I’ve never played the original Castle of Illusion, originally released back in 1990, so the trip to save Minnie Mouse from the evil clutches of Mizrabel certainly struck me as something new. With the game’s changing perspectives and its varied and interesting level designs, there’s a lot to like about this game. At the same time, there’s a definite level of difficulty here that will frustrate some players and some other issues keep this reimagining of the SEGA Genesis classic from being as good as it could have been.
Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse follows the adventures of Disney’s titular mascot as he risks his own life – or lives, as it were in this case – to save Minnie from a seemingly disastrous fate. To reach Mizrabel and confront the evil witch to save Minnie, Mickey traverses six worlds, including an evil forest, an ominous library, and the titular Castle of Illusion itself. Each world has three stages to complete, along with a boss character to defeat at the end to collect special gems which open the way to the final showdown.
As Mickey makes his way through each area, there’s a ton of enemies that he must either avoid or defeat. Mickey’s arsenal of offense consists of only two attacks: He can jump on enemies to defeat them, Mario-style, or he can collect projectile ammo and fire it at enemies to dispatch them. Attacking with a jump also enables Mickey to bounce off of enemies and gain extra height to collect extra items or find hidden areas. Projectile attacks are better reserved for tight spaces or for opening treasure chests. If enemies touch Mickey, he loses a star – which is basically a hit point – and when all of his stars burn out, a life is lost.
Mickey also has to be careful of environmental hazards which can hamper his progress, chip away at his stars, or even send him to a quick death. Waterfalls force Mickey down and can prevent him from jumping over gaps without proper timing. Falling objects while traversing gaps can do the same, while also taking away stars. Giant books can shove Mickey into bottomless pits. Platforms can crumble, and not maintaining a steady pace of progress can be Mickey’s undoing.
The main items to be collected throughout each level are small gems. These gems must be collected in a great enough number, along with the special gems after defeating bosses, in order to unlock new worlds. In addition to gems, Mickey can collect extra stars to replenish those lost by taking hits and he can also collect the occasional extra life – and he’s going to want to collect as many of these as possible as the later worlds and stages do ramp up considerably in terms of difficulty. Finally, extra items like statue pieces, playing cards, and chili peppers can be collected to unlock extra content like costumes and character bios. These items aren’t at all necessary to complete the game, and are usually better collected in subsequent playthroughs.
As with most platformers from the 16-bit era, each boss has its own pattern of attack and windows for players to counterattack. Some patterns are fairly easy to identify, while others may take a couple of tries to figure out. Players will need to watch their remaining health, as losing a life during a boss battle completely restarts the encounter and leaves Mickey with only three stars when he revives. This makes later battles tougher, especially the final battle with Mizrabel. I didn’t have too much trouble with this until the finale… but once I got there, I started shedding lives with speed. Mizrabel, in particular, requires quick pattern recognition to survive and making even one mistake can doom Mickey to unavoidable failure. Yes, she’s THAT tough.
Castle of Illusion only takes 2-3 hours to complete, but it has lots of replayability. Players can go back to test their reflexes in time trials for each stage and they can also go back to try and collect missed items like gems statue pieces and chili peppers. It’s a game that can be beaten in one sitting, or maybe two, but that’s okay. Games from the Genesis and Super Nintendo era weren’t terribly lengthy in many cases and held their value by inviting players to come back to them after some time. If you’re not big into item collecting or 100% completion, one time through this game may be enough for you… but there’s a fair amount of locked content if you’re willing to go back through and find all that the game has to offer.
While the visuals are a nice upgrade from the 16-bit Genesis originals, the frame rate in the HD version is a disappointment. The frame rate is generally 30 frames per second, and there are times when it dips below that. One boss battle in particular has a frame rate that drops by nearly half. When you compare this with how smoothly the original ran, it’s debatable as to whether the sacrifice of smooth frame rate was worth the extra visual prowess here. Thankfully, this frame rate issue doesn’t detract from the game too much… but its still quite noticeable.
On the plus side, the character designs are quite nice, with much more detail this time around. The sound is excellent on all counts with good voice acting, a strong soundtrack with options for newly rearranged tracks from Grant Kirkhope (formerly of RARE) or the original 16-bit tracks, and a narrator to tie the story together – similar to what Supergiant Games did with Bastion.
Overall, I generally had fun with Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. I found that I really missed out on a 16-bit gem and it’s great that new generations of players will get to experience this game with updated visuals, sound, and presentation. The difficulty spikes in the later worlds and the very challenging final boss battle may be off-putting to younger players and less-experienced players. Mickey will die A LOT in the later worlds until players get a handle on proper timing, as well as evading obstacles. It’s still a great ride, despite its flaws and faults. The content is family-friendly, and fans of Disney as well as fans of a genre seemingly gone by in platforming would do well to give this game a shot.