Thursday, June 15, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 2


It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.


Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers - June 1990

In Capcom's take on the Rescue Rangers, Chip and Dale spend all of their time running, lifting boxes, hiding inside boxes, and throwing boxes. Again, anybody's who's sat through an episode of Disney's big animated follow-up to DuckTales could be forgiven for wondering if anybody working on the game had seen even one hot minute of the source material.



If you've played ahead in this series - I have, have you??? - then you know that as far as clever, inventive platformers go, DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale are about as unique as the Disney / Capcom games got. Both of these titles stash a truly clever play mechanic inside a Disney-wrapped box. It would have been easy to make yet another Mario clone, but Capcom gave Scrooge that pogo jump, a nest of tricky levels, and a lot of secrets. They could have delivered a two-player chase game with Chip 'n Dale, but they delivered one of most accessible and fun games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. If you want to see what a Disney game made by a company that truly doesn't care looks like, check out Hi-Tech Expressions' The Chase on Tom Sawyer Island for MS-DOS. DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale are remembered because they're uncommonly good and carefully planned.

The basic play mechanics in both games are so clever, that I would not be surprised if they used an engine intended for a use other than Disney game purgatory. Perhaps the pogo-jumping game and the box-throwing game were prototypes created inside Capcom that never went anywhere, much how Nintendo dusted off a vertical scrolling game that became Yume Kojo Doki Doki Panic / Super Mario Brothers 2. Or perhaps Capcom bought some unfinished games outright and totally reworked them into DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale.


I've always thought that DuckTales in particular played like it was developed by a team that was working from at best a packet of information and character designs - why the Himilayas? Why is Gizmoduck on the Moon? - that strongly hinted that whatever form the game previously took has still left traces of itself in the final product. Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers feels much more in tune with its source material - many enemy characters in the game appear in the television show, and the charming oversize settings evoke the series without being slavishly faithful. Chip 'n Dale's cuteness has always endeared them to audiences in Japan, so perhaps Rescue Rangers was more widely available over there than DuckTales was.




To this reviewer, Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers is the true treasure in the Disney / Capcom catalgue. The gameplay can be addictive, especially with two playing simultaneously. Most of the 2 player co-op games on the NES are shooters or frenetic beat-em-ups like Double Dragon and TMNT: The Arcade Game - Rescue Rangers is one of the few titles in the system library to be approachable to those who don't like button mashing and can work together. The control scheme is, honestly, brilliant. Boxes can be picked up and thrown at enemies, or dropped down and hidden under. Both methods will do damage, allowing players to take the offense or defense. Some enemies will simply be stunned, and if you're quick, you can pick them up and throw them. You can also stun your Player 2's chipmunk, pick them up, and throw them too. Crates will be destroyed immediately upon taking out an enemy, while tin cans can be re-used and also stacked into platforms. Defeated enemies fly backwards off the screen instead of simply vanishing or falling away, which never stops being funny for the duration of Rescue Rangers' fairly short gameplay.

Both DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale have a reputation for being easy, but this is only true in the context of all NES games; they're not as tough as Castlevania III or Bionic Commando. I think, depending on how quick and twitchy an action game player you are, Rescue Rangers puts up a fight that isn't too tough to overcome. By the end of the game, enemies swarm our heroes constantly and there's some tricky jumps to make. What doesn't really ever change are the boss battles, which are either disappointingly simple or a relaxing diversion after surviving another gauntlet of crate throwing - depending on your point of view. The levels are selected from a map screen, allowing players to either conquer every level or bypass trickier ones. Once the first map is cleared, the Rescue Ranger blimp moves to a second screen of tougher levels. 


This game is terrific and, with the correct Player 2 in tow, it can be one of the best experiences on the system. It may lack the treasure-hunting depth of DuckTales, but for straightforward pleasure, very little else on the NES is nearly as fun. Bring a friend.


The Little Mermaid - July 1991

If there's a video game genre that's more maligned than the licensed game, it's probably the "girl" game. There aren't too many of these on the NES - the genre really began to take off in the 16 bit era, leading to piles of disposable, poorly designed Barbie games. Even modern games targeting a feminine audience are rarely shown any respect: Nintendogs and Cooking Mama are lucky if they get off with "bemused tolerance" while the internet is awash in regret for the lost era when Sonic was in games that were halfway fun.

The good news is that The Little Mermaid is both appropriate for everyone and well made. The game is actually a sequel to the film, where Ursula is somehow not dead from being impaled by a boat and now resides in a castle and has mind-controlled all of the fish in the ocean into being evil. This provides enough justification for Ariel to explain to Eric that she is a mermaid (which I guess he forgot), then turn back into a mermaid at will and set off to destroy Ursula again. See, this is already better than that direct-to-video sequel!

The gameplay is honestly like something between a platform game and a shooter. Ariel floats in the ocean and can use her tail to trap aggressive fish in bubbles and throw them at enemies. Those of us who unconsciously default to Mario-style controls in any underwater setting can relax: Ariel controls like a spaceship in a shooter game, and can easily be guided through the level using only the direction pad. She picks up seashells and trapped enemies automatically, and can plow directly into oncoming foes with those items without taking damage. I kept dying in the first level until I realized for no reason I was treating the game like Super Mario World and was holding down the action button to pick up and hold onto the weapons. There's no need for this; The Little Mermaid is generously uncluttered and pleasingly sharp in its controls.

There's only six levels here, and they aren't long at all. Ariel must open sunken treasure chests which contain pearls that will boost the strength and distance of her attack. This must be done by throwing seashells at them, or knocking barrels over that will roll through the level and collide, opening the chest. As her attack increases in strength, Ariel can stun and bubble larger and larger enemies. As I said, once I started thinking of this game as a shooter with an exploration element, I did much better.


The boss battles here are quite good, and unlike when you face Fat Cat in Rescue Rangers, Ursula has two forms and unleashes enough enemies onto the screen to make the fight against her feel like the real end-of-the-game battle. Befitting a mermaid, Ariel only controls poorly when she's on dry land, where she flops around like a seal. One of the boss battles forces you to deal with this handicap to do damage to a walrus, and it's a very welcome change of pace.



Capcom's creativity and sense of fun occasionally pokes through the simple levels: fish wear sheets in the Sunken Ship to pretend to be ghosts of drowned sailors, and Ursula's castle, with its doors that lead to multiple places, compares favorably to the more complex 16-bit games they would soon be making.


I'm willing to bet that a lot of younger sisters ended up getting this game as a consolation prize for then their brothers weren't hogging the NES with Contra. And I'm going to guess that when nobody was looking, those brothers took this game off the shelf and played it too. Like the film it's based on, The Little Mermaid is good enough to have a wider appeal than its title suggests.

TaleSpin - December 1991

(It's fun to see all of these purple box Capcom games together, isn't it? Back in the NES days that purple and red was nearly a guarantee of a quality product inside)

I was fully prepared to start my review of this one with something like "here's where the wheels begin to come off in the classic Capcom games". I even had the start of a review written up with something to that effect in it. TaleSpin is one of those NES games that you can still find sitting around, ready to buy for a few bucks. I've owned it for a few years, and never done much of anything with it. The controls struck me as clunky and the game as kind of uninspired. I'd never even bothered to get past the first level, when the necessity of writing this review caused me to sit down for once and actually try. I'm glad I did, because I was wrong. This game is fun, and awesomely weird.

It starts off innocently enough. After an objectively wonderful 8-bit rendition of the TaleSpin title theme, you're looking at pleasingly earth toned bricks and well-drawn character sprites to set up the story of the game. Then, it's off to the first level presumably set in the sheltered bay of Cape Suzette - about as routine a side-scrolling shooting level as I can think of. There's sky, and rocks. Baloo can flip his ship upside down and fly backwards through the stage, and TaleSpin is one of the few shooters that can do this. You pick up cargo along the way, and if you run into the scenery, you don't take any damage. At first this struck me as baffling, but after a while I began to turn off my Gradius-shooter instincts and began to use it to my advantage. It's nice to know you can go all the way up to the roof of the level to avoid enemy fire without destroying your ship.

So far none of this is interesting. But keep playing - it gets better.

Between levels, a shop run by Wildcat appears where you can buy upgrades to your plane. Immediately, my engagement with the levels increased as I realized my performance in picking up cargo and shooting down enemies could improve the speed and rapid fire of my ship. I don't like shooter games very much, but ones that allow you to buy things always give me better incentive to play. But then the game launched into Level 2 and began to win me over.

Rebecca Cunningham appears and says "Your next destination is the baseball stadium!". Before I could fully process this, there was Baloo - improbably flying his plane through the middle of a baseball stadium. What look like clones on Don Karnage lob baseballs at you from behind automatic pitcher machines. A giant baseball appears and blows a hole in the earth. I even found a bonus round where Kit Cloudkicker collects balloons on his airwing - I've never heard anybody mention this and previously I thought the only benefit to the Sega Genesis version of TaleSpin was the ability to play as Kit (I know I'm not the only TaleSpin fan enthused about this bear).


WHAT IS HAPPENING?!??
By level 3 I was really enjoying TaleSpin but still didn't like the control scheme - I didn't like that Button B fired bullets and Button A flips Baloo's plane. It then occurred to me that really I ought to be playing this with a joystick, like a real shooter - and five minutes later I had plugged in my NES Advantage and found the controls much better, almost natural.

In the end, TaleSpin won me over with its colorful graphics and endearing sense of wackiness. Like the other Capcom games, it can be completed in less than an hour and isn't too severe of a challenge, especially with an NES Advantage. Give this one a try - for an NES cart with nearly no built in demand, and a lousy first level, it's a lot more fun than it should be.


Oh, and why is Baloo's character sprite directly based on the Happy Meal toy???





Darkwing Duck - June 1992

By Summer 1992, the Nintendo Entertainment System was functionally obsolete. Although the Sega Genesis had been on the market since 1989, it had not been able to capture a significant market share until Summer 1991, when Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog and finally put its competitior, the TurboGraphix-16, in third place. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was available in North America for Christmas 1991. Nintendo would continue to officially support the NES until early 1994, but the writing was on the wall and the fabled 16-bit console wars of the 90s had begun.

Many of the most aesthetically impressive NES titles were released between 1991 and 1994 - although the abilities of the system were limited, tactful developers like Nintendo, Capcom, Konami and Sunsoft could squeeze beautiful things out of that tiny grey box. Darkwing Duck is a gorgeous game - the handsomest of Capcom's 8-bit Disney run, to be sure. There's even an impressive introduction sequence which works as something of a title sequence. Gone are the blocky, blurry sprites of Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers - by this time Capcom were masters of gigantic, detailed, screen-filling sprites (see: Street Fighter II). In every area of presentation, Darkwing Duck is a terrific game.

But I'm simply not very enthusiastic about it. The game is built on the back of the Mega Man game engine Capcom had been using since 1987. This isn't a bad thing, because the Mega Man games are rightly hailed as classics of their era - or at least the first three are. Darkwing Duck came out roughly simultaneously with Mega Man 5, easily the weakest of the original 8 games, and it shares that game's same sense of exhaustion. Even with that low bar to clear, it's awfully hard to play Darkwing Duck and not constantly be reminded that you're playing a less inventive Mega Man 4.

So maybe it's most fair to judge DW by what else it brings to the table. Unlike Mega Man, Darkwing can crouch, which will please those who always hated that in Mega Man games. Also, he can jump up and latch onto the underside of platforms, then climb up onto them. The best areas of the game force you to master this, dropping down and hanging off the underside of moving platforms to avoid obstacles. DW can also jump and attach himself to hanging hooks, streetlights, portholes, and other features of the background. Playing through these areas is the only time when the game truly seems engaging.

It seems obvious that the Capcom staff was using these Disney games to blow off steam between A-list assignments - this game is nearly as wacky as TaleSpin. If you're one of those who enjoyed the rabbits in Rescue Rangers who attack by wriggling runner carpets, then Darkwing Duck is for you. The enemies in this game are hilariously goofy, including boxing kangaroos, turtles who sneeze their shells off, and Arnold clones who burn away to reveal robotic skeletons. Every so often, DW has to jump to avoid banana peels which can knock him out for a few seconds. It doesn't exactly capture the tone of the show, but this silliness is appreciated.

Did I mention it's hard? This game is hard. Those who pine for a halcyon days of "Nintendo Hard" will appreciate this one. The platforming is not unreasonable, but the boss battles are remarkably difficult, requiring players to very, very quickly drop between platforms - which isn't easy in this game - while chasing a quick moving enemy and dodging multiple projectiles. The final boss fight is done while avoiding two relentless drones and is especially infuriating.


At the end of the game, the city is saved, and Darkwing rides his motorcycle away while contemplative music plays. Many NES fans will recognize this immediately as the hallmark ending of Mega Man games, where Mega Man solemly heads home after defeating the nefarious Mr. Wily. "Will the world ever be safe??", Mega Man wonders.




If there were any doubt that Capcom programmers were expressing frustration over their obligation to pump out game after game in either the Disney or Mega Man series, the ending of Darkwing Duck is it. As he moodily rides of into the night, DW hits a pothole.






Darkwing Duck is a respectable game with a number of charming touches, and strictly as a game, it's the nearest to Capcom's come to making a fully fleshed out game for the Disney series since Rescue Rangers. It's fun, it's tough, it's full of whimsical touches, but it just didn't do it for this girl. It's a better Mega Man-alike than The Krion Conquest, but just as in theme parks, the details make the difference.

Game Rankings So Far


Next Time: We make the jump to 16-bits for a magical quest 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 1


It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.

If there ever were two companies that were made for each other in the 80s, it was Capcom and Disney. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had been a genuine hit in 1988, and Disney was embarking on aggressive expansion into nearly every untapped market they could see. In order to pave the way for a future generation of kids who could get hooked on Disney and grow up to write blogs like these, they needed a whole lot of Disney content, and they needed it cheap.

One wildly popular but essentially untapped area was Saturday morning cartoons. Disney's initial two entries into the format - The Wuzzles and The Adventures of the Gummi Bears - were much higher quality than the typical fare that alighted the television at the time. These test balloons were intentionally low stakes - Wuzzles and the Gummi Bears were fictional worlds created just for their shows - but the next Disney cartoon would feature recognizable Disney characters. DuckTales was, in television cartoon terms, a blockbuster that would lead to the creation of The Disney Afternoon, a behemoth that would gobble up after school airtime across the country, opening up a timeslot previously reserved for game show reruns. DuckTales was such a success that other companies felt compelled to respond, leading to the creation of Tiny Toon Adventures for Warner Brothers. Inspired by the fluidity and beauty of animation from the 1940s, DuckTales and Tiny Toons jump started an entire era of animated television shows that remain beloved to this day.

And then there was Capcom. In 1988, Capcom was just starting to enter into its golden age. Originally a purveyor of arcade cabinets like 1942, Capcom's original releases on the new Nintendo Entertainment System were clunky conversions like Ghosts n' Goblins. 1988 saw their first true runaway success, Mega Man 2, and the Capcom programming staff were starting to get truly ambitious in their game design. In the years to come, Capcom would become notorious for creating absurd slews of sequels to their successful properties - Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil... the list goes on and on. But Capcom's signature would remain the whimsical streak, a perfect match for Disney's fantasy worlds. Between Capcom's love of sequels and Disney's world-devouring corporate sprawl, it was a match made in heaven. It only lasted a few years, but the Capcom-Disney games are known as standard bearers of what terrific licensed games can be.

Mickey Mousecapade - Mar. 1987 / Oct. 1988

A lot can change in just a year.

While the NES was released in the United States in 1985, rolling out nationwide by mid 1986, in this pre-internet world it didn't really have much heat behind it until 1987. This makes sense if you look at the release dates of games - in late 1986, besides Super Mario Brothers, just about the best things on the system were still Balloon Fight, Wrecking Crew, and maybe Ghosts n' Goblins. By late 1987 Mega Man, Kid Icarus, Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Metroid, and Punch-Out were available, with more top shelf titles coming out all the time.

Japan got a head-start of about two years on all of this, and Nintendo of Japan already had an installed user base when they unleashed Super Mario Brothers in October 1985. The avalanche of Mario-alikes that followed simply couldn't reach the United States in the order that they were programmed in Japan - when they had a chance of being appreciated as the stepping stones that they were. This means that certain games which were probably respectable efforts at their time looked like ludicrous antiques by the time they reached American shores just a year or so later. Mickey Mousecapade came out in the US after games like Contra and Life Force were already pushing what the NES was capable of.

That's the context for appreciating what Mickey Mousecapade was up against in Japan in early 1987 - but it still isn't the same as saying that it's actually worth playing. If you're one of the American kids sucked in by that colorful, fun cover art, then just keep looking at it - because Mickey Mousecapade is pretty darned bad.

The game actually isn't even called Mickey Mousecapade, and it wasn't made by Capcom - this is a 1987 Hudson Soft game which even the title screen simply calls "Mickey Mouse". The game received a spiffy box and a few graphical changes, but otherwise belongs firmly to that weird middle ground after the success of Super Mario Brothers but before developers had figured out exactly why everyone liked the game so much. Awkwardly still adherent to arcade-style gameplay, Mickey Mouse is short, dull, and frustrating.

Will the real Mickey Mousecapade please stand up?

The nearest reasonable comparison is another Hudson Soft game coded just a few months before Mickey Mouse - Milon's Secret Castle. If any longtime game players are reading this, they probably winced at the mention of Milon - then as now, it's the kind of game people make YouTube videos about. Both games are in a tradition of unreasonably frustrating, obtuse Japanese platform games like Tower of Druaga - for some reason these kind of games filled with hidden secrets, no clues, and sluggish controls were very popular with Famicom owners. There's a segment in Mickey Mouse where players must traverse a forest, avoiding very fast enemies and going through doors. The level appears to loop endlessly, until the correct door is found and the season of the background changes from Spring to Summer. This is your only clue that you found the correct path. After two seasons, only doors that send you back to the start are available - you must find the exit by shooting an unmarked tree in the background until a door appears. If this strikes you as unfair and obtuse, then Mickey Mouse is not for you.

The best thing about Milon is that his secret castle is an off-brand Sleeping Beauty Castle.

What begins as a strict but possible platforming challenge shortly becomes almost needlessly cruel. Enemies swarm in erratic patterns moving twice as quick as you do. Mickey must move both himself and Minnie - you can't play as Minnie, but she follows you, mirroring your movements. In most cases this is at worst a minor annoyance, but in the final level, jumping between platforms becomes controller-throwingly difficult. She can also be carried away, and you cannot progress until you fire stars at enough invisible blocks to find a randomly placed key and play a mini game were you have a chance of winning her back. Player 2 can't play as her - she's only there to make your life more difficult.

All of this goes on for five levels, including the Pirate Ship level pictured on the cover, which is a mere 2 screens wide and 2 screens tall, and filled with some of the cheapest enemies I've ever seen in a video game. After just 30 minutes of gameplay, I was relieved when Mickey Mousecapade was over. Don't play this game.

Good luck.

DuckTales - Sept. 1989

It would be nearly a year until Capcom would be allowed to take a real crack at a Disney game, and this one is a dilly. It's one of the all-time greats according to many - amongst those who reverse Nintendo's 8-bit system, I've found nary a dissenting voice as to its excellence.

Why would a liscenced game like this be such a cult favorite on a system overstuffed with them? I suspect it's exactly the right blend of a recognizable title and a not-too-difficult gameplay experience. I doubt I'm the only player for whom a game based on a cartoon was the second game I ever completed, after a Mario game. DuckTales... was not mine, and so I can't speak for this game from any sort of nostalgia point of view, but you know what? This is a pretty good game.

Perhaps the true mettle of a licensed game is whether or not anybody would want to buy it were it released without its IP tie-in. DuckTales is arguably one of the all-time great examples - absolutely nowhere but in this game is there any suggestion that Scrooge McDuck would bounce around on his cane like a pogo stick... but once you spend enough time with this, it's just about the only thing you'll ever think of Scrooge McDuck doing. The mechanic is so infectious that you'll end up pogo-ing around on dangerous platforms where it would really be easier for you to stand. Like Super Mario's B-Dash, it's so much fun that you forget that you don't need to use it.

But the pogo mechanic comes with a set of limitations, and it's here where my problems with DuckTales begin to come out. It is frustratingly difficult to activate the pogo jump, requiring players to jump and press down on the D-pad. But it's also finicky enough to cause problems - land in the wrong spot, like on the edge of a platform, and Scrooge will immediately stop pogoing. This makes the process of bouncing around more stressful than it needs to be. Later entries in the DuckTales series removed the need to press down to pogo, strongly suggesting that developers recognized that this was needlessly difficult for such a central part of the game.

Which brings me to the second gripe. Capcom was really good at making games that were tough, but fair. There's enough in this game and in the beta version available online that leads me to believe that at some point in development, somebody decided that the game was too easy. The beta build includes a Continue option on the main screen, which was removed from the final version. And the enemy placement, especially in the Amazon and Moon levels, can be amazingly cheap. Enemies will immediately respawn if they are off the screen for more than a moment, leading to an endless barrage of spacemen and bees which are the main obstacle in these areas. Once you fight through, the bosses are simple and repetitive, which may be another sign of a rushed release. There's even a mechanic in the game which gives you a "bad ending" if you manage to lose all of your money fighting Dracula Duck - something which is nearly impossible to do in the final game. All of these small touches, as well as the somewhat wonky controls, suggest to me that the game was never fully polished to its developer's liking.

It's harder to get this ending than it is to beat the game!

What really is the strength of the game is the exploration. Anybody can run direct through, avoid enemies, and reach the end in less than a hour. Throughout, the game simply keeps adding up your treasure - never once making a big deal out of it, never once pointing out that this is something you should pay attention to until the very end, where you receive a total. Then, the next time you play, you start to notice all of the hidden jewels and treasure chests. Eventually, you discover a hidden treasure in a level. The fairly modest challenge represented by completing the game gives way to a personal challenge - to collect as much as possible. This really is where DuckTales gets you, why it's so lasting. I'm not a huge fan of the game and as I sit here typing these words I'm thinking about how I should play it again and try to get a higher score.

Another small touch that really helps the game stand out from its peers is an unusually tight script, with characters speaking as they do in the show - this was very unusual in 1989, where even terrific games were full of bizarre and questionable English. This was overseen by a producer working for Disney in Los Angeles - Darlene Lacey - who was more or less hired to protect Disney's interests.

She rewrote all of the original English text to more closely adhere to the animated property - only leaving Huey's famous "This house has an illusion wall" probably because, like untold numbers after her, she found it funny. It's especially fortunate that Disney thought to hire somebody to do this, because Capcom's game text is hilariously inappropriate:


That version of the text stands unchanged in the Japanese release of the game, marvelously titled Naughty Duck Dream Adventure.

Is DuckTales an unassailable masterpiece for the NES? No. Is it a lovable platform game with terrific music and a gloriously unexplained action mechanic? Yes. Not every game needs to be an austere masterpiece like Ninja Gaiden to earn a place in the canon.



DuckTales Remastered - August 2013

Long after the halcyon days of Capcom, Disney chose the best possible developer to helm their high-profile game reboot: Wayforward Technologies, who has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to retain the values of old school games in series like Shantae and Contra. In DuckTales Remastered, Wayforward successfully split the difference between faithfully updating the game and providing a new experience. In many areas, the level layout are identical - in others, expanded sequences not possible on the NES were introduced. Scrooge's pogo cane controls easily and smoothly compared to the original Capcom game, and boss battles have been very effectively expanded into some very exciting, tricky segments.

The most noteworthy addition are cleverly written and voice acted cut scenes which pop up before and during levels. These range from new scene transitions - Scrooge flies a plane between the Amazon and into ancient ruins - to entirely new stories created to add interest to existing levels. These add a lot of class and value to the experience, really making you feel like you're watching an extended episode of DuckTales.

But, you know, there's a doubled edged sword to that, as any nostalgic fan who's tried to watch DuckTales as an adult can find out. It feels exactly like watching an episode of DuckTales - Bubba Duck, Gizmoduck, Webbigail and all. If these characters annoyed you in the show, they will annoy you here, too. At least the game is faithful.


I think new audiences can come directly to DuckTales Remastered and not need to feel like they missed anything - the gorgeous animation and improved controls alone make it easy to recommend. The 2.5-D applied to the game is often gorgeous, but levels sometimes end up feeling less immersive than they did in 8 bits - more a series of boxes floating in front of a background than a real place to explore.

Many players report that they feel the cutscenes interrupted the flow of the game, which is absolutely true - and it's at these times that the value of the limited medium of the NES can really be felt. There's something to be said for letting players fill in the details of the story in their minds - to decide for themselves why Scrooge fights a giant rat inside the moon. This in no way takes away from Wayforward's take on the material, which is often exciting and funny. But those of us who miss when Super Mario was mysterious and silent may walk away from DuckTales Remastered with a new appreciation for how Capcom did so much with so little.


Next Time: Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers and The Little Mermaid

Friday, April 28, 2017

Making It "Disney"

Recently, I had a reaction to a new restaurant at Walt Disney World that I can not remember having had before. As this blog has (voluminously) shown, I feel no particular need to like everything Disney does. I think most of the changes they make to their properties fall somewhere in the middle of my range of expectations, and only ever so often does something truly bad - or truly good - get put out.

Last year, I wrote a lot about Disney Springs, and I still stand by that piece - I like it plenty. I've been there more often that I ever visited Downtown Disney near the end of its run, and as a local I'm not bothered much by the fact that its buildings aren't slapped head to toe with Donald Duck.

But I was pretty deflated when Fulton's Crab House returned from its huge remake as Paddlefish. Over the summer I had already prepared myself for the worst - crossing the bridge across Village Lagoon, I could see that the interior had been gutted down to a steel skeleton. That had really taken the wind out of me - it was hard to see what I still thought of as the Empress Lilly more or less demolished. Yet as it was slowly rebuilt with a recognizable shape, colors, and even a brand new (immobile) paddle, my hopes rebounded. Yet when it finally opened and I saw the first interior images, I could not escape my gut reaction: "That's not very Disney."


Easy WDW

Like a lot of gut reactions, this struck me as immediately absurd but difficult to escape. A tour of the facility later reassured me that there was still some charm left in it, but my mind kept nagging away at the conversion: given one of the most impressive things at Walt Disney World, they did this to it?

But was the Empress Lilly ever "Disney" not begin with? Why would I argue that the bizarre modernist / Southwest pastiche Contemporary Resort is classically Disney, despite hardly having anything "Disney" in it for much of its history?

What makes something "Disney", anyway?

Let's be clear, the question was raised by Walt Disney to begin with. He's sort of both the rule and the exception, because pretty much anything he did was by default "A Walt Disney Production". But besides things like Orphan's Benefit and The Wise Little Hen, Walt produced an eclectic batch of films. There's the difficult to categorize wartime films like Education for Death and Victory Thru Airpower, and the manifestly adult, sensual pleasures of Three Caballeros. Many of the Silly Symphonies seem fairly infantile, but The Old Mill and the first segment of Fantasia are practically experimental films. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a sci-fi potboiler that ends with a nuclear explosion. Even Disneyland is wildly eclectic - if there weren't a huge Mickey Mouse face at the front gate, how many in 1955 would have doubted there would be anything especially Disney inside that landscaped berm?

By the 1960s, Walt was on a totally different wavelength, fixated on New Orleans and cities of the future. The question of "Disneyness" is one that Walt's artistic staff struggled with themselves:

"WED had designed some imaginative shows for the parks, but we seemed to be getting away from our heritage. Pirates of the Caribbean was a big hit, but what did it have to do with Disney? What we needed was a reminder of what Walt had accomplished." - Bill Justice, on creating The Mickey Mouse Revue 
"My primary concern is that none of this material was 'Disney.'" - Marc Davis on Pirates of the Caribbean

Walt Disney's lieutenants continued their leader's eclecticism, building a golf retreat, a campground, a few dinner theater shows, and finally a shopping complex. From our modern vantage point - looking back from a time when we're drowning in cheap 2017 t-shirts crowded with the same five Disney characters - this seems to be a golden era when Disney built really risky, unique things.

Throughout the development of Lake Buena Vista, Walt Disney Productions was adamant that it be a totally unique entity from Walt Disney World - so much so that they did not even build a road that connected Magic Kingdom to it. You had to drive back down World Drive to I-4, then drive up 4 to 535 and enter Lake Buena Vista that way. Disney billed it as "Host Community to Walt Disney World", which probably didn't mean much more to random visitors than it would today.



What media coverage Lake Buena Vista got in 1975 was overwhelmingly local and fairly positive, especially following the energy crisis and national recession. In the 1975 Annual Report, Disney trumpeted attendance gains at the Magic Kingdom, while more modestly reporting the opening of the Shopping Village has "helped grow attendance". If actions speak louder than words, then here's one that shouts: within a year, a program to refurbish the Village had begun. In 1977, the Empress Lilly debuted, and with it came a name change for the whole complex: the Walt Disney World Village.

It isn't hard to guess at the reasons. The Village was built in a totally contemporary style, but 1977 renovations added fantasy elements - not just the Lilly with her endlessly churning paddle wheel, but Mediterranean statuary and shops with more whimsical names and decor, like "It's A Small World After All". The name itself points to a direction the Village was pushing towards throughout the 80s: more Disney, more fantasy. While the 1977 Annual Report stayed mum on the changes, in 1978 Disney noted: "The record year in Florida was reflected in substantially improved operations for Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista. The improved picture is also being impacted by our continued efforts to expand the entertainment opportunities available to our Lake Buena Vista guests and visitors."




In other words, it didn't work, and needed improvement. The Walt Disney World name - a brand WDP was so eager to divorce from their shopping village in 1975 - was needed to convince visitors that this new attraction had something to offer. Arguably, it's kept working ever since then - the Village grew into Downtown Disney, a concept which has opened in every Disney resort complex in the world.

But if everything that has happened before will happen again, then all of this is familiar. And while I've written a lot about the aesthetics, convoluted backstory, and infrastructure upgrades of Disney Springs - the aspects this blog finds most compelling - as another prong in Disney's absurd steeplechase of the affluent, Disney Springs is yet another front. And while I've been the subject of angry rebuttals for my doubting the profitability of certain stores, the fact remains that, as a shopper myself, there's precious little there than I find compelling.

I'm not alone. It isn't hard to find similar notes in the less regulated courts of public opinion on the internet - forums, Trip Advisor, Yelp - even in largely positive appraisals. For me personally, it's enough to enjoy the architecture and urban planning, duck my head into a few shops, get a sushi roll and a cocktail, and leave. Those with who have traveled great distances and expect something more, those with small children, or those looking for bargains, seem especially flustered and intimidated by the size and grown up ambience of Disney Springs.



And so Disney Springs, like Lake Buena Vista and Downtown Disney before it, joins the roll call of history's questionably 'Disney' things - a list that includes, to be abundantly clear, some of Disney's best, most interesting moments. Fantasia, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Contemporary Resort, TRON....

But it's a delicate balance - one informed by decades of perception, expectation, and precedent. Before the opening of Disneyland, there was practically no association between Disney and fairy tale castles - There's one seen in the final shot of Snow White, and one that is a major setting of Cinderella. The logo of the entire company is today a fairy tale castle. There's even new product that seems to exist entirely to try and deliver more of the kind of imagery they are renowned for in the public consciousness - various live action remakes of fairy tales, the whole of The Princess and the Frog, multiple kingdoms in Frozen, etc.

This same fairy tale overkill has been injecting the theme parks as of late too - a period in time I hope we will look back on "the castle wars". It began with Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland, which added an entire addition to Cinderella Castle out back and two extra castles behind it, belonging to the Beast and Prince Eric. Then along came Shanghai Disneyland with their colossally proportioned castle with a boat ride underneath it. Magic Kingdom expanded their castle again in 2014 by adding new turrets on the hub, and now Hong Kong Disneyland is threatening to put a castle-hat on top of their existing castle because the Hong Kong government isn't about to let their Disney castle be so tiny compared to Shanghai's.

"Now with 40% more castle!"
The fact that castle iconography is sprouting up everywhere like mushrooms is not accidental, and will no doubt be welcomed by the types for whom Disney is nothing but animated fairy tales for children. Disney is bending over backwards to "make it Disney" for their paying customers.

But a castle is just a castle - it only became a culturally loaded symbol once Walt Disney made one the icon of his hugely influential amusement park. Today it's impossible to separate the two - when Shrek wanted to make fun of Disney, it did it by introducing a fairy tale castle and a robotic doll show inside. It's nothing but a symbol - a flexible one, and one that can cut both ways.

Disney may own the imagery, but ownership does not always guarantee mastery. Just as Fantasyland has become an overkill of castles, Disney has a bad habit of slapping Mickey Mouse on everything as a first attempt to repair problematic design. Like the phalanx of cutout Mickey heads added to the Transportation and Ticket Center attempting to disguise a building that's just begging for demolition:


To the Grand Canyon Concourse in the Contemporary, an expensive resort Disney has trouble selling rooms in. If people don't like it, it must not be Disney enough, and what's more Disney than a colossal Mickey head?


I can't think of a single situation where the "slap a Mickey on it" approach actually works, and so much of Walt Disney World has been allowed to fall behind the curve of fashion , that there's a lot of it now. But between the extremes of "not Disney enough" and "giant sheet metal ears", there has to be a middle ground, and it's a middle ground that Imagineering has been groping towards for the past 30 years.

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We live in a world of multinational corporations, and I write about one of them that is the economic steward of a number of works I admire. But I write this acknowledging that even defining what "Disney" is, is increasingly impossible. I'm an old school Disney fan, and so I believe that Disney is absolutely not Pixar, nor is it The Muppets. Or Star Wars and Indiana Jones, or Marvel, or Club Penguin, or any of the other hundreds of things that float around inside the Disney IP biosphere. But when I look at Liberty Square, or Frontierland, or even Disney Springs, I do see Disney. Why is that?

Well for one thing, these are public places which are ostentatiously designed and which create insular universes. And while I may get my kicks at Disney, I'm promiscuous - I was a teenage mall rat, and I still enjoy going to a good mall because it scratches that same itch for some sort of engineered, controlled public universe. Neither am I a Disney snob - I also go to and enjoy other theme parks like Universal, and even regional amusement parks. I will go to and enjoy any place that gives me that same sense of harmony, of energy, of place.

I drool over stuff like this about as often as Disney stuff.

So we could say, on a basic level, that to make something "Disney", it needs urban planning, attention to detail, and a sense of harmony. That sense of harmony is crucial, and it's the reason why a normal mini golf course doesn't come off as Disney but a high-end mall does.

It's the reason why, prior to the Disney Springs conversion, thousands of guests daily milled around thru the Downtown Disney Marketplace, trying to avoid the rest of the complex - whether subconsciously or not. It's the toughest thing to get right, and it's the toughest thing to maintain - Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida has practically no harmonized public spaces at all, just a series of facilities in different aesthetic silos. Harmony is that X factor, the thing that the rest of life is missing, the thing that art tries to correct.

It's the reason why Tomorrowland strikes everyone as a hodgepodge of random stuff - the various reboots of the area always come down to some new stuff placed on top of the existing original structures, so that there is a contrast between clean lines and futuristic bric-a-brac. Those clean lines underneath the new theming always speak louder than what's in front of it - there's a disconnect in meaning and form and that sense of harmony is disrupted.

Consider Liberty Square - the diminishing perspective and solid symmetry of the Hall of Presidents creates the impression of stability and stateliness which reflects the theme of the show inside. At the Haunted Mansion, a similarly opulent and stately structure has gone crazily wrong, with weird spikes everywhere, an asymmetrical conservatory, and with both wings jutting towards the viewer menacingly - a totally different thematic statement than the Hall of Presidents. Then consider the Liberty Tree Tavern, with its three doors, wide veranda, white turned columns, and approachable scale - what a sense of hospitality it creates from the road. All of these structures have harmonized their theme and purpose into their designs, and harmonize with each other, to create that pleasant vibe.

All Ears Net
It's also the reason why "throw a Mickey on it" never, ever works. The mere appearance of Mickey does not guarantee charm, despite what Disney seems to think - the cutout Mickey heads all over the Transportation and Ticket Center aren't theming so much as the design equivalent of branding on cattle. They assert ownership in a way which is intended to be reassuring and welcoming, but comes off as a hollow.

It's because the "Disney" accents on the TTC, or in the Grand Canyon Concourse, or even in many areas of Downtown Disney, are - like castles - just symbols. They speak a different design language than the rest of the area. Whereas the area around it may be visually saying "This area is really impressive, and unified, with beautiful colors", the giant Mickey head always shouts: "Property of Disney!".

Making It Disney - also known just as proper theming - has multiple approaches, ranging from the hard sell to the soft touch. The hard sell is what you see on 192 in Orlando - giant oranges, wizards, and mermaids perched on nondescript buildings. They're "themed" in the loosest sense of the term - they've got a big fantastical doodad glued onto the front.

Or there's the soft touch - the warm colors, white pillars, and shaded porch of the Emporium on Main Street invites you in even before you know it's a gigantic shop. The colors, kinetic activity, forced perspective illusion, and kinetic harmony of Hollywood Boulevard invites you down it, drawing you into the heart of the park, The palm trees are like landing beacons, inviting you to keep walking to find out what's at the end of the street.


Or you could put a huge Mickey hat there. But as John Hench liked to say, good taste costs no more.

Wikipedia

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Let's Have A Drink On It! Howling Dog Bend

Alright, let's try something new.

Besides Disney, one of my hobbies is food and drink. Disney World has always been a dining paradise, but their drinks have never been all that good. Even in the halcyon days of the 70s, their repertoire was limited to the kind of colorful, sugary drinks you find their today - vacation drinks, if you like. Even the opening of Trader Sam's and Jock Lindsay's, with their carefully considered beverage lineup, have done little to improve the situation outside those establishments. There is a fairly good standard Manhattan, but I can make one of those at home.

Making a good cocktail is a lot like cooking, and as a cook, the process is a lot of fun for me. Given the history and complexity of the lore around Walt Disney World, there exists an untapped opportunity to inspire drinks - good drinks, strong drinks, the sort of drinks Disney doesn't sell.

There's always going to be the sort of Disney fan who turns their nose up at drinking - it sullies the air of family frivolity for them. And, to be fair, nothing spoils at day at Epcot like walking past a pile of passed out drunks as you leave Epcot. But after all, Walt sucked down Scotch Mists - 2 shots of Johnny Walker Red in a highball glass over ice diluted with club soda, if you must - and drinking plays a prominent role in classic Disney attractions and humor.

There's obviously Pirates of the Caribbean, but the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion are tipplers too. There's Big Al, six sheets to the wind on corn liquor, who falls over drunk at the end of the show, and the Jungle Navigation Company, who have their own depression-era still. Not surprisingly, Marc Davis liked his drinks in all shapes and sizes, and it's hard to pay a visit to Alice Davis without getting a drink shoved into your hand. That's just the way they did it in their generation. So why not take some inspiration from Disney History and try to whip up some drinks? Which is what I've been doing, for some time, to varied success. I'd like to share my best effort here.

Not surprisingly to anybody who's read this blog before, it's based on the Haunted Mansion. I call it the Howling Dog Bend, and even if you have no intention of ever making one, I think any theme park fan will enjoy reading the rationale behind it.


--

The Style

The first consideration should be what type of drink are we making here? Disney has built attractions and facilities which can slot into every period of American history - to colonial taverns to ultramodern high-rises. What would a drink from the Haunted Mansion look like?

Well, it would certainly have to be a stirred drink. Cocktails don't predate the Civil War by much, and the first book of drink recipes dates from 1862. In attempting to date the Haunted Mansion, 1840-1860 is a pretty good guess as to when a wealthy family would have wanted to build a fashionable neo-Gothic country estate; the house of Joel Rathbone, designed by A.J. Davis and the unambiguous stylistic source of the Haunted Mansion, was put up in 1840.


If you're not hip to cocktail lingo and you've always wondered why James Bond orders his martini shaken, not stirred, it's because those are the two main ways to build a drink. Stirring, as can be expected, is the original: you dump your ingredients in any old cup with some ice and stir them together until smooth. All of the ancestral cocktails are stirred: the Old-Fashioned, the Manhattan, the Martini, and the Collins.

So what we're aiming at here isn't the sort of historical cocktail that became popular in the 1880s: the fancy, fruited, shaken drinks that reigned until World War I. What we're aiming at here is something elemental, something nearer to an Old-Fashioned: spirits, ice, and a little bit more. This template will guide us in creating the rest of the drink.

The Base

The base spirit determines all of your other choices here. Given that we're working off of the Old-Fashioned template, using the oldest, most prestigious American spirit of all - bourbon - makes sense, right? Well, hold on.

Bourbon may be one of our national treasures, but there's a reason the cocktail was invented in the first place. In the nineteenth century, and especially amongst the landed gentry, bourbon was considered to be a coarse, crude spirit - and perhaps, in those days, it was. Bourbon was so notoriously unreliable and often watered down by distillers that politicians instituted a 1897 act which allowed distillers who produced whiskey in one location, aged at least four years, and bottled 100 proof to place a special government-approved label on their liquor to signify it as the good stuff. You can still see the label "Bottled in Bond" on whiskeys today, even if no modern industrial whiskey producers are selling colored water anymore.

So for various reasons, anybody with enough wealth to construct a fake castle in the country would be unlikely to be stocking bourbon in 1860. The truth is, wealthy families would have had the money and the means to buy the good stuff - and at that time, that meant wine and brandy from Europe.

So our base spirit here is Brandy. You can use Cognac - which is just brandy from a specific region of France - and both Hennessy and Courvoisier work well here. But I've also used cheaper European brandies like St. Remy, or American brandies from California. If you have the nice stuff it lends a smooth depth and complexity to this drink, but it works even with entry-level brandy.

The Other Stuff

Now we add the bits which make our glass of brandy into a cocktail.

We are, after all, building a drink to honor the Haunted Mansion, and since we're not going in the direction of a glowing blue or green drink, there needs to be something to add a bit of Haunted to our house.

I chose Green Chartreuse, which is an herbal liquor made by Carthusian monks in France. Taken on its own, it's redolent of a monastery - funky vegetal herbs, cold stone, ancient parchment. Mixed into Brandy, it adds an air of mystery and age - a sense of decay. This is a drink appropriate to enjoy in a crumbling Gothic house.

Green Chartreuse is part of a family of sweet herbal drinks of which the most identifiable on these shores is Jaegermeister. The monks have been bottling this drink since the mid-1700s, but their claim it's based on a recipe from 1605, so we are definitely talking about something the Graceys could have purchased were they so inclined.

Best of all, Chartreuse is sweet - sweet enough to negate the need to add sugar to the drink, streamlining the process. I prefer the Green Chartreuse, but a milder Yellow version is also available if you're the type who keels over when exposed to bitter flavors. I'll stick with the green - after all, it's the official color of the Haunted Mansion, splashed all over the cast costumes and merchandise. Bottles of Chartreuse are expensive, but a little goes a long way, and smaller size 375 ML bottles can sometimes be found.

All cocktails have bitters - it's the thing that made spirits into cocktails back in the 1840s. Prior to that, Angostura Bitters enjoyed a fad as a miracle cure-all before being publicly renounced and added to spirits. You can imagine the horror of some in the public - dumping quack medicine into cheap liquor to improve the taste of both. It still works - Angostura Bitters are the salt and pepper of the bartending arsenal.

Angostura works fine in this recipe, but it's formulated for something even better if you can find it - Pimento Dram, or Allspice Dram. A mixture of allspice berries and rum, you can dump this sweet, spiced booze into practically anything and turn it into a drink redolent of Christmas. Originally from Jamaica, locals mixed this up themselves as a sort of local aphrodisiac and cure-all in the humid tropical climate. It's hard to find in this country now, never mind in the Victorian era.

And yet, if we read between the lines, from the hurricane glass chandeliers to the widow's walks on the roof, it's pretty clear that the Haunted Mansion was owned by a seafaring family, and Jamaica was one of the primary ports for Caribbean trade in those days. Americans had been getting rums, exotic fruits and spices from the Caribbean since before the Revolutionary War, and it is not outrageous to speculate that the Graceys could have had a supply of Allspice Dram available to them. In modern days, you can make your own, or buy the excellent St. Elizabeth brand.

Pulling It Together

If you prefer your drinks iced, everything can be mixed together right in the glass you're going to be serving it in with a few ice cubes until nice and smooth. But this drink is so dark, musty and complex that I like to drink it chilled and neat. If you follow my plan, you have to combine everything in a mixing glass, stir it with ice, then strain it into a new glass.

Either way, this is a drink you should expect to spend some time with. The sweet herbal notes and spice flavors poke up above the smoothness of the brandy at first, then recede into the background to add a sense of mystery and age. It's the sort of drink to be enjoyed by a fire with a book of ghost stories in one hand. The iced version will dilute and sweeten as the ice melts into the cocktail, and the neat version will warm and gain complexity as time passes.

Oh, and a garnish? It's not necessary, but I like to add a bit of orange peel. It may now be occupied by a coffin, but the Graceys kept a greenhouse, which in those days primarily existed as means to grow valuable oranges and lemons in cold northern climates. Besides, the orange peel acknowledges the real-world location of the Haunted Mansion in Orange County, Florida. All you need to do is cut off a  thin 2-inch piece with a fruit peeler, rub the cut side on the rim of the glass, then dump the peel into the drink, allowing its oils to spread over the surface.

There's nothing better for a dark night in a musty old library. I can hear that organ playing now.

HOWLING DOG BEND

2.5 oz Brandy
2 tsp Green Chartreuse
1 tsp Allspice Dram


If you enjoyed this, let me know in the comments, and perhaps I'll do more in the future. And so, let's have a drink on it!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Nintendo's Universal Worlds

I grew up with video games. If you asked me at age seven what my favorite place was, after Walt Disney World I would have told you it was the Mushroom Kingdom. Video games are dreamscapes, fantasy worlds that invite us in to escape. Along with cinema and amusement parks, video games are the third pillar of 20th century escapism - unapologetically popular entertainments which were created to amuse and distract the working classes.

If you dig into game design books, you'll see those links made again and again. The best games are said to aspire to be cinematic, and often are themselves pastiches of popular cinema - Die Hard on a spaceship, James Bond in an ancient pyramid. Disneyland is often brought up by game designers as a key inspirational space, a fully manufactured setting which is also clean, clear, and coherent across generations and cultures. Theme parks are just one other way to achieve immersion and escape.

And so, as a longtime Nintendo kid and a fan of the oeneric dreamscapes of theme parks, one would think that I would be preparing the paper streamers and rolling out the red carpet in advance of the announcement of the wonderfully titled Super Nintendo World - a mouthwatering expansion coming soon to Universal parks. And let's be clear here: I am. Having not been a fan of Cars, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, I finally feel like here's something elaborate that's aimed at me. As beautifully done as those areas have been or promise to be, my heart did not soar at my first sight of Hogwarts. But put a gold coin on a stick and have it spin around behind somebody's head, and I'm going to need to sit down.

So yes, I'm an easy mark. Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, Metroid, Mega Man, and Legend of Zelda were my 'galaxy far, far away' growing up, and I'm going to have a strong reaction no matter what ends up getting done. But that doesn't mean I can't have concerns about what's going to happen, and thoughts on the dividing lines between how video games, theme parks, and films create meaning.

So here's our chance to take a quick overview of Nintendo and theme parks. I've stated before on this site that I think Disney has so far failed to do justice to both games and immersive theming at the same time, and perhaps we can dig under that a little. Not a lot. It's a huge topic, and the year is almost up.

Super Mario Disneyland

So what exactly did Universal get themselves into here?

Super Mario is series which as of late has largely confined itself to the Mushroom Kingdom, but in its early years often took bizarre and irrational detours to lands abroad - the middle eastern Sub-Con, the Asian Sarasaland, the expansive Dinosaur Land. The visual style of each game was often totally different than the ones before it - the ghostly, abandoned open planes of Super Mario Brothers that gave way to a landscape strewn with multicolored blocks and checkerboard tile floors in Super Mario Brothers 3. Yoshi's Island, a prequel set in Dinosaur Land, is manifestly lush and tropical in a way no other game is.

Yet the games have a sense of continuity not so much through their settings and gameplay, as their sense of otherworldliness. The Mushroom Kingdom is filled with bizarre and inexplicable threats. In Super Mario Brothers, there is a palpable loneliness and danger to Mario's mission - only compounded if you read the manual and discover that those plants and blocks are supposed to be the transformed citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom! Morbid. No other Mario game feels as lonely and haunted until you get to Super Mario 64, where the echoing, stone clad interior of Princess Peach's castle leads to some truly heart-stopping moments where Mario is suddenly no longer alone.


The Mario series, like all video games of their era, exist in a world of easily comprehensible symbols. Just as nobody needs an explanation of why you're whipping monsters and ghosts in Castlevania, everyone knows to avoid roaming evil-eyed chestnuts, falling rocks, and leaping fire. In the Mushroom Kingdom, anything that can potentially help you has cute eyes, and everything else has a fierce (or at least dumb) expression. You don't need a language to understand these signifiers.

Super Mario, and the Nintendo Entertainment System generally, was a Japanese import which was wildly successful in an era otherwise terrified of Japan's economic ascendancy. Think of the Tokyo-inflected urban decay of Blade Runner, or potboiler crime pictures like Black Rain or Rising Sun. Super Mario crossed a threshold that Godzilla, Speed Racer, Ultraman and Astro-Boy could not. Even today, Godzilla is still made fun of by a certain generation for being a Japanese import. But Super Mario? That guy was an Italian from Brooklyn. He was pure kawaii nonsense delivered in an Americana candy coating.

Mario's world, with its bipedal turtles, swooping clouds, mobile cacti and cheerful hillsides, is a world of symbols not dissimilar to the fevered imagery incubator of Disneyland. Disneyland is also a place of inexplicable dangers, except Walt Disney used ghosts, dinosaurs, pirates and cannibals instead of mushrooms and man eating plants. They come to roughly the same end: we see these things and know that there's danger up ahead.


Magic Kingdom and Disneyland controlled visitor's experiences by intentionally limiting the number of options available at any time; you can either stop in this shop or this attraction, or keep walking. There's usually only one or two options available at any one time. The linearity of the experience is the defining quality of a theme park, compared to the open grid favored by traditional amusement parks like Kennywood or Cedar Point.

This too is basically similar to the structure of many Mario games - levels must be traversed from left to right, and in a specific order, to reach a specific goal. The most logical way to lay out a Super Mario area for a theme park would be on the pattern of Magic Kingdom's Adventureland - a themed corridor leading to a specific destination.


This imagery-heavy abstraction is the key to understanding why both Disneyland and Nintendo worked so well across generations and ages - both the classic theme parks and early video games created a pressure cooker atmosphere of heated symbolic interpretation, and clawed their way into immortality for their efforts.

Disneyland sticks out in America's literal-minded chronology obsessed pop culture, but I don't think it's coincidental that the Japanese recognized this quality in Disneyland and wanted one of their own badly. After years of rejections, Walt Disney Productions finally relented in the mid-70s - and then, only as a way to get a quick cash infusion due to spiraling costs on EPCOT Center. Tokyo Disneyland opened in April 1983 - just three months to the day before the release of the Nintendo Famicom in Japan. There's a family resemblance between the aesthetics of the Famicom and the Tomorrowland section of Tokyo Disneyland, as if one influenced the other.


In the Mario games of my youth, Mario was a cypher, almost mysterious. He wasn't cuddly - his game sprites made him look stoic, serious. It required a certain degree of interpretation if you wanted to know why this Italian guy was murdering large numbers of turtles. What his personality was like was up to your imagination.

On television, as portrayed by wrestler Lou Albano, the New York aspects of Mario were emphasized - his goofy accent, his constant need for pizza. One of the only other American depictions of Mario produced before the current Mario character debuted in Super Mario 64 may be found in the Phillips CDi game Hotel Mario, where Mario is voiced by actor Marc Graue in a style very similar to Albano's Mario.

In this sense it's easy to see how Americans adopted Mario as one of their own, and it's no wonder that many of us were taken aback by the voice and childlike attitude of Mario in Super Mario 64. Until that seminal game, although you played as Mario, there was no insight into what Mario was thinking or how he would sound, if he could speak. This actually isn't all that different than the abstraction of a WED classic like The Jungle Cruise. What does Trader Sam sound like? It's up to you to decide.

And it isn't WED Enterprises that's building Super Nintendo World, nor is it 1983. The Mario of today is as different from the Mario of 1985 as WED Enterprises is different from Walt Disney Imagineering. And therein lies some of my concerns.

The Difficulty of Complexity

Games grew up quick in the 80s. By the time Nintendo had premiered the Famicom Disk System in 1986, a new breed of interactive narrative was being carved out by innovative hybrid games like Castlevania 3 and Metroid. With the move from 8 to 16 bit consoles in 1988 and 1990, hardware and social forces were in place to give rise to the sort of epic adventure stories that Square Soft and Enix were pioneering. Video games began to resemble the sort of lengthy narratives best contained in novels.

But Mario did not change. Super Mario World may justifiably be called one of the most gorgeous video games ever produced, but mechanically it was very much like the 8 bit games which had preceded it. The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past more or less hit reset on the Zelda series, offering up a hugely expanded take on the concepts behind the original game. But if we really want to dig into the strengths and weaknesses of the expanding scope video games, we really don't have to look much further than Sonic the Hedgehog.

A sort of stepping stone between the pared down, symbolic creations seem on the Famicom and the hugely elaborate spectacles offered on the Playstation and Nintendo 64, Sonic oh so briefly stole the crown from Mario. Sonic may have been built for speed, but he wasn't really built to last.

In 1991, Sonic was something new from the world go - his sarcastic expression and waggling finger taunting you from the load screen. But the first game was actually an awkward series of jumps presented in a glossy, promising package. Through 4 subsequent installments, the series improved bit by bit, before coalescing into the exhilarating Sonic 3  / Sonic & Knuckles.

These are games of surface pleasures - the smooth controls, the buzzing rock soundtracks, the cool looks of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Robotnik. But the release of Sonic & Knuckles in 1995 was also the end: SEGA was never again able to leverage the blue hedgehog to a widely successful game. Part of this is due to the failure of four SEGA hardware launches in a row, but part of it is because Sonic never convincingly adapted to a new kind of game - a game that didn't just zip from left to right.

And it was when Sonic was down for the count that Super Mario 64 landed and went off like a bomb in the industry - reshaping conceptions of what these kinds of video game characters could do. Today, Sonic is a beloved character, but experienced best and most often in games where he races, or jousts, or fights Nintendo characters. More young kids have probably played as Sonic in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games than they have in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

There's no longer any kind of brand expectation from Sonic. And the reason is because maybe Sonic never really was about being in excellent games - maybe it always was that Sonic is always just Sonic; a better design, a better idea, than an actual character. Maybe the most compelling Sonic product in years has been the cartoon Sonic Boom, a ludicrous weekly excursion into weird humor and lame puns. People like the idea of Sonic more than they do the phenomenon of Sonic.

Sonic briefly represented the future, but in the end he was no more than a fresh coat of paint on the same old problem: people liked these characters because they were simple and relatable. Sonic and Knuckles exist barely more as figures in a silent serial: the cool guy who taps his foot, the evil guy who laughs. Mario is barely more than an abstract vessel to carry viewers through his games.


But isn't this very close to how theme park operate, too? If we're being rushed through a set at 3 feet a second, we don't have time for anything but clear, unambiguous images. Where Sonic failed is when he had to be more than that - to carry a compelling narrative about anything more than smashing robots and being cool.

We could also look at Capcom's Mega Man. Originally about little more than an Astroboy knockoff defeating a mad scientist, Mega Man presented a surprisingly bright, upbeat future of whimsical but aggressive robots. Being an early game, it was not properly translated and released with little fanfare - leaving the door open for American kids to discover and speculate on what exactly the deal with Mega Man was. Was he a soldier? A police officer? A human on an alien world? Early video games on the NES, PC and Atari were imaginatively stimulating experiences because of what they left out, offering players an opportunity to fill in the gaps in their own way.

Capcom eventually rebooted Mega Man into an elaborate and dystopian technology parable, heavily inflected by Blade Runner and The Terminator. And while several of those games are terrific, the flagship Mega Man series was sputtering out. By the early 2000s it had been rebooted yet again - into a form that little resembled its bright, cheerful, side scrolling roots. Today Mega Man is relegated to cameos and nostalgia pieces, even less relevant than Sonic is.

But compared to SEGA and Capcom's efforts to grow their signature game series, Nintendo went and doubled down on Mario's essential abstraction.

By the time Nintendo was selling copies of Super Mario 64, Mario was up against competitors like Solid Snake and Cloud from Final Fantasy VII - games that could shock or emotionally involve players in ways they had never imagined while pushing buttons on their NES. Mario was an abnormality - a cheerful but basically inaccessible fellow, eternally bubbly, in a world of bright colors and happy endings. And he stayed that way. Like Mickey Mouse, attempts to update Mario inevitably failed - and unlike Disney, Nintendo actually recognized this. Even while they branched Mario out into elaborate new genres like racing and RPG, Mario always was just Mario - he only required that players accept him as himself, a sort of mascot.


The Paper Mario series is an interesting case study in this. Hugely immersive and unapologetically long, Paper Mario expanded the intricacy and mythology of the Mushroom Kingdom in ways impossible to do in 16 bits - and they did it without even requiring Mario to speak. The cheerful, red-hatted avatar was the eye of the storm while his presence allowed Nintendo to draw on larger and larger canvases around him.

And yet, strictly speaking in terms of market share, the Mario series had been on a downslide since 1996. Mario 64 had sold less than Yoshi's Island before it, and Super Mario Sunshine sold less than Mario 64. Reissues of Mario's 2D adventures continued to do well on new formats like the Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo eventually gave up and launched a new series of 2D Mario games: New Super Mario Brothers, which has become the staple of Nintendo's portfolio. New Nintendo systems now tout 2D, retro-style Mario adventures.

Yes, that's right. The buying public voted with their dollars in favor of 1980s style abstractions, and Nintendo gave them what they wanted. Disney would've buried their heads in the sand.

Simple Mario Super Show

Which brings us back to Universal, Disney's greatest competitor. As I've claimed elsewhere on this site, Universal's most salient characteristic is their insistence on constructing their attractions based on actual linear narratives. Disney has copied the attitude, but almost none of the specifics - troweling  elaborate narrative justifications on top of random events. Universal actually sets up plot points in their queues that they expect you to keep track of and understand they're paying off later, down the line.

The thing is that I'm not at all sure that theme parks are actually any good at telling those kind of stories, and audiences don't seem to care. It's nice if they're there for the kind of people who go to blogs like this, but it isn't necessary - the kind of simple storytelling represented by a falling rock in Super Mario Brothers 3 or a floating candle in The Haunted Mansion works just as well.

Directly compare two recent Universal extravaganzas: their Harry Potter rides Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts. Despite a typically elaborate narrative setup, nothing that happens in Forbidden Journey makes any sense at all - what you're doing, why it's happening, or why Harry is tolerating it. He even shouts at you in one scene thanks to your inexplicable adventure through Spiderville. Compared to this, Gringotts actually makes a lot of sense - it's well paced, it has setups and payoffs, it actually rewards an attentive rider.

But none of that matters all that much because Forbidden Journey does things that work in the narrative environment that rides create, whereas Gringotts is telling you the kind of story better told in a movie. The strengths of Forbidden Journey are themed design strengths - crazy action, immediate dangers, weird illusions. People get off Forbidden Journey excited and inspired. The ride where you bop around in a mine car and characters on IMAX screens shout exposition at you cannot compare, and guests leave somewhat underwhelmed.

Nintendo games are about mysteries, things left unexplained, unpredictable explorations of bizarre worlds. They aren't about, and they don't tell, linear, comprehensible narratives in anything but the simplest way. They're about experiences and emotions, not about writing and plot points.

I don't know if the charm of the best Nintendo games will translate to a physical medium. While Nintendo's nostalgic appeals and retro-style product help convince me that the folks at Nintendo at least know where their strengths are, I've got less hope that the American themed design industry, so obsessed with minutae and specific storytelling techniques, will be able to make the jump.

In Super Mario Brothers 3, there's a room in a World 5 fortress that's empty. There's no secrets to discover in it. It's only there for atmosphere - to make you think about where you are and what you're doing, and to feel the dark and lonely atmosphere. To me it signifies all that's compelling about old school video games - the creation of compelling spaces without explanations or finger pointing. These things aren't all jumping and shooting, or at least they don't need to be. That's the magic of Nintendo. That's what Universal needs to aim at.

The eye of the storm.
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