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.