Our story starts in Vera City, "Where life is joyful, and everyone lives in peace." And if that sounds familiar, it's because you've heard similar slogans from Disney before. Does "Happiest place on Earth" ring a bell? That is, happiest until someone tries to cut in at Space Mountain when you've been standing in line for 45 minutes. Then you're not so happy. Or when your wife gets hauled off to Disney Jail for smuggling in drinks because she doesn't want to pay five dollars for a small bottle of water. But that's a different story, and we won't talk about my first marriage.
I'll Get You, My Pretty
In keeping with Disney tradition, there is an evil witch. And of course she is jealous of the heroin's beauty. If this sounds familiar, well…I don't mean to insult your intelligence, but it's pretty much the theme to every Disney movie. The witch is appropriately named Mizrabel, and I'm sure you figured out the play on words.
Mizrabel looks like the witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with the unmistakable one eyebrow lifted in that evil manner that has become quintessential for Disney witches. The fact that you can discern the iconic Disney witch features on the 8-bit palette is a testament to Sega's designers. The witch flies in on her broom and steals Minnie Mouse, taking her off to the Castle of Illusion.
The plot is literally spelled out for you in the beginning of the game with subtitles like most titles from the 8-bit era. There are no sound bytes of computer-like voices, like the incomparable Chase H.Q. The plan is to collect the seven different color gems of the rainbow in order to get the power to overcome Mizrabel. Mickey finds out later in the game that he must conquer Mizrabel's henchmen in order to obtain the gems. I have no idea where they were storing these gems, as they didn't appear to have any pockets. I guess you can use your imagination and come to your own conclusion on that.
Mickey's main line of defense is…well, there's really no subtle way to put it…bumping his ass on enemies' heads. The major magazines from the era called it "superb animation" and "a brilliant characterization of Mickey as he moves across the screen." But once you see it in the context I just gave you, there is no un-seeing it.
If it were just Mickey's posture as he jumps through the air, I wouldn't describe it that way, but that's not the case. The "butt-bump," unlike Super Mario Brothers' when they land on enemies' heads, is a totally separate move that you have to press a separate button for while Mickey is in the air. You can also collect items to throw, but your ammunition is limited to what you've collected using the butt-bump attack.
There are aspects of the game that are very cute, though, aside from the butt-in-the-face move he uses to attack. When Mickey is on the edge of a game object he immediately starts flailing his Michael Jackson-styled gloves around like he is afraid he will fall off the edge. When standing still our hero sways his hips side-to-side—not unlike Steamboat WIlly.
Mickey smiles throughout the game—which is typical since he just got rid of the old ball and chain, and now has the freedom to do as he pleases…err, wait, I mean it's typical because Mickey is always happy. Yeah, that's what I meant. At any rate, he has a huge grin across his face even when he's smearing a poop stain on a royal guard's fuzzy hat.
In the first level you encounter giant flowers, even bigger giant apples, and Disney-styled spiders with happy faces, ascending from a huge web to try and inject their deadly venom into Mickey and turn his insides to goo, then suck the yummy bits out. The boss for this forest-themed level is a giant tree that drops what appear to be acorns, and rolls a giant section of tree trunk at Mickey. You receive the red gem for defeating the tree.
Subsequent story boards are not much different than the first. It's a side-scroller with moderate difficulty, and while the themes are varied, it's more of the same jumping and running. There aren't many secret or hidden areas within the game itself, which is kind of odd for a story about illusions.
The colors are very vivid, even for a Sega game, and at times don't exactly seem to match the Mickey Mouse or Disney theme. They lean toward the pastel side of the palette, and that's probably the only way they could have pulled off the number of colors they fit into what seems to be a well designed layout for each level.
The "illusion" aspect of the game, while not implemented as well as I thought it could have been, can be seen in parts. Designers found some pretty impressive ways to implement the ideas, like the ability to flip the screen upside down and walk on the ceiling. Even when selecting your level in the beginning stage, there are doors that, as you look at them, seem to go on for infinity, and stairways appear out of nowhere when you step in the right spot. I just wish they would've spent more time implementing those ideas on the story boards.
Mickey can disappear when he's about to run into something dangerous, then reappear moments later in a different place. It's the coolest feature of Castle of Illusion, although it is a little disconcerting at times because the screen is still moving while you are flying through the air invisible. It's sort of like when you are the only one up at night and you inadvertently lean on the TV remote. All of the sudden the channel changes. For that split second, stuff is happening that you seemingly didn't cause to happen, and a popcorn burp rises into your mouth and…oh wait, I just sat on the remote. Yeah, that's how it is the first couple of times you use the disappearing ability.
Castle of Illusion's mechanics are fairly straightforward. Things move while you stand on them or fall out from underneath you, and at times the lights go out. A few novel ideas caught my eye while navigating through the well-drawn cupcakes and candy ropes, though. The enemy animations are well thought-out. Enemies wiggle, inch-worm, and fly in such a manner that you know, while living vicariously through a mouse in his hunt for his damsel in distress, that this is definitely part of the Disney franchise.
Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead
While I really enjoyed playing this game again after all these years, it reminded me why it was not my favorite. But the way Mickey gets a worried look on his face while ducking, and the way music speeds up during tense parts of the action adds to the enjoyment of what really is an already-enticing challenge.
Part of the reason why this game doesn't impress me as much as when I was younger may be due to the fact that perspective changes as you get older. Or it could just be that popcorn burp—I'm not sure. At the climax, the villainous witch behind it all is defeated in the same manner that the rest of your enemies perish, and the ending is a very ceremonious Disney-like one. I won't spoil it for you, but there are fireworks.
Castle of Illusion is a re-playable release. It was almost as much fun to play yesterday as it was back when it first came out. Unfortunately I didn't get to blow on the cartridge because Sega was never plagued with that problem, but it was fun to dust off the console and take control of the mouse.
This title is another in the emerging glut of 2.5D games being redesigned for newer consoles. Mickey is already designed really well in 2D, so the 3D backgrounds behind him should look great. It's due this summer from Sega Studios Australia [sadly for their last hurrah. -ed].