Castle of Illusion surprised me. I’d never played the original for Genesis, so all I had to go on were a few of my own preconceived notions: It’d be targeted at kids (thanks to it featuring Mickey Mouse), and it’d be a decent, simple platformer. What the game offered was a lot more than I bargained for, in ways both good and bad.
A soothing narrator introduces you to the story. Minnie Mouse has been captured by the evil witch Mizrabel and taken to the titular Castle of Illusion. You’ll travel there as Mickey and collect enough of the castle’s hidden gems to build a rainbow bridge to where Minnie is being held. Not a particularly inspired fairy tale, but the heart of the game is fully realized when you enter the castle. It took me back to old adventure classics on the Nintendo 64, reminding me of that awe as the size and beauty of the overworld is revealed to you. Topped off with a whimsical and catchy soundtrack by the composer of Banjo Kazooie, it really felt nostalgic while still offering a new experience.
From the first stage on, the level design is consistently varied and interesting. Platforming in a gigantic library and jumping from cupcake to cupcake in some kind of sugary heaven each offer their own array of challenges. The game plays mostly as a sidescroller, but will often twist across 3D space, and occasionally diverge into full-on 3D sections reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy. This makes for some stunningly well-crafted effects, helped out by the occasional events in the background or creatures popping up in the foreground that really add life to the world. Many levels end with an exciting and rewarding mad dash for the exit that shows you the level from a new perspective, and made me appreciate them all the more.
While the game kept me captivated through the whole four to six hour ride, I was surprised by how difficult it was. From the sheer density of enemies in the later levels to the fast-moving bosses sprinkled throughout, I started to wonder who this game was marketed to. It stars a beloved children’s character and was rated E for everyone, but dying in the fifth stage of the final boss had me uttering some words that were definitely not E rated. The lack of an adapting difficulty or even an optional easy mode made me decide to only put this in the hands of a child that I wanted to make cry.
That said, the experience was a beautiful and quaint piece. More than anything, it offered a return to a classic era of games for me. Back when they were full of wonder and innocence and joy and music, oh dear lord the music. In a world absolutely brimming with HD remakes, few do as good a job of maintaining the atmosphere of the era while updating the look and feel for a new generation.
A review code for Castle of Illusion (PS3) was sent to us by Sega.