Castle of Illusion review: Once upon a mouse

Castle of Illusion review Once upon a mouse
Longtime video game fans speak fondly of the "Disney magic" that made for great platformers throughout the '80s and '90s. As recent efforts demonstrate, however, licensing is only a small part of the equation. The reality is that many memorable platformers – including DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, and yes, Castle of Illusion – took severe liberties with Disney's characters and canon, leading to unexpected innovation. This approach may not sit well with brand managers today, but it made for great video games.

Modern-day developers of Disney platformers often lean heavily on the license in the hopes of repeating previous successes, but their attempts have come up short. 2012's Epic Mickey: The Power of Illusion for the Nintendo 3DS cited direct inspiration from Sega's 16-bit classic, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, but its gameplay was burdened with endless dialogue and ill-fitting Disney cameos. More recently, DuckTales: Remastered attempted to add more character to Capcom's beloved classic with frequent cutscenes, trampling the perfect pacing of the original game.

Sega's HD update of Castle of Illusion throws the failings of Disney's recent platformers into sharp relief, exposing the pitfalls of brand-driven remakes while demonstrating a love and reverence for its source material. Castle of Illusion is both a great remake and a showcase for the key elements that make up a successful platformer.
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Castle of Illusion (E3 2013)

Originally released for the Sega Genesis in 1991, Castle of Illusion boasted exceptional graphics, memorable challenges, and a satisfying difficulty curve, earning it a spot among the best Disney-licensed platformers. Sega Studios Australia deviates little from Castle of Illusion's structure, capturing the spirit of the original game while adding its own embellishments when needed. The result contributes enough new content to make the experience worthwhile for Castle of Illusion veterans, while also ensuring a consistent gameplay flow for newcomers.

Similar to the approach GRIN took with its excellent Bionic Commando Rearmed, Castle of Illusion's remake downplays or strips out elements from the original game that didn't quite work out, while focusing on components that were particularly effective.

Castle of Illusion's basic mechanics remain mostly untouched, for example. Mickey's primary method of attack is a classic among platforming heroes: the butt-bounce. The attack has been tweaked slightly for the remake of Castle of Illusion, removing the need for an additional button press before impact. It's a solid change, and helps to make the game more immediately accessible.

Mickey is also equipped with a limited supply of throwable weapons, which can be used to take out faraway enemies. The butt-bounce is still preferable in many cases (and often necessary, in order to reach overhead platforms), but long-range attacks give Mickey capabilities beyond what you might expect from the genre.

Castle of Illusion review Once upon a mouse
Castle of Illusion's initial forest level showcases Sega Studios Australia's canny ability to reinterpret and improve upon 16-bit level designs. At first, Sega's remake greatly resembles the 16-bit version, pitting Mickey against slow-moving enemies and simple platforming challenges. Immediately afterward, the Genesis version of Castle of Illusion ramps up its difficulty in a level that takes place atop a canopy of spiderwebs, challenging players to complete several precise jumps over a bottomless pit.

In the remake, however, this sequence is reduced to an optional bonus area, rewarding skilled players with special collectibles upon completion. Failing this segment simply boots Mickey to the second half of the forest level, rather than taking away a life and forcing the player to repeat the stage. It's a subtle but smart change, retaining a memorable sequence from the original game while ensuring that it doesn't bog down players with a spike in difficulty.

Later in the forest level, Mickey must run away from a gigantic rolling apple in a brief but iconic action sequence. In its remake, Sega shifted this scene to a forward-scrolling perspective, evoking nostalgia for the chase levels from the 16-bit Mickey Mania and Virgin's The Lion King (minus the extreme difficulty of either game, thankfully).

Sega Studios Australia makes deft alterations to Castle of Illusion's formula throughout. Its 2.5D presentation and sweeping camera channels Namco's Klonoa and the more recent Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, and does a great job of showcasing the lush backdrops while interfering little with the foreground action.

Castle of Illusion review Once upon a mouse
The team also introduces a number of 3D sequences in its Castle of Illusion remake, with mixed results. Jump distances are sometimes difficult to judge during these fixed-camera scenes, leading to frustrating moments when 3D platforms are placed sequentially. While these 3D stages are weaker than the 2D segments, they're infrequent enough to be tolerable, and help to bridge otherwise jarring scene transitions within each level.

Many of the remade boss battles use this 3D perspective to some degree, but it works quite well in these cases. Castle of Illusion contrasts the too-long boss battles in DuckTales: Remastered with fights that are challenging, yet well-paced. The toy world's clown boss, for instance, benefits from the shift to 3D by giving players a greater range of movement to dodge his attacks. During the counterattack phase, the game briefly shifts back to 2D for precision's sake, giving the battle a good, clear sense of back-and-forth action.

Unfortunately, Castle of Illusion's boss battles are preceded by cutscenes that can't be skipped. Most of these are brief, but the lengthy cinematic sequence before the final boss fight will try your patience.

Boss encounters aside, Castle of Illusion is surprisingly light on cutscenes. A fully-voiced narrator introduces each level and provides commentary throughout the adventure, but the player retains control throughout, keeping the pacing consistent. Better still, the narration can be disabled entirely – an option that was sorely missing from the overly chatty DuckTales: Remastered.

Castle of Illusion review Once upon a mouse
While Castle of Illusion features many additions and changes to the original, one area in which it differs very little is its length. Castle of Illusion's remake is quite short, and can be completed in just a couple of hours. Sega Studios Australia lengthens the quest with hidden collectibles sprinkled throughout each stage, and the leaderboard-driven Time Attack mode should give speedrunners an excuse to tackle multiple playthroughs. If you're neither a completionist nor a competitive type, though, the game's short length could be a disappointment.

Length and occasional control issues aside, Castle of Illusion is a very successful remake. It captures the original's unique style while expanding on it in a meaningful way, without burdening the experience with unnecessary additions or other concessions to the Disney license. Castle of Illusion is blessed with a magic that transcends licensing, and 20 years after its initial release, it's still a damn fine platformer.


This review is based on an XBLA download Castle of Illusion, provided by Sega. Castle of Illusion launches today on PSN and September 4 on XBLA and Steam.

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