Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion

Today I'm going to look at the Genesis platformer Castle of Illusion. The purpose of this post is to take a closer look at what makes a platformer work. I went with Castle of Illusion over something more recognizable(like Mario) because I feel it lays out all of the elements in a clear & concise manner. It's also a pretty good game.

Part 1

The first aspect of a good platformer is establishing the basics early on. Enemies should never take more than 1 hit to be destroyed(unless good reason is provided) and the hero should also be a bit on the weak side as well(maybe not one hit = death but at least 2, 3 or in CoI's case up to 5). If there's a score to keep track of make sure that it can't be abused. Unfortunately CoI has respawning enemies(the kind that re-appear if you leave the screen and come back) so the patient types could potentially max out the scoreboard). 

Like almost any other platformer Mickey attacks by landing on his foes(he can also throw objects which will be looked at a little later). By pressing down or the jump button while in mid-air, Mickey goes into attack animation. If the jump button is held down when Mickey connects with the enemy he'll bounce very high into the air. This is also very standard for the genre and many times it can lead to secrets or additional bonuses. Also like any good platformer Mickey is capable of changing direction or otherwise varying his movement as he's in mid-air. While it's fine when action-oriented games force particular jumping movements for a platformer complete freedom is essential. 

0:30 - Here we have the "coins". Yes I know they're apples but bear with me here. Coins is pretty much the catch-all phrase when referring to objects floating in mid-air. While in Mario or Sonic the player could get an extra life for collecting 100 coins/rings in Castle of Illusion these apples are used as a weapon.

It's important to note that all platformers that use the coin system do so to create a path for the player to follow. For the best chance of survival and eventual mastery of a platformer the player should always follow the coins. If the coins lead into a pit or some other means of death there must be a good reason for that(like an elevator or secret to get the player out of trouble). 

Mechanics are of course essential to a good platformer. Note how the flower's projectiles come up just short of hitting Mickey. Due to the fact that these projectiles dissipate as soon as they touch any ground the player is safe as long as they're just under it. It's also possible for the player to jump on the bullets with no worries about damage(and by jump I mean use the attack). Note that Mickey has different animations for when jumping and attacking, this is another essential aspect if additional moves are required to attack. Fantasia(the follow-up to this game) didn't have a different animation but still used CoI's system for dealing with enemies. Needless to say it wasn't a good idea at all. 

1:11 - Here we're introduced to swinging vines. It's important that if enemies are going to be nearby when the player grabs a vine that there is either some way for the player to defend themself, allow them to move along the vine to dodge the foe, or in CoI's case the player is completely invincible. In this part of the video the player chooses to get across part of the area by jumping, and using the interesting placement of an enemy to aid his progress. Also notice the other butterfly just barely missing him. Again a good showcase of mechanics.

It's here that we're also introduced to the "edge of a ledge animation". These are interesting in that platformers have multiple ways of handling them. Take the early Sonic games for example. If you're in the middle of the animation and jump straight up, you will not land on the ledge when you come down(instead you'll fall straight down over the ledge). While most of the time you can stay in this animation indefinitely some games mix it up. Rocket Knight Adventure for example does this by having the character struggle for awhile and then eventually fall. It doesn't really amount to much but it's interesting nevertheless.

Here a giant rolling apple attempts to squash the player. While some could simply duck into that nearby hole the player in this video chooses to jump over both the hole and the apple. Rolling objects and crevices to hide from them, another popular concept in platformers.

In this part of the stage we have leaves and spiders. After the initial set of leaves the next one Mickey steps on actually moves. While there's no indicator to tell the difference between moving and stationary leaves players will get the general idea of how to progress in this area. Note the player using his foes to move quickly through the area. There's also a power-up floating precariously over what is most likely a rather large pit. Obviously there must be a way to collect it without dying.

If the player hasn't grasped the concept of using enemies to progress this part of the stage spells it out for them. By using the ghosts the player moves across the top of the area and finds an assortment of power-ups. While this doesn't come into play very often the player acknowledges that they should still keep an eye out for situations where this could become useful. There's a couple other things to pay attention to here. Mickey simply has to land somewhere on the ghost(as long as it's on top) to successly bounce off of them. Unless a weakpoint or something obvious(like a head) is nearby generally it's good to make any part of the top of an enemy fair game. Also like in the other area Mickey gains a slight boost in his jump from running off the ramp. Note the placement of the coins here telling the player exactly where they need to be. It's also notable that when Mickey has full health all healing-related items dole out bonus points. It's kind of scary that there are games out there that don't do this.

2:30 - Here Mickey uses his weapon. The interesting aspect of this projectile is that depending on whether Mickey is standing or jumping it can take longer to throw. That's due to Mickey's standing throw having more animations than his jumping throw. Also Mickey can still control his air movement even after walking over a ledge. I only bring this up because some games have the player fall straight down if they walk off a ledge instead of jumping off. 

Not related but there was an NES game by Rare called Digger T. Rock. If you jumped up and hit your head on the ceiling too many times you'd crumble to the ground and lose half your health. That was a tough game.

The first boss has all of the aspects you'd expect. You can only hit him after he's landed on the ground(and you can see his face, making that an obvious target). Also important is that since you can't see the acorns before they fall an audio cue is necessary to warn the player. Since you can see the tree rolling around the entire time there's no need for an audio cue(unless of course they rolled off-screen). There's also nice & large safe spots for the player to move between to avoid these falling objects.

At the end of each stage the player is given points for completing the stage, a technical bonus(beat the level without getting hit to gain the most points), and a secret bonus(for finding out of the way areas and such). The great thing about the technical bonus and Mickey's health meter is that on the hardest difficulty the designers can focus on other ways to make the game more challenging. For harder difficulty settings the mantra should be "harder to win" and not "easier to die". CoI accomplishes this by adding more foes on-screen(among other things, like dropping the amount of starting health).

Stage 2 - These jack-in-the-box style enemies give visual cues before they pop out(they take a quick peek before springing). They're also notable in that like Mario games they won't pop out if the player is standing right on top of their box(just like the pirahna plants). Note how the game does a good job of arranging these guys so that the player can use them to progress through the stage with ease and style. A lot of the time enemies aren't placed in the world for the player to get killed by, in fact many are designed solely with the assumption that not only will the player kill them but that they will find other ways to take advantage of them to complete the game faster, find secrets, or gain additional bonus points. Surprisingly CoI doesn't grant bonus points for defeating multiple enemies without touching the ground. It seems like a simple addition but I guess that it would also recreate adding in more enemies or moving the placement around so players could take full advantage of it.

Here's another popular concept in platformers: Springboards. Some require the player to hold the jump button or press it at just the right moment. In this game all the player has to do is land on them to gain the maximum height. Unlike Sonic however there's a slight delay when landing on the spring and the player can still mess up by pressing the jump button.

One thing I'm not so sure about are these walls that require marbles to destroy. What if the player was to waste all of the marbles and not break the wall first? Well it's possible they'd get stuck. The level designer figured this might be the case and made sure there was always a bag of marbles by every wall. If the player goofed up and wasted them well that's their problem. Games shouldn't hold the player's hand through every little situation. If the solution and consequences are both made aware it's only the player's fault if they screw up. It's also here in this part of the stage you can note the difference between throwing an object while standing and while jumping.

5:30 - Why is there a spring here? Well there's really no reason for you to go back to those moving platforms. There is however a secret area by walking through those blocks just to the right after bouncing off of the spring. While some games rely on different colored walls some will use other means of pointing out secrets. Here CoI employs the use of a seemingly random object. 5:50 - If the player had used the clown he could have saved himself a few seconds by bouncing up to the next floor. 

This part of the stage has an interesting concept. By grabbing the two-way arrow objects the entire playfield flips upside-down(or vice-versa), causing all of the nearby enemies to fall and die. Otherwise it's mostly just for show as the player proceeds the level just fine without it. Future games will use this to a much greater affect(Like the Treasure platformer Dynamite Headdy, which actually has an entire boss-fight about this).

Castle of Illusion suffers from some very easy bosses. By this time the player is already familiar with the springboards and since the boss does little to mix up his attacks(like maybe throwing out a fist you have to jump over instead of duck under) it's pretty cake.

Now this stage mixes it up a little bit by having a variety of paths but only one leads to the exit. It's also here that we're introduced to swimming. While Mickey is a pretty decent swimmer this aspect of the game really isn't developed very much and will rarely come into play later on. The multiple paths dealie is also rendered moot in future playthroughs since the player knows exactly where to go.

In this next part of the stage the player shows off some impressive jumps. All platformers should strive towards having multiple ways of getting through the same level. Some ways could be easier, more challenging, faster, contain more secrets, and should all give the player reason to aim for that perfect run. Oh and if you're not confident about how well-designed the controls are in your platformer do not under any circumstances put in a bunch of platforms that are smaller than the hero. Castle of Illusion has fantastic controls so it gets a free pass, but for a number of other titles? Forget it.

Part 2

Another unique concept. Here water rushes through the bottom of the room at regular intervals. If Mickey is in the water when it goes to his head he takes damage and is pushed backwards a good distance. The mechanics are absolutely fantastic in this section. I believe Mickey gains a slight speed boost for doing multiple short jumps instead of merely walking. 

Would you believe that I had trouble with this boss years ago? While these guys can have an annoying jumping pattern the player in this video wipes them out completely by merely chucking a marble at them as soon as they come into range. Like I said earlier this game really suffers from some poor and unchallenging boss-fights.

This next stage introduces the Jumping As. These are the hardest enemies in the game because they will jump whenever you jump, making getting on top of them rather difficult. The player here avoids them with no sweat though. 

Seeing as how Mickey survives nearly submerged in filling it seems only natural that he can bounce off an enemy that's almost completely submerged as well. Although it relies on videogame logic mechanics can be quite sensible. 

The falling books here exhibit behaviors similar to the Thwomps in Mario 3. They have an idle animation when you're far away and an angry animation when you're close(which means you should get out of the way if you're under one). Again there are nearby crevices to provide a haven if need be. The player can actually enter the coffee cup here to reach a swimming area filled with attacking sugar crystals and a few goodies. Furthermore this acts as a checkpoint if the player dies(so that way they don't start from the milk bottle). Nice of the designers to place that plane exactly where the player would be after jumping off that ramp. There are a few optional areas but the player in this vid chooses to ignore them(I'd ignore them as well since they lead to jumping As, making the rewards more trouble than they're worth).

The weakpoint on this boss isn't actually his head but his massive jaw. Then again I'm sure you were able to pick that out just as soon as he came on-screen. The player seems quite familiar with this game since he knows exactly which pits the dragon is going to come out of. All this time I thought it was random. Huh.

As soon as the stage starts the player falls on a candle. These candles are the "coins" for this stage and since the player grabs one just as soon as they start they know that all future candles aren't just there for show. The Knights here throw maces that act like a boomerang which Mickey can freely bounce off of. I find that funny because Zelda 2 had similar enemies(they first make an appearance in the third dungeon). In the background you'll notice a couple of the knight's flash their eyes before attacking. Looks like they're not much to worry about though. A warning is always necessary for these things though. 

4:54 - These blocks on the other hand don't provide any warning. Then again judging by way the blocks are arranged one would conclude that they'd be some sort of danger anyway(it also helps that earlier they had to get past a set of falling blocks). Also note here that since Mickey is coming from the opposite direction the knight's attack is a bit more of a threat. It's a subtle difference but still quite cool. The second set of blocks mixes things up by falling just as Mickey gets close instead of when he's directly under them. Even after the player is familiar with the concept the game will still introduce ways of tripping them up. This is followed by another trademark. Falling platform, long vertical shaft, no pit at the bottom? Well further on the game makes sure to change that.

Even though it's towards the end of the game Castle of Illusion still makes a point on carefully introducing new concepts before creating more dangerous situations. There's nothing worse than playing a game and then suddenly getting thrown into this new enemy or trap that you've never seen and then immediately combining it with something like a huge pit or some other trap(or more enemies). No matter where the player is at in a game introductions of new enemies and concepts should be done slowly yet also in a manner that isn't intrusive(like throwing in a five-minute tutorial everytime the player approaches something new).

5:41 - There's the falling platform + vertical shaft + pit at the bottom we've been waiting for. No knights on the side though. Also depending on the proximity of a platform to the pit it's sitting over we can tell standing on them for more than a second is a bad idea. I also like how two knights were set close enough together so that Mickey could take both of them out at once. Though this game is fairly basic as far as platformers go it's certainly well-programmed. Also in the true sense of progression the falling blocks & pit have been combined with poison-bubbles for the ultimate effect.

6:05 - I've always wondered what would happen if Mickey actually missed that gem. Here we have another swimming area. I honestly think these were just throw in to show off some ideas they couldn't work into the main game. Here the idea is that the current is working against Mickey while the fish inch their way ever closer. This would probably be more threatening with some kind of instant-death spike-trap but I guess if someone was going for a perfect run without getting hit they'd be just as scary. Regardless it's still a very simple area.

Here we have a stage from Castlevania III. Okay maybe that's not quite fair as there was around six months of development time between both games and I would think everyone was dying to make a stage based in a clock tower. While the gears that fall when you step on them seem a bit odd it's because they're broken(not moving) so naturally they wouldn't last long if a mouse were to jump on them. Also it helps that even if you fall there's no huge penalty(aside from time-wasted and the chance to run into some more bats). 

Since the technical bonus is tied to taking as few hits as possible the designers know that there's no harm in raising the player's health back to default if they reach a critical area(in this case a boss) at near-death. Dunno why though cause this boss like most of the others is quite pathetic as all you have to do is get close and jump when he flashes a grin(which means he's about to attack). Good use of visual cues but otherwise not much of a fight.

Considering the many objects that Mickey can safely bounce off of again it's only natural that the ghosts are harmless to him as he's bouncing. The target is of course the witch's head and though she can teleport to seemingly out of reach spots with good timing and by "riding" the ghost-train Mickey can reach her from anywhere and cap off this impressive but depressingly easy final boss.

Castle of Illusion is an good platformer and can be quite challenging on the hardest setting. On anything easier however you have something like this feature, a kind of tutorial on how to make a proper platforming game. While other titles have expanded on these ideas and pushed the genre further than ever thought possible they all tend to rely on the basics. Castle of Illusion is for better or worse the basics. 

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