Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (16-bit)

 

What will Mickey do about that scary kanji?

 

Old Man Tree’s up to no good.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Platformer

DIFFICULTY: Adjustable

RELEASE DATE: 11/21/90 – (JP)

                                             12/90 – (US)

                                             03/91 – (EU)

 

As a kid, I played and enjoyed every Capcom-developed Disney game on the NES, including the awful Mickey Mousecapade and the eternally overrated DuckTales. I loved platformers, even mediocre licensed ones like The Tick or Virtual Bart. I owned a Genesis. For these reasons, I should have played Castle of Illusion as a kid; especially since I clearly remember it at the Blockbuster where I rented games. I didn’t. Since I failed to experience one of Sega’s seminal platformers when it was new and fresh, I’m forced to approach it from a more modern, jaded perspective. Apologies in advance.

 

An ominous stroll through the woods…

 

Story time! Mickey’s out to save Minnie from the clutches of the evil witch, Mizrabel. To do so, he must venture into the Castle of Illusion and find all seven colorful gems hidden throughout the game’s five stages.

Mickey’s equipped with a deadly butt bounce and unwavering American optimism. He struts through trouble like he’s cock of the walk, which often gets him into trouble. While Mickey has a fearsome, soaring jump, perfect for leaping across large chasms, he’s unable to move quickly, ever. He can’t even go from a walk to a run; it’s strut or nothing. Because of this, cheap hits are prevalent from quick moving enemies and boss battles. Not saying Mickey needs to be Mario or Sonic, but a little extra pep in his step would have been nice.

 

Mickey and this jack-in-the-box share the same prescription.

 

Mickey starts off each level with three hit points, though his life bar can graciously be increased to five by collecting stars. Each level also has items Mickey can throw, like apples, marbles, and candles. These are perfect for more aggressive in-your face enemies, walls with combustible bricks, and boss battles.

The five levels – Enchanted Forest, Toyland, the Storm, the Library, and the Castle – get more interesting as you move along. The Enchanted Forest and Toyland are unsettling and gorgeous, but the constant bouncing on enemies and jumping from platform to platform quickly grows stale. Once you hit the Storm, the game opens up. The stages are still linear, but various paths appear, some of which lead to secrets, others to dead-ends and additional enemies. The Library is my personal favorite stage, if only for the inspired, bizarre vignettes where you swim around in tea cups, enter open bottles of presumably spoiled milk, and hallucinate that you’re in a candy land.

 

Good for what ails ya…

 

Even with the outstanding presentation, Castle of Illusion feels lacking. It needs more levels, more challenge, more secrets. Something more than what it offers, which is basic platforming. Yes, bouncing on enemies and jumping on platforms are the hallmarks of every platformer, but this isn’t “every platformer.” This is Castle of Illusion, son. Before Sonic the Hedgehog came along and set Sega’s course, the company promoted the crap out of this one. For a game that’s hailed as one of the finest platforming examples on the Genesis, and one that released the same year (in America) as the landmark platformer, Super Mario Bros. 3, I was expecting more.

 

Perfect setup for a chomped bottom.

 

Castle of Illusion is a beautiful game, though. It really does look like a Mickey short film come to life. Many of the stages, like The Enchanted Forest, the Library, and the Castle, seem plucked directly from a 1940s cartoon. Mickey’s animation is superb, as well. The movements and expressions of the character are perfectly replicated, though I will say, Mickey’s constant smiling in the face of danger is a reminder of how vague and unformed his character really is.

 

Just a dragon coming out of frosting, no big.

 

Two concessions I’m willing to make for those of you who hold Castle of Illusion in high regard:

Concession #1: Upon its release, there were no games like Castle of Illusion on the Genesis. Sega could decry the NES as a child’s system all they wanted, but they couldn’t deny that the NES remained on fire in 1990. Since the release of the Mega Drive two years prior, Sega had stood by its commitment to make their 16-bit console the place for more mature arcade games. This had to change. Revenge of Shinobi, Strider, Herzog Zwei, A-grade titles all, and not a cheery, kid-friendly one on the bunch. If Sega was going to thrive, they needed to diversify. Castle of Illusion was Sega bridging the gap towards younger gamers, and more specifically, cautious parents with disposable income.

 

Knock it off, Mick, you’ll never be Indiana Jones.

 

Concession #2: I would have loved Castle of Illusion as a kid. Loved it. I’ll never understand why I didn’t rent it. The game is as good of a platformer as anything in the NES Disney lineup, but it looks like a cartoon turned into outstanding pixel art. Good on Sega for marketing the crap out of it, and for doubling down on more Disney games in the years to come.

 

Not even Mizrabel and her legion of ghosts can spoil Mickey’s sunny disposition.

 

I don’t believe Castle of Illusion deserves its sterling reputation, but I understand why gamers place it on a pedestal. Like Donkey Kong Country in the mid-90s, Castle of Illusion‘s graphics and world must have enveloped the player upon release. Tthe screenshots are fine, but they can’t replicate how great the game looks in motion.

As with DKC, Castle of Illusion is a game very much of its time. Nearly three decades on, its imperfections – too easy, too short, lack of content, etc. – seem all the more prominent. Castle of Illusion remains a polished and playable platformer today, but the sense of wonder is gone.

 

1990: A

Today: B

 

Until we meet again.

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26 thoughts on “Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (16-bit)

  1. Your review’s pretty fair looking at the game from a modern perspective, dylan.

    I’m a brazilian, and you probably know, sega was pretty huge here during the early ’90’s. And castle of illusion definitely felt like their biggest side-scroller until sonic showed up. I supposed that seems silly now, but really did regard it as sega’s mario 3, at least over here.

    Anyway, I suppose you could say that this is a similar game to michael jackson’s moonwalker in the sense that they’re both “celebrity” games: Sega was placing their chips on these popular icons to get their first worldwide console success because they didn’t have a mascot yet. So yea, it isn’t surprising that these games are kinda shallow. Presentation comes first, gameplay second. Still, they seem like impressive technical impressive achievements even now, and they’re at least kinda fun to play.

    Looking forward to your review of the master system version, since that’s a pretty different beast from this one. Also quackshot, that OTHER disney celebrity game by sega. And hopefully mickey mania someday, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Kefky, glad to get a different perspective outside of America/Europe! Agreed that presentation is first, gameplay second in Castle of Illusion, though I do think Sega got better at implementing deeper gameplay along with stellar presentation as the 90s progressed. And yes, I’m looking forward to QuackShot and Mickey Mania on Sega CD!

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  2. B seems (at the generous end of) fair.

    Like you I was aware of and curious about this game as a kid, and scaffolded that curiosity by playing just about every related game to which I had access, but didn’t actually get around to playing it.

    It became something I was saving for a special occasion, so when I finally played through it in one short sitting at Christmas 2008 it left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed. It felt so hollow and lethargic. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen.

    SMS COI isn’t perfect but I recall it being a bit peppier and a lot more interesting, with more secrets and more diversions from the critical path through each stage. It’s also satisfyingly challenging.

    World of Illusion is even easier than MD COI, which didn’t impress me back when is just spent $90 on it as a teenager, but it’s more fun. It’s a lot more visually interesting, more happens in the (slightly uneven) stages, it’s faster, and the co-op mode is a great touch. Its charm does sort of taper off toward the end though.

    Don’t even get me started on 3DS Power of Illusion…

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, it was marketed as a semi sequel. It’s pretty dire. It looks and sounds amazing and the boss battles are great, but most of the rest of the gameplay is just drudgery.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. http://www.segaretro.org/Emiko_Yamamoto

    Should be mentioned that this game was made by Emilio Yamamoto. As well as most of the Sega Disney games. Before creators names were used she was known as Emerin. She left Sega to work for Disney interactive. And notably has been the producer for the Kingdom Hearts games. She had some cool interviews about this game on the Castle of Illusion remake a few years back. I’d say this video is a much watch if you are a fan of the game.

    I loved this game. It instead of going with the 80’s Club Mickey style and the weekday Disney cartoons, went with the classic pre WW2 style art. And it was amazing. From the music to the settings and backgrounds it looked like a old Disney movie that could have been.

    And the platforming was great, every level threw some new idea in to the gameplay that made it really varied. In a way this feels like a pre Sonic warmup. With a lot of gameplay involving the stages themselves. Stuff that stands out to me are the swinging on vines in the forest. The cobwew section with the spiders with dew on the webs. Jumping on ghosts. The amazing looking pastel backgrounds in the South American ruins section and the gameplay involving rising and falling water and water spouts. The bright colorful candy area. The toy land where switches would flip the screen over. The climbing the great toy mountain only for it to collapse into a pyramid and you go racing back down it. The jumping around clock gears and mechanical platforms in the clock tower and fighting the knights. Discovering stuff in the library like the tea cups and milk jugs where you are trnasported to a level in the container, complete with sugar cubes. Every level had something different. Different enemies and different hazards to navigate. And the bosses were fantastic. Sure Mickey didn’t run fast but I thought the gameplay was still excellent. It fit the world. Like nobody says simon Belmont doesn’t run fast. But the gameplay really involved a lot of mastery of butt stomp jumps and controlled great in the air. This also might be the first game with idle animations. Everything in the game is moving and is well animated. Loved stuff likes when Mickey got hit he lets out a screaming yelp and pain animation.

    I was blown away at the time. And still enjoy playing this game. The story is fun too. Getting all the gems to open the rainbow bridge to Dave Minnie. The whole game plays out like a movie. Even having the ending credits in an old style movie theater. The music also is fantastic, setting a mood reminiscent of older cartoon music.

    World of Illusion might be even better. Except it’s fairly easy. But is an amazing co-op game. It actually has different levels for co-op play. Is worth checking out. Im always torn which one I like better.

    And the remake was actually pretty good as well. It captures the essence of the original while expanding upon it and of course looking nicer. Too bad Sega Australia was shuttered before we could see what other games they could resurrect.

    Anyway I’d hold this game in higher esteem than almost any other Disney game on Nintendo. And should be in any Genesis collectors collection. Also there are a lot of secret areas to be reached with repeated playthroughs. I do agree, I wouldn’t put it up there with Sonic or Super Mario Bros 3 or World. But those are some mighty high aspirations. For a game that predates them. But presentation wise I absolutely would. It’s a fun little game with some good wow moments in gameplay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Long time reader, (very) occasional poster.

      “This also might be the first game with idle animations.”

      As a kid, I spent (and probably still do) far too much time doing nothing in games, waiting to see if the character is going to do something interesting…to think it may have originated with this game!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agree with the pre-Sonic warmup. There are assets used in this game that feel like they were reworked into Sonic 1, like collecting colored gems (Chaos Emeralds), the piranha creatures jumping out at you in the Storm (robot piranhas attacking you from under the bridge). There were a couple other examples that I noted at the time too, but I can’t remember them.

      Like

  4. Also this game kind of took me by surprise when it came out. I wasn’t expecting a good liscenesed game. It really showed the difference 16 bit hardware could make. I think this game was a warmup for better games to come. I really don’t remember much marketing when this came out. I think it was kind of a surprise hit. A shame Sega farmed out Fantasia to a crappy developer because that could have been special if done right. Als0 really looking for your reviews later on the SMS/GG games. It yet agains holds a reputation among some people of being better than the Genesis version somehow which I find hard to believe. Interested in your thoughts when you get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m definitely younger than you, Sean, but I remember ads for Castle of Illusion. Much more than QuackShot or any of the other Disney games, actually. Maybe they were targeting the super young demographic for this? I would have been five when Castle of Illusion came out.

      As always, I appreciate your extra info. I really can’t imagine how mindblowing Castle of Illusion was back in the early 90s.

      Like

  5. Also I never noticed this until now somehow. But I love the header image for this review. Was it always like that? I looked back a few reviews and nocticed they are taken from your screenshots in the review. Is that something you choose? Or is it randomly chosen for the header image?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is one of the first Mega Drive games I saw at a friends out. This convinced me consoles had better quality games than the ST and Amiga’s we were playing at the time and we gradually all joined my friend in becoming console owners.

    Your review is spot on a great game and showcase for the system at the time. But the gameplay hasn’t aged as well as a Mario or Sonic title.

    As other have alluded to I find the Master System version a more solid and tighter gameplay experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Liked the review Dylan – think it was because I was like you and never actually played Castle of Illusion in the early 90’s.

    I reckon it’s because I was more drawn to the Mega Drive’s more violent games (it’s all about ninjas, right?) and saw Mickey as a childish character. What you said made sense though – Mickey was Sega’s attempt at attracting the more kid friendly Nintendo user base.

    I wonder how good Castle of Illusion could have been if Nintendo had the license…do you reckon Nintendo would have made a game more in the vein of Super Mario World? I think the combination of COI’s graphics with Mario quality game play would have made a classic game.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even though I don’t like Castle of Illusion as much as a Mario platformer, I’m kinda glad Nintendo didn’t have the rights to make Disney games. I prefer Nintendo games with Nintendo characters. But I get what you’re saying, that would be an interesting experiment, if nothing else.

      Castle of Illusion just fits on the Genesis so well. It’s such an arcade platformer, which is really Sega’s bread and butter. Sega’s commitment to detail, like Mickey’s animation and the overall look and feel of the game, is first rate.

      Like

  8. Like you, Dylan, I have no idea why I never purchased or rented this game. It was on my radar, but when I bought my Genesis, I opted for the excellent “Quackshot” instead. I know you already mentioned you’re looking forward to it, and I can’t wait to read your thoughts on it, because I think you’ll find it to be a fun, if easy, romp with a ton of charm. In particular, the graphics and sound in the game are fantastic. I did, however, later opt for Sega’s take on “Fantasia”, which didn’t fare nearly as well. It looks and sounds the part, but the gameplay is flawed, and disappointing. They went too far in the other direction, and made it harder than it needed to be, but in a frustrating way. I look forward to reading your review of that as well, because I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on it after you put some time into it yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I rented the Genesis version, but the 8 bit version (specifically for my Game Gear) is the version I really enjoy. Just overall a better package. This one still looks great though! The fluid animation was a revelation back in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: What’s Next! – November 1990 | Sega Does

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