16/04/2014

SMASH TV (ARCADE)

What do you call those things where you blow into them and they make a squeaking noise while a paper tube unfurls from the end? Party horns? Yeah, party horns. Imagine the sounds of one of those ringing in your ears, because it's VGJunk's 4th birthday! Four years of writing about old videogames, and still I misspell "damage" as "damamge" every single time. I feel like I should have a cake in the shape of an underwhelming Famicom-only platformer or something. Anyway, long-time readers may remember that VGJunk's birthday just so happens to be the day before my actual birthday, and as a birthday treat I like to play a game that I genuinely love at this time of year. For 2014 it's the turn of a true arcade classic - Williams' 1990 arcade a-brand-new-toaster-em-up Smash TV!


Okay, I know what you're all thinking. Hell, I'm thinking it too, so let's go ahead and get it out of our systems now, shall we?
Big Money!
Big Prizes!
I Love It!
Right, that's it, article's over, everyone go home. No, wait, come back, I'm going to talk about Smash TV properly now. Developed by Defender creator Eugene Jarvis, Smash TV is a game born from the fusion of two different influences.


The first inspiration is the 1987 action movie / Schwarzenegger-based quip delivery system The Running Man, the tale of a dystopian future where brutal gladiatorial murder is televised in the form of a game show. This is also the plot (oh look, a new record for "loosest use of the word plot") of Smash TV. In the distant year of 1999 - hey, 1999 was fifteen years ago so I'd say that pretty distant - Smash TV is the most popular show on television. One man enters an arena packed with thousands of savage killers in the hopes of securing fame, glory and maybe a new VCR.


Every game show needs a host, and Smash TV is no exception. This bloodthirsty spectacle is presented by a man whose jacket is encrusted with such a vast number of crystal that he has to be held up by two young women at all times lest the weight crush him. Existing somewhere between Dale Winton and Noel Edmonds on the creepy-game-show-host-o-meter, he pops up in the corner of the screen every now and then, his shifty eyes darting from side to side as he tries to remember which of the twins is Cindy and which is Sandy. He also chips in with some voice samples, including the already-mentioned "big money" bit which is one of Smash TV's most enduring legacies. In fact, without wanting to denigrate the quality of the gameplay I'd say the host's verbal interjections are a big part of why Smash TV is so fondly remembered. Nothing sticks around like a catchphrase, after all.


The other part of Smash TV's genetic make-up, the part where all the gameplay comes from, is the 1982 arcade game Robotron 2084, pictured above in all its "neon robots roaming the endless black gulf of terror" glory. Also developed in part by Eugene Jarvis, Robotron is Smash TV's progenitor in that they share the same style of gameplay, the same battle against overwhelming odds and best of all the same twin-joystick control system. Robotron wasn't the first game to use two joysticks, one for movement and one for selecting the direction you're shooting in, but it did combine that control method with huge waves of enemies that desire nothing but your immediate annihilation, thus paving the way for Smash TV.


When you start the game, you're treated to a short scene showing your contestant making his way through the studio and into the killing zone. The contestant isn't just a hovering torso, by the way. He's wearing blue trousers, so his legs are hard to see against the blue carpet. No such problem for the host, who is resplendent in an outfit that could have been plucked from the very wardrobe of Satan himself if it weren't for the powder-blue loafers. The host doesn't acknowledge the contestant's presence, unable to bring himself to meet the gaze of a man who's about to get his head bashed in by a gang of neo-nazis.


I mean, I've always just assumed these enemies are some kind of horrible fascists. They're skinheads with baseball bats and their lives have gone so badly awry that they're acting as cannon-fodder grunts in a fight to the death, so there must be something wrong with them. Maybe I've created this fiction in order to justify my actions as I mow them down with my machine gun for the reward of a new home appliance.


If you were going to put Smash TV into a genre you'd probably call it a single-screen shooter or an arena shooter, but what it boils down to is a Kill Everything Simulator. Wave after wave of bad guys swarm onto the screen, and all you have to do - all you can do, really - is make them dead. It sounds like an extremely limited concept, but the subtle genius of the game's design keeps it from going stale. Enemies appear from the top, bottom, left or right of the screen, so you can't stand there, which forces you towards the corners of the arena... but you can't stand there, either, because with no space to back into you'll quickly be overrun. Instead you're forced to be constantly moving, always looking for the safe corridors of enemy-less space to dart into, never finding a moment's peace. Smash TV is a game that wants you dead, and death is the only respite you will find.


The contestant isn't entirely without an effective means to fight back, however. For one thing, while the machine gun you start with is the most feeble weapon in the game it still has a good rate of fire and can take out a fair proportion of the enemies in one hit. There are also limited-ammo special weapons to collect, as you would expect from both an arcade shooter and a game show about shooting people. Pictured above is the grenade... well, I was going to say "grenade launcher" but that's more of a grenade sprayer, a piece of farm equipment modified to cover as large an area as possible in high-explosive fragmentation grenades instead of manure. There are also protective barrier in both traditional energy shield and "whirling frisbees of death" varieties, Gradius­-style hovering "options" that duplicate your shots, three-way spread guns and missiles which, unlike the real thing, travel right through groups of enemies instead of detonating on impact. I was always a bit confused by that. Why not make it a railgun or something? I'm not complaining, I just desire that little bit of extra realism in my futuristic, murder-soaked versions of The Krypton Factor.


One pick-up you should be keeping a keen eye out for is the orange bomb icon that you can see at the bottom of the screen. Touching it causes every enemy on screen to explode. I and everyone I know who has played Smash TV refers to them as Bingos, because when you collect one the host shouts "Bingo!". Also, all the enemies explode. In a game so relentless that every tiny morsel of success the player achieves is a cause for celebration, grabbing a Bingo when you're surrounded by enemies is like winning the lottery and having the giant cheque handed over by that kid who used to call you names at school.


Here, then, is a screenshot to really sum up the Smash TV experience. Enemies are everywhere, with more pouring in from the bottom of the screen. The grey things on the right-hand side of the arena floor are landmines, giving you another obstacle to negotiate. The info panel at the top of the screen indicates that you have just won a brand new toaster, which I'm sure will be of great comfort to your soon-to-be grieving widow. The grenade sprayer might buy you some time, but there's a good chance you're going to die... and then you survive. Miracle of miracles, you slice a path through the hordes. You take out the gunners in the walls, and the chunky blokes at the edge of the screen who sneak onto the battlefield and try to catch you unawares by exploding into a cloud of shrapnel. You survive for now, and it's one of those moments of true satisfaction that great videogames can deliver.


Enough waxing poetic about Smash TV's ballet of carnage, because it's time for a boss. His name is Mutoid Man, and he was mutated when a tank carrying toxic waste crashed into a twenty-foot tall inflatable of Kingpin from the Daredevil comics. It's never explained whether the two normal-sized gunners attached to his treads are part of his mutant body, a pair of parasitic organisms that survive on the scraps from Mutoid Man's various rampages or two "lucky" grunts who are awarded the luxury of being able to sit down at the expense of their seats being horrifyingly close to what you might describe as Mutoid Man's crotch.
Fighting Mutoid Man is a two-stage process, and those stages are shooting him and not going near him because he'll run you over. The shooting part is made more difficult by the fact that your basic gun's bullets simply bounce off, and you can only do damage with a special weapon. Luckily they spawn on the arena floor with some regularity, although this may be part of Mutoid Man's plan to lure you in so he can kill you with his laser eye beams.


Yeah, those laser eye beams. The fight has being going on for a while now, but Mutoid Man is as dangerous as ever even though he's been reduced to a skeletal torso with a smug head perched on top like a ham hock balanced on a xylophone. It gets better, because after shooting him some more his torso explodes to reveal another head underneath, attached directly to his caterpillar treads. There's a reason Mutoid Man is a boss and not some lowly grunt, and that reason is built-in redundancies in the event some maniac shoots him with a rocket launcher.


After a long battle, the contestant defeats Mutoid Man and claims his prize - fat stacks of cash and ownership of more sports cars than all the footballers in the Premier League combined. I love that they gave the contestant a boxing headguard to wear. He doesn't look like the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I can just imagine the host convincing the big lug that this padded forehead protector will spare him from a gruesome death. "No, you don't need body armour, our top scientists have assured me that bullets simply cannot pass through abdominal muscles."


On to arena two, and I love that you get to see the production staff making the show when you move between rooms. It's a little touch, but it all adds to the feel of the whole enterprise and it's something I love about Smash TV - I think it would be a much less appealing game if the unending slaughter hadn't been played, if not for laughs, then at least with it's tongue wedged so firmly into its cheek that it's practically poking out of the other side.



While I'm on the subject of presentation, I should mention the music from the first stage. It's easily overlooked while you're playing the game because there's not much room for the track to shine through amidst the constant rattle of gunfire, the host's catchphrases and the screams of the dying, but it's pretty great. I wonder if the composer, Jon Hey, listen to a lot of gameshow music while he was writing it, because I can totally see this as the theme for a quiz show's quick fire round. Also, the short Bach-esque section at about two minutes in? That's rather wonderful.


Arena two has more of a sci-fi feel to it, with the introduction of mechanical foes like hovering, laser spewing orbs and segmented robot snakes, all of which are that bit faster and more tenacious than the enemies in the first arena. You're also introduced to the red things pictured above, which are apparently called Buffaloes despite looking more like killer armchairs with exposed brains. Honestly, Williams should have gone all-out with the deadly furniture theme. There would have been a grim irony in being battered to death by a futon or padded recliner.


Many of the rooms in Smash TV greet you with a brief introductory message. They are rarely friendly, but I think LAZER DEATH ZONE takes the prize for being the most honest about your chances of survival. Plus, it's just a really fun phrase to say out loud. I think I'm going to designate an area of my house as the LAZER DEATH ZONE. The kitchen, maybe. Then I can say things like "hey, if you're going into the LAZER DEATH ZONE, could you put the kettle on please" or "I think that plant your mother bought us would look nice in the LAZER DEATH ZONE."


The second boss is even bigger and uglier than the first - it's Scarface, the flying saucer with the massive green face. A face that looks kinda familiar, actually. Now where have I seen it before?


Ah yes, now I remember. Of course, to the contestant Scarface's chiselled good looks are a mystery, because from his viewpoint all he can see is a big floating pie tin that wants him dead.
Scarface's gimmick is that he's surrounded by segmented metal armour, and before you can deal him any real damage you have to destroy every single panel on his outer edge. Because he's a circle, this means you have to move around him, looking for an opening, and getting to the panels on his right-hand side is a difficult task indeed. Still, with a little perseverance - or, more likely, a sack full of coins to feed the machine with - you'll chip away at Scarface's defences, leaving him vulnerable.


Notice I said "vulnerable," not "less terrifying" or "less deadly". Once Scarface has taken enough punishment he loses his fleshy outer casing to reveal the sinister skull beneath, and it turns out all that skin and eyeball weight was really slowing him down because now he moves even faster and launches energy bolts from his eye sockets. I feel a bit sorry for him, though. Just look at the shape of his skull: he must have had a perpetual frown, unable to express any emotion other than annoyance thanks to the unfortunate skeletal structure of his brow. No wonder he's so grumpy, he can't be any other way. Never mind, he need never be grumpy again because I shot him until he exploded.


Arena three takes place on a set recycled from a Nickelodeon game show, a sinister polystyrene landscape where the air is thick with lead and the big stone faces vomit snakes into the playing area, a torrent of slithering, scaly evil that always seems to be in the wrong place when you're trying to avoid enemy fire. Smash TV manges to somehow ramp up the difficulty of arena three even above the madness of the earlier rounds. I know that whenever I play the SNES version with my friend this is always where we start to come unstuck. It's hard to stay alive when you're knee-deep in snakes.


It's not just snakes, either: there are also snake-men. The snake men have pointy sticks. I would not normally be worried about an enemy armed only with a sharpened tree branch, but their tendency to gather together into an impenetrable wall of writhing bodies and shoulder-pads means that you'll eventually be getting intimately acquainted with one or more of those pointy sticks.


If you play Smash TV for long enough, the action settles into an almost hypnotic flow, a zen state where instead of concentrating on the immediate action your mind attempts to take in the whole screen at once, mapping out safe routes and the locations of power-ups. The power-ups can almost be a liability at times, especially when you're getting swarmed and you're desperate for relief - in the situation pictured above, for example, the Bingo pick-up will lure you in with its explosive siren song, but trying to reach it from this position is just going to get you killed as the enemies surround you. Survival in Smash TV is all about risk and reward, judging what items you can safely collect, and when you get it right - when a trail of enemies is right behind you and you manage to collect a rocket launcher, using the twin-stick control system to fire at them while still retreating - it's a pure example of the satisfaction (that word again) that getting something just right in a videogame can bring.


It works the other way, too: power-ups don't hang around for long, and reaching an item just as it disappears is soul-crushing. Bone-crushing, too, as these Buffaloes are about to show me.


Given area three's snake motif, it's unsurprising that the boss is a pair of giant snakes. The game gives their name as Die Cobros. I was going to make a "it's German for The Cobras" joke, momentarily forgetting that The Simpsons beat me to it. Instead I'll just chuckle to myself about the idea of co-bros, cobras who are bros but who don't do very well at the gym due to their lack of arms.
The cobras are the least interesting of the three bosses, with there being not much to say about them beyond "they're big snakes," Shoot them until they're dead. It's the Smash TV way.


Oh yeah, keys. Sometimes keys appear for you to collect. You're aiming to find ten of them, which would have been more of a challenge if I hadn't stumbled across the room in arena three that's absolutely packed full of keys.


Look at that, I can easily collect the ten keys I need and still have enough left over to, I don't know, turn the rest into "charming" handmade jewellery that I can sell on Etsy? There's not much else you can do with spare keys, really.



Before you can reap the rewards that come with owning ten keys, you have to fight your way through Smash TV's most over-the-top, most action-packed, most murder-tastic stages yet. The sheer volume of the enemy force is such that it's nigh-impossible to shoot your way out of, and even really good Smash TV players are going to run into trouble here unless they're willing to pour credit after credit into the machine. However, playing Smash TV with the intention of completing it is to miss the essential point of the game - it's about the journey, not the destination, it's about surviving for as long as you can and enjoying the small victories along the way, and it's about racking up as big a high score as you can muster.


Topping the high score table is made easier by finding ten keys, because doing so grants you access to the Pleasure Dome, a special room that seems to take place inside one of Hugh Hefner's  migraines. The room is filled with bikini-clad babes that you can "collect" for points. I think they're supposed to be the same women that are seen with the host, with the inevitable conclusion being that Smash TV is actually a front for a babe-cloning operation on a truly terrifying scale. Also, if you don't like the colours of this room - it's difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying this "robot-vomit green and scalded-skin pink" colour scheme, but different strokes and all that - then not to worry, because the colours in the background are constantly cycling through a wide variety of garish, high-saturation colours. This is a bit of a recurring theme in games Eugene Jarvis worked on - all the text in Smash TV is rendered in a shifting rainbow of colours, and the same is true of the psuedo-sequel Total Carnage. Personally I think it's a hideous graphical affectation. It's a sign of how much I enjoy Smash TV that I'm reduced to complaining about the way the in-game text looks.


A list of my greatest achievements is flashed on screen. It tells me I'm awesome, and I feel awesome, even if I used a number of continues so large you'd have to write it in scientific notation to get it to fit on a page. Now I just have to decapitate the evil MC. Wait, what?


In a shocking twist, the true final boss is the host himself! The normal, human-sized version you see at the start of the game is obviously just a red herring planted to leave you unaware of the spangly-suited horror you'll be facing if you survive Smash TV.


Okay, so he's just a rehash of Mutoid Man but I don't care, this is a great boss fight. Why is it great? Because where Mutoid Man had laser eye beams, the host has an eye beam. A beam made of eyeballs. Image what a powerful stream of huge eyeballs slamming into your shirtless chest would feel like. If that sentence gave you a weird new fetish, I'm deeply sorry, but if you draw a picture of it and upload it to Deviantart please do not send me a link.



Also great: when you do the host enough damage, you get to see the polka-dot vest he wears as underwear, a garment probably purchased at whatever shop Arthur from Ghouls 'n Ghosts buys his boxer shorts from.


As the host's head flies off in a shower of blood, Smash TV is really, truly over. My eyes hurt. Between the flashing colours of the Pleasure Dome and the fact I didn't blink during the last few screens, I need a quiet lie down in a dark room.


I also need a dumptruck to help me cart away my many, many prizes. I've won enough luxury holidays that I never have to go home again, enough Smash TV board game to bore every family in the country on the next rainy Sunday afternoon, and toasters. So many toasters. If the world's entire agricultural industry was devoted to producing bread solely for my consumption, I would still have too many toasters. I'm going to built a city out of these toasters. It will be called Toastopolis, and every home will have a detachable crumb tray and a defrost setting. This is my favourite prize, though:


Hee hee, "good meat".
Smash TV is one of those games that's so much fun I struggle to explain why it's fun. The game's great strength is that it's pared down to almost pure gameplay, with the setting being a bonus. It's fast, relentless, precise and rewarding, the twin-stick controls are fantastic and the presentation - rainbow text aside - puts a happy song in my heart. It looks like I've lost the ability to talk about it coherently now, so let's just say Smash TV is a really, really good game.


In the interests of balance I'm trying to come up with some negative points about Smash TV, but frankly I'm drawing a blank. Sometimes when you're fighting a boss and a piece of them explodes it obscures your screen and you die cheaply. A couple of the late-game rooms maybe go on for a touch too long. You don't get to use a flamethrower at any point, although I'll admit that one's a matter personal preference. Nope, I can't think of anything else bad to say about it. As the host would say, if I hadn't gunned him down anyway, I love it!


So, that's this year's VGJunk birthday article, and it was true to its goal - playing Smash TV really did feel like a treat. How does the chant go? Four more years? Yes, I probably will still be writing these articles in four more years. Maybe by then I'll have gotten around to telling you in great depth what I think about Mortal Kombat (hint: it's bad). Until next time, I'd like to say thank you as always to everyone who reads the site, leaves comments and spreads the word about VGJunk. Your continued tolerance of my internet presence means the world to me. I'll be back with a new article soon, but for now I'm going to have that quiet lie down I mentioned earlier. I shall dream of toasters.

11/04/2014

MICKEY'S ULTIMATE CHALLENGE (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)

Even as a kid, I never really "got" Mickey Mouse. Donald, sure - there's nothing not to love about an angry sailor duck with no trousers - but Mickey? There's just nothing there, nothing to get a handle on. He's nice and well-meaning and sort of a dork, I guess? And yet somehow he remains a global icon of popular culture, recognised the world over. No, I just don't understand him. Maybe today's game will unravel the mystery of Mickey's persistent popularity - it's Disney Interactive Studios and High-Tech Expressions' 1994 Megadrive game Mickey's Ultimate Challenge!


Mickey's Ultimate Challenge - the challenge to develop a personality. Any personality at all. Also something involving beanstalks, if this title screen's anything to go by.


Before the game starts, you select a difficulty level and choose whether you want to play as Mickey or Minnie Mouse. I've just realised that Mickey and Minnie share a surname. I hope they're married rather than related.
I went with Mickey, because it's his name on the title screen, after all. I also fought off my natural inclination to select the "cake" option from the difficulty menu. I know there's no actual cake involved, but it was still a struggle to choose the "medium" option.


Mickey's reading a book of fairy tales in bed. I wouldn't want to imply that Disney productions tend towards the formulaic, but by any chance does Mickey fall asleep and end up in the very same fairytale realm from his bedtime story?


Well, he was never going to just have a decent night's sleep before waking fresh and reinvigorated for another day of doing whatever the hell it is Mickey Mouse does with his life, was he? No, he's transported to the Kingdom of Beanwick, where a stoat in a conquistador helmet greets him. The stoat is a Cockney, placing the Kingdom of Beanwick somewhere between Tower Hamlets and Hackney. Cockney Stoat is not a very good castle guard, because instead of apprehending the stranger who has just fallen onto the castle roof, he tells Mickey all about the plague of earthquakes that have been terrorising the kingdom.


Hey, screw you, Mickey, this is a serious problem for these people. It looks like we can add "a bit of a dick" to the list of Mickey's possible personality traits.


Feeling guilty after his ill-considered attempt at humour, Mickey seeks to make amends by offering to stop the earthquakes. Both Mickey and the player have no idea what is causing them - although the beanstalk motif might give you a giant clue, ahem ahem - and no way of combating them, but in true Disney fashion things will all work out for the best as long as you're good and kind and you help people out. Helping people, or rather cartoon animals, is the main thrust of Mickey's Ultimate Challenge, and from here on out your mission is to wander the various rooms of the castle, completing minor chores for the other members of the Mickey Mouse pantheon.


First up: a cow in an ermine robe wants me to jump on some books. If you want to add your own "hit the books" joke here, go right ahead, but I'm a purist and I'll save it until he starts punching paperback. The cow says he needs Mickey's help because he's short-sighted, but cows are not known for their jumping prowess and I think he's just trying to spare himself some embarrassment.


The books float up and down, thanks no doubt to some Fantasia bullshit, and Mickey has to jump on the books with letters on them in alphabetical order. That's right, underneath its platforming exterior Mickey's Ultimate Challenge is an "edutainment" title, designed to feed young minds that won't stop playing with their newfangled Nintendo Superdrives and Sega Atari Systems long enough to crack open a book. I'm well out of the target demographic on this one, but then again I'm old enough that this is true of pretty much every 16-bit videogame.


It's not a bad little platforming puzzle, really, once you've gotten used to the fact the Mickey has two different heights of jump assigned to two different buttons on the controller. It's nothing amazing, but after the punishment I suffered earlier this week at the whims of Incantation's "slipperier than buttered soap" jumping mechanics it was more than comfortable. And hey, I remembered my ABCs, so that helped.


Get the jumping right and the cow gives you a book of spells. There doesn't seem to be spell called "how to stop earthquakes" in there and Yahoo Answers was no help either, but I'm sure this magical grimoire will come in handy later.


On to my next task: helping Huey, Dewey and Louie open the drawbridge. The drawbridge is broken, which is what happens when you leave Huey, Dewey and Louie in charge of things. Fun fact about the ducks - Dewey's full name is apparently Deuteronomy. I was hoping that Louie's full name would turn out to be Lamentations, but it seems that is not the case.


Fixing the drawbridge involves completing a simple memory puzzle: one of the four buttons lights up, and Mickey has to jump on that button. Then two buttons light up, and you have to jump on them in order. Then three buttons, then four buttons and so on. It's not complex, and the only trouble I had with it was when I forgot which jump button was which and accidentally leapt too far.


A glass slipper? Shouldn't you be running around trying to find the webbed foot that fits it? That's one of the perks of being a prince, I suppose. You have plenty of time for door-to-door foot inspections when you don't have a proper job like operating a drawbridge.


Now that the drawbridge is down Mickey can head across the moat to see his good friend Goofy. In this dreamworld, Goofy is a blacksmith. It's Goofy's job to manipulate molten metal, sharpen blades and hit things with hammers. Goofy still seems to have both eyes and all his finger, which is a god damned miracle.


Unlike the others, Goofy doesn't need any help, he's just pissing about and wasting time until he finds some more metal to forge. He's got a game for you to play, and it's all about his tools - using a combination of logic and blind guesswork, Mickey must determine what tools are in Goofy's toolbox, and in what order. You do this via that admittedly fairly hardcore method of hammering an icon representing each tool into a slab of iron - an impressive feat of strength, but given that Goofy was complaining about not having enough metal only moments earlier I think a pen and paper would have sufficed.
The first round is simple enough, because any tool you place in the correct position turns green, making it easy to narrow down your choices...


...but after that it becomes rather more difficult as correct guesses don't light up any more. Instead you have to rely on the small square Mickey-head icons to the right. For each correct tool you select you get a square, with the green icons indicating how many tools put in the correct place in the sequence. Are you following all this? I've got to admit I wasn't. Goofy's challenge seems much harder than the rest of the game and I can imagine it being especially frustrating to younger kids. Of course, I'm probably underestimating the members of this game's intended age range. After all, children are well know for possessing the cold, logical minds that I clearly lack.


Still, I managed to solve Goofy's puzzles enough times for him to give me his hammer. Goofy the blacksmith now has no metal and no hammer, so Beanwick's horses will be shod with cardboard and sticky tape for the foreseeable future.


Chore number four involves a little spring-cleaning, as Daisy Duck complains that the castle's paintings are dusty. She can't dust them herself, though. She's wearing the wrong kind of shoes, you see. Hmm. Mickey appears to have rammed his feet into two butternut squashes, and I don't think that's any safer for climbing up and down ladders, but Daisy seems to be some kind of princess in this reality so it's unlikely she'd do much dusting even if she was wearing workboots and a hi-viz safety jacket.


Dusting the paintings turns out to be a familiar game of snap - pick two paintings, dust them off and hope they match. Match all the pairs to win the game. You've seen it before, you've played it before, only this time you're on a ladder. Exciting, right?
Hang on, Cockney Stoat gets a picture (well, two pictures) in the royal gallery? Maybe it's an "Employee of the Month" board. Also of note is the picture that clearly shows the King of Beanwick looks identical to Mickey, and yet no-one has mentioned this. It does explain why Mickey wasn't thrown into the dungeon at the start of the game - everyone thinks he's actually the king, perhaps on one of those "dress as a pauper and see how the common man / talking dog / armoured stoat lives" adventures, and they're just humouring him.


A gold bar? Now that's what I call a reward. I half expected Mickey to turn it down, what with his aww-gee-shucks disposition, but no, he's taken that gold bar for himself and he didn't need to be told twice.


I found Donald. He's a wizard now. Was there some Disney short where Donald was a wizard, or did Mickey's Ultimate Challenge predict the Kingdom Hearts series? Either way, Donald is too engrossed in his sorcery to pay much attention to Mickey, which gives me a chance to mention that Mickey's Ultimate Challenge was released on a whole bunch of different platforms.


For example, here's the SNES version. It looks (and plays) almost identically to the Megadrive version, although for some reason it's noticeably darker. I mean in terms of actual colour brightness, it's not like Donald's performing necromantic experiments on the flesh of the dead in the SNES version. They also changed the designs of the potion bottles in the SNES version. I don't know why I mentioned that, it's completely irrelevant.


Donald's tinkering with the dread forces of the cosmos leads to Mickey "accidentally" being shrunk. I say "accidentally" because now that Mickey's tiny he can walk around Donald's chess board, pushing potions through the mirror at the top of the screen at Donald's request. Yep, it's item-shoving puzzler Sokoban, only really easy and requiring no forward planning whatsoever. Just nudge the potions to their destination with almost zero obstacles in your way. Easily the weakest of the games, Donald's potion-pushing task could be completed in mere seconds if only Mickey didn't walk so slowly.
On the plus side, I really like the effect of Donald's face staring down at you while you work. At least he has the decency to look a little upset about what he's putting you through.


The final item you're given in a pair of spectacles - something of a let-down after the gold bar, but I'll take what I can get.
Then I was was stuck for a moment, because I didn't know what to do next. The inventory bar at the bottom of the screen is clearly full, and I'd already completed all the minigames, and it took me longer than I should probably admit to realise that hey, these characters all mentioned something they needed so maybe I should go and give them the items?


I have a glass slipper, Daisy was looking for some shoes, it's a match made in heaven! I'm not sure glass shoes are going to help you do the cleaning, or do much of anything except bleed to death from your foot wounds, but there you go. In exchange she gave me a magic bean. And so we go around the castle, trading items for magic beans - Donald gets the books of spells, Goofy the gold bar, and so on - until Mickey has five magic beans clutched firmly in his begloved hand.


You might think that someone who was earlier shown to be a reader of fairy tales would have a greater understanding of the value of magic beans, but Mickey just bitches about them. Fair enough, I'd rather have the gold bar, too. Then he chucks them in the well, because he's a litterer as well as an ungrateful sod.


Well well, a giant beanstalk has appeared. Whoever could have seen that coming? You'd better get climbing, Mickey. There's nothing else of interest down in Beanwick.


At the top of the beanstalk is a giant. What else where you expecting to find up here? Elvis? Succubi? Beans? The giant's snoring is the cause of the earthquakes, and so with one final minigame Mickey can wake the giant and save the kingdom. Until the giant goes to sleep again, that is. We'll worry about that later. Bring on the final - one could say ultimate - challenge!


Oh, for the love of... a sliding block puzzle? Really? The second I realised what this was, I could feel my will to continue with Mickey's Ultimate Challenge - nay, my very will to live - draining away, my feelings of ambivalence towards this game suddenly replaced by an ice-cold loathing. As is well-documented here at VGJunk, I hate sliding block puzzles. They're boring, frustrating and take forever to complete. Before someone pipes up to say "they're easy, I don't know what you're complaining about," just shut it, okay? I'm happy for you, happy that your perfect, flawless life has worked out in such a way that you're really good at sliding block puzzles, but keep it to you goddamn self. I'm going to struggle through this bullshit because it's so close to the end of the game, but I'm not going to enjoy it.


There, are you happy now? The picture was of an alarm clock that woke up the giant. I'm not happy, because this challenge has given me visions of an alarm clock that you can't turn off until you solve a sliding block puzzle. If you'll permit me a brief foray into ridiculous hyperbole, that is the most awful thing I can think of.
The giant is very relaxed about the whole thing, thanking Mickey for waking him from a strange dream. That's it, the earthquakes are over, Beanwick is saved and Mickey's Ultimate Challenge is over.


With a sense of grim predictability, the ending shows Mickey waking up, commenting that it was all a crazy dream and then seeing some evidence that his adventure was, in fact, all real. In this case, Mickey is in the book! Truly uncanny, although he must be pissed off that his own dreams spoiled the ending of the book he was reading.


Before I, ah ha ha, close the book on this one, I had a quick go as Minnie, playing on the higher difficulty. To the developer's credit, they did try to differentiate between Mickey and Minnie by giving them different dialogue, even giving Minnie her own insensitive joke to make at the start of the game. The in-game tasks are slightly different, too - in the book-jumping game you have to spell out a word, for example. It's not much, but I appreciate the effort.


If you're a child who really likes Mickey Mouse and / or someone who enjoys simplistic Megadrive games, play Castle of Illusion. Mickey's Ultimate Challenge makes a decent fist of what it sets out to do, although with so little variation that it rapidly becomes dull. It looks the part, I'll give it that, with some nice cartoony graphics and some charming splashes of animation. You'd expect good animation from a Disney game, though, wouldn't you? I can't really judge it as I would most other games, because it's not made that way, so I'll describe it like this: a solidly-built piece of nothing, a bit like Mickey himself.

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