Castle of Illusion Review

If you were rocking a Sega Mega Drive back in the early 90s, the chances are good that you spent some time with Castle of Illusion, a 2D platformer starring Mickey Mouse, and spanning a number of colourful environments. At the time it was doing battle with the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario, but it managed to carve out a place in history nonetheless. Fast-forward 24 years, and a 3D remake is available on Mac OS. A lot has changed in that time, both culturally and technologically, so the remake has got its work cut out for it.

What’s the perception of Mickey Mouse in the year of 2014? Beyond his frequent lampooning in episodes of South Park, I really have no idea. The Mickey Mouse of Sega Studios Australia’s remade Castle of Illusion is fully realised in 3D (and to good effect, I might add), but keeping the same squeaky voice and loveable(?) charm(?) from the last century. Here he’s on a quest to save beloved(?) Minnie Mouse from the clutches of evil witch Mizrabel.

The story is of course throwaway in a game like this, and it can be argued that the characters are too. For the duration of the game I could have been controlling any faceless character to get from A to B, the fact that it was Mickey Mouse had no real impact on the game whatsoever. I should point out, that that’s not a criticism of the game; it’s rare to find a platformer where you’re invested in the protagonist’s aims beyond getting to the end of a level, and rarer still for it to matter. Even so, Rayman has his ever-increasing repertoire of moves, Sonic has his curling up into a ball and spinning, Gomez has his dimension-flipping. Mickey Mouse? Mickey Mouse can run, jump and throw things in a straight line.

Granted, Limbo didn’t need need much in the way of actionable controls, and really, Castle of Illusion doesn’t really need it either. But if you’re looking for something that’s going to challenge you with complexity, or give you an RPG-lite sense of progression, you won’t find it here. Instead, what you’ll find here is a pleasant enough platformer, with a number of sequences based on a particular theme (and with each sequence broken into 3 acts, the last of which is always a boss fight). One level might be set in a spooky forest, with branches creeping out of the ground to block your progress, whilst another might be made from sugary treats, seeing you traverse a river of chocolate milk atop a macaroon. Bastion-style narration accompanies the  duration of Mickey’s journey, which is a rather nice touch, at least until you get stuck and end up repeating the same segment, and are subjected to the same dialogue.

The platforming itself is fine. Once I’d gotten accustomed to Mickey’s rather generous jumping arc and fast movement, it was no problem controlling him, and the level design seemed consistently fair (the one consistent issue I had was with swinging ropes, but these were few and far between). Mickey can deal with enemies by jumping on them (interestingly, there’s not even an attack button to worry about, so you literally just time your jump so that you come down on top of whatever it is you want gone), which then causes him to bounce even higher, or by lobbing items collected throughout the level at them (which allows you to either knock out enemies from a safe distance, or hit things you couldn’t jump on top of). In all other respects, the game is about having a keen sense of timing, much like I imagine the original was.

That said, it’s rather forgiving too, as Mickey has a number of stars that are depleted when he takes a hit (and which can be found scattered around the levels) as well as a number of lives which will simply reset him at the nearest checkpoint (which are extremely numerous; though quitting the game in the middle of a level will mean having to start over from the beginning), and there are also some situations which will just send you back to the checkpoint without any apparent penalty. There are a few sections which require a great deal of precision, but (barring the boss fights) these are optional and mainly reward you with unlockables.

Throughout the levels you’ll collect numerous magic diamonds, which can then be used to unlock paintings, and more importantly rooms in the castle (the game’s hub area) which grant access to further levels. There are other collectibles to find, though doing so will take considerably more skill and/or patience, such as statue pieces, playing cards, and chili peppers.

The levels are 2.5D, and look absolutely stunning, but this does mean that occasionally you’ll have to move Mickey along the depth axis. Although the controls are a little less fluid in these instances (as they always are when unexpectedly taken to the third dimension), it does give rise to some novel gameplay moments and some puzzle-solving. One particularly memorable moment for me was a brief sequence involving a magic mirror, and there were plenty of those moments where I was impressed by the imagination on show in one way or another.

The game’s brevity might be its only issue. The whole thing can be completed in 2-3 hours, depending on your skill and how much you care about the collectibles. There’s no padding however, so that certainly amounts to 2-3 hours of quality platforming, and you shouldn’t consider the game to be some sort of cheap cash-in as a result.

If you have room in your life for several platforming games, Castle of Illusion is a real delight. It doesn’t have the mountain of variety that Rayman: Origins does (and which I consider to be the superior game), but it also isn’t as demanding of you as Rayman is. No matter how much of his sparkle may have been lost in the intervening years, Mickey’s return in this Castle of Illusion remake is definitely a welcome one.

Performance & quality

Despite the iOS version of Castle of Illusion being the same game, don’t confuse the Mac version with that one. The Mac edition of the game, ported by Feral Interactive, has several important things going for it, namely decent controls and exceptional visuals. I don’t recall seeing a single aliased pixel or polygon, everything looks so good you could think it was pre-rendered.

As usual, Feral’s work is rock-solid, and I encountered no performance issues whatsoever with the pre-release version I played.