"Having a humanoid mouse bounce off your head with his butt has to be a humiliating way to go..."
While Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse could also be called Typical Platformer starring Mickey Mouse, that is not to say this 1990 Sega Genesis game is without charm.
After all, how could it be? The Mouse is a Disney property, after all, and this game was released in those pre-Sonic the Hedgehog days when the Genesis needed high-quality platformers capable of rivaling those starring Mario and pals. Sega gave Mickey some quality animations for moving and even standing still. Rest near the edge of a platform and you'll be able to watch the mouse awkwardly attempting to maintain balance lest he fall, for example. The levels are all cartoonish in nature and tend to at least feel like they could have been ripped from the source material. There also is a nice variety in the locations Mickey will visit, ranging from more ordinary settings like a forest or ruins to more fantastical locations such as a brightly colored house populated by toy soldiers and a library where he is shrunk down to a size tiny enough that teacups and milk bottles can provide short mini-stages.
While there aren't a huge number of locations for Mickey to visit -- essentially five worlds, each separated into a handful of short levels -- you'll find a nice variety of challenges. The intro forest has a fun section where you have to navigate a series of spider webs, many of which move to take you farther into the level. In the house of toys, it initially looks like you'll only have a short jaunt to the right in order to reach the first stage's exit. And then you realize the door is locked and you have to climb to the top of the structure to grab a key; at which point all those staircases you've been scaling have flattened into slides, making it a quick descent back to the bottom. While the fourth world is essentially one long level, there are several tiny ones hidden within those aforementioned milk bottles and tea cups that will whisk you away to new locations.
Mickey's journey will be impeded by enemies, of course. From sentient mushrooms to hostile fish and lumbering suits of armor, there are no shortage of baddies conjured up by Mizrabel, an evil witch bearing an uncanny resemblance to Snow White's arch-enemy, to prevent him from collecting seven gems to access her tower and rescue the kidnapped Minnie -- which is the entirety of Castle of Illusion's plot. Fortunately, he has a pair of attacks. Throughout each level, he can collect various items strewn across the landscape to throw at foes. More commonly, he'll likely resort to the tried-and-true jumping attack that's been a staple of platforming games for decades. With a slight complication here, as you'll have to hit the jump button twice to turn Mickey's jump into a lethal butt-bounce. Act like you're playing Super Mario Bros. and only tap once to jump and, well, it won't be the monster that takes damage!
If it takes a moment to get used to that alteration to the control scheme, don't worry. Mickey is reasonably durable. At the beginning of each level, he's able to absorb two hits before the third finishes him off. By collecting the somewhat uncommon star icons, he can increase his life bar so that he can take five hits before perishing. One interesting thing about this game is that nothing gets saved between each individual level. You'll always start the next with a three-hit life bar and no items to throw and have to work with that. Sure, that's nice if you finish a level one hit from the grave, but it can be annoying to go from being able to pepper every adversary from a safe distance to having to scrounge up a few items simply to be able to rarely utilize a projectile attack.
As can be expected from a retro game, just because everything about seems geared for children, that doesn't mean Castle of Illusion is a cakewalk. Sure, the early stages are. If a gamer shows even the slightest inclination towards being patient, it's easy to cruise through the game for a good while. The first hiccup I remember having was the third world's boss. The butt-bounce isn't so effective when you're taking on a small, nimble creature that's constantly jumping. The fourth level introduces enemies resembling the letter "A" which also are easily capable of landing hits with their unpredictable leaps. Also, there are a couple areas where it's a near-certainty you'll take a hit. Pretty tough to dodge a flying enemy when you're stuck on a chain swinging over a chasm!
By the time you're nearing the end of Mickey's adventure, the challenge level actually gets legitimately intense. Leading into the final bosses is a clock tower level. While this one might not exactly match those in classic Castlevania games, it was no slouch in the "Making Rob Yell Bad Words" department. This stage is one lengthy ascent involving precision jumping and a lot of gears that will plummet shortly after you land on them. With one mistake likely sending you a ways backwards, if not all the way back to the bottom of the level. While you'll encounter flying foes throughout the climb, their numbers and intensity grow the closer you get to the top, making the final stretch a bit stressful. And when you finally reach Mizrabel, she is definitely capable of delivering a miserable time to the unprepared with how she's only vulnerable for short durations while teleporting around her chamber and filling the air with damaging projectiles.
But that's retro platforming for you. Even if a game looks to be geared towards grade schoolers, you can bet there will be a few places where you'll need quick reflexes, nerves of steel and the patience to learn from a few failures. That's what got me into these games and Castle of Illusion did a good job of hitting that sweet spot for me. My main complaint was that there wasn't a bit more to this game, as things do feel a bit rushed. Like I said, you have to collect seven gems to reach Mizrabel. You get one from beating the boss of each of the first three worlds and then wind up getting two each during the course of the fourth and fifth ones. Since I enjoyed the game, the main thing this accomplished was making me think it would have been nice if there had been a world for each gem.
With only five worlds, this game is a bit on the short side and having to tap the jump button twice to damage enemies instead of myself was a bit weird, but I was able to overlook those issues. The levels are diverse and contain a wide array of challenges to overcome and the graphics, animation and music make it feel like you're playing your way through an interactive cartoon. Games like Castle of Illusion simply are fun to play, even if they're over 30 years old and might not be quite at a level to be labeled one of the definitive offerings in their genre.
Community review by overdrive (August 06, 2021)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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