Played Before: Yes (Mega Drive)
Also on: Game Gear, Mega Drive
The evil witch Mizrabel has abducted Minnie with the intention of stealing her looks and making Minnie ugly. As appearance is everything these days, we can’t allow that to happen, can we? Mizrabel can only be overcome using the power of the seven gems of the rainbow, guarded by the Masters of Illusion, so Mickey heads off to Mizrabel’s castle to relieve her of some shiny rocks and retrieve his girlfriend.
Highly popular on the Mega Drive, this 8-bit version of Castle of Illusion follows the same storyline. Obviously, the Master System can’t compete with the Mega Drive’s processing power, so we miss out on memorable moments such as jumping from leaf to collapsing leaf in a cobwebby forest and the vertically flipping scenery in the toy world. However, the Disney cartoon heritage plays to the Master System’s strengths and the overall themes remain, with fully redesigned stages and end of world bosses that offer just as enjoyable an experience. My personal preference for music and spot sound effects is for the 8-bit version. The Mega Drive’s effect samples are slightly too loud, jarring against the somewhat muted background music, and the Master System’s inherent musical jollity fits better with the overall Disney cartoon theme.
Mickey can no longer collect and throw apples like in the Mega Drive version, but he still packs a mean bottom bounce and can make judicious use of throwable blocks to rid himself of the themed meanies throughout each stage. The only other collectables are keys to open locked doors, cake to restore energy, coins for score and Mickey ears for an extra try. In true sanitised Disney fashion, Mickey has tries, not lives, but the end result is the same should you run out. There is also some light puzzle solving to be done using conveniently positioned indestructible barrels. Don’t worry if you mess anything up as everything reappears if you wander away from it. This includes enemies, so there is a need to keep your wits about you should you be the kind of player who likes to clear an area out before exploring to discover the shortcuts hidden in many of the stage walls.
Another idea from the Mega Drive version that did not make it into this one is a section where Mickey swings across a chasm using dangling light switch cords. This has the effect of lighting and darkening the area with each pull on the cords. There is an adequate substitute waiting in the final world on the Master System. To find his way through the area without resorting to trial and error, Mickey has to carry a torch to see what’s going on. Dropping it to climb ladders or collect items dims the screen, leading to a little bit of memorisation and planning ahead to be able to quickly re-acquire the torch and continue.
Having pointed out differences, it’s worth saying that this is no cut-down imitation. It does still only take 30-40 minutes to beat, in line with the Mega Drive version’s length, and isn’t helped by the offer of nine continues either, but only the most inexperienced gamer should get anywhere near running out. So, Castle of Illusion becomes more about the experience than the challenge. Visually, an excellent job has been done to replicate the fantastical themes, through forest, toy and cake worlds, to the slightly more mundane, although no less engaging, one that appears to take place in a library. The 8-bit version is certainly capable of producing its own stand-out moments. Two particular highlights of the latter world are swimming through cups of tea while avoiding angry sugar lumps to get to the next section, and a delightful one-off where Mickey runs along a piano with the only acceptable audio accompaniment. From there, it’s through the clock tower to retrieve the final gem and on to Mizrabel’s castle itself to complete Minnie’s rescue.
Structurally, the stages are somewhat different from the Mega Drive’s, having been completely redesigned to the Master System’s strengths and limitations. It would have been easy to make Castle of Illusion purely a left-to-right scroller, but stages are instead usually multi-layered, stretching off in all directions. That they are laid out this way can cause an occasional problem as it can be difficult to determine whether a hole leads to a further section of the level below or is just a bottomless pit, resulting in instant loss of a try. This leads to some educated trial and error should you so desire, occasionally rewarded with the discovery of a shortcut or hidden area by lucky accident. Thankfully, one common platform game design pitfall does not rear its head here and falling down a hole with a ladder does take you to the section below instead of robbing you of a life. Eventually, stage bosses are reached and these fit in perfectly with the world themes, packed full of personality and requiring some deft jumping skills before they’ll cough up their rainbow gem. There is also the obligatory pet dragon lying in wait as the final encounter before Mizrabel herself.
As well as the normal quest, a practice mode is offered where Mickey is tasked with finding three gems which will help Mizrabel see beauty in herself. A worthy back story, although she has still kidnapped Minnie as motivation. Practice mode features very short, boss-less, sampler versions of the forest, toy and cake levels, great for the youngest of players to try out some basic platforming without too much frustration and demand on attention span, while still being provided with a sense of achievement for rescuing Minnie and encouragement to try the main game. This Master System version also manages to offer something the 16-bit one does not. Often the bane of many a platform game fan, forced scrolling stages are present here. This ups the challenge ante slightly, but Castle of Illusion is by no means difficult. The platforming is fairly basic, yet the game manages to project a degree of charm that means the lack of challenge doesn’t detract overall. Castle of Illusion is a perfect introductory platformer with difficulty pitched just right for the intended audience, a pace that gradually increases but isn’t so aggressive as to turn off first-timers. It’s an ideal, fun-packed starting point for the platforming novice and more than stands up to its bigger brother.
Exciting SEGA rating: