Getting old sucks. My body hurts from walking around E3 too long, my back is aching from having to sit at the world’s most unergonomic hotel desk to write this preview, and indeed my eyes feel like they’ve been rolled around in grit because the notebook I’m using is just too small for my failing vision. Yeah. Aging sucks.
But at least I get to bore the pants off my colleagues with mind-numbing personal anecdotes like, “I remember reviewing the original Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion” when I know that at that time, they were still figuring out how to not poop in their diapers. That’s the upside of being old. Being able to talk about gaming history because you were actually there and saw it happen, and not having to rely on Wikipedia to fill you in.
Anyway, back in the olden days, when the Internet was still printed on paper and delivered to your door once a month in the form of a stapled-together collection of pages, I said of Castle of Illusion, “…a stunning game. It'll have you eating your meals while you play, and giving up hours of sleep on consecutive nights.” So yes, obviously I loved it to bits. And that’s why I ambled across to the Sega booth almost the moment E3’s doors opened, because I wanted to see whether or not this new version of the game has retained any of the magic of the 23-year-old original. Yes. Twenty. Three. Years Old. F-u-u-u-u-h.
As I walked up to the booth, I recognized it immediately. I did have some initial worries when I was told that this was a “re-imagining” of the original game. Those words sound a little too much like marketing-speak, and are usually a euphemism for someone’s overzealous fixing of things that were never broken, or slathering on layers of superficial nonsense that offer little or no enhancements to the experience. But no! Shocker of shockers – this is not the case here.
Sure, the game has been modernized, with the original platform game’s parallax scrolling (look it up, kids) being replaced with proper 3D backgrounds – but they are clearly drawn from the original. The game sounds the same – because it features the same voice actors from the first version. But the thing that really surprised me was that it plays very, very similarly to the Genesis original. And what that means, if you’re old enough to remember what games were like back in the early 90’s, this is not a namby-pamby, dumbed down, ooooo-have-some-free-lives-little-laddie game that spoon feeds itself to you. No siree bob. This is old-school platforming, and it’s challenging. It actually took me a few minutes to get used to it. Oh crap! I fell off something and died. Oh bollocks! Something popped out of a box and nailed me as I jumped over it. Damn! I need to figure out exactly how to get that jump right or I’ll fall all the way to the bottom of the screen again.
Yeah, the developers have done the right thing, and basically remade the game for those who loved the original. Or for those who don’t, but want a proper olde-worlde style game. This cheered me up no end. It’s gaming as I remember, but nicer looking, and with many of its original rougher edges shaved off.
Plenty of new stuff has been added, but they really feel much more like enhancements than unnecessary frills. And there are plenty of neat little improvements that just make life easier – such as some of the trial-and-error aspects of the original that have been swapped out in favor of things that give you more obvious visual cues. It doesn’t make the game any less challenging – but certainly makes it seem more fair and less frustrating.
There are some additional set pieces, and a whole new mechanic that involves running into the screen in certain areas, but it all flows really well, and feels just right. Ultimately, the developers have treated the original game with respect, and done it justice. I played through both levels that were being demoed, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. Castle of Illusion turned out to be the perfect aperitif for E3. In a show dominated by the latest 3D-special-effects-heavy-multi-million-dollar-epic-socially-connected-experiences, having an old-school reminder that, at the end of the day, gameplay is king gave me a really good grounding for the rest of the show. And it was just nice to see that something almost a quarter of a century old can still provide just as much fun as the contemporary games that have evolved from it.