Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse

There’s a famous Wittgenstein quote that says, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” His point wasn’t that people should remain quiet on matters they’re unqualified to speak about, but that silence can be its own form of expression. Silence can paint a picture in vivid detail in ways that speech isn’t equipped for. To illustrate this point, let’s consider a negative example: the 2013 remake (more a light re-imagining than a strict remake) of Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse.

Broadly speaking, the original game tended to leave things unstated because it didn’t have the tools to speak at length about them. It was an approach that worked well for what the designers had in mind. The remake, on the other hand, has those tools at its disposal and is determined to make its voice heard. The problem is that this Castle of Illusion doesn’t know how it should express that voice but feels compelled to express it anyway. It overspeaks; it overexplains; it fills previously quiet moments with activity. What you end up with is a game that, while technically sound, leaves too little to the imagination while adding little to our understanding of the experience.

692865-castle-of-illusion-starring-mickey-mouse-windows-screenshotBefore going any further with the 2013 re-imagining, I want to make it clear that I’m under no illusions regarding what the original game was. Above all else it was a piece of promotional material for the Mickey Mouse brand, meaning Disney-style aesthetics would serve as the game’s foundation. It’s an aesthetic style whose goal is to reach as wide an audience/selection of audiences as possible. In more practical terms, this means the work in question is likely to promote conservative values, lest it make waves and alienate anybody who might have been interested otherwise. I should be clear that this isn’t the same as the cultural conservatism you see in Seth MacFarlane shows (particularly Family Guy), which presents itself through a congratulatory but ultimately false sense of subversion. Disney’s lack of desire to challenge is too transparent to allow for that. Their works are idealistic; they accept at face value the basic qualities of what they represent.

Returning to Castle of Illusion, it’s easy to see what kind of influence Disney had on the game. The visual style is a dead giveaway: the locations borrow widely from the world of fairy tales, forcing Mickey to explore forests, libraries/toy boxes (in miniature), castles, etc. Moreover, the way they’re represented plays into the traditional Disney strengths. Enemies are built out of soft shapes; the environments tend toward cool colors that they subtly blend together. Put it all together, and you end up with an innocent, pure, and incorruptible worldview.

Likewise, consider the story, which is best described as Banjo Kazooie if secular Christianity took the place of the humor. Mickey and Minnie are on a date one day when the Evil Witch Mizrabel (a slightly modified version of the witch from Snow White) kidnaps Minnie, intending to steal her beauty for herself. After following the Witch to her lair (the eponymous Castle of Illusion), it’s up to Mickey to collect the seven Rainbow Gems and rescue his love. Based on this description, you’d probably think Castle of Illusion was the kind of game with a straightforward moral outlook, and you would be right. We’re never given any reason to doubt the basic facts of the story: Mickey and Minnie’s inherent goodness, Mizrabel’s inherent wickedness, the logic that connects the presence/absence of beauty to their moral character, etc.

692859-castle-of-illusion-starring-mickey-mouse-windows-screenshotFor all the problems those premises would introduce if followed to their logical conclusions (and they are legitimate problems to worry about), I don’t see the value in critiquing the game’s use of them. For one, the game never follows its premises that far; it only develops them to the point it needs to. But more importantly, Castle of Illusion makes no claims to being a morally complex story. Taken on its own terms, the game’s a parable about how good and evil really are that easy to recognize; how good will always win out over evil; and, judging by the ending, how every person has a chance at redemption. (This is where the secular Christianity comes into play.) In that regard, it’s difficult to hold much of anything against Castle of Illusion.

Yet we would do well to remember that Castle of Illusion wasn’t just a Disney game. It was also one of Sega’s earlier platformers, released during their pre-Sonic the Hedgehog days. It wasn’t yet their time to challenge the public’s standards or to lead the industry forward (which would have necessitated a challenge). All they could do was meet the standard Mario had set for games of its kind, something Castle of Illusion especially reflects. The game never deviates all that much from the Mario template. You’re still expected to jump through obstacle courses and dispose of enemies with basic projectile weapons; every aspect of the game’s design is built toward that end. Everything’s spaced out properly, the difficulty ramps up very slowly, and the game moves forward at a leisurely clip.

Looking at the game on a more granular level only further solidifies our conservative image of the game. Whenever it borrows from its peers, it leaves the general concept and the intent behind it intact. The disappearing blocks create tension and urgency like the would in Mega Man, and the Castlevania-esque Axe Knight still requires that you swiftly resolve the conflict from a distance. The only idea I’ve seen the game develop on – using enemies as navigational tools – is merely an extension of mechanics and philosophies that Super Mario Bros. had introduced half a decade prior.

692868-castle-of-illusion-starring-mickey-mouse-windows-screenshotFor Disney, this adherence to tradition suits its purposes just fine. All that they require is the game communicates their trademark magical whimsy, and the Mario series’ preoccupation with fun needs little modification to achieve that goal. (Incidentally, Disney’s presence also helps Castle of Illusion avoid the soullessness I’ve criticized in games like Shantae and Runbow.) In short, when you combine the two threads I’ve been discussing – Disney and pre-Sonic Sega – you end up with a game that’s almost designed not to challenge the player or any assumptions they may have.

Fast forward to 2013 in time for the Castle of Illusion remake. By now, the original’s legacy as a game that’s resistant to change is well established, and the remake is nothing if not diligent in adhering to that legacy (even if that diligence may be incidental). That isn’t to say the new Castle of Illusion only applies a fresh coat of paint to a fundamentally untouched structure. The brief yet frequent bouts of 3D exploration, for example, often require significant revisions to a given level’s pacing. However, the key point is that these revisions never question the original material’s underlying structure. They’re specifically built to work with the original intentions in mind; so much so that I’m convinced Sega would have pursued these options were they available in 1990.

The apple chase sequence early in the game comes to mind. As far as I can tell, the format comes from Crash Bandicoot*, but the zany Saturday morning cartoon energy that sequence evoked is instead replaced with the kind of genuine awe you’d find in a 1940s Disney short. The revamped boss battles are another good example, as they introduce a David and Goliath motif that meshes wonderfully with Mickey’s hero arc.

692874-castle-of-illusion-starring-mickey-mouse-windows-screenshotHowever, remakes, by their very nature, are designed against upholding a legacy like that. From the moment of their conception, they’re forced to answer a difficult question: “Why is this game worth bringing back at all, and in the form that it’s being brought back in?” It’s a tough question to answer, especially since whoever’s asking it likely won’t work on any other terms but whatever’s popular now. Remakes demand relevance, and they demand updates to the original work in service of that. In this light, I feel a great deal of sympathy for the team behind this game. They must have been aware of these demands, and they must have felt the strain of trying to make the game relevant to today while still holding true to a spirit that wouldn’t allow that.

The unfortunate result is a game that can never answer its questions in quite the right way. Sometimes, it feels afraid to offend its audience by violating their expectations, so it does its best to quiet its own voice. This is easiest to see in the updated visuals Where the original camera implied Mickey’s characteristics from a distance, the new 3D perspective allows us to zoom in on Mickey and know him on a personal level. But Mickey himself isn’t prepared for these changes. When the modelers polished away his imperfections, they took any semblance of a personality along with them. Mickey’s attempts to fill the gap on his own fail more than they succeed. Expressions are awkward at best and lifeless at worst, leaving us with a character who feels more like a toy to be played with than a person with any real presence in the story. (I also want to mention how the visuals fail in a purely technical sense. The color palette needlessly interferes with the ability to play the game.)

Other times, the developers feel obligated to say something, anything, even though they have nothing of value to say. What they end up providing is narration; explanations for the events before me but without a wider context that links them together. To provide a few examples:

  • “Fate intervened in the guise of a miserable old mouse.”
  • “Now Mickey knew how it felt to be a rabbit in a magic act” (Note: this is the entire line.)
  • “He remembered Donald’s advice on adventures: Never have ’em.”
  • “You thought you were a match for me? Now that would be a Castle of Delusion! *laugh*”

I don’t mean to imply the original was this great unappreciated classic the remake sullied to reach a wider audience. I believe I’ve made clear my thoughts on the source material (it was almost tailor made to receive the marginal levels of nostalgia it has) and the updated version (much of the source remains recognizable after all these modifications). I guess my point is the latter brings a level of clarity the original lacked, and that this clarity thrusts the game into an uncomfortable light. It interferes with my ability to interpret the game by bluntly stating its meaning in a way that’s hard to misunderstand. To wrap this up, I see a number of factors at play in the new Castle of Illusion’s design: I see a desire to tie the levels together with stronger narrative details (that the game was never designed for); a need to make the game conform with the Disney brand, now that the tools are there to make it possible; and a self-imposed struggle for the game to make itself relevant again, even though it might have been good enough the way it originally was.

*The Lion King and especially Mickey Mania used something similar well before Crash Bandicoot, but the latter feels more immediately relevant to Castle of Illusion’s design. In fact, Castle of Illusion does a much better job despite Mickey Mania being the game whose job is to translate old Disney cartoons into video game form.

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