When it comes to remakes of classic games from the 80s and 90s, I’m often reminded of a scene from Kurt Wimmer’s 2002 film Equilibrium, in which Sean Bean quotes Keats at a glowering Christian Bale. “Tread softly,” Bean says, “because you tread on my dreams.”
For those of us who grew up on games like Sega’s Castle Of Illusion as youngsters, the news of a HD remake can bring mixed feelings: excitement at the chance to revisit cherished memories with fresh eyes, and a hint of apprehension that those memories might be trodden on by clumsy programmers facing a tight shipping deadline.
Fortunately, Sega Australia’s remake of the Mega Drive-era platformer feels about as far from cynical name-trading as you could hope for – and rather than warming over a 20-year-old game and serving it back up with smoother graphics, it expands the original Castle Of Illusion‘s gameplay in a way that feels fresh and unexpected.
Originally released back in 1990, Castle Of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse was an early flash of brilliance for Sega’s 16-bit console, providing a colourful, entertaining and often beautifully-designed platformer – beguiling players the world over before a certain blue hedgehog moved in and hogged all the attention one year later. Some critics described Castle Of Illusion as a Mario clone, but for many young players, it was much more than that; its catchy music, gentle pace and cheerful atmosphere were perfectly of a piece with Mickey Mouse’s character, and while its jumping and collecting were obviously inspired by Nintendo’s outing, Castle Of Illusion’s bouncing and projectile-throwing mechanics were welcome individual touches.
Under the guidance of the original game’s director, Emiko Yamamoto, Castle Of Illusion 2013 revives the original’s side-scrolling gameplay, while adding generous new touches of its own. Once again, Minnie’s been kidnapped by the evil witch Mizrabel, and Mickey goes off in search of a series of gems that will lead him to her hiding place.
Right from its opening moments, this new Castle Of Illusion ushers in a sense of confidence and urgency. Mickey’s movements are fluid and full of character – a reminder of how remarkably cartoonlike the animation in the 1990 game once looked. In terms of controls, there’s an early and notable change: Mickey’s bounce, once activated by pressing jump and then jump again to bring him down backside first onto an enemy, is no more. Instead, Sega Australia has opted for the less fiddly single-jump approach, where simply landing on an enemy’s head will both kill them and send Mickey bouncing higher into the air.
For newcomers, this alteration will mean precious little, but for those whose hours of playing Castle Of Illusion are still etched into their distant memories, it’s a little jarring at first – even after a several minutes, I still felt myself tapping jump twice out of habit. It’s by no means a game-breaking omission, though, and will probably make the game easier to get into for children who’ve only just encountered it.
Otherwise, this is jolly, bouncy Castle Of Illusion as we already know it. There are jewels and other trinkets to collect – and you’ll need the jewels to unlock the doors to later levels – and there are fruits to collect and fling at enemies. Controlling Mickey’s fast and slightly floaty jumps with the 360’s controller might take a bit of getting used to – and it has to be said that landing on narrow ledges seems a lot more hit-and-miss than it did in the 1990s – but once you’ve tuned into the game’s particular brand of physics, it all becomes second nature.
The reworked, polygonal environments bring a pleasing sense of the familiar to the first stage’s haunted woods or the second’s demented toyland, while Grant Kirkhope’s newly-arranged music is an enriched, cheerful delight. And yet, to its credit, Sega Australia hasn’t been tempted to settle for simple nostalgia, and the game’s full of shifts in perspective and surprising mini-games.
A jaunt through the forest is interrupted by a Raiders Of The Lost Ark-like rolling apple, with the viewpoint changing so that Mickey’s running out of the screen and directly towards us. It’s an incidental moment in the original game, given an additional dramatic flourish here. Another brief 3D section sees Mickey running along a path of playing cards, which appear and disappear beneath his feet in a bewildering pattern. There’s a short yet welcome puzzle section, where pressure pads have to be jumped on to unlock the door to the next area. Even Mickey’s arrival at the title castle – little more than a brief cut-scene in the original – is now a playable mini-level of its own, showing the player how bouncing on enemies can make Mickey reach higher platforms.
Touches like these aren’t earth-shatteringly original or even particularly taxing, but they’re blended so well into the 2D platforming sections, and provide such a welcome diversion from the game’s familiar rhythm, that they make the game as a whole seem much more fresh – with its redesigned backgrounds and subtly reworked layouts, stage three (a jaunt through watery, bat-filled caverns) seemed so different that I had to check to see whether it was in the original game at all. It’s only when you compare the two stages directly that it becomes apparent how similar they really are.
The bosses have also been given a lick of modern paint. Stage one’s giant killer tree is back, but this time he’s taken on the persona of a crochety old wooden man determined to crush Mickey under his rolling bough. Stage two’s boss is still a homicidal Jack-in-the-box, but the switch to a 3D perspective adds drama to his decades-old attack patterns.
There are touches everywhere that hint at the amount of care that’s gone into Castle Of Illusion. Hidden items reference other 90s Mickey Mouse games. Part of the third stage takes place in the shadow of a colossal stone Donald Duck statue. Even the castle itself, merely a hub world in the original, is now a mini level, with jewels to collect and paintings appearing on the walls as stages are completed.
Seasoned gamers will be pleased to note that, after the comparatively gentle opening acts, Castle Of Illusion becomes as difficult as you’d expect from a retro platformer. The hand-holding text prompts of the first levels melt away – a sign, surely, of our post-instruction-booklet world – and Mickey begins to face some properly stern challenges: stage five’s rapidly disappearing platforms are a true test of reactions and patience.
At the very most, my hope for the Castle Of Illusion remake was that it would be solidly programmed and competent enough to evoke fond memories of the original. How refreshing, then, that Sega Australia has sought to make a game so full of its own visual touches and surprising little ideas. As an undemanding yet engaging love letter to the 1990 original, Castle Of Illusion is highly recommended.
Castle Of Illusion is out on the 4th September on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam.
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