It’s a great time to be a Disney fan.
In 2006, after several years of setting the company adrift, Michael Eisner stepped down as head of the Disney conglomerate. Bob Iger replaced him, and John Lasseter, the CEO of Pixar, stepped in as CEO of the Disney Animation Studios.
This corporate shakeup has rejuvenated the Mouse’s brand over the past eight years. The Princess and the Frog; Toy Story 3; Tangled; Wreck-It-Ralph; they were all incredible films. And this year, Frozen swept its nominated Oscar categories. We have not seen a Golden Age like this one since The Little Mermaid / Beauty and the Beast / Aladdin / Lion King run in the late 80’s and early 90’s. When Disney fires on all cylinders, watch out. There’s no one better at tugging heartstrings and building dreams.
Despite these successes, the Mouse has struggled to keep its video game department viable. Since 2008, Disney’s gaming division has lost over $8 Billion. And then, a little over a week ago, the New York Times reported that Disney had laid off 700 employees in their mobile and social gaming division. The strategy, according to President of Disney Interactive, James Pitaro, is to refocus priorities on their mobile division, and to pursue additional licensing opportunities with third party developers.
This tactic has borne fruit in the past.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Capcom and Disney produced a litany of classic games together - we’ve already discussed DuckTales, for example, in this weekly feature. Success, however, is built upon one’s struggles. This week, we’re examining a mostly forgotten Capcom/Disney collaboration: Adventures in the Magic Kingdom for the NES.
Part mini-game collection and part theme park plug, Adventures was an awkward misfire. Although it was sporadically fun, it didn’t add up to a cohesive, Disney-esque experience.
Before the game began, you had the opportunity to enter in your name, and the characters would refer to you by that name for the remainder of the game. As a young child with a refined sense of humor, I used to enter in every vulgarity I could think of.
There was something subversive and hilarious about seeing Mickey Mouse call me an asshole.
The setting: Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom (although the layout of the park more closely resembled that of Anaheim’s Disneyland).
The plot went something like this - the Disney characters had a Main Street parade to put on, and Goofy, useless jackass that he is, lost all six keys that were needed to open the main gate.
Five of the keys were hidden on major ride attractions - The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Autopia, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Space Mountain. Your character, who looked like a cross between Indiana Jones and Huckleberry Finn, had to ‘ride’ each of these attractions to earn one of the keys. For the Pirates attraction, you avoided pirates, rescued five villagers, and lit a distress signal. For the Railroad, you had to reach Station B without running into boulders or railway crossings.
The sixth and final key was hidden on Pluto’s collar. To find Pluto, you asked the kids walking around the theme park for help. As long as you answered a Disney trivia question correctly, each kid told you where he/she last saw Pluto. Then, you found your way to the next kid, who gave you another trivia question and directed you to the next kid, and so forth.
If you were a Disney nerd, this portion of the game was particularly fun. It also allowed you to explore the Magic Kingdom and see pixelated representations of your favorite attractions - It’s a Small World, Tom Sawyer’s Island, and the Rocket Jets (which have since been replaced by the Astro Orbiters).
The renditions were so good, in fact, that when my family and I visited Disneyland several years later, I knew where all the major attractions were located.
The best levels were the two side scrolling rides - the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Yes, the control were stiff, but the visuals were nice - in both levels, you took on enemies inspired by the original attractions.
The dancing ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, inspired by the ride’s famous ballroom scene, were particularly noteworthy.
The other levels?
They were not quite as successful - either too simple or too half-baked. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad came down to simple memorization of which path to take.
The Autopia, which had a similar, top-down perspective, was a non-responsive racer. The acceleration was bad - you’d do better to kick the back of the car - and the handling was equally poor. Space Mountain was a glorified reflex test - the button patterns read out on the bottom of the screen, and you had to quickly press them in order - a Guitar Hero precursor without the rhythm.
Disney has always drawn firm lines between its ‘backstage’ and ‘onstage’ personas - when a person enters a Disney Park, he or she is a ‘Guest,’ not a customer. Disney workers are Cast Members, not employees. Every pirate is a real pirate, and Mickey Mouse, not Bob Iger, is the CEO.
Adventures in the Magic Kingdom logically continued that illusion, but did so in a way that felt weird and wrong.
Think about it; essentially, the developers turned the Magic Kingdom - a utopia, the so-called “Happiest Place on Earth” - into a hazardous, perilous realm, where one could die in a fiery pit, crash into an asteroid belt, or get swarmed by scary ghosts. The pirates were supposed to be ‘Yo-ho-ho’ pirates - not real, rape and pillage pirates. Was any parade - even a Disney parade - worth getting killed over?
It was a weird, tonal dissonance - clearly not what the developers were going for. The entire game needed more focus, but more importantly, it needed a lighter, jollier feel - enemies that were lovably menacing, and not just plain menacing.
Capcom and Disney would go on to make better, more widely loved games, but Adventures in the Magic Kingdom was for the die-hard fans exclusively.