Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-08-14 06:30:51
Blast from the Past #1 - World of Illusion and Mickey Mania
Back in the early 90s the Disney license was used to make good games. Perhaps it's because platformers are fairly easy to create, and most games back then were some variant of the platforming genre, but I recall enjoying a lot of Disney-themed video games on my Sega MegaDrive (Genesis in NTSC regions) when I was a kid. Two of the games that really stood out to me were World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (from this point on simply World of Illusion) and Mickey Mania, two games that I can still find enjoyment in today.
Both titles do something interesting - they take a Kingdom Hearts-esque approach to world-building. In both games, the player takes Mickey through a variety of Disney-themed worlds. In World of Illusion, enemies and bosses are plucked straight out of modern (at the time) Disney films; in Mickey Mania, entire worlds are based around some of the oldest Disney films such as Steamboat Willie or Mickey and the Beanstalk (from Fun and Fancy Free). The result is that both games feel distinctly meta in their design; they showcase the Disney universe as a product of itself, which is something that can be seen in the Kingdom Hearts series, which clearly isn't the first time that Disney experimented with the model.
The games themselves are credible platformers, despite the Disney moniker which has become somewhat tarnished in the realms of video game development today. World of Illusion put the emphasis on co-op play in a clever way - players control either Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck and have to work together through the levels. The game absolutely requires players to work together, whether it's in helping each other up cliffs, casting spells together or uniting to exploit the weaknesses of the game's bosses. It's a surprisingly unique form of gameplay that in many respects still hasn't been improved upon in platformers today. Side-scrolling platforming games never tend to do anything particularly interesting with co-op play other than putting more avatars on the screen and making levels feel cluttered. In World of Illusion, both players stick together and unite to solve organic puzzles. In addition, there are several changes that can be made throughout the quest based on player actions - different levels become available, which creates an unusual lack of linearity for platformers at the time.
Mickey Mania is a solo affair, but one that boasts a few cool features of its own. While the quest is more straightforward than World of Illusion, the environments the player has to navigate through are creative. The game is very self-aware, and thus as Mickey traverses the cartoons of his past the story acknowledges that the entire game is a visual showcase of the history of Disney's most iconic character. Also interesting is how the game alters between versions. Mickey Mania was released on multiple consoles, and as a result certain versions add entire levels and sections that are omitted in others. The SNES version, for example, lacks certain 3D environments; in the MegaDrive and PS1 versions, there are chase sections and areas with rotating graphics. The gameplay itself featured lovingly-animated characters and great music inspired by the films the game emulates.
While today it is easy to overlook a lot of Disney games, it's nice to remember that at one point in time the Disney license was used to develop great titles. The recent Ducktales: Remastered is a testament to how some of their older platformers embraced clever and unique ideas that still stand up today, while Epic Mickey and its sequel had a few good ideas of their own. There's even a remaster of Castle of Illusion coming out, which although one of my least favourite Mickey platformers of the era bodes well for the future of seeing these games receive more widespread appeal.
When thinking back to classic games from the early 90s, it's easy to view Mario and Donkey Kong and Sonic games as the golden children of the era. As a result, though, credible platformers from other developers are often sidelined and forgotten. There were a lot of bad games made in the 90s, but there were also a lot of hidden gems waiting to be rediscovered. Both World of Illusion and Mickey Mania are great examples of this, and while nostalgia likely plays a large part in my enjoyment of them today, I can still boot them up and have a jolly good time while appreciating their unique mechanics and distinct personalities.