a very difficult hardcore, gamer-game" Frank Hom, Senior producer of the recent 'Castle of Illusion' HD remake notes. "It's is very challenging [...] and there's something to be said about having difficulties in games, it’s good to be challenged by a proper old school game." However there's a difference between a game being challenge and it being obtuse. Throughout the whole game there are unfair deaths caused by many blind leaps of faith and these reach their peak in the clock stage.
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).

There is a market for remakes now it seems but they come with their own problems. Developers have the task of creating games that audiences remember playing rather than simply repackaging what was really there. They make perfect versions of past classics with all the bad bits conveniently forgotten. It's telling that in the 'Castle of Illusions' remake the jump attack mechanics have been changed, levels are consistent with one and other. The beautiful graphics are all present and correct only this time there's a clearer distinction between background and player space. It's still a hard game, but now it's a fair one and the cases of unavoidable death are far less frequent. It feels like this HD modern version of 'Castle of Illusion' is the game that many think they remember. The original is without doubt a good game but it's a flawed one.

"When I was thinking about what people remember fondly about the game, I think it was enjoying the game world" Yamamoto said recently. "It's about experiencing the fantasy world of Disney." As a huge Disney lover, I expected to be enchanted by it, but I wasn't. I enjoyed it, would play it again but it's not the "Mega Drive's greatest platform game" it's not even the best 16 bit game starring Mickey Mouse. Did I expect too much, or did I simply need the benefit of nostalgia? Replaying an old game is as much about recapturing a moment from childhood. Without that memory to latch onto what you see is perhaps not so perfect, but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable. 

Where did I get this game from?
If you're shopping for games in Kent you should always go to Level Up Games in Canterbury. I bought this in a double pack that also included 'Quack Shot' on the same cartridge. I paid £9. Bizzarely if you buy the two on separate carts you'll pay three times the price, which shows that even today, game collections represent a bargain!

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