Thursday, September 21, 2017

Summer Gamp Camp Finale

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.

Adventures in the Magic Kingdom - June 1990

While Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, at the Passport to Dreams World HQ, I was playing NES. As always this 30 year old toy was still taking me away to a better place. It's a profound product, as iconic and - in its own way - as American as the hula hoop. The NES is an affordable passport, and when I was young, it was one of the only methods I had of visiting Disney World from my home in the northeast.

I’m speaking, of course, of Capcom’s legendary, infuriating Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. On a video game system chock a block with hallucinatory plumbers, sentient robots, Geiger-esque alien monsters, and eggplant wizards, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is truly, bizarrely memorable. A grab bag of the obtuse and the frustrating, in a time when just about there best way to revisit a Disney theme park was a hardcover book, a VHS tape, or a board game, Capcom delivered a game with a fairly accurate, reasonably engaging representation of the parks it was based on.

Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is a baffling creature. To begin with, the game is obviously based on Disneyland, but the cover of the game and the title uses the Walt Disney World terminology. Make no mistake - that Sleeping Beauty Castle back there behind the title screen. This game puts you in the shoes of an unidentified kid dressed as a Jungle Cruise skipper - khaki outfit, goofy hat, and all.

“You” are tasked with retrieving six silver keys which will open the door to the “Magic Castle” so the parade can begin. This takes the form of six mini games of varying levels of completeness and difficulty. Let's tour them in order of most infuriating to least.

Space Mountain - seems to be a reused tech demo from another game. Stars fly towards the viewer, creating a surprisingly effective illusion of depth - very impressive for the NES in 1990. In this game, Mickey announces that he will be your navigator and that you must reach “Star F”. This makes no sense at all until you olay the game a few times. At the bottom of the screen, a cursor will illuminate, and you must press this button on your control pad quickly - fail three times, and you’re kicked back outside. Besides “navigating”, asteroids and Star Destroyers - yes, Star Destroyers direct from Star Wars - will fly at you, requiring you to fire one of two lasers to destroy them.

This sounds simple, but navigating and firing lasers starts off unforgiving and only gets tougher from there. While the star field effect is cool, it’s hard to stick with this game long enough to make it compelling; the visuals never change. It can be beaten in a few minutes, but from a presentation perspective and with an eye on the difficulty, it’s hard to get too excited about Space Mountain.

Big Thunder Mountain - conceptually identical to Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain at least is interesting to look at and fun to play. It’s also over in less than a minute, which counts for something. This time Cowboy Mickey unhelpfully explains that you must arrive at “Station Four” - again, no explanation provided. The game is a cross between a coaster and a pachinko game, with runaway trains crossing railroad switches and avoiding rocks. One of the nice things about this game is that it’s just simple enough that by the time you’re ready to give up on it, you manage to beat it.

Trivia Game - the cheapest of the six games, the trivia game at least doesn’t force you to start over when you mess up. In this one, you have to walk around the park talking to various guests, who will ask you Disney trivia questions. It goes on about twice as long as you feel like it should, and at one point, one of the great controller - throwing moments in NES games occurs, where for no reason the dog who has the key attached to his collar (yes, Pluto) runs away because “You scared him”. The next person asks you three extra hard questions, because of course they do. By far the most memorable aspect of this game is how incredibly strange the questions are - seemingly taken direct from Dave Smith’s Ultimate Disney Trivia with an eye towards being as frustrating as possible. Are you noticing a trend with Adventures in the Magic Kingdom?

Autopia - turns out to be a fairly fully featured version of games like Spy Hunter and Bump n’ Jump. Maybe the most fully enjoyable game in the set, it’s none the less pretty tough - requiring memorization of where to land after jumps, and the ability to brake quickly to cross moving bridges. At least it only requires that you get to the end - no real racing, in other words.

Pirates of the Caribbean - an ambitious, beautifully visualized homage to the attraction, Pirates seems to be inspired by Konami’s The Goonies, a kick-and-punch platform game for the MSX and Famicom that really has nothing to do with the film it’s based on. Avoiding pirates, traveling through skeleton infested tunnels, and jumping along burning buildings here would be more fun if the controls were less sluggish.

Did you know that Adventures in the Magic Kingdom gives you a power-up screen? If you press 'Select', you can "cash in" all those stars you've been collecting to give yourself an extra heart or freeze all of the enemies onscreen. This makes the game significantly more manageable, and would have really saved my butt as a kid, except I didn't know about it, because I always rented this game and never had access to a manual. Since it's the only place in the game with unaltered Japanese grammar - "fight!" would be "gambare", which means something more like "overcome the obstacles" - I kind of suspect that the English localizers didn't know about this either.

Power up screen or no, at least the Pirates level gives you a few hit points before you have to start over - although they do you few favors, really. The longest and maybe toughest event in the game, this masterpiece of frustration is only outdone by the next level..

The Haunted Mansion - the Haunted Mansion level is this game, simply put. The most graphically inventive and varied of the levels in the game, it’s also perverseley, intensely frustrating, like a Mega Man boss level from hell. Game designer “Bamboo” - really Yoshinori Takenaka, who designed DuckTales - really went all out here. From the introductory screen where skulls jump up from behind tombstones, to dodging dancing ghosts, to the moment where that beautiful 8-bit representation of the Disneyland Mansion comes into view, this entire level induces rage and awe in equal measure.

There’s the floating chairs and self-playing organ at the middle of the stage, and the clever riff on the Hitch-hiking ghosts mirrors seen as you enter - reused in The Great Circus Mystery, but far creepier here. Near the end of the first floor, there’s what looks like a potted plant sitting on a window sill, but wait for lightning to flash outside the windows and you’ll see it’s actually a ghoul peering inside! The Haunted Mansion level is full of cool stuff like that, and it’s arguably the best and most iconic of one of Capcom’s favored level design tropes, the haunted house: see DuckTales, DuckTales 2, Chip n’ Dale 2, The Great Circus Mystery, TaleSpin - heck, Resident Evil. Shortly before the creation of Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, Capcom headed up a survival RPG based on the 1989 Japanese horror flick Sweet Home and created the whole overstuffed genre. One of the most famous Japan-only NES games, Sweet Home is often considered to be a precursor to Resident Evil, but it’s more like just another game in Capcom’s parade of horror houses.

Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is maybe not a great game, but it’s an impossible to ignore one. It’s fascinating and infuriating in equal measure, and even if that doesn’t per se make it good, it does make it indelible. Players who thrive on an unreasonably lopsided challenge, or just those like me crazy enough to want to play it to visit Disneyland inside their NES, hold it in high regard.

But what of the rest of the game? Why does this game exist? What’s the deal with the weird trivia questions? Why is the main character Australian? These are the kinds of questions that haunted 90s Disney kids, myself included, and even if I can’t pluck the heart out of every mystery, I can, at least, answer some long-standing questions.

Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is unique in the Capcom-Disney output, dominated as it was by movie and TV show tie-ins. The one noteworthy exception was the Magical Quest trilogy, itself aimed more at a Japanese audience than an American one. Magical Quest, in fact, may have been developed to allow Capcom to profit from their game development inside their native country - as I’ve noted before, things like Darkwing Duck, TaleSpin and indeed Adventures in the Magic Kingdom itself were never released over there. So what’s the deal with this one game, not based on an animated property, but a theme park in either Anaheim or Orlando?

Darlene Lacey, photo by Nintendo Player
One answer may be found with Darlene Lacey, the localization producer for Disney in the US. I’ve already mentioned her in my piece on DuckTales, but Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is her magnum opus - she’s the one who came up with the trivia game and chose the questions. As Lacey recalled to Nintendo Player, "..It was my idea to add the trivia in order to quickly and easily boost the presence of Disney in the game. It just took a few phone calls to obtain some official Disney trivia from one of the departments. It provided more than what I needed, so I picked a range of topics from various time periods. I wanted the little kids to have to either guess and learn or ask their parents. That’s just the sadist in me."

As for the weird mix of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom seen in the game: "The game was already named by the time I had it assigned to me, so I wasn’t privy to any discussions regarding this. However, it was common for Disney to try to connect themes and create a sense of consistency across the product lines... [...] We didn’t want to make it appear as though this was literally what the California Disneyland looked like, or that this was the extent of what was in the park, or that these sorts of activities might actually occur there. So, we just blended some things together and gave the setting some slight interpretations."

Lacey also comments that the trivia game was concocted to replace a Jungle Cruise level, and that the trivia game was used to make the playing area feel more like a Disney theme park and less like a generic place. I would have liked to see that Jungle Cruise level, personally. Elements were also removed from each level - The Haunted Mansion has a cat, floating silverware, a niche for a bust, and a crystal ball, indicating it was probably intended to be longer.

Each level also had a text screen where you don't get a silver key, but some other kind of item. Text remaining in the code, including "Adventure in Magic Kingdom by Bamboo" and "Saturday's Morning is Morning Salad" indicate that this game was likely programmed by just one guy, and he ran out of time on this one.

But it's when we start asking about the weird Australian kid that things get interesting. There doesn't seem to be any information about him anywhere. Lacey herself thought he was weird too, but much like players, eventually he grew on her:

"He was already in the game when I received my first EPROM, and I thought, “Well, this strange little boy needs to go.” I think he came about because people from other countries always think of Americans as wearing cowboy hats. I discussed this issue with various people in the office and tried to think of a better substitute, but the longer the kid stayed in the game, his weird charm started to grow on me."

So perhaps this kid was just this game's equivalent of "This house has an illusion wall" - a bit of weirdness left in by the Japanese developer. But the more I thought about it, the less likely this seemed. Not counting the repackaged Mickey Mousecapade, this was only Capcom's third effort for Disney, and given how cautious and conservative Disney had been with their video game properties, I can't see the mouse house handing over the reins to Capcom to do just anything.

It's easy to forget just how early this one was: it came out after DuckTales and Chip n' Dale but before Little Mermaid. In fact, this game was early enough that it was on store shelves before the launch of The Disney Afternoon - DuckTales and Rescue Rangers were still being shown on local TV stations as stand alone shows. The fact that the title and character were already decided on before Lacey got to see the game was suggestive.

If left to their own devices, wouldn't Capcom have just made Mickey the star of the game? Isn't that the obvious choice? That's what developer GRC thought when they made a Tokyo Disneyland game for the Super Famicom: the Japan-only Mickey no Tokyo Disneyland Daibouken. Where did this Australian kid come from?

The simplest explanation would be that the concept, title and character came from an unproduced television show, wouldn't it? Disney in those days produced "pilot" movies for their TV shows which would then be split up into episodes for syndication: DuckTales' was called "The Treasure of the Golden Suns".

 Just because Disney paid for a pilot, doesn't mean a show would follow: hard on the success of The Adventures of the Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles, Disney paid Fred Wolf Animation to produce an 45 minute pilot film for their new concept, Disney's Fluppy Dogs. Yet another stand alone concept patterned on Care Bears, The Fluppy Dogs bombed hard on Thanksgiving Day, 1986, which eventually prompted Disney to reconsider their approach and decamp to more traditionally Disney material with DuckTales.

I'm not the first to suggest this, but was Adventures in the Magic Kingdom intended to be a television show, and somehow only the game was actually released? It appears so, although proving it isn't easy. There's a few whispers and suggestions floating around the web, but most of them seem to descend from a website called the "TMS History Page" - written in Italian. It's an impressive piece of research, and it's old enough to be hosted on the Itialian version of Xoom. Remember Xoom?

TMS, or Tokyo Movie Shinsha, was one of the most important Animation-For-Hire companies in Japan. Besides producing anime for their native country like Akira and Golgo 13, starting with Inspector Gadget and Heathcliff, TMS produced some of the finest traditionally animated shows for Western viewers of their era. Disney used them exclusively until the creation of Walt Disney Animation Japan in 1989; the best looking episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures, The Real Ghostbusters, and Batman: The Animated Series came out of TMS. As if to tease at some kind of casual link between TMS and Capcom, they also produced Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumber Land, an animated freakout which was cherished nightmare fuel for my age group. It was also a terrific Capcom game, one of the console's best B-titles.

The TMS history page says, translated from Italian:
"From the Disney / TMS partnership, WUZZLES, GUMMI-BEARS, DUCKTALES and WINNIE THE POOH were born, as well as some unrealized television series such as MAGIC KINGDOM."

Interestingly, the English version of the same page offers a slightly different take on the material:
"The first work of Disney/TMS agreement was THE WUZZLES. A third pilot-film was completed by a Korean staff, but it was rejected. The Japanese were reluctant to teach them all the techniques and the expedients of the animation process."
The Wuzzles only ran for 13 episodes, and neither Gummi Bears nor The New Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh had a multi-part pilot, per the episode lists on Wikipedia. This means that the third pilot film, after DuckTales' "Treasure of the Golden Suns" and Rescue Rangers' "To The Rescue", would have been TMS' "Magic Kingdom", apparently animated in Korea and rejected by Disney. This has to be why the game is called Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, and where the weird kid comes from, and why he was always in the game from the start.

In a way, it's almost better than it worked out this way. As usual in life, knowing the answers makes the questions less interesting. Capcom's Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is a time capsule of frustration and weirdness. And while it may not be as good as the best games we've covered in Summer Game Camp, it takes up a vast amount of imaginative real estate where the venn diagram of Disney kids and console gamers overlap.

So... who wants to hunt down the TMS Magic Kingdom movie?

Let's find it, people

Final Rankings

So, fifteen games later, where do we stand in the rankings? After some deliberation, I decided to slot Adventures in the Magic Kingdom just above Aladdin - in this case, pure weirdness pushed it higher than the center of the pack, but its difficulty and shortness still kept it below the gorgeous Magical Quest 3.

I also decided to move Little Mermaid up to spot number 10, out of the increasingly congested rear of the line-up.  Here's where it now stands:

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) Adventures in the Magic Kingdom
07) Aladdin
08) TaleSpin
09) Goof Troop
10) The Little Mermaid
11) The Great Circus Mystery
12) Darkwing Duck
13) Bonkers
14) Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers 2
15) Mickey Mousecapade

One reason I like this order is because these fifteen games just so happen to break cleanly up into three groups of five which roughly correspond with their relative value. Regardless of the actual numerical ranking - which is always a dumb way to do things - I suggest we look at the rankings falling into these groups:

The Hall of Fame - Games which are responsible for the legendary reputation of the Disney/Capcom collaboration
Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers, DuckTales, DuckTales 2, The Magical Quest 1 & 3

The Rental Shelf - Fun, well designed games worth checking out
Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, Aladdin (SNES), Goof Troop, The Little Mermaid, TaleSpin

Curiosities - For the truly dedicated only
Bonkers, Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers 2, Darkwing Duck, The Great Circus Mystery, Mickey Mousecapade

Disney fans and video game players seem to share a smaller slice of a venn diagram than I expected - I was surprised how many people were asking me if I was going to cover Virtual Magic Kingdom, which is a very different kind of experience than the sort of games I covered here. But with emulators and retro revivals becoming the norm, if I inspire somebody to replay DuckTales for the first time in 20 years, or some younger reader to thrill to Magical Quest for the first time, then I will consider it an honor.

The Year of Summer Game Camp

Every so often, especially in times when Disney is moving slowly, as they have been lately, when I don't have another solution at hand for writing something brilliant about the Haunted Mansion, I do something that usually fails: I try to diversify this blog.

Back in 2013 I tried several essays on film history and tied them back into theme parks, and there was fairly little interest. In 2014, I attempted suicide-via-old Disney movies, in the arduous The Age Of Not Believing series. That series did okay, and I think has some of my better stand-alone essays, but I also learned that click-throughs and comments only materialize when people have an already existing interest in what I was writing about. In The Age of Not Believing, people would show up for The Happiest Millionaire, or Robin Hood, but on off weeks when I was laboring through forgotten nonsense like Napoleon & Samantha, interest was hard to come by. In this way I learned that my historian's appetite for wanting to know the whole story was something of a liability.

And so, by Spring of this year, I was ready for something new, and had always harbored an interest in covering the old Capcom games on NES. In an era when 80s nostalgia is cresting, and DuckTales has received a flashy reboot, I was willing to sacrifice some blog numbers to find out how many of you were interested in this.

On one hand, the results aren't too surprising: the weeks packed with lesser known titles were less popular than the heavy-hitters, but throughout, I've seen comments, links and overall engagement with this subject much higher than it was during The Age Of Not Believing. It seems like not everyone wants to talk about Aladdin on the SNES, but those of you who do, really want to.

Personally, I enjoyed writing these little reviews much more than I expected to. It's not always a bad thing to stretch your legs after years of pacing along on the theme park treadmill, and for those of you who stuck around to see what on earth I liked about these old games, I hope you were entertained and informed. And, just in time for the official start of fall, I close the book on Summer Game Camp.

Should I try another Summer Series? Is there a body of Disney-related media you'd like to see covered?