Sometimes all you need is a little innocence in video games. If you agree and your black heart needs something fun, innocent, sweet, charming, and whimsical to act as a much needed balm, then look absolutely no further than Castle of Illusion HD: one of recent year’s most lovable games – even if the whole premise is unoriginal and clocks in about a little under two hours. A high definition remake of the 1990 Sega Genesis classic, this is the fifth in the ever lovable Illusion series which, in chronological order go; Castle of Illusion (1990), Land of Illusion (1992), World of Illusion (1992), Legend of Illusion (1995), and finally Castle of Illusion HD (2013). With all installments receiving positive reception (and continue to do so among the more retro of gamers), the gameplay has always been the same, with only slight and subtle differences implemented to better accommodate the ever-growing list of interested gamers.
Mickey Mouse, since his creation by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, has always been a persistent presence in media. As one of the biggest icons of the entertainment world, it came as no surprise when the big eared vermin decided to pixelate himself and jump into the world of video games. And why not, seeing how he had conquered the TV, movies, lunchboxes, shirts, radio, daily English vernacular et al. But perhaps the video game industry was in need of another icon to lead the way and thus Mickey could not be as ubiquitous in this medium. But where he failed in making a mark, he succeeded in capturing our hearts every single time he appeared in a video game.
Developed by Sega Studios Australia, the HD remake retains the same formula, story and gameplay of the original; Once upon a time the evil Mizrabel kidnaps Minnie when the helium-voiced rodent and her eternal fiancé are taking a romantic stroll down the garden. Mizrabel intends to steal all of Minnie’s youth and beauty and use it for her own dark, witchy use – and it is precisely these sort of things that equal to a serious no-no in children’s fantasy imaginings. Our brave protagonist (albeit with shaky knees) must enter the dreaded eponymous castle, brave the unspoken horrors, best the perils, collect the 7 rainbow gems, rescue his eternal bride-to-be and save the day. Oh, and collect apples and other miscellanea and open chests along the way.
When the original Castle of Illusion hit the shelves back in 1990, the initial reviews were quick to point out several similarities to Super Mario Bros., and although the original has now come to be appreciated under its own spotlight, a sense of deja vu happened when the HD remake was released in 2013. Though it is still a side-scrolling platformer, it has dimension and perspective twists that are reminiscent of Disney’s Hercules for the Playstation 1. In both the games (at specific moments) you can walk towards the camera and away from it. Both even include running segments. Unique to this game only is the overhead view in the early chapters. All this constant camera changing and perspective shifting is done seamlessly and majestically, with no awkwardness to speak of. Really, it was smooth and I hardly felt the bumps.
Mickey’s primary method of taking down his enemies is via bouncing on them and this either knocks them out or makes them disappear into the void. As the game progresses, you’re given projectiles (each chapter has its own unique projectile that keeps with the theme) and Mickey can use them to either take out enemies or obstacles that block his path. This addition does not eliminate our hero’s original method of mowing down his foes as Mickey still needs to bounce off enemies if he is to reach higher places; usually where the Magic Cards and Golden Stars are hidden. Don’t worry if you didn’t time your jump correctly or misjudged your landing spot as the enemies or whatever it was you jumped on will respawn infinitely. Respawning enemies are a serious cause for concern for me in other games (I’m looking at you Castlevania and your GBA sequels), but since they are easy and swift to deal with in here, I hardly flinched.
The character animations, suffice to say, won me over. I have seen my fair share of impressive character movements but the level of fluidity and attention to the tiniest of twitches seen here is beyond impressive. Throughout the game I kept engaging Mickey in various tasks just so I could see again and again the beautiful movements in motion. The personal favorite has to be the standing-too-close-to-the-edge animation where Mickey tries to regain his balance by wildly flailing his arms and standing on tiptoe. This specific action has been an integral part of the Illusion games – and one feature that fans fondly remember – and all execute it beautifully; and seeing it once again in attractive (and big) 3D has left me with a feeling that is akin to meeting a dearest friend after a lengthy gap.
Over here I wish to digress just a tiny bit; If the more intrigued of you are hunting down the Illusion games (or roms) right now, I also want to recommend another platformer also starring Mickey Mouse but unrelated to the series mentioned here. Best known for as the first video game David Jaffe ever worked on – he’s the mastermind behind the Twisted Metal and God of War franchise – Mickey Mania for the Sega Genesis is to me perhaps the quintessential Mickey title. With its implementation of huge sprites, engaging gameplay and enchanting production, Mickey Mania should please every gamer. Also, it has some pretty solid character animations going on, giving the effect that you’re directly controlling a classic Mickey Mouse episode from the Golden Era. I cannot recommend it enough!
As far as platformers go, this game is arguably one of the most super attractive titles out there. Since Castle of Illusion’s audience demographic was kids, naturally vivid colors are what permeate the game. Lush forests with neon colored leaves and spectacular use of natural color; the dark and stormy canyon tops with strong, bold hues with the odd muted tones thrown in for tremendous effect; the atmospheric residing place of benign and mischievous ghosts, with soft colors and strong shadows highlighting the path – it goes on. The world is alive, fresh and invigorating, and even the most smallest of areas brim with activity, giving the effect of a living, breathing world. Everything is kinetic and every activity is worth watching (from a safe distance, that is). Honestly speaking, I haven’t seen a world so inviting, beautiful and captivating since Rayman 2: The Great Escape and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released on the N64 yonks ago. There’s something charming about the locales and scenery that reels you in, and in Castle of Illusion HD, you really want to be there.
The game is divided into 5 sections, with a few having their own mini-section and each has its own distinct theme. The sections are accessed via Mizrabel’s eponymous castle and further areas get unlocked when you meet the requirements of each, such as collecting the appointed gems or stars. Every section has three chapters and the third houses a boss battle which are among the most interesting, albeit easy, boss battles I’ve had in gaming. The strategy remains the same; evade them long enough until they do something stupid that knocks them silly, then bounce on them to take away one portion of their life. Once their health bar depletes, they will topple over and the gem is yours. This is the only strategy and alters only so slightly in terms of evading. Because the game has tight, responsive controls and easy combat, any failure is solely your own and your lack of mastering accurate timing and precise aim.
As much as fun the battles are, the ultimate showdown with Mizrabel herself is a tad disappointing; it’s basically nothing but a lengthier version of the battles that came before. I was hoping to see some innovative techniques with which to defeat her, but as it was the case with previous bosses, you have to keep dodging her attacks and when the time is right, bounce on her to decrease her health bar. What was surprising, however, was the immediate cutscene that followed. Since this is a Disney game I guess you could say it was expected of them, but I never thought it would be so sudden. I won’t spoil it for you but will say it has the potential to leave you slightly stunned.
From the voice-overs, there can be no argument that Richard McGonagle’s warm narration ranks as one of the most best examples of sonorous voice-acting not just in video games, but in any medium where narration applies. It has the perfect recipe for a nice bedtime storytelling formula; conversational, trusting, warm, friendly, and smooth Even if the whole game had been one narration driven ride (a la Dear Esther), I would have given it the same praise I’m giving it now. Though his narration segments are lengthily spaced, they are worth every second; for when his voice comes up, it’s like a coffee-warm hug from an old, dear friend. Bret Iwan voices the protagonist and does an excellent job in resonating the Golden Era Mickey Mouse’s nervous stutter and chatter for the modern age, albeit with a slight twist around the edges. Nika Futterman voices Mizrabel, and though her voice-acting is strongly commendable.