Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Mysterious "Bridge" Loops

Today, we're going to go on something of a side-quest from our usual BGM music discussions here, to cover some ground we've trod before. But it's such an odd topic, and so little is known about it, that I thought it'd be useful here to combine everything I know into one easy to reference post. I'm speaking of those mysterious "Bridge" music loops used at Magic Kingdom in the very early days.

It seems that at one point, Magic Kingdom used specially created pieces of music to play in very specific areas to "bridge" the themed areas of the park. Very little is known about these, except that they existed, and a handful have come to light in the last few years.

That's the kind of generalities that send histotrically minded folks like me running for our salt shakers, and indeed my first reaction to the idea of bridge loops was a similar "very interesting, but only if I could prove it!". I believe Mike Cozart was the first to point these out to me, although it took a long time for me to understand exactly what they were. Well, here's everything I know.

One of the frustrating aspects of these loops is that they were more of a feature than a rule - it seems as if Tomorrowland had no music playing around its entrance, which perhaps makes sense given that area's huge waterfalls which should have been the focus of everyone's attention. However, here as everywhere, it's worth pointing out that even had music been playing, it's possible that it would have been very hard to hear anyway. I dig into this problem a bit deeper in my Early Music of Tomorrowland post, but it's important to remember that we are not dealing with absolutes here.

One piece of the puzzle that began to change my thinking about these mysterious "bridge music" pieces was the revelation that Disneyland had the same thing, as far back possibly as Walt's era. If you think about it carefully, there's one very famous "bridge loop" attributed to Walt - the recording of "When You Wish Upon A Star" that plays inside Sleeping Beauty Castle. What is this but a piece of music that "bridges" two areas?

And if we accept that Sleeping Beauty Castle played music around its main entrance, then it's not too unreasonable to assume that other areas did, too. Disneyland music historian Chris Lyndon has recreated several of these minute long snippets at his website, and both his recollection of them and the music used for them definitely passes the 'smell test' in terms of arguing for a vintage date.

If we go deeper down the rabbit hole, we can even find remnants of these loops still in use at Disneyland today. Those who purchased the 2005 "A Musical History of Disneyland" set may remember an inexplicable version of "Battle Cry of Freedom" attributed to Frontierland that even the liner notes seem to be at a loss to explain. As it turns out, this was part of a loop which replaced the original Frontierland bridge loop recreated by Chris Lyndon - composed entirely of music recorded for Ken Burns' The Civil War documentary series!

So, what can we say about Magic Kingdom's bridge loops? Well, if you think about it carefully, there's still three of them in use at the park today. There's the music that plays inside Cinderella Castle, the music that plays outside the Mad Tea Party, and the music that plays under the Columbia Harbour House between Liberty Square and Fantasyland.

It's this last one that's most instructive in terms of setting expectations here. Modern theme park music is pervasive, properly balanced, and enveloping; the very early park music tracks were not. Very often they just played out of a few randomly placed speakers in case anybody happened to notice them. Disney was still inventing this as they went along; the first theme parks with really consistent musical backgrounds were EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland.

Here's the Magic Kingdom bridge loops we know (a little) about.

Adventureland Bridge - This was a Jack Wagner loop comprised of Exotica music with the sounds of exotic bird calls layered in. I was able to confirm this during the creation of Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World thanks to a live recording provided by Dave McCormick and track assistance by John Charles Watson on TikiCentral.Com. As it stands, we have just the single track I was able to identify from Dave's live recordings - we have no idea how long the loop was.

This track was seemingly suggested by Imagineer Randy Bright and would have been installed sometime in 1972. It played at the bridge to Adventureland, and also in the exterior seating areas of the Adventureland Veranda.

Liberty Square Bridge - We do have what I believe is a portion of the authentic Liberty Square music from 1971, thanks to Mike Cozart - for lots of information on this, check out my post here.

What is not known is where this music played. I've heard live recording taken in Liberty Square in the 70s, and I can't hear any background music at all - it's possible there simply was none until the Buddy Baker general BGM was installed in 1980. As a result, it's possible that the 1971 "fife and drum" music played only at the entrance to the area, where it would have been easy enough to hide in a few speakers. I make no claims as to the accuracy of this - it's just a guess.

Columbia Harbour House Bridge - has presumably played the music that plays inside the Harbour House since the loop was installed. The current Harbour House loop is an expansion of the original with a now stupidly expensive CD entitled The Wind in the Rigging: A New England Voyage.

I believe that the original version of the Harbour House loop was simply the music recorded for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Fantasyland, i.e., the current loop minus the "Wind in the Rigging" tracks. The hour-long version of the CHH loop, still used today, was created for the exterior of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland Paris in 1992.

Fantasyland Side Entrance - This short loop played along those side entrances to Fantasyland from Tomorrowland and Liberty Square that lead up alongside Cinderella Castle. The castle interior played a vocal version of "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" from the Cinderella soundtrack LP. Up until this year (!) it was not known that this short 5 minute loop even existed.

As it turns out, it was captured by How Bowers in 1994. By the time How got to it, it was playing from only one speaker, over on the Tomorrowland side. Composed entirely of instrumental tracks from Cinderella, the extreme brevity of this loop strongly suggests it was there from the start before slowly being forgotten and fading out in the 90s. No music plays in these areas today.

Unknown / Likely Lost Tracks
Frontierland - may have had its own bridge loop, or may not. Jack Wagner's early Frontierland loop has survived, and a later loop has not, although Michael Sweeney has reconstructed at least some of it.

Crystal Palace - supposedly played its music in the walkway surrounding the restaurant entrance, which also qualifies it as the "bridge" track. Sadly, the Crystal Palace music of the era seems to be entirely lost.

Plaza Pavilion - also known as the Tomorrowland Noodle Station, this restaurant presumably had its own interior music loop which would have acted as a "bridge" between Tomorrowland and Main Street on the south side.

The transition between Caribbean Plaza and Frontierland, and the transition between the Hub and Tomorrowland, seem to have not had their own "bridge" loops for whatever reason.

It's little scraps of evidence, little sub-sub pieces of stories, but then again that's what's always interested me about Magic Kingdom - it's a big, and old, place. Did you know that the Tomorrowland Speedway used to play F1 engine noises from speakers hidden in bushes around the track? Did you know that many of the Main Street shops used to have their own cassette tape of music? What happened to those creaky floorboard sounds that used to play in Haunted Mansion?

It's not all recoverable, but sometimes it's in the little touches that point us towards what designers were after. These weird little transitional loops should be remembered, too.

Ready for more? Visit the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Music Hub.

Or, hop a monorail to the past and spend a full "day" at the Walt Disney World of the 1970s by downloading Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World.

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?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 5

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.

Goof Troop - July 1993

I'm not sure if anybody really remembers Goof Troop fondly anymore. An attempt to do much more of a sitcom instead of the adventures Disney had been producing up to that time, it's popularity has seemingly been eclipsed by the surprisingly excellent A Goofy Movie, which treated the same basic characters with much more depth.

What about the SNES installment? One day, while fishing out on the ocean, Goofy and Max see Pete and PJ taken aboard a gigantic pirate ship! It seems that Pete has been mistaken for the pirates' long lost leader, and Max and Goofy land on the pirates' secret island lair in an effort to infiltrate it and recover their friends...

Wait, you may be saying, that doesn't sound very much like Goof Troop to me! And you would be right - but to find out why, we have to go back into Capcom history... back, basically, to the very beginning.

In 1984, Capcom released their initial wave of arcade titles. They would become famous for their overhead WWII shooter 1942, but released in the same year was a strange little game called Pirate Ship Higemaru. A top-down puzzle game, Higemaru has you playing as a sailor attempting to traverse maze-like decks of ships filled with enemies and barrels. 

Just a few years later, the game received a sequel for the Famicom in Japan, the marvelously titled Higemaru Hell Island. A much more complex creation, this has you traversing islands, collecting items, and defeating bosses. Puzzles here stretch over multiple screens, and backtracking is the rule; think The Legend of Zelda by way of Atari's Gauntlet. A planned United States release came to naught, and the Higemaru series ended there.

Until 1993, when Capcom produced a stealth Higemaru game as Goof Troop. All of the components are there: pirates, maze-like levels, backtracking, and bosses. And then, Capcom kept adding. They added two player simultaneous play; they added lives and items. These few changes alter the gameplay tremendously, to the point that I wonder if Capcom was planning on releasing it as a proper Higemaru sequel. They did not - like most of these games intended for American audiences, it received only a perfunctory Japanese release under the name "Goofy and Max: Pirate Island Adventure" and seems to be very rare today.

The gameplay is still best likened to The Legend of Zelda: a topdown maze filled with increasingly aggressive enemies. Pirates can be diapatched with barrels; stronger deckhands must be knocked off platforms into the water, or plowed through with weighted stones which Goofy and Max kick. These same stones must usually be kicked into very specific places to unlock keys to progress through levels; since they can only be stopped by a wall, this creates some tricky puzzles. 
One weapon that can be picked up is a grappling hook gun; this can be used by one player to keep enemies pinned down while the other deals with puzzles or makes a bee line for the exit. If either Goofy or Max touch the exit door they both jump to the next screen immediately; this means experienced teams of players can move through levels swiftly. In other areas, the grappling hook can be tied down to allow players to cross rivers and pitfalls, but this means the item must be surrendered permanently. In two-player games, each player can have one item; if they pick up a new item, the old one will be left behind. In one-player mode, two items are allowed; the increase in options helps make up for the doubled difficulty. Other items include bells to distract enemies, bridges to cross gaps, shovels, and keys.

But you know what? After working through so many uninspired action games, it's genuinely refreshing to come across Goof Troop. It may not be great, but merely succeeding at being unique puts it above the middle of the pack. For a game with such simple controls and presentation, Goof Troop can be frustrating. This is the only game so far I haven't seen through to the ending; partly this is because I was playing solo, and party because this kind of thing just isn't my kettle of fish. If you have a friend who loves puzzle platformers and the two of you can work together, this may be just the kind of overlooked game you're going to love. After about 40 minutes I had enough; looking at playthroughs online it's clear I saw less than a quarter of the game!

On a technical level, Goof Troop is fine. The graphics are SNES-colorful, although the settings are repetitive they are not the focus of the game. It's always fun to hit your co-player; they stagger around dizzy for a few frames. As the levels go on, eluding the pirates becomes tougher and tougher; never mind resetting the screen multiple times to solve traps! The music is functional at best; as aural wallpaper, you won't mind it for puzzle solving, but you won't remember any of it the moment the game is turned off.

It's a good game, and there's a lot of it; after zipping through a bunch of 30 minute long 8 bit games like Darkwing Duck, it's nice to see Goof Troop committed it giving you a lot of content for your money. But it's hard to escape the feeling that Goof Troop is the kind of game that was why Blockbuster Video existed: fun to play for a bit, but only the truly dedicated will see it through.

Disney's Aladdin - October 1993

This is nearly the end of the line for Capcom and Disney. The March 1993 issue of Nintendo Power profiled Capcom, referring to their development of Aladdin as "the really big news". Instead, it turned out to be pretty much the end of the line for their deal with Disney.

This is actually a pretty good game, it just is not the game you think it is.

 Anybody with a game system who lived through the early 90s will immediately think of Aladdin, developed by Virgin Games, and released on the Sega Genesis in 1993. This is not that game! It's an easy mistake to make - practically every other Aladdin game released in the early 90s is a port of the Virgin Games platformer, including later releases on, of all things, the NES. Capcom's Aladdin is not Virgin's Aladdin, despite sharing a name and basic concept.

"Genesis Aladdin" had a heck of a gimmick up its sleeveless vest; all of the character animations and sprites were actually drawn by Walt Disney Animation before being scanned and colorized by Virgin Games. This gives Aladdin a look like no other 16-bit platformer at the time - it really does look like you're playing the movie. There's also impish jokes through the game, from appearances by the Genie as a bottle, skeletons wearing mouse ears, and Aladdin's absurd "level clear" jog through the bottom of the screen at the end of each level, there's a lot here that's very memorable.

Wrong Game!
What isn't memorable, however, is the actual level design - every level is an expansive, frustrating succession of randomly placed platforms with no real attempt to guide you through. There's no flow to any of it; you just jump through, attack enemies, and hope to find the exit. Throughout, Aladdin is for some reason armed with a sword, because this is a video game and video game characters have swords, right? For as impressive Aladdin is as an experience, I've always thought that there was far too little happening under the hood of this game to truly be enjoyable.

Over in Japan, Capcom's sausage factory was grinding out their own take on Aladdin. There's no Disney Animation sprites here - just straight, old fashioned 16 bit sprite work. It feels less like the movie and more like a game. Aladdin has an astonishing number of abilities; he can jump, climb, swing, attack, throw apples, and float around with a sheet. Compared to the combat-oriented Genesis game, this Aladdin is unarmed and athletic; you proceed through every level by swinging and climbing. In this sense, the game appears to be heavily indebted to Jordan Melchner's Prince of Persia, which had recently been beautifully ported to the Super Nintendo by Arsys Software in 1992. Aladdin's movements aren't as restricted as those in Prince of Persia, thankfully, but the influence is obvious and unavoidable.

And let's talk about level design for a moment here. Both games start in Agrabah streets, both have you jumping on canopies and dodging guards, but instead of stranding you in a maze, Capcom offers a straightforward progression that none the less rewards the most adventurous players. If you stay low, you must contend with rabble on the street; up on the rooftops, you are rewarded with more items, but hazardous jumps and a breathtaking view of the palace.

Also, I fawned over this with TaleSpin, so you knew I'd have to bring it up here: the Capcom game can be delightfully nonsensical. Upon meeting the Genie, you're transported to a bizarre world where the Genie has become numerous platforms for you to jump across, a'la Air Man's stage in Mega Man 2. After that, for no reason and with no explanation, Abu falls off the magic carpet and you must travel into an ancient pyramid to rescue him.  At the end of that, you're confronted by a scary-looking boss who turns out to just be Abu try to scare you! From there, it's on to A Whole New World, which isn't a shooter or anything, but just an opportunity to peacefully collect some items before heading off to fight Jafar.

This game is short, perhaps six levels, but it's tough. There's dozens of tricky jumps, which can be improved with the help of a sheet you can use as a parachute. The trouble is, it's an optional item at the start of the game, and there's only one other in the game, in the final level...

In 1993, compared to the vibrant graphics and impressive pedigree of the Genesis game, this didn't stand a chance. Disney's next blockbuster game, The Lion King, would be developed by Virgin for the Genesis and the Super Nintendo, and Capcom was out of luck. It's a shame; this is a good game with a lot of challenge.

The Genesis game feels like a piece of merchandise; part of the promotional effort: like the film it's bold, brassy, and tough to ignore. The SNES Aladdin is a legit game, balanced, with tight controls and, if you appreciate vintage sprite work, a terrific look. It ought to be better remembered than it is.

Bonkers - October 1994

We're here; we finally made it to the end, and I wish like hell I could say it was anything but Bonkers. It's true, if I were grouping these chronologically we would still have The Great Circus Mystery and Magical Quest 3 to cover; good games, to be sure. But it made more sense to group all three of those Quest games together, so here we are at the end of nearly five exhilarating years of Capcom-Disney video games, with.... Bonkers.

Does anybody really like Bonkers? I said earlier in this piece that Goof Troop has fallen by the wayside in favor of the superior A Goofy Movie, but Bonkers seems to have no adherents; it's not even on DVD. As a kid, once Bonkers was on the Disney Afternoon rotation, I began tuning my TV elsewhere; to Kid's WB, which had Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Road Rovers, and Earthworm Jim. I can't even say I have any real memories of Bonkers; just a vague, unpleasant distaste.

So how does Bonkers on SNES stack up? Well, it's okay. Typical for Capcom, the graphics are gorgeous - Bonkers actually looks cute bouncing around on the screen, something I can't say ever happened in the show. The settings are full of clever touches and Bonkers is full of amusing slapstick animation - he can be flattened, fall over, trip over his own feet, and more.

The first level takes you into Donald Duck's Hollywood mansion (!), where you can sink into jello molds left on the dining room table, destroy gold statues on Donald lining the halls, and slide down an elephant shaped slide in the toy room. In a later level, a powerup is found in a room where Mickey and Donald are taking a break from filming a western movie. Bonkers bounces his way through a cruise ship, where kitchen freezers are filled with marauding penguins and swordfish frozen into blocks of ice. There's also a pretty tough LA Freeway traffic jam, where toon busses are trying to mow you down.

He does look adorable in this game

Besides the forgettable license, this game isn't better known because it's really just average. Obviously built on the Magical Quest game engine, Bonkers simply can't move fast enough for the game he's in. Mickey controls fine in the Quest games because speed is not a priority, and once you reach tougher areas you have a projectile. Bonkers's jumps are just too sluggish to safely clear even minor enemies, creating an impression that the game is running at half speed. Combined with an over-generous hit box, and this is a game that feels like it shouldn't be nearly as frustrating as it is.

Intended to offset the sluggishness, Bonkers also has a dash with a recharging meter at the bottom that can stun or destroy enemies. It controls strangely - you have you keep pushing down on the dash button and the forward button or the dash runs out immediately. This feature seems to have inspired by the terrific, tight dash mechanics in Konami's Buster Busts Loose for the SNES in 1992. It never makes the game unplayable, but like Scrooge's bizarre pogo-cane mechanic in the original DuckTales, it's the kind of thing that should have been improved before release.

To what extent does charming details make up for a middle-of-the-road game? You can do far worse for platformers on the SNES, but you can also do much better. Players willing to overlook the wonky jumping and dashing and excessive hit box will find a decent little game here, but in an overstuffed genre, why bother with decent? Bonkers was released near the end of the total dominance of platform games; Street Fighter 2 had ignited the fighting game craze a year before, and a little game called Doom was just around the corner. Given how totally average Bonkers is, it's hard not to think that maybe this is a job better left to Mario and Sonic after all.

As for the animated show, playing this game and my general desire to be better informed prompted me to watch a handful of episodes, which ranged from decent to tedious. The internet informs us it was a troubled show, and the results speak for themselves - it's pretty weak sauce compared to even a middle of the road episode of something like Darkwing Duck. The whole point of Roger Rabbit always was that he was not a Disney character; he's more like a Tex Avery creation than Disney's babyish creations. Neither fish nor fowl, the Bonkers show is significantly worse than either of it's models - Roger Rabbit or Tiny Toon Adventures. Disney Television would rebound, but Bonkers remained as a road not traveled.


I had suspected that Bonkers was going to end this series on a down note, so I withheld a game from the coverage for the end. Appropriate for a theme park blog, this is the very first Disneyland video game on a home console - Capcom's legendary, baffling Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. Come back next week for the final game, and a retrospective on Summer Game Camp!

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

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

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