Friday 29 May 2020

Mega Drive Review - Fantasia (Game 185)

At a time when 16 bit Disney games were widely regarded as universally good, ‘Fantasia’ has a reputation as being “one of the worst platformers ever made”. But, what many do not know is that ‘Fantasia’ on the Mega Drive actually helped Sega cement a relationship with one of their most important publishing partners during the 16-bit era.

Developed by lnfogrames
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

For a fan of animation, the 1940 Disney movie ‘Fantasia’ is an avant-garde experimental masterpiece. A celebration of the animation art-form in its infancy, and an early example of how the Walt Disney Company is pioneering and adventurous. Disney himself said, “In a profession that has been an unending voyage of discovery in the realms of colour, sound and motion, ‘Fantasia’ represents our most exciting adventure.” In the studio’s early days, cartoons had always been short comedies that depended on visual gags.  Prior to the feature length ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarf’ the ‘Silly Symphonies’ were the studio’s main output and these were cartoons accompanied by music rather than voiced. Following the success of the feature length films throughout the 1930’s, Walt Disney toyed with the idea of creating a Silly Symphony based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ poem. The goal was to create a short that incorporated all the techniques learnt from animating features, with a focus on the flow of water and the radiance of magic. Disney lavished his studio’s resources on the project, until the costs tripled the normal budget for a short. To turn a profit, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ needed to be part of a full-length feature film and as the story couldn’t stretch to 70 minutes. Instead, to reach this feature length, Disney’s created eight animated shorts that would all be set to classical musical pieces. Each section was encouraged to be distinct and imaginative, resulting in a celebration of the animation art-form in all its guises.  ‘Fantasia’ was born.

The highly-anticipated premiere took place on 13th November 1940, in New York City. While the film was praised by the New York Times’ movie critic as “simply terrific—as terrific as anything that has ever happened on a screen”, the film’s profits didn’t compare to the production budget of $2.3 million. Convinced the failure was a result of vanishing European markets caused by the start of World War II, the Walt Disney Company would re-release the film every decade. Each time they did the returns grew, and the critical response got more and more positive.

On October 5th 1990, ‘Fantasia’ returned to 550 American theatres in celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary. The film had enjoyed a two-year clean-up process, where each of its 535,680 frames were restored at YCM Laboratories. A year later it was this version of the classic that saw its first official release on home video, and the enthusiasm for the release caught the attention of Sega.

Inspired by the critical and commercial success of the incredible ‘Castle of Illusion’, Sega had ambitions to release a Disney licensed game every ten months.  There was a good deal of pressure involved in making games using Disney properties, and the House of Mouse typically assigned a producer to each project; a watchful eye over their treasured licenses. For ‘Fantasia’, Disney assigned Stephan Butler to work alongside Sega Producer Scott Berfield. However, ‘Castle of Illusion’ developer, Sega of Japan, were already at work on ‘Quackshot’. So  Berfield approached the comparatively new European based Infogrames. The belief was a good end product would prove that high-profile games could be developed outside of Japan.  The success of ‘Castle of Illusion’ meant Disney now expected each subsequent game to be of equal or greater quality, regardless of whether or not they used the same developer. “[Head of product development Ken] Balthaser was confident in his European teams,” writes Ken Horowitz in 'Playing at the Next Level: A History of American Sega Games'. “But the holiday rush would put additional pressure on Infogrames to get ‘Fantasia’ done quickly. The team at Infogrames had to capture the unique atmosphere of ‘Fantasia’, something that proved harder than anticipated”. Evidently the small 6 man team was out of their depth.

You take control of Mickey and your objective is to collect various music notes that were stolen while the mouse slept. The film ‘Fantasia’ is a collection of self-contained short pieces. An orchestra interlude briefly introduces each number, but beyond that there’s no single narrative that runs through the whole film. You have to applaud Infogrames for trying to find a way to tie the disparate pieces together into one cohesive game.  It would certainly have been easier to simply focus on the most well-known ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ section. However, once introduced in a single screen at the start of the game, there’s no further reference to the story. After each level the game counts to see if Mickey has found enough missing notes, and if he hasn’t you are forced to replay the level from scratch. If you do manage to reach the end, all you’re rewarded with is a clip of Mickey shaking the hand of the conductor. You never find out if the musical dream land has been saved, and as such the games introduction scene feels like an afterthought, added to give the game a narrative driven purpose.

In screen shots ‘Fantasia’ looks very appealing and it’s a visual leap on from ‘Castle of illusion’ the year before. Mickey’s sprite is large, the worlds are detailed, colourful and distinct – all fair approximations of their cinematic counterparts.  Anyone who has seen the film will instantly recognise many of the characters; from the marching broomsticks, to the enchanted dancing mushrooms.  It seems every character from the film is here; even one that only appeared briefly in the movie. On a perfect run, you can complete the game in half and hours so a few of the film’s set pieces sadly have been omitted from ‘Fantasia’. Most notable is the complete absence of Chernabog featured in the "Night on Bald Mountain, Ave Maria" segment. Video game players would have to wait till ‘Kingdom Hearts’ to do battle with the iconic demon.

Electronic Gaming Monthly praised the "incredible graphics" and the magazine believed "'Fantasia' does boast some of the best graphics and animation in a video game". CVG magazine agreed saying the game is "awash with beautiful, cartoon-quality graphics which fully capture the spirit of the 'Fantasia' feature-length cartoon". "The graphics were wonderful, and they really caught the mood:" says Ken Balthaser retrospectively. "They did some really cool things with parallax scrolling in there".
While the visuals managed to replicate the look of the movie within the limitations of a 16bit console,  the Audio fared much worse. Given the nature of the project, Walt Disney became obsessed with bringing the best possible audio to the forties cinema goer. "Music emerging from one speaker behind the screen sounds thin, tinkly and strainy. We wanted to reproduce such beautiful masterpieces ... so that audiences would feel as though they were standing at the podium with [the conductor] Stokowski". The goal was to "create the illusion that the actual symphony orchestra is playing in the theatre".

The limited capabilities of the Mega Drive’s YM2612 sound chip didn’t do justice to the classical music featured in the film. The game’s music became distorted and abrasive to listen to, baring only a passing resemblance to the works of Beethoven, Dukas and Tchaikovsky. In fact you would never notice these tracks were from ‘Fantasia’ unless you listen very carefully, but listening to it through headphones will likely give you quite a migraine. It’s awful that in a game, based on a movie, based on classical music, you long for the ability to turn off the audio. “The music is irritating “claimed EGM Magazine. Sega Pro was more harsh; “it’s the worst music [I’ve] heard on any Mega Drive game” said the in-house reviewer.

If the appalling music were the only short coming, as ironic as that would be, you’d have to wonder if the infamous reputation this game has its justified. However there is a slightly bigger issue; the game is practically unplayable. Simply put this game has one of the most detestable control schemes, levels that are confused, and copious amounts of cheap and unavoidable deaths meaning any success is largely down to luck. Mickey is slow, noticeably slower than the majority of enemies. You can’t avoid them though, as there’s a lag on jumping while mickey pauses and bends down slightly before leaping. Adding to the problem, the game requires you to jump constantly yet you're given little to no control of where Mickey goes or lands when in the air. But even attacking these foes has its own set of problems. Mickey has two ways to take out enemies. Being a Sorcerer’s apprentice, you’d think the Magic mouse could just use spells to aide him. Thankfully he can, but only a handful of times.  He can cast bubble projectiles toward enemies, which will remove them if they hit. The range is incredibly short though and like jumping, there’s a lag between pressing the action button and when Mickey actually does as instructed.
Also whenever you do cast magic you freeze momentarily and the projectiles only move forward as opposed to any other direction. Spells are therefore largely useless leaving you even more vulnerable with no guarantee of success. Being a platformer, the other way of attacking is jumping on the enemies, but even this is flawed. You can't just jump on a foe and expect them to vanish like in most platformers. Instead, you have to press down slightly before you make contact otherwise you'll not kill the enemy but they will harm you. ‘Castle of Illusion’ was blighted with a similar problem, where the jump button would have to be pressed twice to kill a foe. It was frustrating then too, but at least the second button-press changed Mickey’s pose so you knew you were going to deal damage. In ‘Fantasia’ there’s no visual indicators, but even if you are in an invisible attacking state there no guarantee you’ll do damage. The collision detection is so poor you need to be incredibly accurate of where you land; even the slightest pixel off your mark can affect you. However, while the enemies hit boxes are minuscule, their range of attack is huge. In the worst case situations, you’ll land on an enemy failing to do damage, only to then be hurt by them without either of you moving. Landing onto moving targets and even leaping to platform edges is also vague. Unless you leap 3 or 4 pixels higher than a platform, when you land you’ll simply plummet right through it. Obstacles and enemies are ridiculously positioned in a way that makes many impossible to get past especially with the terrible collision detection. You’ll have to keep some life in reserves as too frequently running through a foe appears to be the only way to progress. Enemies also have a nasty habit of simply randomly appearing in front of you with no warning.  There will be times where you'll come across branches in the level where a fairy appears. You’ll cross your fingers that they will take you to a bonus room but more frequently they will teleport you back to a section you’ve already struggled with. Even more frustrating is when touching an unavoidably fairy ends the stage, and unless you’ve got enough music notes you know full well you’ll be replaying the stage.

There are all sorts of logic flaws with the game you just have to accept. Water will harm Mickey in one stage, yet there’s an underwater level. There’s no way of knowing if an onscreen item will hurt  or reward you, it’s simply trial and error. Some small enemies take two hits, while bigger ones take one. ‘Fantasia’ also loves to obscure the action with over-sized objects in the foreground, so often key items and enemies are perpetually obscured. Strangely enough there is a difficulty setting but no matter which mode you play on, nothing changes in the levels themselves. The only difference is the amount of notes you need to collect. However, without an onscreen counter or an indicator of where the next note is, you’ll likely be going over and over the same sections until you are confident you’ve found every note. “I like a challenge, but when you're given absolutely no chance and are forced to memorize and anticipate hazards and traps before they happen, playing becomes a chore” says famed critic Julian Rignal. “The final straw is that the game is absolutely the same every time you play, with things appearing in the same place at the same time. It's all too linear, with no freedom of movement like the previous Mickey game, and the constant routine of doing exactly the same thing game after game doesn't take long to get tedious.”

The fault of course lies with the inexperienced development team. Scott Berfield recalled that at a meeting during the Consumer Electronics Show, weeks before the shipping date, lnfogrames revealed that “all that was left to implement was the gameplay.” ‘Fantasia’ reached stores in November of 1991, to hit the Christmas deadline.  Predictably, the reviews were terrible.

“It might look as good as [‘Castle of Illusion], but most certainly doesn't play anything like it, and I think that many Mickey fans will be very, very disappointed” wrote Mean Machines magazine.  “I recommend you keep all sharp or pain-inflicting items away from the Mega Drive, because after a while you'll be very tempted to make use of them - on either yourself or the cartridge!” added critic Rich Leadbetter. CVG Magazine was perhaps the harshest. “If there's any justice in the world, whoever did the play testing for ‘Fantasia’ ought to be standing in the dole queue at least, or standing in front of a firing squad at best. The game promised so much and delivered so little. It's a great shame – ‘Fantasia’ could have been something extra special.” 

"Hindsight's 20/20" Ken Balthaser admits. “I wish now that I would've just said no and sent it back for another two months or so, to tweak the gameplay. I think it could have been a really fantastic game if we had done that."  Initially, the strength of the license meant that ‘Fantasia’ sold well. However, as word got out about the quality of the game Sega became worried about how it would reflect on them. “’Fantasia’ was a major license that would potentially generate great exposure for the Genesis during the Christmas season, and the lack of polish left it well short of the type of product Sega consumers and Disney fans were expecting” notes video game historian Ken Horowitz. "That game nearly cost us dearly; there was so much pressure on me and on the team, that unfortunately I made the call to release it even though the gameplay wasn't ready" Ken Balthaser says in an interview on "I truly wish I hadn't, but sometimes you have to make those decisions. You need games in the pipeline, especially big licenses, but the game was just simply unplayable."

Sega had begun to position the Mega Drive as the machine that had big celebrities and big licenses. Anyone who played ‘Fantasia’ may have instead felt that Sega simply squandered them and were happy to sell an inferior product. Sega wanted to bury the game, and bizarrely it was Disney that came to the rescue, but not because they thought the game was bad.  "Roy Disney did not know that Disney had licensed ‘Fantasia’ to us, so apparently he did not know that we were making a game about it. He was quite upset about that." Ken Balthaser says to According to Ken Horowitz, “Roy Disney had promised his uncle Walt that he would never allow the licensing of anything ‘Fantasia’ related. As it happened, his licensing department had given the console rights to Sega in error, and he was incensed upon learning of the mistake”. Sega had been instructed to stop sale of the game and told that all unsold copies must be destroyed. Remarkably, Sega would not be held responsible and Disney would compensate them for the loss of sales and for money spent on advertising.  Better yet, Sega were offered considerable compensation for the trouble, including additional Disney licenses at no extra cost and favourable royalty rates on future cinematic releases. Essentially, were it not for ‘Fantasia’, we have to ask if we would have got ‘Aladdin’, ‘Lion King’ or ‘World of Illusion’.

‘Fantasia’ ends up as a game that’s more fun to research than to actually play. Disney’s secret embarrassment that ultimately led to huge success for Sega.

Where did I get this game from?
Bizarrely considering the recall, ‘Fantasia’ isn’t shockingly expensive to buy. However I got my copy from a friend for my birthday. I won’t ever want to play it over ‘World ofIllusion’, ‘Mickey Mania’ or ‘Magical Quest’, but the completionist in me is glad to have one more game in my 16 Bit Disney Collection.  

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