|Format played:||Sega Megadrive|
One of the joys of being a gaming parent is that moment when your kids are old enough to start enjoying games that you play too. And with videogame history littered with classics at every turn, there is a plethora of titles to play through.
Now I must confess to finding Mickey mouse an incredibly irritating character. Any parent who has been dragged out of bed at 6am on a Saturday morning can attest to the ear splitting screech of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse but the old boy has been an enduring figure in pop culture.
This was far from Mickey’s first foray into the digital world, the little scamp having appeared in his own Game & Watch (look it up, kids) title as well as Nes and Atari 2600. But this game marks a sea change in quality of presentation and visual fidelity and would represent the start of a series of games with Land of Illusion and World of Illusion following in later years.
And Mickey is still going strong today of course, Epic Mickey hitting the Wii in 2010 with a sequel in 2012. Castle of illusion itself would also make a return in 2013 via the joys of the Xbox and Playstation stores.
That wicked fiend Mizrabel has kidnapped Minnie and intends to steal her youth! Only you can stop her (natch) by visiting various worlds, fending off the end of level boss and collecting crystals to buy her off, or some such gubbins.
Yes, it’s a side scrolling platformer that tasks you with running, jumping and ducking your way across various levels to stop the villain of the piece. Levels consist of the usual genre tropes of mid-air suspended platforms, drops of doom and various unlikely looking antagonists intent on stopping you. Mickey has two primary ways to defend himself, either by jumping on top of enemies or lobbing something at them with various pick ups available throughout.
Control is fairly responsive if a little spongy feeling. With no clock ticking down you are free to take you time and line jumps up, Mickey able to walk to the very farthest edge of a block before tumbling off. Jumping on enemies feels a little haphazard, as likely to see you lose a chunk of health as it is to see the enemy disappear in a shimmer of stars. Throwing apples and other items is a little easier, although enemies often line themselves up at annoying angles forcing you to either jump and time your throw or disappearing off the edge of the screen as part of their predetermined route.
End of level bosses are on the weird side. At the end of the first level for instance you find yourself in a pleasant looking clearing only for the sole tree in the glade to slice its middle out and come rolling along the deck at you whilst raining death from the sky in the form of conkers. Not only that, he doesn’t even have the good grace to follow the long established rule of 3, taking up to 10 hits to finally give up the ghost.
Level design has a tendency towards the simplistic, a series of predictable left-right-left paths through the level. And whilst it is not inherently difficult, enemy movement patterns combined with your hit-or-miss jump mean that its all to easy to lose a life and have to start from the beginning, repeated play serving only to highlight the games limitations to the point that it soon feels like a grind. The challenge comes not from trying to outfox some fiendish level design but rather safely negotiating a pixel perfect leap. Sure, this is running on hardware that is (gulp) 20+ years old but then so was Mario on the NES and that remains endlessly inventive. Much like many of his jumps, Mickey comes up some way short in comparison.
Perhaps the game’s greatest strength though lies in the level of challenge. There are three options. normal, practice and hard. Standard fare of course but unlike in most games where the easiest difficulty just cuts out a few enemies, here it is almost a different game. The five main levels of the core game and broken down into 3 truncated levels with the boss fights eliminated, allowing me to play it on one level whilst my kids could enjoy the easier version. It’s a fantastic idea. As an adult gamer I still get frustrated by games I know I will never complete. It seems like such a waste to have all that game that you’ll never get to see. For kids this is even more pronounced and they don’t care if the experience is super duper easy, they’ll just loop back to the beginning and enjoy the whole thing all over again.
As we did with Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular then, the only way to get a true reading on what the game is like is to check in with our focus group; my twin 5 year old girls, Leah and Grace.
Now being the detail focused, take no prisoners type of hard hitting gaming journalist I am, I was sure to ask the tough questions and leave no stone unturned. After all, this is a serious business and we need serious answers.
Me: what was your favourite bit?
Grace: all of it.
Leah: collecting the gems
Me: was it too easy, too hard or just right?
L&G: just right
Me: what didn’t you like?
L&G: when I couldn’t finish it
And there you have it folks. They loved everything about it. Apart from the bits they didn’t. You just can’t buy this kind of analysis.
Long time readers will be well aware of my affinity for the 16-bit era and it once again does justice to the source material here. The 8-bit machines, especially the Spectrum that I grew up with, couldn’t hope to get near the cartoon visuals of the TV show or films and whilst subsequent eras have undoubtedly improved the tech, the 16-bit era represents that glorious time when graphics began to, if not exactly replicate at least capture the spirit of our favourite shows.
The colour palette on the Megadrive is a little underwhelming but the sprites are bright and Mickey himself is full of character. He bounds across the screen nicely, tucking his legs up when he jumps and making you feel incredibly guilty as his face contorts when you chuck him off the edge of a cliff.
Graphically the levels are varied albeit unsophisticated. The first level sees you traversing a spooky wood and in a nice touch the scene changes from normal light to a spooky nighttime as you go, the forest inhabitants taking on an eerie glow. The backdrop then changes to a spider web as Mickey makes his way across a set of moving leaves to the exit. The second level is a complete change of pace as we switch to what looks like a toy shop come to life, little drummer men beating a path towards you whilst deadly jack-in-the-boxes line the way forward whilst the third takes us to a dark and dingy set of caves, later levels taking us to rather warmer climes as we approach the fabled castle itself.
Given my earlier rant, Mickey is thankfully silent throughout, your adventure accompanied by a dubious soundtrack that quickly gets old.
Nothing radically new and unlikely to challenge the likes of Mario for platforming superiority, Castle of Illusion is nonetheless a fun platformer that offers degrees of challenge based on your gaming experience.
One for the kids then, although you parents might find yourself sneaking in a quick play once they’re tucked up in bed.