Before Sonic the Hedgehog, there was Mickey Mouse. In November 1990, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse released almost simultaneously in America, Europe, and Japan to the SEGA Genesis and Mega Drive consoles. At the time, the game was visually stunning, described in one video preview as “beautiful”, “brilliant” and continuing the tradition of Disney animation. On top of that, the platforming was brimming with inventive platforming elements accompanied by catchy, whimsical music. The game was great at the time, and replaying it in 2013 it is easy to see why it is deemed a platforming classic.
As far back as April of this year there were rumors that a remake was on the way, thanks to digital box art that had leaked. The idea of a Castle of Illusion remake really was an unexpected surprise. Sure the original is fantastic, but few fans were demanding a remake and even fewer fans ever expected SEGA to team with Disney to make it happen. But here we are, the summer is coming to an end, and we have a re-imagining of the SEGA classic. Was a remake really necessary, and does it maintain the magic that made the original so great?
Graphics & Presentation
Everything we remember from the original game is there on screen, but re-imagined in its own unique art style
Given the amount of attention given to the original’s graphics in 1990, I thought it was only fitting to begin the review by focusing on this category. With the Playstation 4 and Xbox One wowing gamers right now, it’s difficult to look at current gen games and be as impressed as we used to be. Thankfully, while Castle of Illusion does not push the envelope when it comes to technology, it still looks very good for a fully 3D digital title and more than makes up for any shortcomings with a beautiful art direction. Rather than taking the assets of the original 2D game and cleaning them up for a 3D title, SEGA Studios Australia has used the original game as a rough sketch for the finished product. Everything we remember from the original game is there on screen, but re-imagined in its own unique art style that both recalls the original and pays tribute to other eras of Mickey Mouse and Disney animation. The style of Mickey in particular reminded me of the fantastic theatrical short Runaway Brain.
Stages are packed with details that either act as Disney easter eggs, such as the milk bottle cap that was actually a real 1930s pin, or give hints at what obstacles are to come. In the Enchanted Forest stage, for example, the first act features a background appearance by the stage’s boss who doesn’t make his real debut until act three. Some stages have Mickey zigzagging through a three dimensional environment on a 2D path, with later portions of the act appearing as background elements early on. While all of these tricks are nothing new to platforming games, they are very well executed in Castle of Illusion. In fact, if I would compare the game’s overall presentation to anything, it would be the Disneyland ride The Haunted Mansion.
Players are constantly moving deeper into the Castle of Illusion, rarely ever stopping for cutscenes, and the story moves along thanks to narration from Richard McGonagle (Sully from the Uncharted series). Inventive set pieces, both gameplay oriented and simply there to enrich the visual experience, make each stage fun and unique. I wanted to also call attention to the wonderful soundtrack from Grant Kirkhope (of Banjo-Kazooie fame) which elevates the original Genesis music to an orchestral level that is both magical and cartoonish. There is also an option to play the game with the 16-bit music, but given the quality of the new music, you’d be missing out on some really wonderful stuff. No stage overstays its welcome, which makes you want to return to it all the more. When the “ride” is over, you’ll want to get right back on and experience it again. Several Disney games attempt to capture that Disney magic in their presentation, and Castle of Illusion is one of the few that succeeds in doing so.
Stages are not needlessly expanded in an effort to pad out the adventure
While Castle of Illusion reinvents the original in terms of visuals, gameplay-wise the remake very much sticks to the level progression found in the original. You’ll go through the same amount of stages and bosses, and should you avoid exploration, the remake itself doesn’t go any longer than the original Genesis title. Having said that, I think it was a smart move on SEGA’s part to adhere to the length of the original. Stages are not needlessly expanded in an effort to pad out the adventure. There are no stripped down rush stages reusing elements or repeats of stages with new graphical elements to give the illusion of a new stage.
Mickey has all his signature moves from the original; he throws items and smashes enemies with his butt. Stages themselves are close to the layouts of the originals, however there are the occasional changes which improve the experience and bring the title up to modern platforming standards while still adhering to the original and the early 90’s platforming conventions. What is so exciting about these changes and additions is that many came directly from the original game’s director Emiko Yamamoto, who served as an advisor for the re-imagined title. Concepts that were not possible at the time of the original are finally able to be seen in the modern remake.
If there is one area where the game could have used improvement, it is the controls. Initially, the game does take some getting used to. I don’t consider this a fault, as there are several great platforming titles that take a little time for the player’s hands to get accustomed to. How far you jump depends on how long you hold the jump button, and how much air you get after smashing an enemy with your butt depends on how long you were holding the jump button before hitting the enemy. Figuring out enemy hitboxes and how much room you have to run on a platform also takes some getting used to. None of these elements hurt the game in the long run. In fact, by the halfway point you’ll probably work all these things out and the game will feel far more natural. I do think, however, that a little more polish on these aspects would have improved the game for those who are just diving in.
While I noted that the game itself is short, one could play through it once at a brisk pace within a few hours, like the best platformers Castle of Illusion is a game that you’d want to play through again and again. Visually, there are enough details to warrant another trip or two through the castle, and SEGA has also added a few collectables to incentivize players. Playing cards from the Castle of Illusion sequel World of Illusion unlock a magician’s costume, while peppers from Donald’s adventure QuackShot unlock an adventurer’s outfit. There is also the aforementioned 16-bit soundtrack, and time attack modes. Unfortunately, none of these additions alter the gameplay. It would have been fun to have a new character unlock, such as Donald with his plunger gun or Minnie in her own spin-off adventure through remixed levels.
- Excellent art direction
- Perfectly captures that “Disney Magic”
- Music is great
- As fun as the original
- The game is as short as the original
- Controls could have used some polish