Friday 23 December 2016

Mega Drive Review - World of Illusion (Game 123)

While 'Castle of Illusion' is widely considered to be the best in the 'Illusion' series, its sequel is perhaps the better game - especially with a friend. But when there's a plethora of 16bit platformers, is a Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck magical romp worth your time?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1992

Have you ever noticed that the tracks on a contemporary Christmas music CD alternate between excessively happy and soul crushingly miserable? Slade may scream that "it's Christmas” pointing out that "everybody is having fun", but the band Mud don't seem to share the opinion. According to this band "it's gonna be lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold". Wizard "wish it could be Christmas everyday" but Elvis is going to have "a blue, blue blue blue, blue Christmas". 

I'm fortunate to have never experienced a Christmas alone but if festive music has taught me anything it's an awful experience. The closest point of reference I have is comparing it to the experience of solo playing a game that's clearly meant for two. Yes the title may include a single player option, but as you progress you can't help but notice that all the puzzles are designed for co-operative play. You have the choice between two playable characters for a reason; there's meant to be a human controlling the other one. 

'World of Illusion' is one such game. It should be obvious from the subtitle it's an adventure 'Staring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck'. Of course both of these characters have been in Sega Mega Drive games before; Mickey in 'Castle of Illusion' and Donald in 'Quack Shot', but this is the first time they have shared the adventure. 

Mean Machines magazine argued that while it's a functional single player experience, the game is at its best with a friend. "'World of Illusion' really comes into its own in two-player mode, as each player relies on the cooperation of the other to get past the obstacles and puzzles."
Mega magazine even went as far as to say that "if you're playing the game by yourself, you should knock about 30% straight off [the 82% review score]". Certainly levels aren't even accessible when you're playing alone; including one with a Christmas aesthetic. In this stage the titular mouse and duck duo have to scale Christmas trees and traverse garlands while listening to wonderful festive chiptunes. Perfect for this time of year of course!

As the name would suggest, 'World of Illusion' is a sequel of sorts to 'Castle of Illusion'. However, while there are similarities, the inclusion of a two player option isn't the only difference. 

Like 'Castle ofIllusion' the game was designed and directed by Emiko Yamamoto. As such, the basic game play is the same as the predecessor. This also means it's the same as practically every platform game that came out in the nineties. You guide Donald or Mickey through a number of relatively short levels, moving from the left of the screen towards the right. There's a huge variety of visual themes for each stage but its window dressing for recognisable gameplay mechanics with all the staples of the genre present and correct. You'll leap over holes, shimmy up ropes, time jumps on vanishing blocks, swim a bit, fly a bit and take on an occasional boss. 'Castle of illusion' depended on the "jump on head - kill baddies" method of dealing with foes. It's instantly familiar to anyone who has played early 'Mario' games, even if it’s complicated by un-necessarily demanding an additional button press. In 'World of Illusion' though, a playable character's foot meeting an enemy's head results in only Mickey or Donald getting hurt.
Magic capes are instead used to deal damage and a swift waft turns fearsome foes into adorable flowers or cute woodland creatures. For a platform game aficionado it's an attack that doesn't feel entirely natural. The cape is too slow to feel like a melee weapon and doesn't have the range of a projectile launcher. That being said, while anyone behind you is safe, enemies who are several charter lengths in front can still get hurt every time you unfurl the cape. While it hard to judge range, whoever is hit by the magical cape will typically be "purified" which makes you feel somewhat over powered. Even the end of level bosses can't stand up to more than a few strikes and with easily identifiable attack patterns besting a boss is never a struggle. 'Castle of Illusion' was deceptively difficult and while unfair at times it posed a rewarding challenge. 'World of Illusion' is the opposite. Anyone who has played a 90s 2D platform game before will struggle not to finish it on a first try, even without a second player lending a hand.  Mega magazine were very critical of the lack of challenge.   "Generally the only way you'll lose any lives is by getting a bit careless and falling off the bottom of the screen on one of the mildly complicated cloud hopping levels" they argued. "It's very, very easy to complete". The infinite continues and number of PowerUps makes failure in the game feel like a minor setback. As Mean machines magazine warned "'World of Illusion' is one of the best platform games on the Mega Drive but whack up the difficulty setting and limit your continues or it won't last you long". 

While it’s brief, at around half an hour per play-through, it's an undeniably enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes. 'World of Illusion' feels like a distilled game where new ideas come frequently and aren't repeated. Most platformers reuse the same mechanics till they become tiresome, that's certainly never the case here. If anything you'll feel sad a favourite section is over. For example Mickey in one level has to run through a lowering tunnel, timing his progression so he doesn't get hit by bouncing boulders. It's fun rather than frustrating because it lasts around ten seconds. I'm sure I have played a very similar stage in a number of other games, but in those it was an infuriating five minutes of running with no continue points. These same Games boast that they last maybe ten times longer than 'World of Illusion' but you have to wonder if that duration is something to be proud of. It's all for nought if a players throws the cartridge in frustration twenty minutes after starting the game. "It's amazing how a bit of imagination and a stack of variety can jazz up your run-of-the-mill platform romp" reviewer Lucy Hickman noted at the time. "'World of Illusion' piles it on with a trowel and the result is a really fun game with more playability than you can shake a stick at". 

Once completed there is merit to replaying the game with the other character though, as the order of stage and even the levels differ. For example Donald's will ride a leaf which replaces Mickey's aforementioned (brief) tunnel run. Unlike the agile mouse, large tail feathers prevent the duck from entering a pirate ship so Donald will have a beach level instead. 

The best levels though are reserved exclusively for co-op players though and the game really does feel entirely new with a friend. "When you buy ['World of Illusion'] you're really getting two games for reprocessing of one" Sega Power magazine pointed out. While a longer single player campaign that included these stage may have been preferable to those without a friend to play with, there's a reason why you can't access these levels alone; you simply wouldn't be able to finish them.
 For example a seesaw powered mine cart can only progress along its track if the two players successfully alternate jumping. Similarly a High section can only be reached by one character standing on the other.  They're hardly tests of mental agility but that's probably because 'World of Illusion' has clearly been designed with a younger audience in mind. It's a great way to introduce a child to platformers though as while you share lives, players can frequently help each other should they get into trouble.
I played the game with my children and found I often instructed them to wait at the bottom of a (comparatively) tricky jumping section knowing that when I reached the top I could just a rope down and have then rejoin me. Players will typically share the screen with the focus on which ever character is ahead, but there's little consequence if someone falls behind. 

My two Disney loving daughters certainly enjoyed pointing out all the film homage as we played. Their observations were spot on though as director Emiko Yamamoto admits that they "drew inspiration from the classic movies that Disney had produced".
 Evidently the magic carpet section was "just like 'Aladdin'" and Sebastian and Flounder from 'The Little Mermaid' make an appearance in the beautiful underwater stage. While not as calm and jaw dropping as the celebrated swimming stages of 'Donkey Kong Country', 'World of Illusion' offers a swimming section that isn't awful - something of a rarity video games. Maybe it was enjoyable simply because it looked good, but this stage isn't an isolated example of graphical splendour within the game. 

With the Mega Drive's smaller colour palette 'World of Illusion' doesn't look as fantastic as 'Magical Quest' on the Snes but for me it exceeds what is seen in 'Castle ofIllusion'. On your whistle stop tour of the game you'll pass through a number of different environments that all look varied and imaginative. "The backgrounds are great, full of detail life and colour" Mean Machines magazine noted. "There’s loads of little touches which maintains the cartoon-esque atmosphere throughout".  Much like the unique ideas that define the game play there's also very little recycling of enemies or environmental hazards across the worlds.  Despite the number of enemies they're all well animated though. The dancing spider boss certainly made my play companions laugh, with my youngest daughter doing an impression of his funky moves for days after playing. Did he need to dance?  Of course not, but it illustrates the care taken to make the game as close to the animated Worlds that have inspired the creators.  According to gaming historian Keith Stuart "Sega's own Mickey Mouse adventures meticulously recreated the atmosphere and artistry of the Disney Universe". Critics were suitably impressed. MegaTech gave the game 90% and a Hyper Game Award, saying that it had "the best graphics of any Disney game yet". It was something Mean Machines Sega certainly agreed with noting "the sprites are almost cartoon perfect replicas with some of the best animation yet seen on the Mega Drive". The problem is that unlike cartons, the Mega Drive doesn't have the power to give the illusion of motion by showing 24 frames a second.  For Mickey and Donald to be cartoon like it seems they have to be move very slowly. Clearly extra frames of animation are included at the expense of game's pace so you trudge through levels even while holding the run button. You have to imagine how much shorter 'World of Illusion' would be if the protagonists matched Sonic's speed! 

While many critics sang the praises of the graphics, it's noticeable that few sung along to the background music. Perhaps it's because the melodies in the game are so bland and unremarkable that many didn't think them worth acknowledgement. Of course at this festive time of year if you're playing 'World of Illusion' it's likely that the melancholic or joyous music coming from your stereo will drown out any game music.  While playing it won't relieve the crushing loneliness sung about by so many, it is certainly still a game worth your time. After all as Celine Dion once wailed; all you need at Christmas is a little bit of magic. Maybe Mickey and Donald waving their capes really do have the power to save Christmas for even the most broken hearted.

Where did I get this game from?
When is the best time to get a game with a Christmas theme level? How about your birthday in April. Fittingly, although I had finished 'World of Illusion' single player it was recently that I discovered that the levels in the two player game are so different. While it would be hyperbolic to call it a Christmas miracle it was a nice surprise when playing with my daughters surrounded by Christmas decorations. 

Merry Christmas everyone and if the depressing Christmas music gets you down, there's no shame in pressing the skip button! 


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