Remakes are hard. There’s just no way around it. Just ask Square Enix, Sony, Microsoft, Capcom, Konami, or any number of publishers and developers that have jumped on the HD rerelease/HD remake bandwagon that started last generation. Change too much of what made a popular title special, and you risk alienating old fans. Change too little, and the game might be dismissed as a cash grab, or worse still, feel dated and unimportant in the competitive modern marketplace. It’s a difficult balancing act for any studio to undertake.
Enter Sega Studios Australia, the latest studio to attempt to remake a classic property in the form of Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The original Castle of Illusion was released in 1990 on the Sega Genesis, and while there have been various sequels and spin-offs released of varying quality since then (I’m looking at you, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion), the series has largely been forgotten, until now.
Thankfully, you don’t need to have any previous experience with the Illusion series, or the original Castle of Illusion, to enjoy this game. If you’re a newcomer to the series like me, you won’t have any trouble picking up and playing for the first time, though fans of the original will most likely enjoy how Castle of Illusion re-imagines the various aspects of the original game.
Castle of Illusion’s setup is delightfully simple: Mickey and Minnie have gone out for a picnic, and are having a grand old time when the evil witch Mizrabel shows up. She’s long been jealous of Minnie’s beauty, and kidnaps her in the hopes of stealing it. Of course, Mickey isn’t going to stand for that, and chases Mizrabel to her castle. There, he meets a wizened old mouse who tells him that to reach Minnie, he’ll have to conquer the castle’s Masters of Illusion and collect seven rainbow gems, and with that advice in mind, Mickey sets off into the castle.
The first thing you’ll notice about Castle of Illusion is how good the presentation is. The game utilizes a mixture of 2D and 3D visuals. It’s a trick that’s often hard to pull off, but Castle of Illusion does it with aplomb. Combine this with a whimsical art style that feels plucked out of a Disney film, and some incredible character animations, and Castle of Illusion is a joy to look at.
The sound design is top notch, too. The game is fully voiced, and all of the characters sound wonderful. There’s also a narrator who comments on the game’s action in a way that recalls titles like Bastion, and provides some of the game’s best lines. The enemies themselves strike just the right balance between silly and menacing, depending on the situation.
The real standout here, though, is Grant Kirkthorpe’s soundtrack, an orchestral wonder that somehow manages to fit right into all of the game’s varied levels, while still paying homage to soundtracks of the 16-bit era, and managing to sound like something straight from the hallowed halls of the House of Mouse itself. If that’s not your thing, however, the soundtrack from the original game is also here.
Yes, the presentation here is masterful, and for the most part, playing the game is incredibly simple and satisfying as Mickey runs, ducks, and jumps his way to victory. He can also pick up items to toss at enemies, and bounce on their heads to get to hard to reach places. Most of this works great.
The game largely takes place on a 2D plane, but some segments move into full three-dimensional play. The transition is handled extremely well, and it feels natural when the camera pulls back to allow Mickey to navigate a maze or run from a rather large apple.
The level design here is top notch, and will require the use of all of Mickey’s tricks to traverse. Between levels, you’ll spend your time in a hub world reminiscent of Super Mario 64’s castle, which also serves as a gallery to display the game’s concept art and any collectibles you’ve found.
That said, the gameplay isn’t perfect. The jumping is a bit floaty, but once you get used to it, you’ll be pulling off complex maneuvers in no time. This is a good thing, as Castle of Illusion is a challenging game. It requires timing and precision, and while checkpoints are fairly frequent, health and extra lives are not, and one false step into a pit could result in having to redo large sections of a level over again.
This would be fine, if it weren’t for Mickey’s sense of momentum. Those used to Mario’s extreme sense of control will be frustrated here, as it’s quite easy to overshoot or undershoot platforms because you’ve misjudged the game’s seemingly arbitrary measurement of inertia, and pushed the analogue stick just a little too far, or not quite far enough. This is compounded by the bizarre inability to skip cutscenes, which makes certain challenging sections far more frustrating than they would be otherwise.
Ultimately, however, these are fairly minor qualms in what is otherwise a great game. While it’s fairly short (I clocked in about seven hours from start to finish), it’s hard to complain about the $15 price tag, and Castle of Illusion does feature several reasons to come back. There are collectibles that unlock costumes and statues, as well as a time attack mode to complete and leaderboards to top, though it’s hard to imagine all but the most dedicated coming back once they’ve found everything.
Still, Castle of Illusion is the rare remake that manages to be faithful to the original while updating the game for a modern audience. While much of the design feels reminiscent of the 16-bit era, it still works. It’s not a perfect game, and it’s not the classic that its predecessor was, but it’s enjoyable, smartly designed, and polished, and speaking as someone who just made their first trip to the Castle of Illusion, I’d be more than willing to go back one day.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.