Released: November 1990
Developer: SEGA AM7
Also Available For: Game Gear and Master System
As I’ve mentioned before, Disney had quite the reputation for licensing their characters for top quality videogames back in the nineties. These days, licensed videogames are often frowned upon but, back then, Disney’s movies and characters made for some of the most enjoyable action/adventure platformers on the SEGA Mega Drive and Super Nintendo. Mickey Mouse, Disney’s beloved mascot, received quite a few videogames for the Mega Drive, each one an enjoyable 2D romp capturing the whimsy and aesthetic charm of Mickey’s character and animated adventures. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse paved the way for Mickey’s subsequent adventures, both solo and alongside Donald Duck, who also had his fair share of adventures on 8- and 16-bit hardware back in the day. So influential is Castle of Illusion’s reputation that a remake was released in 2013 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, and various mobile platforms. Until now, this was the only version of Castle of Illusion I had played; while that was quite a while ago, I remember it being a fun little 2.5D romp so, when I started planning on expanding my Mega Drive library, I knew that Castle of Illusion would have to be on the list to see how the title holds up.
Mickey and Minnie Mouse live peacefully in Vera City but when Minnie is suddenly abducted by the evil witch Mizrabel, Mickey must journey into the witch’s Castle of Illusion to recover the seven Gems necessary to defeating Mizrabel and stopping her from switching bodies with Minnie.
Castle of Illusion is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer in which players must guide Mickey through six Levels, each hidden behind doors within the titular Castle of Illusion. Rather than using a traditional map screen or a hub world, or simply transitioning from one level to the next, Mickey travels to each of the game’s Levels by passing through enchanted doorways in Mizrabel’s castle, which is a nice change of pace from simply navigating a basic map or automatically dropping into a Level.
Mickey has two main forms of attack to defend himself against Mizrabel’s many and varied minions; he can either grab an apple or a marble and throw them at his enemies or bounce on their heads with his rump. Throw projectiles can be useful but, as a lot of enemies are shorter than the projectiles travel, you’ll most likely be making use of Mickey’s butt to defeat your enemies. However, if you don’t hold down the jump button, Mickey will take damage, which is annoying, so it’s worth holding it down every time you make a jump in case an enemy swoops beneath you. When you land on an enemy’s head, you can bounce from one to another to make short work of multiple enemies, clear larger gaps, or reach higher platforms. While Mickey’s arsenal of moves isn’t exactly the deepest, he makes up for it by controlling extremely well for the most part. There are times, however, when either he feels a little slippery or the surfaces he is standing on are oddly slippery and you’ll find yourself sliding off an edge and to your death or accidentally slipping into an enemy or down a bottomless pit. While instant death traps and obstacles aren’t too obtrusive, they are present in some of the worst areas, such as a section where Mickey must jump from small platforms while waterfalls threaten to drag him down a bottomless pit and to his death.
As standard, Mickey has a fairly decent, semi-floaty jump that takes him quite far and far the longer you hold the jump button down and depending on how much momentum you have. His walk is quite sluggish, though, and he doesn’t really speed up beyond much of a gentle stride so the game’s emphasis is more on platforming and mild exploration and puzzles rather than fast-paced, high-speed action. Mickey can duck to avoid projectiles and enemies as they jump but, while he can swim without fear of drowning, he can’t actually attack any enemies whilst underwater, leaving him vulnerable. Certain Levels task Mickey with grabbing on to ropes, vines, and other hanging apparel; I found grabbing these to be troublesome, at best, as more often than not Mickey simply leap through the rope but, once you grab on, you can swing from rope to rope with the added bonus of automatically dispatching any airborne enemies as you swing along.
Mickey’s health is represented by a five-point power bar; Mickey loses a point every time he takes damage and loses a life every time his health is fully depleted by can replenish a health point by grabbing a Star item. He can earn an extra try by either grabbing some Mouse Ears or collecting first 40,000 points and then 50,000, awarded by defeating enemies, grabbing gems, and tallied up after you complete each Level. Some Levels require Mickey to do a bit of exploration; in Toyland, for example, you need to find a key in order to progress while in the Storm, you have to contend with a maze-like cycle of water jets and find the right path to the Level’s exit. While exploring the Library, you can jump into tea cups and swim through a few small bonus areas to grab extra projectiles or gems, and you’ll sometimes have to run away from a large rolling obstacle or try to not be swept away by rushing water.
Graphics and Sound:
Though later surpassed by its later 16-bit successors, Castle of Illusion is still a gorgeous little title; all the sprites and backgrounds pop with bright, colourful art and feature some interesting animations and elements. When left idle, Mickey has a charming little animation where he sways his hips to the game’s various whimsical tunes and he always looks full of life and vigour as he strolls, hops, and bounces along. His enemies aren’t quite as dynamically rendered but they’re interesting and wacky enough to fit the themes of the game’s various Levels.
As you travel through the castle’s enchanted worlds, you’ll journey through a forest, a toy box, a giant library, and the castle itself. Each Level has various other layers to it, meaning you’ll hop across leaves and through spider’s webs, leap through a sweet and chocolate world, get stuck in sticky jelly, and even traverse a pyramid-like structure where damaging water threatens to wash you away. Once you reach Mizrabel’s castle proper, you’ll have to contend with far more obstacles and face your greatest challenge as giant boulders try to crush you, bridges crumble beneath you, and Mickey must leap from cogs and gears and swinging pendulum’s in the castle’s clock tower.
Enemies and Bosses:
Being that the game is, essentially, a jaunt through a magical, fairytale-like setting, Mickey comes up against a whole host of enemies in his journey that vary from the painfully generic to the bizarre. You’ll go from butt-bouncing on sentient mushrooms, spiders, toy soldiers, bats, and chubby little bookworms to contending with juggling clowns on unicycles (which race at you once they’re riders are defeated), skeletal fish, and extremely annoying, bouncing letters of the alphabet.
At the end of each Level, Mickey has to face a large boss, known as a Master of Illusion. These range from an angry tree that tries to drop acorns on your head, a jack-in-the-box that tries to punch you with boxing glove, a totem pole that can only be knocked down by butt-bouncing on the enemies it spews out, and a giant sweet dragon.
After defeating the Masters of Illusion and getting through Mizrabel’s castle, Mickey has to face off with the witch herself at the top of her castle, with Minnie held captive in a magical balloon. Fittingly, Mizrabel assumes the form of a youthful sorceress for the battle, which sees Mickey having to keep to the high ground to avoid the witch’s swirling spirits and butt-bounce on her head in the small window of vulnerability she has. While none of these boss battles are particularly difficult, as they all stick to a very predictable attack pattern, there’s not a lot of call for Mickey’s projectiles during these fights and even Mizrabel is bested with relative ease simply by staying on the upper platforms.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
There’s not a lot on offer here apart from the standard trope of being awarded an extra life when you collect enough points. You can, however, pick up bags that will gift you with a whole bunch of projectiles to throw and use your butt-bounce to reach higher and out of reach areas to find additional health, gems, and ammo but, apart from that, there’s no much else available to expand your health or arsenal.
The game has three difficulty modes: Practice, Normal, and Hard. In Practice mode, you start with full health and won’t have to face any bosses and only need to collect three Gems and can continue four times after you exhaust all your tries but you won’t get the game’s true ending; in Normal and Hard, you start with three or two health points, respectively, and have to find all seven Gems and can continue two times in Normal but have no opportunity to continue in Hard mode; you also lose all items you’re carrying after losing a try, adding a level of difficulty to the game and requiring you to exhibit more skill than in its 8-bit successor.
It’s easy to see why Castle of Illusion is so beloved; it’s a fun, charming little adventure that looks and feels just like you’re playing a cartoon. Mickey has always been dropped into this bright, colourful fairytale adventures, even when he made the transition to 3D titles, and these worlds are surprisingly fitting for Disney’s cheeky little mascot. Offering just the right level of challenge to keep you coming back for more, Castle of Illusion set the standard for Mickey’s subsequent 8- and 16-bit adventures, most of which deviated very little from this game’s core gameplay and mechanics. It might not be the best action/adventure platformer on the Mega Drive, or the fastest or most action-packed title, but it’s still a charming, whimsical romp that looks, plays, and sounds fantastic and is well worth your time.
What did you think about Castle of Illusion? Where does it sit in your hierarchy of 16-bit Disney games? Did you ever play the remake from a few years ago? How do you think it compares to the original? Whatever your thoughts on Castle of Illusion, and Disney and Mickey games in general, drop a comment below and share your thoughts.