Back in May, I reviewed the original Sega Genesis and updated PlayStation 3 versions of Castle of Illusion. While the classic Genesis game is one of the most beloved of the 16-bit Disney titles, its 8-bit Sega Master System installment and two sequels aren’t as well known.
Multiplatform games are a double-edged sword. They are less interesting to me when they’re nearly identical across different consoles. A little extra and exclusive content here and there doesn’t do anything for me. However, when you have games that span across systems of different generations, things can get unique, and if you’re lucky, these ports and reimaginings can match and sometimes outdo their predecessors in certain ways with good design, creativity, and iteration, all on technically inferior hardware. Thankfully, Castle of Illusion on the Master System is a great example of the latter.
Things start off familiarly enough, with the opening story unfolding much like the Genesis original. However, instead of being told via in-engine sprites, the visuals are presented as custom still-imagery that already do a nice job of stepping out of the shadow of its 16-bit big brother.
Two difficulties are included: Practice and Normal. Oddly, Practice is highlighted by default, but I would skip it unless you are totally new to the series or platforming games. It’s a very basic and almost insultingly easy 3-level course that’s over almost as quickly as it starts. Normal is what you want, and contains all the game’s worlds and bosses. The Game Gear version, which is nearly identical to this one, has Normal as its default selection, so I’m glad Sega fixed this for the handheld port.
Obviously, Castle of Illusion on the Master System isn’t going to look as good as the Genesis version, nor should it be expected to. However, I think Sega did a wonderful job bringing the game to life, coming up with a visual design language that makes the world vibrant and fun to look at.
Mickey Mouse himself is animated quite well, with a look that is inspired more by the classic ’30s-’50s style vs. the Genesis design, which is a much more modern take on the iconic mouse’s features and personality.
Mickey also does a lot of the same things I loved from the 16-bit game, such as how he precariously teeters on edges. He does so both forwards and backwards, which is a great touch. Additionally, his tail waves when he ducks, and he’ll look left and right if you pause while climbing a ladder.
All of these little details give the game a nice, high-quality feel, and you can tell that Sega’s artists enjoyed putting time into his frames of animation.
Most notably, significant changes were made to this version’s level design and gameplay. Instead of just copying and approximating the 16-bit level layouts that so many gamers were used to, the Master System stages are more sprawling and exploratory.
Many times, you’re faced with multiple paths to explore, with experimentation being rewarded with extra power, valuable health replenishment, and extra lives. Even if you are just intent on getting to the end of a level, Castle of Illusion does a good job of not feeling linear — like you’re just running straight down a narrow hallway — and go in all different directions.
The various stages in Castle of Illusion will feel familiar, with forests, caves, toy chests, treats, castles, and clocks all represented. I found the actual design of each level to be of very high quality, with some requiring excellent coordination, providing a surprising level of challenge.
Some areas have an auto-scrolling element, where you have to stay ahead of and get by moving obstacles before you get pushed off the left side of the screen. There are also puzzle elements, false floors, and other traps that are impossible to see and rely on repeat memorization, which are common to that era’s design. They are rarely fatal, but can certainly be annoying.
Mickey still has his tried-and-true butt-bounce attack, but can no longer stock up on apples to be used as projectiles. Instead, he can pick up items throughout the levels to chuck at baddies. The controls to pick up items can feel a bit unresponsive at times, and it led to a good number of unnecessary hits, making that particular game mechanic feel under-cooked.
Items you can pick up can also be used — and are sometimes required — to access out-of-reach ledges, ladders, and other areas. The game respawns these items if you happen to accidentally lose them, but enemies respawn too. I’m glad it works like this, because it’s a much better option than having to lose a life to reset a level’s item placements.
For the most part, controls are sharp, and Mickey moves a bit faster here than he did before. However, precision platforming isn’t his strong suit, and I was frustrated on several occasions trying to make some jumps that would have been a lot easier in comparable platformers.
Hit detection also seems a bit spotty and a bit unforgiving, which can make Castle of Illusion feel more difficult than it should be. It’s not a deal-breaker, but I’d say they’re slippery, and like the item grab mechanic, leads to too many unintended hits on our brave little mouse.
Castle of Illusion‘s bosses are a highlight. They are colorful, large, and can be deceptively troublesome if you’re not careful. Several of them require some rather expert dodging and timing to defeat without losing a life, though, and I think most players will meet their doom several times facing them.
They’re not as difficult as, say, the Mega Man bosses, but they are certainly much harder than the ones seen in the Genesis game, many of which were too easy to defeat.
Speaking of Mega Man, you think some of the folks on the Sega development team were fans of the Blue Bomber’s first game?
Don’t worry, this guy isn’t anywhere near as bad as the Yellow Devil!
The music in Castle of Illusion is very similar to that found in the Genesis version, and it’s perhaps this aspect of the game that saw the least amount of change. There are some different tunes and takes on those classics, but because of the lower quality and less accurate instrumentation, that authentic cartoon feel is somewhat lost in translation.
It all still sounds good, as I’ve always liked the warmth of the Master System’s sound chip, but they come across as a bit too derivative, especially when compared to the big changes elsewhere.
You can probably tell this by now, but if you’re a fan of the 16-bit Genesis original, this is a fairly easy one for me to recommend. It has some weird control quirks and other 8-bit nuisances, but there’s more than enough new content here to make it a wonderfully charming complement to Mickey Mouse’s 16-bit debut.
- Graphics & Presentation: A-
Colorful and nicely animated sprites, clean backgrounds, and large, memorable bosses give it a premium feel.
- Music & Sound Effects: B
The same soundtrack you know and love, scaled down to Master System standards. Some new additions and solid sound effects round out the game’s good audio.
- Gameplay & Controls: B
Tweaked gameplay mechanics and completely new, non-linear level design make it feel like a different game, but loose controls and unforgiving hit detection can be frustrating. Good boss challenges wrap up each area.
- Value: B-
A quick game that can be beaten in a couple hours, but it will take additional time to explore and master all of the various branching pathways.