Disney was always a step ahead of other companies. After a difficult time in the 70s, the 80s were all about recapturing their past glory. The 90s saw a true coming back to form, as the decade laid foundations for the powerful Disney empire as we know it today. Disney was exploring new avenues and couldn’t wait to break into the gaming industry, even though they got off to a rocky start.
The first Disney games came around on the Atari 2600, with the Tron movie getting not only games in the arcades, but also specific console titles. Around the same time, Disney also signed an agreement with Sierra On-Line (later Sierra Entertainment) to publish educational adventure games starring Donald Duck and Goofy. While these games sold decently, it is hard to say any of them have stood the test of time.
The minor Disney movie Basil the Great Mouse Detective got a tie-in adventure for several home computers in 1986, but it’s barely remembered today because it wasn’t unique enough. What Disney needed was a game that used one of their licences in the perfect way, and that happened through a Japanese software house: Capcom.
After developing Mickey Mouse Mousecapade, a surprisingly competent NES platformer, Capcom was given a chance to aim directly at the core Western audience. To do so, Disney suggested used a property that all kids would be instantly familiar with: Ducktales. Developed in 1989 by most of the core Mega-man team, the platformer would star Uncle Scrooge trying to amass untold riches in his perpetual quest to become the waterfowl equivalent of Jeff Bezos. Scrooge can use his trusted stick to dispose of mummies and aliens, along with jumping on spikes and avoiding obstacles. That was a brilliant design for his main weapon.
Disney supervised the production of the game, forcing changes such as removing religious icons in the Transylvania level and swapping replenishing health items from burgers to ice creams (I guess Scrooge is officially sponsored by diabetes).
No article on Ducktales would be complete, of course, without mentioning the fantastic soundtrack by Hiroshige Tonomura. While it has since gone on to legendary meme level, the Moon theme is probably one of the best 8-bit compositions you will ever hear, period. That’s as objective as one can go about it.
Debuting in US markets in 1989, Ducktales can be easily defined as the right game at the right time. Not only it revitalised the Disney gaming portfolio, but also allowed Capcom to start working on a whole series of platformers with Saturday Morning cartoons licences.
Pretty soon, lesser NES classics would follow, such as Chip’n Dale Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck, all having a decent enough success. Capcom would also make a direct sequel to Ducktales, which made controlling Scrooge a little bit smoother. While it could be defined as an overall better game, it arrived a bit too late in the NES lifespan to be truly remembered as a classic.
But something was wrong in the land of Japan. With many companies seeking to capture a Western audience, Sega had been closely scrutinising the Disney presence on Nintendo and was having none of it. Their new console, the Mega Drive/Genesis, not only needed a strong mascot like Sonic (enough of that Alex Kidd big eared-nonsense), but also instantly recognizable characters such as Micheal Jackson and, of course, Mickey Mouse. Sega closed a quite expensive deal with Disney for exclusive use of the mouse for a game that would be one of the first heavy hitters of the Mega Drive’s lifespan.
Castle of Illusion was the first Sega game exclusively starring Mickey, who was tasked with saving Minnie from the evil witch Mizrabel. Developed by a young internal team, with producer Emiko Yamamoto working on her first game, it was closely supervised by Disney as they wanted to make sure Mickey got fair treatment. It was decided that the mouse could not die, thus “lives” are not mentioned in the title, instead being called “tries”. The game was designed to be strictly non-violent, so Mickey’s most lethal weapon is his butt, much like Nicki Minaj. He can also throw projectiles, but once you got a butt that won’t quit, you’d rather stick to it. Castle is one of the best examples of the good ol’ days when 2D platformers ruled the world.
Culling inspirations from classic Disney shorts of old, together with new levels, Mickey walks on huge spiderwebs, takes a dunk in a cup of tea and fights a dragon on a rainbow. An incredibly well designed platformer that still stands strongly 30+ years later, the audience loved it and so did critics.The success of Castle of Illusion gave Sega the idea that there could be more Disney licences to milk. The choice would fall on Fantasia, the expensive showcase of wonderful animation from the 40s. It was a choice that everyone would soon regret.
The game was handed off to French studio Infogrames, a team that had never really worked on a console game before. The development time was cut short to hit the holiday 1991 period, with the result being a lacklustre platformer. To make matters worse, Roy - Walt’s nephew - revealed that the deal was made in error, since his uncle did not want anything released bearing the Fantasia name. All copies of the game were taken off shelves a few months after release.
Thanks to Castle of Illusion, Disney games saw a fast expansion on 16 bit consoles, from the rather small splash of the 8 bit and homecomputer days. Every available licence, from Pinocchio to The Little Mermaid, was handed off to developers to make games, many of which forgettable. Meanwhile, the Castle team was tasked with several more games as well. First came Quackshot starring Donald Duck fighting enemies with a multi-use gun, and then a direct sequel to Castle.
World of Illusion is perhaps the greatest classic 90s platformer to grace our screens, despite the unescaping presence of a certain blue hedgehog. Mickey and Donald are both playable characters, but also function as separate difficulty levels with Mickey being easy mode and the angry duck being hard (no pun intended). They go through different stages, with the 2-player mode also featuring specific puzzles to be solved by playing co-op. Overall, a wonderful design that still shines thirty years later. The team would then disband after World, with Yamamoto taking a break and then going on to become a producer for the Kingdom Hearts series.
After these made in Japan titles, Disney would make their way from the East to the West. Now developers such as Traveller’s Tales and Westwood would be tasked with developing tie-in games for the new wave of Disney movies. First came Aladdin on the Mega Drive, with the Snes version still developed by Capcom which was still producing games for Saturday Morning cartoons, with fairly solid games that would start trying different mechanics such as the puzzle game Goof Troop. Aladdin on Mega Drive was a huge success and Westwood would follow closely with The Lion King, both platforms with impressive graphics and solid playability. Naturally, revisiting them now easily reveals how your reflexes have gone down the shitter after years of doom scrolling.
Later, the 16-bit Disney aesthetic would culminate in classics such as Mickey Mania, developed by British studio Traveller’s Tales: a lovely homage to the classic Mickey Mouse cartoons. It even features black and white levels that slowly gain colour while the player progresses through. It was a bit too difficult for its own good, but still fascinating.
The 16-bit era came to an end with Sony’s Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow, a late 1995 Super Nintendo release by Eurocom. But by the mid-90s, it was time for Disney games to jump ship and embrace 3D graphics for good. Disney also founded their very own interactive studio which, for the most part, never really seemed to replicate the same success of the third party developers they worked with.
In the early 90s, thanks to Japanese developers first and western devs after, Disney games became synonymous with quality. If you saw a Disney-branded game, you could be sure to be in for a good time. These times are now long-gone, but these classic platformers will live on, continuing to inspire other games to this day. You can pick one up today and still have loads of fun - there would be no goofing around there.