Friday 6 July 2018

Mega Drive Review - Donald Duck in Maui Mallard : Cold Shadow (Game 165)

When is a Donald Duck game not a Donald Duck game? Disney Interactive’s first original IP was a superb brave platformer that broke from traditions & was closer to ‘Earthworm Jim’ than ‘Castle of Illusion’. So why did it never sit on American shop shelves?

Developed by Disney Interactive
Published by Disney Interactive
Released in 1996

Today The Disney Corporation is a huge media conglomerate encompassing television, cinema, theme parks and retail outlets. Forbes recently placed it in the top five Regarded companies but as founder Walt once said “this whole thing all started with a Mouse”. What Mickey represented was innovation and a belief that “if you can dream it you can do it”. From creating the first feature length animation and changing the face of theme parks through to designing an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, the early days of Disney were built on trail blazing ideas. However, following Walt’s death, the Disney Corporation became a follower rather than a leader.  Their animated films traded on past glory and their live action films pushed a more edgy tone inspired by other studio’s successes. Yet there was one emerging type of entertainment media that the company really failed to anticipate. Throughout the 80s and 90s the video game market was growing exponentially faster than theme parks and animation. Billions of dollars were being made by the gaming industry and Disney characters were losing their appeal.  A national survey taken in 1990 found that Mario was more recognisable among American children than Mickey Mouse. Disney executives reacted in the worst way; they handed over their IP to other companies able to make video games quickly. While this did lead to the creation of ‘Duck Tales’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Castle of Illusion’, there was also a lot of dross including notably ‘Fantasia’, which Disney later labelled a betrayal of the film. Despite the varying quality though, games carrying Disney branding were typically amongst the year’s top sellers and the House of Mouse was sharing profits with developers and publishers. “With console games, we weren't a publisher then. We were strictly a licensor," says David Mullich, the first game producer Disney hired in 1987.”There was a Disney drive to regain control, to ensure quality and also to tap into this new lucrative industry”.

There was some excitement in 1995 when it was announced that Disney's own development group; Disney Interactive, were going to deliver more than just film tie-ins. Market research had shown that audiences had a preference for fast paced action and though risky Disney followed the market’s lead. The first original title Disney Interactive developed was an all new Donald Duck game which, in many ways, was bold in both visuals and tone. It seemed the Disney Company was once again taking risks, treading unfamiliar ground in a developing medium.

The Original concept for the game positioned Donald as a digital actor, playing a character known as Maui Mallard. Mallard is a noir-esque detective; a Disneyfied duck version of Tom Sellecks’s ‘Magnum PI’. ‘Donald in Maui Mallard’ was the end result, developed for the Sega Mega Drive with Creative Capers Entertainment providing animation technology. However, shockingly, despite considerable expense and a protracted development period, a game with this name was only seen on European and South American shelves. An American Genesis version was never physically released.

The reasons for this seem to depend on who you talk to. Hardcore gaming 101, Giant Bomb and all claim the cancelled launch in America was down to a legal block by Nintendo of America. “Nintendo secured a deal with Disney to ensure no Donald Duck games were released on rival systems in North America.” However, According to Sound Designer, Patrick J Collins the decision to change the American launch was made within Disney. “Disney's marketing department was kind of weird sometimes [...] when the game was ready to be shipped they suddenly started saying ‘Donald Duck isn't hip in the U.S.’” the designer has since said. “It was all the marketing dept's fault. They thought it wouldn't sell anywhere but Europe. We were all really upset.”

A graphically superior SNES game eventually came one year after the European Mega Drive release (which was ported and co-developed by Eurocom). Around the same time, Disney did eventually find a way to release the Sega edition stateside; it was sold as a downloadable title via the Sega Power service. The game itself was identical, save for the complete removal of Donald Duck. Consequently for American gamers the protagonist of the game is no longer “played by“ Donald Duck. Instead it’s simply a new character that just happens to look a lot like Donald. In the marketing departments defence many Disney ducks have appeared on TV and not all of them had ties with Donald. A 1991 Disney series followed the ordinary suburban life of father Drake Mallard, who by night fought crime as Darkwing Duck. Despite a similar name, Drake and Maui Mallard do not exist in the same universe. Also, neither of them have anything to do with the ‘Duck Tales’ TV Series which canonically features the classic Donald Duck. It’s all a bit confusing but ultimately the success of the ‘Darkwing Duck’ animated series had clearly made Disney executives believe that Donald was not the only duck that an audience would buy into. For some, it was a change for the better. ”I thought it was odd to have Donald star in a game as a different character” notes veteran Artist and designer Oliver Wade.

 It doesn’t matter if Maui Mallard is Donald or not, as the central story is the same in all regions. You play as a “Quack Detective” looking for the lost Shabuhm Shabuhm idol. “The Story was a team effort from a really creative team” recalls senior producer Patrick Gilmore. As you progress through the game, the story builds and becomes surprisingly complex. It’s a tale of redemption albeit one that also features a leggy Mojo Sorceress named Herneae and the remains of a duck called Quackoo that are being kept in a glass jar.

Like most 16bit platform games the plot is an unnecessary indulgence. It’s fun to read and get lost in but really a player that puts ‘Maui Mallard’ in a console just wants to play as a Hawaiian shirt wearing gun toting Disney duck detective. One that explorers surreal locales shooting ghosts, zombies and ninja ducks (who look an awful lot like Daffy Duck from rival Warner Brother’s cartoons). “The way the design process works for this group was to have a rough outline and then to make fun levels” remembers Wade. “The levels guided the story as much as the story guided the levels”.

While the story was unconventionally complex, the gameplay in ‘Maui Mallard’ will be immediately familiar to any platform aficionado. You run around an environment trying to get from point A to point B, avoiding enemies and collecting bonuses along the way. However the manner in which Maui Mallard jumps could frustrate many. This is clearly a bit of an issue given how much leaping a player is expected to do during this short one hour long platform game.  If anything if feels like Mallard is simply able to travel too far in a single bound and, initially at least, you'll overshoot most jumps. It’s something a player will adapt to after a few levels, but often a platform game is judged impulsively on its precision. Anyone used to the pixel perfect controls offered in a game like ‘Super Mario Bros’ will find ‘Maui Mallard’ frustrating and impenetrable, continually course correcting the duck mid flight.”I got so bored with the controls that I turned it off” Admitted critic Steve Keys when reviewing the game for Mean Machines Magazine. But it’s worth taking the time to get used to the loose controls as once you’ve mastered them you’ll certainly find that there’s a great deal of fun to be had.

On paper Maui is similar to Donald in ‘Quackshot’, however the plunger gun in that game has been exchanged for a multipurpose bug launcher in this one. It fires unlimited standard bug bullets that will take down most baddies in a few shots but it also can be equipped with lightning bugs, which act like a spread shot, and fire bugs, which act like homing bullets. These can also be combined to create a super shot ideal for boss battles. Critics were surprised that Disney Interactive opted to include a firearm in their first original IP. “The approach to the game is strikingly dark” notes game historian Kurt Kalata. “There’s sacrificing, cannibalism, not to mention the very uncharacteristic use of a gun in a Disney game, a company that has always had a staunch stance against the depiction of violence.” The designers recall that it was only possible if realism was abandoned. “I remember the VPs were very clear about wanting it to be overly obvious that these were bug guns, and not real guns” says Colins. “I thought it was silly because in the past, Disney had real guns in all their cartoons. There are even war-time cartoons where Donald Duck put a pistol to his own head”. “As far as I recall, they made it a bug gun to make it a little easier to get approved” adds Wade. “I think it worked”.

Like Aladdin, Mickey and Mowgli, Maui can also jump on enemy heads and climb vines to get around environments a lot easier.  He follows the traditional 16bit protagonist template in every way except one: From the second level onwards if Maui collects enough Yin Yang tokens he can transform into an alter ego known as Cold Shadow. Much more than a simple sprite swap, this Ninja Duck doesn’t behave like any previous Disney Game protagonist; closer to something found in ‘Ninja Gaiden’ or ‘Strider’ . Without doubt, the inclusion of Cold Shadow is the reason to play this game. “I think it worked great” agreed Wade. “The ninja aspect was what I really loved about the character”. Cold Shadow doesn't have a gun; he has a bo-staff.

This means that attacking enemies has to be done at a very close range and within striking distance Cold Shadow is deadly. Combo attacks are the norm, with multiple strikes possible in seconds. While he can't swing on ropes, he can use grapple points and Cold Shadow can climb short vertical chasms with the use of his staff. Theses “Salmon Ladder” climbs are excessively hard to do though and precise timing is required. Frequently I would accidentally let go before leaping and end up dropping. Conversely sometimes I’d wait too long to extend the pole after a jump and end up staying in place.

When playing as the alter-ego, The Yin Yang tokens get whittled away, so ninja time must be spent wisely.  Essentially they act like a secondary health bar, and a player has to judiciously manage their available tokens. In practice I found it best to remain as Detective Maui and Soften up enemies with a few shots before unleashing a Ninja’s fury. That way the most powerful special attacks can be used later on. In fact by the end of the game you’ll be so accustomed to the strengths of each character that you’ll be regularly switching between the two. Final levels actually demand this play style.

True to the Disney legacy, both Maui Mallard and Cold Shadow are expressive and wonderfully animated.  In fact this is used to great effect within the story telling interludes that occur between stages.
Despite the game being vibrant and wonderfully colourful, the narrative cut scenes are shown completely in silhouette which means they rely heavily on the character's expressiveness. Few developers would have the confidence to do this as it draws so much attention to the quality of sprite animation. The fact they work so well is testament to the ability of the graphic artists. Like ‘Aladdin’, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘The Jungle Book’, each frame of animation was hand drawn, scanned and then manually tided up pixel by pixel. “It's the same for any type of animation. 2D, 3D, film, games, it's all the same concept” observes Graphic designer Oliver Wade. “Animation, at its basic level never changes, just the tools you use to create it. I still animated everything by hand but then had to fit it into the constraints of the game.” Reviewer Marcus Hearn was stunned by the graphics. “Donald himself is a treat and I lost count of how many different frames of animation the little blighter went through as he was kicked from one side of the screen to the other”. In the past, the number of frames of animation is a bone of contention between the graphics department and the coders. Typically the artists demand more frames to ensure fluid movement, but the programmers and producers want less to maximise a game’s speed and to free space on the cartridge. However it seems the creation of ‘Maui Mallard’ was a lot less fraught.  “The only real difficulty is making sure the animation you create is implemented properly by the programmers” admits Owen. “Since Cary Hara was the only programmer and was really good at implementing animation, it was all pretty easy.”

In fact it seems there was even space free on the cartridge to include comedic idle animations for Maui and Cold Shadow.  You've got Maui twirling his gun, you've got cold shadow spinning his bo-staff, and as ‘Castle of Illusions’ producer Emiko Yamamoto once claimed, keeping the character continually moving is the secret to making the game feel more like a Disney cartoon. Animation excess is not limited to the main protagonist though.  All the enemies are full of personality from the basic ghosts and the annoying little tribal ducks through to the spirits of the undead. It really all comes together wonderfully, especially as these full of life characters exist in vibrant and rich locales.

These Environments are varied in nature and are fairly sizeable. There are eight levels in total, consisting of three individual stages.  Each has its own unique feel with many sections of the game involving altered gameplay. Later sections see Mallard hanging from a bungee cord and of course there is also the obligatory swimming section. However, not all stages play as smoothly as each other.
For example the swinging bungee level has terrible hit detection whereas the underwater section has imprecise controls as Maui propels himself using the recoil of his gun. The large surreal bosses and swinging mechanics proves that Maui Mallard’ has certainly been influenced by ‘Earthworm Jim’. This is somewhat ironic given that this was the game famed ‘Aladdin’ designer David Perry went on to make after his fall out with Virgin and Disney.

According to online documentation, John Fiorito designed most of the levels with Christina Vann producing the background art work.  Sadly though some stages feel a little bit too confusing to navigate and part of that is because the backgrounds are just so crammed with detail. Many stages also have a multi-tiered winding aspect to them. So while they may be linear, often you will have to double back, confusingly traversing in front or behind familiar terrain.

‘Maui mallard’ does not have a save slot and considering the 24 stages get pretty brutal, pretty quickly, that’s a terrible omission. Instead the game does present you with passwords, provided you’re willing to literally jump through hoops to get them. In any other game, you get a password by reaching a certain point - typically at the end of each world. For some idiotic reason, the instructions for ‘Maui Mallard’ explain that “to use a password you must first get one by collecting treasures”. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the challenge was consistent but the game has erratic difficulty spikes. As is the tradition in platform games, each world ends with a boss fight and the endurance battle at end of the second level is ridiculously tricky. Surely single handily beating a huge hoard of ninja duck opponents is enough to be rewarded with a password, without the need to locate treasure in, and exclusively in, the preceding level.

While I do enjoy chip tune music usually I pay little attention to a games’ composer but looking at the credits a name caught my eye. The score for ‘Maui Mallard’ was composed by Oscar, Emmy and Grammy Award winner Michael Giacchino. While many will know Giacchino from his scores for ‘Lost’, ‘Star Wars : Rouge One’ and ‘Star Trek’ we mustn't forget that he also wrote the music for several Disney/Pixar films including ‘The Incredibles’ ‘Ratatouille’, ‘Up’, ‘inside Out’, ‘Zootopia’ and ‘Coco’.

True to much of the composer’s later cinematic work, there is a constant melody that exists throughout ‘Maui Mallard’ and this gets reworked slightly differently in every level.
Because of this every track feels different but because they all use a singular melody it feels a cohesive and unified score.   “Whether it is a theme park ride or a video game, my job is to work hand in hand with the team to make this experience come alive” Giacchino notes. “I didn't want it to be wallpaper music. I wanted it to feel like the film stuff I remembered from when I was a kid. Even though it was a video-game we could still have it feel cinematic.”

Outside of the music the rest of the games audio sounds great. I am quite fond of the sound that Maui makes when he takes damage, mainly because it echoes the game’s Donald Duck roots. There’s something always amusing about a flustered Disney duck whether it be Donald or not.

Disney had high hopes for ‘Maui Mallard’, so much so that they commissioned Drew Struzan to produce Promotional art. It was a game that according to Oliver Wade was intended to be a starting point for an entire franchise. “What most fans don't know is that a sequel was created. At least the animation for it was” the designer notes.

However, despite its wonderful music, varied level design and fantastic animation ‘Maui Mallard’ was released way too late.  The internal politics at Disney meant that the production schedule was needlessly drawn out and the ambitions of talented creators were stifled by upper levels of management. Disney VP’s had overall approval, so the merits of individual original ideas had to be debated.  This is not ideal for the video game industry were Audiences and the market shift quickly. By the time the game was finally ready many players were bored with 16bit consoles and had their eyes on the next generation of machines with their fancy 3D polygons graphics. “Its quite a good game on all counts” believed Mean Machines magazine “but is there still enough interest in this sort of title?” Ultimately, bad timing rather than bad content lead to the failure of what should have been the start of something bigger.

In Walt’s pioneering days risks had less consequence, but today the Disney Corporation has grown to such a size that failure isn’t going to be tolerated. Perhaps this is why it wasn’t till ‘Epic Mickey’ that we saw a game as experimental and brave as ‘Maui Mallard’. It may not have been what players wanted at the time but looking back now it’s an astonishingly and surprisingly good platform game. It may not have Donald attached the World over but that’s to the angry ducks loss; it’s probably the best game to have him in the starring role.

Where did I get this game from?
I always keep my eye out for the Disney games I’m missing and in truth I’m usually just waiting for justification to buy them. Typically that comes when a good enough condition game dips into my allocated budget. In the case of ‘Maui Mallard’ I was drunk on Disney Fever! A near mint copy popped up while we were planning how we would spend our days in Disneyland Paris. I took it as a sign and spent over the odds. The game usually sells for £20-£25, I paid over £30. Of course you’ll never see a copy on Genesis and the marginally different SNES version will sell for three times this.

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