Friday 20 January 2017

Mega Drive Review - Aladdin (Game 125)

'Aladdin' is the best selling non-Sonic title on the Mega Drive and it's frequently called one of the best games on the system. But how does it compare to the Snes version? 

Developed by Virgin Interactive
Published by Virgin / Sega / Disney
Release in 1993  

Travel back in time to a nineties playground and you will hear the sound of geeks arguing. 

"My Snes is so much better, it's got Mode 7. Yours has only got Blast Processing and that's not even a real thing". 

"Yeah but 'Mario' is so slow and boring. It's like a baby's game. 'Sonic' is way faster and cooler."

Of course such comparisons were retrospectively ridiculous. Each machine had their own strengths, and despite both being 2D platformers, Mario and Sonic inhabited very different styles of games. However when each console received their own ‘Aladdin’ game, playground arguments quickly shifted to an obvious point of comparison. 

Interestingly it wasn't just fan boys who judged one game against each other though. According to Internet rumour Capcom felt the need to entirely rework their Snes 'Aladdin' game after seeing the visually superior Mega Drive take on the Disney Film. The Super Nintendo game was frantically reworked to better mirror the Virgin published Sega game. Quite a challenge given that both games had fixed release dates of November 1993; essential if the games were to sit on the shelves alongside the 'Aladdin' film's video release.  "It was all about having a game for theatrical, or for the most part, video release" designer David Bishop told Games TM magazine.  "It was a massive thing back in those days".

However, despite the confident Chicago CES demonstration that had so worried Capcom, development of the Sega game was stressful for the production team. "We had to have the game done for when the video launched " Bishop notes.”[This] meant we had to put together a team and build the game in five months. It was almost an impossible task". Completion of the game leaving enough time for "the various Sega testing shenanigans" was only possible thanks to the involvement of an Industry legend, one who was already making a name for himself following the creation of 'Cool Spot' and 'Global Gladiators'. “David Perry was sort of at the epicentre of this thing, driving the whole thing forward" Bishop readily admitted to Games TM magazine.  

Ever since the dawn of the 8bit machines, David Perry has been at the forefront of gaming. Beginning as a teenager in Ireland he has gained a reputation for creating games that push console boundaries and pioneering cutting edge technology. So successful is Perry that the combined sales of his game has surpassed half a billion dollars. However while he is now closely associated with Sony owing to their acquisition of his company Gaikai. Retro Gamers no doubt best know Perry for the 16bit games he made for Virgin. "It's for Virgin that he achieved his greatest success" notes "Between 1991 and 1993, Perry was responsible for some of the best platformers available on the Genesis, including the legendary 'Aladdin', which won him numerous awards and accolades from all over the industry." It remains the third best selling game on the Mega Drive and the most profitable non-'Sonic' title for the system. EGM magazine called it "a masterpiece" adding "it's hard to imagine a better game." GamePro magazine named it their "Genesis game of the year" and Dragon magazine saw fit to bestow a perfect score on 'Aladdin'.

"When I did 'Aladdin' with Disney it did quite well" Perry modestly admits. "The reason for that is because the directors really honestly cared and supported us 110%".   There had been many license games based on films and TV properties prior to The Mega Drive version of 'Aladdin' of course. However this game is historically significant due to it showing how collaboration between film makers and game designers leads to greatness. "In those days it was usually Hollywood trying to show us how to make games and it didn't work" claims Perry. “I do believe there needs to be a relationship forged. That can only be good for gamers that liked the movie." 

Despite the quick turnaround Perry felt his team should know every facet of the film if they were going to "do justice to the Disney masterpiece".  "I probably saw the film 40 or 50 times, we all did" remembers Bishop. “[The film] 'Aladdin' was still a live project, so we had access to the people who had worked on it. We worked very heavily with the [Disney] animators that actually worked on the film. And it was actually the first time that anyone had done that." "'Aladdin' in 1993 (to my knowledge) was the first time a movie studio treated a license with genuine respect" adds Perry. “Jeffrey Katzenberg led the way (along with the movie’s Directors Ron Clements and John Musker). Disney actually made new a ton of new exclusive Aladdin animations just for our game."

Cinematic animation works by tricking the brain into perceiving motion by showing dozens of still images in a second. The Mega Drive cannot process that many images that quickly. Even if it could, storing that many sprites all on a cartridge would be impossible. It was a headache for Perry.  “We were lucky as we had Mike Dietz as our Animation Director [...] probably the best paper animator in the business" the game's lead designer acknowledges. "It’s not just about animating, it’s about timing and finding ways to compress animations. He would do time sheets that would use frame 1, 2, 3 then 2, then 7, then 3, then 1 etc" Perry explains. “He’d re-use old frames and draw the animation intending that to happen. So he was thinking technically too, and that made him priceless.”

Once the most economical frames of animation had been agreed by Dietz and Disney each was scanned and electronically coloured. According to Bishop this was another first for the games industry. "Digitally Colouring [hand drawn scanned] frames was a brand new thing [...] up until then everyone just basically did animation frames directly into [the graphics program] 'DPaint'". All The effort certainly was worth it though as its impossible to find a review of the Mega drive's 'Aladdin' that doesn't praise the visuals. "The animation is astounding" wrote the notoriously critical Edge Magazine at the time. "The whole thing moves so smoothly and so fast it's easy to see where the cart’s 16megs went!" 

While the Super Nintendo certainly had a larger colour palette and graphical clout, Perry has always been a vocal supporter of the Mega Drive. He writes the foreword for the incredible 'Sega Mega Drive/ Genesis Collected Works'  book and in this his love for the machine is obvious. "The Genesis altered the course of the global video game industry," he concludes. "It gave us the opportunity to go really big – to move from making little games... to producing blockbusters that everyone talked about." 
Pushing the Mega Drive beyond what most thought possible made Edge magazine weary of 'Aladdin' however. "There's nothing worse than a game that looks fantastic but is about as much fun to play with as a bag of mud" the magazine warned.  "Fear not, 'Aladdin' is brilliantly playable; you have total control over what your character does and the difficulty is set just right".  

Given the tight turnaround and stressful climate that 'Aladdin' was made in, having something that played so well was certainly astonishing ; especially as the game started out life as a very different Disney property.  "We were actually working on Disney’s Jungle Book at the time, and I was very proud of our progress" recalls David Perry.  ”‘Aladdin’ was suddenly dropped into our lap as an emergency project, so I nabbed some of the 'Jungle Book' ideas/code and that got 'Aladdin' up and running really fast."  But the 'Jungle Book' game isn't the only one of Perry's earlier games that has been plundered. The player will frequently venture over sand dunes in stages that seem very reminiscent of the beach platforming seen in 'Cool Spot'. Evidently, there have been quite a few artistic liberties taken with the game. I don't recall bomb juggling skeletons in the film, nor do I remember Aladdin massacring quite so many guards with his sword. 

'Aladdin' on the Mega Drive doesn't stick as rigidly to the film's plot in the way the Snes version does. The in-between level intermissions may present some plot exposition, but typically it's simply justification for why Aladdin is in a cave or locked in a dungeon. The Most iconic scene in the film is, of course, the 'Whole New World' magic carpet scene; something which is actually replicated within the Super Nintendo version. While on the Snes this may only be a short bonus stage, it’s ignored in the Sega game until a brief glimpse of Jasmine is shown at the end of the game.
Clearly, the same source material has inspired similar ideas across both games but they seem to be executed with a bit more flare on the Super Nintendo. For example both games see Aladdin thrown into the abstract world of the Genie's magic lamp. The Snes presents this in a joyous explosion of colour and a similar stage on the Mega Drive is bland in comparison.
The background of the stage is solid black and the level is largely filled with blind leaps to platforms off-screen; by far the most aggravating part of the game.  'Aladdin' on the Snes is undeniably more creative and varied than the Mega Drive equivalent. bosses in the Virgin developed game are all identical to each other; a small Sprite sits in the middle of the screen that needs to be hit until it explodes. Meanwhile the Snes game's sees you riding on the back of a snake at one point, something I've not seen in any other game.  But it isn't just bosses that are more unconventional in Capcom's 'Aladdin'. The Snes game plays more like a parkour platformer where your agility and ability to string jumps together lead to success. In contrast Virgin’s ‘Aladdin’ on the Mega Drive is a lot slower and certainly more repetitive. Like a stage seen in the Snes game, you do get to ride a carpet through a collapsing cave. However, this is the only short respite from lots of monotonous jumping. The majority of stages essentially see you just plotting a course through a level, climbing up ropes, avoiding obstacles and hacking enemies to death with your sword. Despite the film showing 'Aladdin' shying away from violence, the sword isn't the only weapon in the Mega Drive game. Aladdin can also throw apples which act like one hit kill grenades. However, while these deadly apples may be a useful way of clearing a platform that you wish to jump to, with a limited supply you must be sparing with them.
Most bosses, including the end of game boss, can only be beaten by throwing apples.  If you've used the projectiles too excessively in the preceding level, the boss battles become significantly harder as you search to replenish your apple supply while avoiding their attacks. It's not 'Aladdin's only frustration though. 

Given that this is a game aimed at a family audience, there are sections in 'Aladdin' that seem excessively hard and punishing. As with 'Cool Spot' too many levels are built around leaps of faith, where you're timing a jump to land on a moving platform that you can't see. There are also far too many moments that involve timing jumps to land on Vanishing blocks, something that's clearly been lifted from competitor Capcom's early 'Mega Man' games.
However while one or two can be navigated, a string of five or six timed jumps will prove to be a frustrating experience for a 6 year old. Worse still some later sections will require jumping to vanishing and moving platforms that hover over instant death pits.  At least there are plenty of continue points, but run out of lives and a continue returns you to the start of a level. If that wasn't sufficiently unfair one level involves escape from a bolder. At least Genie's severed hand is there to point you I the best direction, well, it is for most of the stage. At several times the guiding arrow is replaced with a question mark so survival is simply down to blind luck. This literal helping hand would have been desirable in every stage as frequently there's a lack of direction.  The large levels in 'Aladdin' feel confusing, where repeating backgrounds and re-spawning enemies make it hard to determine where you have already been and where you should be headed.
Exacerbating the problem more some routes only open when you have performed a random action elsewhere on the stage. With no on screen or audio indication that a new part has been unlocked, you'll fruitlessly search areas over and over.

These frustrations and unfair deaths all combine to make the Mega Drive 'Aladdin' noticeably harder than the Super Nintendo adaptation (a game which can be finished on a first sitting). But, ultimately, how the game played and its difficulty was irrelevant.  Few people made a purchase decision based on minor gameplay differences between two perceivable similar platform games, especially when the two game's opening stages are so easily comparable. Side by side the superior visuals of the Sega game were hard to resist. If judged on sales, it's easy to tell which the better game was. 

The Mega Drive/ Genesis version sold over 4 million copies, while 'Aladdin' on the Snes was bought by 1.75 million gamers. Many believe this was in part due to Sega's tireless efforts to push the game, using adverts that certainly provoked the fierce rivalry between Sega and Nintendo fans.
Double page spreads in games magazines were keen to draw attention to the marriage of "Disney Magic" and "Sega Power". While it would be incorrect to claim that the Mega Drive was the more "powerful" machine, it would have been fair to say "the power" referred to Sega's ability to distribute the game. Dr. Clarke-Willson was the VP of Product Development at Virgin. To this day he remains shocked by how well 'Aladdin' sold on the Mega Drive. "At four million it is still one of the top ten video games, sales-wise, in the last fifteen years" he claims. "One factor was that Sega distributed the game for us. That alone could account for twice the sales. Sega had amazing distribution back in the day." 

With the Mega Drive having better review scores and selling more than twice as many as Capcom achieved on the Snes, it seems strange that the debate over the better 'Aladdin' game continues to this day. The Genesis version had been the greater success both
critically and commercially. Virgin had beat Capcom. Sega had won over Nintendo and yet the console war continues.   "A while back, I got into a heated exchange with columnist Lisa Foiles about her flagrant proclamation that the Super Nintendo version of 'Aladdin' was superior to the Genesis version of 'Aladdin'" Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton recently admitted."Maybe I'm wrong. Enough people seem certain that the SNESversion was indeed the better game". To settle this "once and for all" Hamilton asked the readers of the Kotaku website to decide between the two 'Aladdin' games. The problem was that even this poll of more than 21,000 readers didn't reach a conclusive result. While more favoured the Mega Drive's 'Aladdin' it only received 58% of the votes; hardly unanimous. 

For me, picking between the two comes down to that age old choice between looks and content. If only there was a way to merge the gameplay of the Super Nintendo game with the fluid animation of the Mega Drive's 'Aladdin'. Regardless of the console though, having "Aladdin" on a box seems to be a mark of quality.

Where did I get this game from?

Like so many of my Mega Drive games, I found 'Aladdin' in a bundle I bought from a local Facebook selling page. While it came with the manual, it wasn't in the best shape with a cigarette burn on the instruction manual. I always wonder why people would spend money on something (maybe £50 at the time of release) only to treat it so poorly.


  1. Nice review, I enjoyed that, There was an Aladdin game made for the Game Boy Color, which i'm pretty sure was a port of the Mega Drive game and not the SNES version interestingly.

  2. That's intriguing. I think Capcom only had the license on the Snes so any other game probably would have been from Virgin. I know there was also a home-brew port of the Snes version on the Mega Drive labelled 'Aladdin 2'!


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