If you’ve read any other VGJunk articles, you’ll know that I need some help with this whole “writing words” business. I’m not too proud to admit it, and I’m willing to seek out the help I need so long as I can get it from a cartoon mouse in a pith helmet. Thankfully, in 1993 Beam Software released a NES game called Mickey’s Safari in Letterland!
The titular Mickey is, of course, helium-voiced Disney mascot Mickey Mouse – everyone’s favourite animated rodent, unless you’re British in which case we’ve got Dangermouse, thank you very much. Yes, I’m still unable to see the appeal of Mickey Mouse, and I’ve still yet to meet a child that likes Mickey Mouse. What are you, Mickey? What is the point of you? I suppose his selling point is that he can slip easily into any number of different roles, like on this title screen where he looks more than ready to venture to foreign climes and oppress the natives for King and country. But, you know, in a family-friendly way. There’ll be lessons about appreciating the differences of other cultures and such.
Three difficulty levels are presented to you when you hit start. “Super Advanced” is rather overselling things. So is “Advanced.” Even “Normal” isn’t exactly what you’d expect. All the difficulty levels are very, very easy, because (as the title might have clued you in) Mickey’s Safari in Letterland is an educational game aimed at very young children. What joy! Delight unbounded! You can learn and have fun at the same time, education and entertainment fused into one. Edutainment, if you will. Combined with the star power of Mickey Mouse, this is sure to be a real winner.
Here’s a map. I was going to say it’s a world map, but it’s not a map of our world. Not with those continents it isn’t. The weird thing is, one of the locations is “Yukon,” which is real place on Earth. Most of the others are generic places like “pyramid,” “swamp” and “jungle,” which could be anywhere. There’s a pile of laundry on my bathroom floor that you could basically describe as a “pyramid,” but the Yukon is oddly specific. Could you not have gone with “tundra” or something, Beam Software? I’m sorry, I don’t know why this is bothering me so much. Let’s just go to the bloody Yukon, shall we?
Goofy’s going to drive Mickey to the Yukon in their their military surplus vehicle. That’s right, he’s been reduced to the role of Mickey’s chauffeur, a role that you’d think he’d be terribly unsuited for. I mean, have you seen the size of Goofy’s feet? Putting him in charge of a pedal-operated vehicle seems like an accident waiting to happen.
The latest iteration of Disney on Ice takes a dark turn as Mickey resorts to seal-clubbing for a quick profit. No, of course not, he’s going to leave this cute seal well alone while he undertakes his quest to do… what, exactly?
Why, to find gems, of course! The gems have letters on them, which is what makes this “Letterland” and not just “land.” Get near a gem and press B, and Mickey will scoop it up using the butterfly net he’s carrying. Each stage has three gems to find, and because I’m playing on “advanced” mode – that is, “medium” mode – they are not exactly difficult to track down.
As for the actual process of getting to the gems, it turns out that Mickey’s Safari in Letterland is a platformer. You jump over enemies and across platforms, with the occasional extra feature to spice things up, like these ice-slide in the Yukon stages, and you grab things things with your net. So far, so much like a great many other NES platformers, but there’s one big difference: Mickey cannot die. I don’t mean in the sense that he’s a huge global brand and beloved cartoon friend who will remain in the cultural consciousness long after you and I are dead, either. I mean that none of the creatures can hurt him, and there are no bottomless pits to fall down. The various animals that inhabit the levels will make Mickey stumble if he touches them, wasting precious gem-hunting seconds, but that’s all they do. At the very worst they might bump you off a platform, forcing you to climb back up, but as most stages in this game take less than a minute to complete even that isn’t going to slow Mickey down too much.
I’ll be honest, I kinda like this approach. Mario gets hurt when a turtle walks into his foot, Megaman can be damaged by bubbles, so it’s nice to play a game where a snowman slowly walking into you is a minor inconvenience rather than an agonising, potentially fatal encounter.
At the end of each stage there’s an ancient stone tablet for Mickey to collect, so I guess he really is travelling to distant lands and stealing their artefacts for the museum. The spirit of colonialism lives on in Mickey Mouse, but I’m sure he’s got a good reason for grabbing these things.
If you collected all three gems in the stage, you’re shown a quick scene of the object that the three gem letters spell out. In this case, it’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood. Mickey gets very excited by this, frantically hopping up and down. Mickey seems like the kind of character that’d get excited by wallpaper paste or manilla envelopes, so this makes sense.
The thing is, this entire section feels completely pointless for what is supposed to be an educational game. Sure, you might teach kids simple three-letter words, but they can get that kind of learnin’ from books. Why not at least make this a mini-puzzle where you have to spell out a word using the letters you picked up? You know, something interactive? Unless that picture of a log is merely meant to be your reward for finishing the stage. I certainly hope not.
As for the stone tablets, Mickey chucks them into a machine operated by Goofy. The machine is made of paint rollers, a metal dustbin and the scavenged remains of a church organ, but what does it do? I have no idea. Cleans the stone slab, maybe? Look, Mickey and Goofy have been given a large amount of grant money for their letterology research, so you can bet you’re ass they’re not going to spend their time using hot soapy water and toothbrushes.
Once the slab is cleaned, a letter is revealed. You must then select the matching space on this alphabet chart and press A. It’s marginally more educational than a picture of a log, I’ll give you that. Impressively, Mickey has a voice sample for each letter of the alphabet, plus a few others for short phrases like his trademark “oh, boy!” They’re even recognisable as Mickey’s voice, too, which is bordering on the miraculous for a NES game.
After that, it’s back to the Yukon for another stage of snowy frolics and snowman-dodging. Or walking through the snowmen. It’s not like you need to avoid them.
That’s how Mickey’s Safari in Letterland works, (at least in Advanced mode,) then. Go through two simple platforming stages in each “world,” collect the gems and the stone tablet, put the tablet in its correct alphabetical slot, repeat for each world in the game.
The next world I visited – you can do them in any order you like – is the Caribbean. Again, that’s a real-world location, although I don’t think the real Caribbean is 90 percent enormous sandcastles with hammocks that double as trampolines stretched between them. It all looks rather nice, and as NES games go MSiLL has some good (if not quite excellent) graphics. 1993 was pretty late in the NES’s life-cycle so I suppose you’d expect it to look better than earlier games, but it’s big and colourful with some cute enemies and a lot of extra animation flourishes that help to sell the cartoon theme.
Is it just me, or is there always something slightly unsettling about seeing a human ear on its own? I find it very difficult to see a picture of a solitary ear without imagining it’s been sliced off a person’s head. Why yes, I did watch Reservoir Dogs when I was a young teen, why do you ask?
Mickey’s invulnerability even extends to monkeys dropping coconuts on his head. It’s a good job he’s wearing a helmet, a blow from a falling coconut can be enough to kill a man so who knows what it would do it a mouse. In fact, the problem of killer coconuts is such that there’s a Wikipedia page entitled “Death By Coconut,” thus fulfilling my desire for unexpected internet absurdism for today.
Onward to the jungle world, where adorable mushroom-men roam the land and Mickey uses a yawning hippo as a springboard, seemingly unconcerned by the hippo’s reputation as the deadliest killer in Africa. Mickey later use the same tactic with crocodiles, so it’s safe to assume that he’s become aware of his own immortality. He laughs in the face of danger now. Nothing, nothing can stop him.
Here’s an example of MSiLL’s presentation taking pains to be more engaging than you might expect from an educational game made by Beam Software – when walking over dangerous ground like the tops of these waterfalls, Mickey will carefully tip-toe across rather than using his usual jaunty, “I have transcended death” stride.
Things get a little more complicated in the pyramid world, where simply walking to the right won’t find you all the gems. There are multiple pathways and even hidden passages, obscured by blocks of hieroglyphics that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise were walk-through-able. It’s a welcome mix-up of the gameplay, this sudden need to pay even the scantest amount of attention. Even Mickey looks like he’s having fun, but then Mickey always looks like he’s having fun. Mind, I bet Carter had the same beaming smile and can-do attitude when he was raiding Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Well, this proves that this game doesn’t take place in the human world, what with all the ancient pharaohs being mice and ducks and whatever the hell Goofy is. Is Goofy a dog? My confusion stems from Goofy looking nowt like a dog, you see.
It was at around this point in the game that something occurred to me: this game isn’t bad. Sure, it’s not very engaging to anyone over the age of six thanks to its complete lack of challenge, but there’s the core of decent platformer here. Mickey controls fairly well, his movements and jumping physics are sensible and predictable, there are a few gameplay sections that would fit nicely into a “proper” platformer. Yes, I’d say that with a little work and the removal of Mickey’s invincibility you could make a perfectly acceptable 8-bit platformer out of Mickey’s Safari in Letterland. I doubt it would ever reach that top tier of true classics – it’s a bit too stodgy and predictable for that – but I’ve certainly played worse NES platformers that weren’t intended as edutainment for the wee bairns.
There’s a forest world, as mandated by Videogame Law. It’s got all the usual features of a videogame forest world: blue skies, lots of greenery, precious widdle woodland creature, trees with the haunted expression of someone having their soul sucked out of their arse by a demonic vacuum cleaner.
Here’s another minor animation flourish: whenever Mickey has crawled through one of these tunnels he gets up and dusts himself off. It’s cute. The first time. The second time, less so. By the fifth time, the few seconds Mickey spends wiping himself down have extended into an unending chasm of misery, time itself seemingly warped by a cartoon mouse’s desire for a clean shirt. This is also true whenever you fall from a high place: the fall won’t hurt Mickey, but after seeing the same unskippable animation of him hauling himself back up to his feet for the thousandth time you’ll wish it bloody hurt him.
There’s one water fountain shaped like Goofy in the game. Just one. I suppose one is all you need. Who made this, and why is it in the middle of the forest? I assume Goofy made it to satisfy his rampant vanity, but then dumped it in the woods after the (fully deserved) mockery that he received for making a water fountain in his own image.
The final world is the swamp, complete with the cabin from the Evil Dead movies. I’m looking forward to seeing Mickey decapitate Minnie with a shovel.
The rotting shacks and dilapidated paddle steamers mean it’s difficult to play this stage without whistling “Duelling Banjos” to yourself at least once, which brings me to the game’s soundtrack – it’s definitely above average, and almost exactly what you’d expect from a Mickey Mouse platformer. Not amazing, and not likely to haunt your memory after you stop playing, but chirpy and tuneful. MSiLL is really trying hard to get me to like it, and honestly I think it’s sort of working.
As I was jumping around and grabbing these gems, it occurred to me that Mickey is the wrong choice of Disney star for this game. I feel I should really be playing as Scrooge McDuck. Sure, Scrooge is more likely to keep the gems and stone tablets for himself than donate them to the museum, but I still think he’s be a better fit for this kind of adventure. Every day he’s out there making duck tales, after all. What’s Mickey usually doing? Being cheerful and kind to his friends? That’s not that kind of attitude that gets ancient civilizations ransacked, now is it?
In the end, I managed to overcome Mickey’s innate niceness and finish all the stages, delivering the slabs to the museum as promised while an alphabet of gems bounces along the bottom of the screen. Goofy receives no credit for his role in this task. That’s it, the game’s over. In the interests of completion and because I’m willing to suffer for you, dear reader, I went back and played through the game on the “hardest” difficulty setting. In that case there are four or five stages in each world, meaning you have to collect a slab for all twenty-six letters. The only thing that changes at the end is that there’s a credits roll with the names of the staff. Goofy remains unappreciated. It was not worth the extra effort.
Well, it finally happened. I played an edutainment game that doesn’t feel lazily put-together, utterly pointless or downright insulting. Don’t get me wrong, there’s very little of educational merit in this game, and certainly nothing that you couldn’t get out of a kid’s book for (at the time, certainly) a fraction of the price. However, Mickey’s Safari in Letterland is a game made for very young children that I can actually imagine very young children wanting to play. It’s got a very solid gameplay core with plenty of attention lavished on the presentation, and the fact that Mickey cannot be harmed means even the youngest can play it without getting frustrated – and if they do learn anything along the way, that’s a bonus. Am I recommending that you go out and play it? Oh my, no. You’ll be bored almost immediately. But we can appreciate MSiLL for what it is, even if it doesn’t answer the most pressing question of them all: what is the point of Mickey Mouse?
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