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

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