Friday, July 28, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 4

It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.

Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers 2 - December 1993

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

If you recall last month, I thought highly of Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers - enough to give it the No. 1 spot on the game rankings list. So it was with some interest that I approached its sequel - both Chip 'N Dale 2 and the next game in this article, Duck Tales 2 were released very, very late in the life span of the NES and are super rare. Very few have ever played these games, allowing me to approach them with no apologies. Chip 'N Dale 2 starts off promisingly enough - a neat animated introduction picks out the silhouettes of our heroes against a brick wall, before loading the menu screen. Once off to the first level, everything seems okay - at first. The games look practically identical, and the first level strongly recalls Level D in the original game. There's longer dialogue scenes and more elaborate boss battles. It took me a few stages to start to realize something was up.

Don't let the similarities throw you - while they make look similar, each Rescue Rangers game is as different under the hood as can be. Rescue Rangers 2 is slightly larger, with more detailed sprites for Chip and Dale - not a bad thing, to be sure. The game is also slower - in the original, the chipmunks could really pick up and lob those crates, and zip and jump easily across the screen - really creating a sense that they were tiny. Rescue Rangers 2 is zoomed in, and instead of interacting with things like telephone poles and bar stools, everything they come across is a much more reasonable scale, such as pots and pans. Because they're a little bigger than in the first game, that illusion of expansiveness has been sacrificed.

But what really spoils Chip 'N Dale 2 is the combination of a less expansive world, slower gameplay, and amazingly sparse enemy placement. In the original game, enemies would appear in clusters of 2 or 3 and charge directly at you - you needed to move fast and really learn to pick up and chuck those crates because you were constantly under attack. The original Chip 'N Dale is a highly distinctive mix of twitchy, fast reflex based game play and memorization - so much of the fun of that game was learning each enemy's distinct attack pattern and where they would appear and learning how to approach and defeat them strategically.

In contrast, you can go entire screens in Chip 'N Dale 2 and only see one slowly moving enemy. In the first game, you had to defeat nearly every threat you came across and always has to have a box at the ready to throw, or you were going to die quickly. It's much easier in Chip 'N Dale 2 to just run past every enemy until you reach the boss.

Speaking of the bosses, there's really only two in the game that will give most players any trouble - the first boss, and the last one. The first boss is fought by jumping between plates beneath a cascade of water - its easy to get washed off the bottom of the screen and die. It's tricky, but the rest of the game is full of far less intriguing enemies. Usually you just have to stand far away and wait for one of the boss' projectiles to land on the ground, then you pick it up and chuck it at them. There's at least four of these battles in this short game, although one of them is an enraged ostrich riding a spoke gear, which is kind of cool. The final boss looks impressive, and repeats a memorable gag from Mega Man 2, where you're thrown in a room where the lights blow out and a huge enemy lowers from the ceiling. This guy drops time bombs, and you have to time it so that the bomb hits him at the exact moment it detonates.

Remember all of those environmental hazards in the first game? They're just plain gone. Remember having the juggle the light switches, or turn off the water taps to proceed? Gone entirely. Every level in Rescue Rangers 2 consists of some slightly themed platforms and every level has the same layout - go right, go up a little bit, then go right or left. Gone entirely is the visual and conceptual unity of the first game, where you climb up and end up on top of telephone poles, or keep climbing up a ventilation shaft or tree. Also gone are the unique enemies in each level - who can forget the tough chicken guys who punch boxes in their way, or the aliens who turn into you as you approach?

Between the redundant level designs and tiresome boss battles, I began to have really nasty flashbacks to Darkwing Duck - this game has that same sense of absolute exhaustion. Certain parts of the game seem to have just been abandoned in design - in certain areas the game would not let me scroll to the next screen until I threw the box I was holding, and in another spot I could not proceed until I cleared the entire screen of all of the boxes. For a major release Capcom game, that's totally unacceptable.

Chip 'N Dale 2 threatens to become interesting twice. At one point, Fat Cat traps you inside a refrigerator and you are given three minutes until you freeze to death. Being the good game player that I am, I rushed the level - easily bypassing the handful of ice skating enemies, assuming the level would be long enough that I'd run out of time if I didn't keep the pace up. I ended up finishing it in less than a minute - and it's then that I realized that Chip 'N Dale 2 didn't care at all.

Immediately after that, Fat Cat opens "The Urn of the Pharaoh", which he promises is full of ghosts and will allow him to conquer the world (apparently both Fat Cat and Adolph Hitler have weird ideas about what ghosts will actually do for you). What follows is a totally absurd and out of place haunted house level, as if the one in TaleSpin wasn't enough. It's probably the best thing in the game, and likely based on the Haunted Mansion at Tokyo Disneyland - portraits are revealed to be full of skulls when the lights are extinguished, and some floating dog ghosts dive bomb you throughout the level. After you beat the boss here, a mummy ghost who retreats back into his urn, the entire subplot is dropped entirely.

Perhaps I'm just being way too tough on this one, but this represents and even bigger quality drop than the one between Magical Quest and The Great Circus Mystery. The original Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers remains fun, tough, and delightful to this day, and after completing this dispiriting slog of a sequel, I had to go back to play it to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. Avoid this one and play the superior original instead.

DuckTales 2 - June 1993

Duck Tales 2 was actually released a few months before Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers 2, but after playing through both I decided to flip their order here to illustrate a point. Chip 'N Dale 2 takes almost everything about the original game and reproduces it in vastly inferior form. Duck Tales 2 takes a solid classic original NES game and tweaks and improves almost everything about it. It's a difference between a swan dive into a pile of gold and Launchpad crashing into a mountain.

Back in Part One 1 suggested that DuckTales was never finished quite to its developer's liking, and if more proof were needed, here's DuckTales 2 - which appears to be, for all intents and purposes, the game that DuckTales was intended to be.

What's different? To begin with, there's a pre-game map screen that sets up the backstory - it's the same kind of situation, where Scrooge must pogo around various locations attempting to uncover hidden treasures. The original DuckTales had two secret treasures, which acted as something of a bonus. Here, each level contains multiple rooms which disguise giant treasure boxes which must be found and unlocked - some of them in incredibly obtuse locations. These treasure boxes contain six pieces of a torn up map - buy the seventh one from the game shop and you can play a secret level for "The Lost Treasure of McDuck". If you can do this, you can head out to Flintheart Glomgold's sunken ship and fight him to unlock the best ending of the game.

And yes, you heard that right - this game has a shop, where you can buy lives, continues, and more. The most important item you can buy in the shop is a Safe, which allows you to keep the money you collect as you play each level. That's right, unlike in the original game, when you die here, you lose your money - this adds a lot of strategy to the game, and gives you an incentive to return to conquered levels to farm for money. This explains why the original game allowed you to return to levels as well as leave the levels with Launchpad - a feature which never made any sense in DuckTales.

You no longer have to jump and press down to pogo - this itself already puts the game ahead of its predecessor, simply hold the jump button and bounce away. Scrooge can do more in this game - taken directly from Darkwing Duck are various rings bolted to the walls of levels, and Scrooge can hang off them with his cane - as the game progresses, you must become increasingly confident with this skill, as retains areas can only be passed using the rings. Instead of simply knocking blocks across the floor, in DuckTales 2 you must clamp your cane onto blocks and drag them across the floor - this sounds like a nonevent, but there's a good number of puzzles that use this.

Gyro Gearloose appears in the first few levels, providing Scrooge with cane "adapters" - a term stolen directly from Mega Man 4, because Capcom - which allow players to swing and pogo to break certain kinds of blocks. The game allows you to play levels in any order, but if you go to, say, the Pyramid right off the bat, you won't be able to collect the treasures because your "cane adapter" is too weak. Besides the hanging rings, Capcom found a way to cleverly include a variant of the famous "vanishing blocks" from Mega Man - none quite so tough as the puzzles in those games, thankfully. but super cool.

On top of that, the levels in DuckTales 2 are just plain better. There's plenty of enemies, but none of them are placed cheaply as in Darkwing Duck or DuckTales. There's fewer secret areas, but the ones that are here are hidden more insidiously - at one point you have to pass through an invisible wall, jump across a huge chasm on flying enemies, then drop down a hole that looks exactly like it will kill you - you land on top of the hidden treasure chest. It's scary, and fun, and rewards the most confident and adventuresome.

Besides secret rooms, there's puzzles - you must drop rocks into certain holes to drain water from the lower half of a level, decode an ancient riddle inside a pyramid, and tug a mirror hidden away at the top of a pyramid so the sun bounces off it and destroys the floor. That pyramid level is a doozy - I bounced around in there for almost an hour trying to find all of the treasures. You enter the pyramid by crossing shifting sands taken directly from Mega Man 4's Pharaoh Man, then head down a narrow corridor with a huge treasure chest at the end - before you can get there, you fall through a false floor! It's awesome, and scary, and if you spend enough time snooping around, you can find your way back to that treasure chest.

The bosses here aren't too different from those in DuckTales, but for some reason the ones in DuckTales 2 strike me as significantly more interesting - there's a sorcerer who is basically a superior replay of the Magica de Spell fight in the first game, and a golem made of rocks who you must break apart before attacking his heart with your cane. The Flintheart battle in this one comes off as exceptionally goofy due to a twist I won't spoil - it's stolen, again, direct from the Mega Man playbook, but darn is it fun.

There I go comparing this one to Mega Man again - but it's warranted. From the open exploration style, to the idea of going back into a level you already beat and exploring a new area, to the rain in the Bermuda triangle shipwreck that comes straight out of Toad Man's level - unlike Darkwing Duck, this is a Mega Man game that still makes time to have some ideas of its own. The gameplay is even better than the first one, and the game really makes you think, and strategize. I had to play the game through three times until I figured out how to get the secret level and the best ending!

This game is the Mega Man 2 of Disney/Capcom games, and probably the best of their 8 bit games, period. It does everything the first one did better, smarter, and bigger. Unlike Mega Man 2, it never really had a chance of being recognized, released as it did a year and a half after the Super Nintendo. It was released as part of the new Disney Afternoon Collection on Playstation 4 and XBOX, which mean it's more wide available right now than it ever has been.

DuckTales 2 really does typify the kind of thing I, as a reviewer, hope to stumble across when embarking on a series like this. Play it however you can.

Game Rankings So Far
01) DuckTales 2
02) Chip ' Dale Rescue Rangers
03) The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse
04) DuckTales
05) Magical Quest 3 Starring Mickey & Donald
06) TaleSpin
07) The Great Circus Mystery
08) Darkwing Duck
09) The Little Mermaid
10) Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers 2
11) Mickey Mousecapade

Friday, July 14, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 3

It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.

We've been playing and talking about games on the 8-bit NES, but now the story needs to take a detour as we jump over to Nintendo's rival... Sega. In mid-1990, the Sega Genesis had been on the market for a year and had a reputation for impressive graphics and a vast library of shooting games, but really summer of 1990 belonged to Nintendo in a way that few summer ever would again.

It was the summer of Super Mario Brothers 3, which sold more units that season than any game in history ever had. Super Mario Brothers 3 is the apotheosis of the NES, but it was also the end of Nintendo's solitary market domination. Sega finally got wise and had hired an American, Al Nilsen, to helm their North American marketing department. Since Sega had no name recognition in the US market, Nilsen bought the likenesses of those who did: Tommy Lasorda, Pat Riley, and Michael Jackson. Then in 1990, Sega landed somebody every American knew: Mickey Mouse.

The most Sega image I could find.

Released in the United States as Mickey Mouse Castle of Illusion in November 1990, the resulting game is a kid-friendly standout on a system that was still looking for its mainstream hit. As everyone knows, that would prove to be Sonic the Hedgehog just a few months later, but I'd argue that Castle of Illusion is a better game. Illusion is a fun, fairly predictable bounce-and-stomp. The levels are fairly uninteresting - it's wave after wave of the same enemies, over and over - but they do start to improve at about the halfway point. More importantly, it's light years ahead of Mickey Mousecapade on the NES.

The Disney / Sega games could be their own series of blog posts, and they're unfairly obscure today. Europe's preference for Donald Duck resulted in two games for Sega's 8-bit console, the Master System, released in that market: The Lucky Dime Caper and Deep Duck Trouble - these games are even better and cuter than Castle of Illusion. Next, North America got its own unique Donald game, QuackShot, and finally Mickey and Donald were brought together in World of Illusion, a graphical powerhouse for the Genesis that few games would match. It's a fairly impressive run for Sega, and the quality drop in Disney games once Disney abandoned Sega and Capcom would be noticeable.

Which brings us to our subject for today, a series of games that will span nearly the whole history of the Super Nintendo. I don't know if Nintendo or Disney requested a Mickey game of their own to compete against the successful Castle of Illusion, or if Capcom came up with this one all on their own, but this week we're taking a huge bite out of 16 bit Super Nintendo trilogy: The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse.

The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse - October 1992

Sometimes you reach for perfect by disregarding convention, swinging for the fences, and beating your own path. But sometimes you get to perfect by simply doing the same thing others have done better, sharper, nicer. The Magical Quest isn't some genre bending masterpiece - it's a really good platform game. Awash in a sea of the same, it rises above the rest like an island.

By the early 90s, the entire game industry was deep, deep into platform games. They've never really gone away, to be sure, but the initial rush of Super Mario Brothers imitators gradually began to produce such a vast glut of similar product that the mutations set in early. There were games that went in an even twitchier direction, like Mega Man, and ones that relied on memorization and strategy, like Ghouls N Ghosts. Sonic the Hedgehog provided multiple paths through levels, rewarding players who replayed levels until they could clear them in seconds. Faced with an opportunity to create a Mickey Mouse game for the new Super Nintendo, Capcom did not reinvent the wheel; they just made it spin smoother.

Magical Quest begins on a domestic scene of Mickey, Donald and Goofy playing catch with Pluto. Pluto runs off, and Mickey chases him until he abruptly falls off a cliff. This short setup establishes an air of fantasy that intrudes into the benign afternoon in the park, as Mickey suddenly falls, bounces off a branch, and lands on a cloud - high in the sky. There's a house sitting on the cloud inhabited by an old man, and Mickey is told of an evil Emperor Pete who rules over this kingdom...

Here's a great example of a video game that's aimed squarely at the Japanese audience, and the Americans are simply invited to show up too. The game requires no special knowledge of Mickey Mouse as a character or cultural institution - Mickey just is in this game, and it creates a powerful atmosphere of Disney-ness without actually ever directly referencing anything Disney. Titles like Mickey Mousecapade and Castle of Illusion brought in references to Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, but Magical Quest deals exclusively with Mickey, Goofy, Pete, Pluto and Donald and creates a totally new adventure for them.

As players progress through the game, they pick up various costumes that give Mickey new skills. There's a magic outfit that can fire projectiles, a firefighter's uniform, and a mountain climber's outfit. By starting Mickey out dressed in nothing but his skivvies and allowing him to accumulate abilities along the way, Magical Quest creates a powerful sense of a dream unfolding, logical and linear on its own terms but strangely skewed.

There's a direct sequence of action to the first four levels, as the difficulty gradually increases. Starting on a cloud, Mickey rides rolling tomatoes along a huge vine down to earth. Traveling alongside a lake, he crosses a dark forest, enters an elevator, and rides it into a blazing inferno underground. Exiting the underground cavern, he begins to scale a mountain, working his way towards Emperor Pete's castle....

In the early 90s, Capcom produced some of the handsomest video games around. There's a lot of detail in Magical Quest - pay close attention to just how often the backgrounds change as you travel from one area of each stage to the next, creating a real sense of progression and atmosphere. The forest grows denser and darker as you head towards the area's boss, a giant spider - the background trees transitioning from awash in golden light to grasping claws with evil Pete faces. The soundtrack seems to be scored by a medieval chamber music quartet, instantly creating a mood of high fantasy.

In terms of gameplay, Capcom seems to have reached into their back catalogue of hits. The weapon-switching brings back memories of Mega Man, although Magical Quest demands far less of players than even the easiest Mega Man game. Certain enemies and situations and the entire high fantasy conceit seems to be descended from the Ghouls N' Ghosts series, and the first boss of Magical Quest - a winged bat creature - is essentially a reference to the famous infamous enemy in Ghouls 'N Ghosts, the Red Arremer. The mini level between the forest and fire cavern - a fairly tricky elevator ride down - recalls a similar ride in Ghouls 'N Ghosts. Even the appearance of Emperor Pete in the final room seems to suggest Astoroth, a recurring boss in that series. Elsewhere from the Capcom canon, the Mountain Climber Mickey outfit functions basically identically to the climbing and swinging mechanic in Bionic Commando.

The game puts up a reasonable challenge to new players, but it's not nearly as demanding as, say, DuckTales on the NES. The oeneric atmosphere, high quality presentation, and sharp gameplay makes this one of my most-often played titles in the SNES library. I beat it in about 30 minutes while preparing this review, and died maybe twice. It's so much fun that it doesn't really matter that only on "Hard" mode does it put up much of a fight.

Generally, the levels in this game are amazingly well planned. The first level allows you to get used to controlling Mickey and throwing blocks before throwing up the first real challenge: the race to the ground atop the giant tomato. The game deposits you by a lake, dodging starfish and beavers, establishing that Mickey can neither breathe nor swim well underwater. In Level 2, the Magic Turban places an air bubble around his head when underwater. Any other game would then send you across the great barrier reef or something, but not Magical Quest - you swim through the inside of a tree filled with sap! Touches like this add a lot of character to the game.

Level 3 introduces a firefighter outfit, cleverly released from a "break glass in case of fire" emergency panel. The Five Cavern is very well done, coming up with what feels like every possible use for the water weapon - from pushing blocks to forcing you to extinguish burning platforms before you can cross them. The final boss of the area is pretty tough, demanding total confidence in both water spraying and fast platforming. The same can be said of the Level 4 boss, easily the toughest in the game - the fight against the giant eagle really requires you to be very good with the Mountain Climber hook.

Then it's off to the ice world, and here's where the wheels come off. The level cues you to use your fire hose, and it allows you to spray water that freezes into platforms - but then never uses this in any meaningful way. The boss of this level can be beaten with either magic or water, but he freezes to death no matter how you beat him - a waste of a cool concept. Then it's off to Pete's Castle, where you'd expect to have to use all four abilities to succeed, much like the Wily Fortresses in Mega Man. Again, there is no such requirement, and in fact if you know where to go you don't even have to deal with about half of the level.  The drop in quality after Level 4 is huge, and hard not to notice.

But there is a conceptual completeness to this game that is tough to top. It's one of those games like Castlevania where every little piece seems to have its place and is deployed at exactly the right time. The magic, water, and hook weapons feel right - inevitable - and easy to control. The atmosphere is top-notch. The whole thing feels like an especially interesting Disney featurette, and coming out in 1992, that's not a bad thing. Seemingly only in video games is Mickey allowed anymore to be a hero.

This one is worth seeking out, and don't be surprised if you find yourself playing it again and again. I began playing it in 1992 and I've more or less never stopped. It's a key action title for the Super Nintendo.

The Great Circus Mystery - November 1994

The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse seems to have been successful - it's a well liked and not too uncommon game, and in Japan it was even featured on an episode of GameCenter CX, where host Arino Shinya plays it to commemorate the opening of Wreck-It Ralph. Naturally, a sequel was produced - this being Capcom, after all. But what's baffling is the way this sequel was released in the United States - instead of being embraced and promoted as "The Magical Quest 2", its title in Japan, it was given the baffling name "The Great Circus Mystery".

This is a two player simultaneous game. In it, Mickey and Minnie head to the edge of town on a bus to see the Circus - but when they arrive, the circus is in shambles and the performers have vanished! They meet two of the three Lonesome Ghosts, who invite them to their haunted house on the far side of a nearby jungle - but when they arrive, the house has been overrun by the minions of Baron Pete. In the end, Mickey and Minnie travel through a cavern, an ice world (of course), and Baron Pete's castle to put an end to his evil plans.

Okay, so, just from that summary alone, we can begin to see problems. "Rescuing Pluto" isn't an amazing story for The Magical Quest, but it works fine and adds to the dreamlike atmosphere - which is fine because - spoilers - it turns out that Magical Quest actually is a dream! The story in Great Circus Mystery is weirdly unfocused, which is fine because the game is still fun, but for a game called The Great Circus Mystery, the mystery of what's going on at the circus turns out to be pretty unimportant.

Then there's the abilities selections in this game, which honestly are kind of terrible - Mickey and Minnie get a vacuum cleaner, a jungle explorer outfit, and a cowboy outfit with pop gun and hobby horse. The vacuum cleaner can convert enemies into coins so you can buy upgrades in shops, which is nice if you really need the upgrades to progress. The jungle explorer outfit works exactly like the mountain climber outfit, and the cowboy outfit allows you to fire pellets. Unfortunately, your hobby horse never stops bouncing underneath you while you're in cowboy form, and the bullets don't seem to be able to hit enemies at close range, so the most useful form in this game is also the most annoying to use.

Compared to Magical Quest, Circus Mystery starts off in the drab confines of a tattered circus - it's not spooky enough to actually be cool, but not colorful enough to create any atmosphere of adventure and fantasy. At least the "Haunted Circus", as its called in the game, has two cool boss enemies - a fire juggling weasel and a lion that tries to run you down in his circus wagon and whose mane you vacuum off to reveal that he's actually a disguised wolf. The Jungle level that follows is the single dullest and most uninspired level in the series - you fight an evil turtle and gorilla while trying not to fall asleep.

The game improves considerably at the Lonesome Ghosts' Haunted House. There's a repeat of a gag used in the Haunted Mansion level of Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, where a specter of Pete replaces your reflection as you pass a series of mirrors. Later, you fight Pete in the best boss of the game - Baron Pete leans out of his framed portrait to attack you! A series of rooms where you must hang onto a lantern on the wall as the room spins around you is a direct reference to Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts. There's even more Ghouls 'N Ghosts references in this game than in the original Magical Quest - a dinosaur boss and cloud boss hail directly from that series, and Baron Pete's outfit again strongly recalls Astroroth's double faces. All three games were extensively designed by programmers who were veterans of that series, so all of this is highly intentional.

Unlike Magical Quest, the last 60% of this game is better than the first third, even if the level progression feels stilted and sporadic. Pete is a two-phase boss this time, and transforms himself into a huge Elliot-style dragon. The boss of World 5, a cloud of cold air, is a legitimate challenge, as you must nearly constantly vacuum him up while avoiding being touched and frozen. The challenge of this game definitely matches and exceeds that of Magical Quest. The two-player option is nice, if not really important, and the opportunity to play as Minnie is great for those of us who prefer to play as female characters when possible.

But there's just no getting past the fact that this is an inferior replay of a game that still feels fresh. And the marketing here merits a stoning - it's amazing how off-base they were, calling this game The Great Circus Mystery. I know for sure there are kids who avoided this one based on the name, never knowing it really was the sequel to Magical Quest. To their credit, Disney and Capcom recognized the error and released this under its proper name on the Game Boy Advance.

Even the box art was a total botch. The original Magical Quest art is still terrific - Mickey, in his yellow and red Magic outfit, pops off the deep blue of the haunted forest, and Emperor Pete holding Pluto captive immediately establishes the story and fantastic world of the game. The Great Circus Mystery uses pastel colors, Mickey scowling, and the circus setting that really isn't central to the game. I don't mean to keep harping on this, but it's amazing how much they botched what could have been a sure thing.

The Great Circus Mystery isn't a terrible game, but it's a huge drop coming off Magical Quest. It was released on both the SNES and Genesis - perhaps the dual release is what prevented it from being identified as the sequel to a series that began on a Nintendo system? The SNES version is the one to get here - the Genesis has a unique section of Level 3 to replace the rotating rooms that the Genesis couldn't do, but overall the graphics are compromised. Anybody who missed out on this in the 90s due to its lousy marketing didn't miss much, but fans of the original Magical Quest should seek it out.

The Magical Quest 3 Starring Mickey & Donald - December 1995

And one reason I harped so much about the lousy marketing of Magical Quest 2 / Great Circus Mystery is that it likely prevented the West from getting this game, the superior Magical Quest 3. This time Huey, Dewey and Louie are pulled into an enchanted book they find in Donald's attic and Mickey and Donald go in to rescue them. The European flair of the original is back, as they travel through "Storyland" en route to King Pete's castle. They're dropped off in a medieval village overrun with ambulatory crows, ears of corn, and a turkey wearing a helmet. After defeating a pig flying around in a giant pepper - a boss who uses the SNES' scaling and rotation effects and is the most 'Super Nintendo' thing I've ever seen - they proceed through a thicket of vines filled with drifting spores and a menacing desert before boarding one of Pete's flying fortress ships.

The costumes here are great, and actually different for Mickey and Donald. After defeating the rampaging turkey, a blacksmith gives Mickey a suit of armor equipped with a boxing glove, which he cause use to bounce off walls. The blacksmith's wife tries to do the same for Donald - but Donald's butt is too huge to fit in the armor, and he ends up wearing a barrel with a pot on his head. This turns out to be an advantage, as the town is crisscrossed with Venetian canals, and Mickey plummets like a rock in the water, whereas Donald can float along easily in his barrel. In the spore forest, they get Woodcutter's outfits and can climb the tall vines using long leather belts, swinging from side to side to destroy enemies. In the desert, the pick up magic show gear from a traveling mystic - Mickey is dressed in a snappy red suit and can shoot cards from his hat, while Donald is dressed as Aladdin and rubs his magic lamp to summon a giant genie hand which flicks enemies away.

Better still, this game is tough, and atmospheric. Pete's battle ship contains two really frustrating bosses, and the series has its one and only water level when the ship crashes into the ocean and our heroes swim to shore. Instead of the typical glacier ice level, here Mickey and Donald climb up a snowy mountain filled with evil, dead trees. If you keep walking, snow collects on your shoes, making it easier to jump up to higher platforms! Pete's castle is terrific, filled with elaborate stonework and convincingly dark, richly decorated rooms.

After all of your trouble, you're rewarded with a really great fight against Pete. He looks better, more smoother and dimensional than any boss in the series, and when you've weakened him, he puts on his own suit of armor, complete with a huge version of the same giant red curtain Mickey and Donald use when they switch forms! After three games of seeing the same gag, it's pretty satisfying to see a boss turn the tables like that.

After he's defeated, it's revealed that Pete wants to be a hero, but has always been forced to play the villain in the story! Mickey and Donald forgive him, and King Pete repents his evil ways and becomes a good king. It's a sweet ending to the series, and a nice personality touch for a character who almost never gets them.

The Super Nintendo version of this game was only ever released in Japan. The game was finally released, alongside Magical Quest 1 and 2, on the Game Boy Advance and has a new English translation - although the zoomed in new of the GBA reduces the game's visual splendor. There's also an English fan translation that predates the official release by a few years. It's a bit rougher than the official translation, but still perfectly enjoyable.

There is considerable debate among retro game fans about the merits of Sega's Disney games vs. Capcom's Disney games. Sega's Castle of Illusion is a solid title - World of Illusion is beautiful but perhaps a bit too obviously almost too much for the poor Genesis to handle (claims of blast processing aside, remember that the Genesis is an older piece of hardware).

The gameplay of Magical Quest is a bit loosey-goosey, but in terms of presentation and imagination, the series is leagues ahead.  Magical Quest epitomizes, for me, why the Super Nintendo may just be the best video game machine ever released - gorgeous visuals and music and a very high level of polish just on the brink of when the video game industry was hit with polygonal 3D gaming and almost everything was reset to zero. This trilogy doesn't have the legendary reputation of Capcom's 8-bit Disney games, but taken as a whole, the Magical Quest series is the capstone of the entire Disney / Capcom venture, and that's saying a lot.

Next Week: two surprising 8-bit sequels shake up expectations

Game Rankings So Far

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean - Two Soundtracks

When I was younger and the internet was a smaller place than it is today, one early hobby was browsing newsgroups searching fir Disney theme park audio. Most often scratchy things in a time when internet connections were still slow enough to make RealAudio an attractive possibility, there was nothing like spending the better part of a day trying to get one file, opening it up, and hearing something totally new to you. I heard Phantom Manor's soundtrack almost 20 years before I got to ride it, and I was listening to the Pirates of the Caribbean "Scare Me Music" long before I got to Disneyland in person. The sounds of the park, the musical soundtrack you could take home, were an early obsession - one that's played out on this blog before.

But one early annoyance that's never fully gone away was: where are all of the Walt Disney World sounds? Disneyland music is everywhere - how many remixes of the Haunted Mansion do we really need, after all - but in the few cases where I could find music from Magic Kingdom, it often was either mislabeled Disneyland tracks, or versions from Disneyland often perfunctorily cut down and remixed. Where were the versions that tried to really capture the idiosyncrasies and unique flavors of each theme park?

Well, as it turns out, I waited so long that I decided to do it myself. My initial attempt to preserve some of the unique atmosphere of Walt Disney World was posted in 2012, and its superior followup in 2014. But the project never really ended: much of the work I did on the Musical Souvenir between July 2011 and December 2014 was intended to lay the groundwork for more expanded audio mixes. Only a few of these bucket list items were feasible; I've still very proud of the restoration work I did on the 1984 version of Space Mountain, and the full Jungle Cruise soundtrack included in the second collection. But one item still bothered me, because I was so close to having a finished version: where was the complete Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack for Magic Kingdom?

In theory, this was not an impossible goal. Very little in the Florida attraction was not simply taken from the recording sessions for the original ride. My Caribbean Plaza track from the second release of the music project had the start and the end of the attraction - the unique pieces - but the whole stretch of the attraction in the middle had to be resolved. How do you decide to cut down all of that material?

If you listen to the majority of audio mixes of Pirates of the Caribbean available online, you don't. The standard, agreed upon method is to play each and every track back to back. I've never liked this, because although it does allow you to hear everything, it also means that areas with a lot of overlapping, interlocking music cues, like the Haunted Mansion graveyard or the Burning City, go on for 6, 8, 10 minutes.

What I like to do is to give as nearly as possible an approximation not of what was recorded, but of what you hear and experience when you are there, on the ride. This means letting the cues all bleed together, but also allowing moments where you can artistically stretch or compress other areas. It also means that I do want to hear incidental sounds in so far as they add to the experience - for the same reason that my reconstruction of If You Had Wings from 2011 didn't sound right until I added a lot of clattering 16mm projector sounds buried underneath the music.

In the end, I tackled Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean first.

Download File: Walt Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean 35mb MP3

There were two real goals here: first, to see how much I could extend the first third of the ride to really capture the atmosphere of that bayou and those caves, and to see how much I could tighten up the whole center section and keep it moving without losing the texture of the experience. I really admire how the Disneyland ride modulates its tones - going from the raucous burning city to the absolute quiet of the jail scene, for example - and I really wanted it capture that.

I also decided it was worth including Old Bill, despite my goal to go back as near as possible to the original experience. Old Bill was designed by Marc for inclusion in the Florida show, and brought back over to Disneyland at some point after that version opened. Like the "bayou old man", himself a copy of Beacon Joe designed for Magic Kingdom, he's been there for so long that he may as well always been present.

In Marc's own handwriting, no less.
It all worked very well, especially the haunted grotto - aided and abetted by the dozens of live waterfall recordings I made to construct the Musical Souvenir. However, a hard drive crash meant that I lost a number of the sound files and was left with just the rough export version presented here, which is why there's a few render errors.

And that was that - for a few years at least.

The real thing holding me back from making the attempt was the complete unavailability of the Talking Skull safety announcement from the original version of the attraction. I never really liked the Magic Kingdom Talking Skull - his announcement was kind of lame and more often than not you could barely hear him under all of the howling wind and thunder in those much smaller caverns. I liked him even less after I saw the iconic Disneyland version. But he was an important part of the uniqueness of the Florida ride, and without him I saw no advantage in expanding on what I had already done in 2014.

Al Huffman / DisneyFans.Com
Then something unexpected happened. Magic Kingdom went and put a talking skull back in the ride.

A different one, to be sure. But that got me thinking about the original 1973 talking skull - and whether I should try again to find a usable live recording. It's a total crap shoot whether or not you'll luck into one - it's all up to a kind of camera used to capture the footage, how loud people on the ride with the videographer are, how loud the attraction was that month, and more. It's bad enough considering it with today's modern cameras, but if you consider finding just the right one based on what came were available prior to 2006, you see how unlikely this is.

I went looking anyway, searching backwards chronologically, until I hit 2003 - and a likely candidate, uploaded by "JPL1311". It was clean, mostly clear, and the Talking Skull was really loud. Once I stripped away the audio hiss using digital filters, I had something that sounded pretty close to a source audio mix. I figured it was worth a shot.

So I went back into my files and pulled out the Caribbean Plaza track from 2014 and Disneyland Pirates track from 2015 and was able to combine them into something pretty darn convincing. As far as I know it is the first complete attraction soundtrack for the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean ever created.

Download File: Magic Kingdom Pirates of the Caribbean 1973 36mb MP3

It was pretty interesting deciding where this track needed to vary meaningfully from the Disneyland track to get the desired effect across. What I can say is that the 1973 show has a much more complex soundscape from the Disneyland original - there's nearly no moments of quiet. I had to layer audio tracks much more aggressively in the haunted cavern to get the menacing atmosphere Marc Davis intended. And, of course, the whole thing ended up being a few seconds longer than the Disneyland mix - even if you don't actually get to the ride itself until nearly halfway through!

But more than anything, it's just satisfying to hear, and to have. I try hard to really transport listeners in my tracks, and this one really takes me back to the Pirates of the Caribbean I knew as a kid. This version of the ride was also my preferred attraction to work back at the start of what passed for my career at Disney, so it's a cherished memory for me, and one I fought to preserve while I worked there.

The talking skull may have returned, and the parrot may no longer be out front and the cannons on the roof don't fire, but at least we have this - I think it's almost as good as being there again.

Ye come seeking adventure and salty old pirates, eh? This be the place - check out the Pirates of the Caribbean Hub Page for more goodness about this classic ride. Or hop a monorail over to our Theme Park Music resource for even more vintage Disneyland and Magic Kingdom music!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 2

It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.

Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers - June 1990

In Capcom's take on the Rescue Rangers, Chip and Dale spend all of their time running, lifting boxes, hiding inside boxes, and throwing boxes. Again, anybody's who's sat through an episode of Disney's big animated follow-up to DuckTales could be forgiven for wondering if anybody working on the game had seen even one hot minute of the source material.

If you've played ahead in this series - I have, have you??? - then you know that as far as clever, inventive platformers go, DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale are about as unique as the Disney / Capcom games got. Both of these titles stash a truly clever play mechanic inside a Disney-wrapped box. It would have been easy to make yet another Mario clone, but Capcom gave Scrooge that pogo jump, a nest of tricky levels, and a lot of secrets. They could have delivered a two-player chase game with Chip 'n Dale, but they delivered one of most accessible and fun games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. If you want to see what a Disney game made by a company that truly doesn't care looks like, check out Hi-Tech Expressions' The Chase on Tom Sawyer Island for MS-DOS. DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale are remembered because they're uncommonly good and carefully planned.

The basic play mechanics in both games are so clever, that I would not be surprised if they used an engine intended for a use other than Disney game purgatory. Perhaps the pogo-jumping game and the box-throwing game were prototypes created inside Capcom that never went anywhere, much how Nintendo dusted off a vertical scrolling game that became Yume Kojo Doki Doki Panic / Super Mario Brothers 2. Or perhaps Capcom bought some unfinished games outright and totally reworked them into DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale.

I've always thought that DuckTales in particular played like it was developed by a team that was working from at best a packet of information and character designs - why the Himilayas? Why is Gizmoduck on the Moon? - that strongly hinted that whatever form the game previously took has still left traces of itself in the final product. Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers feels much more in tune with its source material - many enemy characters in the game appear in the television show, and the charming oversize settings evoke the series without being slavishly faithful. Chip 'n Dale's cuteness has always endeared them to audiences in Japan, so perhaps Rescue Rangers was more widely available over there than DuckTales was.

To this reviewer, Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers is the true treasure in the Disney / Capcom catalgue. The gameplay can be addictive, especially with two playing simultaneously. Most of the 2 player co-op games on the NES are shooters or frenetic beat-em-ups like Double Dragon and TMNT: The Arcade Game - Rescue Rangers is one of the few titles in the system library to be approachable to those who don't like button mashing and can work together. The control scheme is, honestly, brilliant. Boxes can be picked up and thrown at enemies, or dropped down and hidden under. Both methods will do damage, allowing players to take the offense or defense. Some enemies will simply be stunned, and if you're quick, you can pick them up and throw them. You can also stun your Player 2's chipmunk, pick them up, and throw them too. Crates will be destroyed immediately upon taking out an enemy, while tin cans can be re-used and also stacked into platforms. Defeated enemies fly backwards off the screen instead of simply vanishing or falling away, which never stops being funny for the duration of Rescue Rangers' fairly short gameplay.

Both DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale have a reputation for being easy, but this is only true in the context of all NES games; they're not as tough as Castlevania III or Bionic Commando. I think, depending on how quick and twitchy an action game player you are, Rescue Rangers puts up a fight that isn't too tough to overcome. By the end of the game, enemies swarm our heroes constantly and there's some tricky jumps to make. What doesn't really ever change are the boss battles, which are either disappointingly simple or a relaxing diversion after surviving another gauntlet of crate throwing - depending on your point of view. The levels are selected from a map screen, allowing players to either conquer every level or bypass trickier ones. Once the first map is cleared, the Rescue Ranger blimp moves to a second screen of tougher levels. 

This game is terrific and, with the correct Player 2 in tow, it can be one of the best experiences on the system. It may lack the treasure-hunting depth of DuckTales, but for straightforward pleasure, very little else on the NES is nearly as fun. Bring a friend.

The Little Mermaid - July 1991

If there's a video game genre that's more maligned than the licensed game, it's probably the "girl" game. There aren't too many of these on the NES - the genre really began to take off in the 16 bit era, leading to piles of disposable, poorly designed Barbie games. Even modern games targeting a feminine audience are rarely shown any respect: Nintendogs and Cooking Mama are lucky if they get off with "bemused tolerance" while the internet is awash in regret for the lost era when Sonic was in games that were halfway fun.

The good news is that The Little Mermaid is both appropriate for everyone and well made. The game is actually a sequel to the film, where Ursula is somehow not dead from being impaled by a boat and now resides in a castle and has mind-controlled all of the fish in the ocean into being evil. This provides enough justification for Ariel to explain to Eric that she is a mermaid (which I guess he forgot), then turn back into a mermaid at will and set off to destroy Ursula again. See, this is already better than that direct-to-video sequel!

The gameplay is honestly like something between a platform game and a shooter. Ariel floats in the ocean and can use her tail to trap aggressive fish in bubbles and throw them at enemies. Those of us who unconsciously default to Mario-style controls in any underwater setting can relax: Ariel controls like a spaceship in a shooter game, and can easily be guided through the level using only the direction pad. She picks up seashells and trapped enemies automatically, and can plow directly into oncoming foes with those items without taking damage. I kept dying in the first level until I realized for no reason I was treating the game like Super Mario World and was holding down the action button to pick up and hold onto the weapons. There's no need for this; The Little Mermaid is generously uncluttered and pleasingly sharp in its controls.

There's only six levels here, and they aren't long at all. Ariel must open sunken treasure chests which contain pearls that will boost the strength and distance of her attack. This must be done by throwing seashells at them, or knocking barrels over that will roll through the level and collide, opening the chest. As her attack increases in strength, Ariel can stun and bubble larger and larger enemies. As I said, once I started thinking of this game as a shooter with an exploration element, I did much better.

The boss battles here are quite good, and unlike when you face Fat Cat in Rescue Rangers, Ursula has two forms and unleashes enough enemies onto the screen to make the fight against her feel like the real end-of-the-game battle. Befitting a mermaid, Ariel only controls poorly when she's on dry land, where she flops around like a seal. One of the boss battles forces you to deal with this handicap to do damage to a walrus, and it's a very welcome change of pace.

Capcom's creativity and sense of fun occasionally pokes through the simple levels: fish wear sheets in the Sunken Ship to pretend to be ghosts of drowned sailors, and Ursula's castle, with its doors that lead to multiple places, compares favorably to the more complex 16-bit games they would soon be making.

I'm willing to bet that a lot of younger sisters ended up getting this game as a consolation prize for then their brothers weren't hogging the NES with Contra. And I'm going to guess that when nobody was looking, those brothers took this game off the shelf and played it too. Like the film it's based on, The Little Mermaid is good enough to have a wider appeal than its title suggests.

TaleSpin - December 1991

(It's fun to see all of these purple box Capcom games together, isn't it? Back in the NES days that purple and red was nearly a guarantee of a quality product inside)

I was fully prepared to start my review of this one with something like "here's where the wheels begin to come off in the classic Capcom games". I even had the start of a review written up with something to that effect in it. TaleSpin is one of those NES games that you can still find sitting around, ready to buy for a few bucks. I've owned it for a few years, and never done much of anything with it. The controls struck me as clunky and the game as kind of uninspired. I'd never even bothered to get past the first level, when the necessity of writing this review caused me to sit down for once and actually try. I'm glad I did, because I was wrong. This game is fun, and awesomely weird.

It starts off innocently enough. After an objectively wonderful 8-bit rendition of the TaleSpin title theme, you're looking at pleasingly earth toned bricks and well-drawn character sprites to set up the story of the game. Then, it's off to the first level presumably set in the sheltered bay of Cape Suzette - about as routine a side-scrolling shooting level as I can think of. There's sky, and rocks. Baloo can flip his ship upside down and fly backwards through the stage, and TaleSpin is one of the few shooters that can do this. You pick up cargo along the way, and if you run into the scenery, you don't take any damage. At first this struck me as baffling, but after a while I began to turn off my Gradius-shooter instincts and began to use it to my advantage. It's nice to know you can go all the way up to the roof of the level to avoid enemy fire without destroying your ship.

So far none of this is interesting. But keep playing - it gets better.

Between levels, a shop run by Wildcat appears where you can buy upgrades to your plane. Immediately, my engagement with the levels increased as I realized my performance in picking up cargo and shooting down enemies could improve the speed and rapid fire of my ship. I don't like shooter games very much, but ones that allow you to buy things always give me better incentive to play. But then the game launched into Level 2 and began to win me over.

Rebecca Cunningham appears and says "Your next destination is the baseball stadium!". Before I could fully process this, there was Baloo - improbably flying his plane through the middle of a baseball stadium. What look like clones on Don Karnage lob baseballs at you from behind automatic pitcher machines. A giant baseball appears and blows a hole in the earth. I even found a bonus round where Kit Cloudkicker collects balloons on his airwing - I've never heard anybody mention this and previously I thought the only benefit to the Sega Genesis version of TaleSpin was the ability to play as Kit (I know I'm not the only TaleSpin fan enthused about this bear).

By level 3 I was really enjoying TaleSpin but still didn't like the control scheme - I didn't like that Button B fired bullets and Button A flips Baloo's plane. It then occurred to me that really I ought to be playing this with a joystick, like a real shooter - and five minutes later I had plugged in my NES Advantage and found the controls much better, almost natural.

In the end, TaleSpin won me over with its colorful graphics and endearing sense of wackiness. Like the other Capcom games, it can be completed in less than an hour and isn't too severe of a challenge, especially with an NES Advantage. Give this one a try - for an NES cart with nearly no built in demand, and a lousy first level, it's a lot more fun than it should be.

Oh, and why is Baloo's character sprite directly based on the Happy Meal toy???

Darkwing Duck - June 1992

By Summer 1992, the Nintendo Entertainment System was functionally obsolete. Although the Sega Genesis had been on the market since 1989, it had not been able to capture a significant market share until Summer 1991, when Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog and finally put its competitior, the TurboGraphix-16, in third place. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was available in North America for Christmas 1991. Nintendo would continue to officially support the NES until early 1994, but the writing was on the wall and the fabled 16-bit console wars of the 90s had begun.

Many of the most aesthetically impressive NES titles were released between 1991 and 1994 - although the abilities of the system were limited, tactful developers like Nintendo, Capcom, Konami and Sunsoft could squeeze beautiful things out of that tiny grey box. Darkwing Duck is a gorgeous game - the handsomest of Capcom's 8-bit Disney run, to be sure. There's even an impressive introduction sequence which works as something of a title sequence. Gone are the blocky, blurry sprites of Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers - by this time Capcom were masters of gigantic, detailed, screen-filling sprites (see: Street Fighter II). In every area of presentation, Darkwing Duck is a terrific game.

But I'm simply not very enthusiastic about it. The game is built on the back of the Mega Man game engine Capcom had been using since 1987. This isn't a bad thing, because the Mega Man games are rightly hailed as classics of their era - or at least the first three are. Darkwing Duck came out roughly simultaneously with Mega Man 5, easily the weakest of the original 8 games, and it shares that game's same sense of exhaustion. Even with that low bar to clear, it's awfully hard to play Darkwing Duck and not constantly be reminded that you're playing a less inventive Mega Man 4.

So maybe it's most fair to judge DW by what else it brings to the table. Unlike Mega Man, Darkwing can crouch, which will please those who always hated that in Mega Man games. Also, he can jump up and latch onto the underside of platforms, then climb up onto them. The best areas of the game force you to master this, dropping down and hanging off the underside of moving platforms to avoid obstacles. DW can also jump and attach himself to hanging hooks, streetlights, portholes, and other features of the background. Playing through these areas is the only time when the game truly seems engaging.

It seems obvious that the Capcom staff was using these Disney games to blow off steam between A-list assignments - this game is nearly as wacky as TaleSpin. If you're one of those who enjoyed the rabbits in Rescue Rangers who attack by wriggling runner carpets, then Darkwing Duck is for you. The enemies in this game are hilariously goofy, including boxing kangaroos, turtles who sneeze their shells off, and Arnold clones who burn away to reveal robotic skeletons. Every so often, DW has to jump to avoid banana peels which can knock him out for a few seconds. It doesn't exactly capture the tone of the show, but this silliness is appreciated.

Did I mention it's hard? This game is hard. Those who pine for a halcyon days of "Nintendo Hard" will appreciate this one. The platforming is not unreasonable, but the boss battles are remarkably difficult, requiring players to very, very quickly drop between platforms - which isn't easy in this game - while chasing a quick moving enemy and dodging multiple projectiles. The final boss fight is done while avoiding two relentless drones and is especially infuriating.

At the end of the game, the city is saved, and Darkwing rides his motorcycle away while contemplative music plays. Many NES fans will recognize this immediately as the hallmark ending of Mega Man games, where Mega Man solemly heads home after defeating the nefarious Mr. Wily. "Will the world ever be safe??", Mega Man wonders.

If there were any doubt that Capcom programmers were expressing frustration over their obligation to pump out game after game in either the Disney or Mega Man series, the ending of Darkwing Duck is it. As he moodily rides of into the night, DW hits a pothole.

Darkwing Duck is a respectable game with a number of charming touches, and strictly as a game, it's the nearest to Capcom's come to making a fully fleshed out game for the Disney series since Rescue Rangers. It's fun, it's tough, it's full of whimsical touches, but it just didn't do it for this girl. It's a better Mega Man-alike than The Krion Conquest, but just as in theme parks, the details make the difference.

Game Rankings So Far

Next Time: We make the jump to 16-bits for a magical quest