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Disney Illusion Island evolves '90s platformers into a Mickey-vania


Back in the day, after a few levels of Sonic, it was Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse on the Master System that really got me into playing platform games. Butt stomping enemies, eating cake, collecting gems, the nightmarish toy level, the mouth-watering cake level... all to save Minnie from the clutches of Mizrabel the witch. Ah, memories!

Thankfully the team at Dlala shares my enthusiasm for the old 90s platformers. "I actually have my childhood Mega Drive Castle of Illusion cartridge next to my desk at work," said Dlala CEO and creative director Aj Grand-Scrutton tells me after a look at the title. "We love those games."

Disney Illusion Island isn't a direct sequel to those classics, but it does have Illusion in the title. Dlala's take is instead a "spiritual successor in a way", Grand-Scrutton continues, "because this game only exists because of how much we love those games. I probably wouldn't be making games if I hadn't played those."

Disney Illusion Island - Nintendo Direct 2.8.2023Watch on YouTube

Of course, back in the 90s, mascot platformers were all the rage. Nowadays, it's Metroidvanias that dominate the 2D space, so it's little surprise Disney Illusion Island takes inspiration from that genre, albeit without combat. The action takes place on one giant map of three unique biomes to create a consistent platforming game. "I wonder if they carried on making Illusion games, if this is where they would have taken it," Grand-Scrutton says.

In a hands-off look at the game, I got to see a biome which combines nautical and astronomical themes, named Astrono. The level sees Mickey jumping past alien starfish-like enemies, avoiding spiky coral, and swimming through pockets of water in shades of electric violet. Other biomes include a botanical area inside a giant peacock, and an area inspired by Rube Goldberg machines.

Without combat, the focus is on platforming challenges - of which there are some tricky looking sections - plus the simple joy of movement and exploration. The likes of Mario and Rayman have provided inspiration here. Combat just didn't fit with the design concept for the game despite its Metroidvania influence; after all, you wouldn't expect Mickey Mouse to wield a gun.

Disney Illusion Island underwater planet level
Astrono is an inventive and colourful take on an underwater planet

That said, Mickey will gain typical power-up abilities like wall jumping, gliding, swimming and swinging, and there's always a reason to backtrack - particularly through hidden areas and extra collectibles like Mickey Memorabilia, which give players a little history on Disney's famous mouse.

It's through these extra side challenges that Disney Illusion Island ups its difficulty. While the game is accessible for genre newcomers on the critical path, this isn't 'Mickey's first Metroidvania' - or a Mickey-vania, if you will. The game will feature exploration challenges typical of the genre and optional areas, plus players can also set their own difficulty with the health gauge, from multiple hearts to just one.

What's more, up to four players can join together in local co-op (not online), choosing to play as either Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, or Donald. Here, extra moves are provided to offer further assistance, like hugging to regain health, or dropping a rope to help others overcome obstacles. It ensures the game is truly aimed at everyone, from families playing together to solo speedrunners executing tricky one-hit challenge runs. That's also why the game is local multiplayer only, to bring back that jostling co-operative vibe.

There's parity of skills between the characters too, so no one player will have an advantage over others. That said, nobody (nobody!) is taking the grumpy, cantankerous Donald away from me, even though the gormless Goofy is a fun second choice. They're certainly a far cry from their Kingdom Hearts counterparts.

Disney Illusion island four characters eating
Just look at Donald's grumpy face

What does make each character unique are their buoyant animations. Take the glide for instance: the chirpy Mickey rides a little cycle through the air, while Minnie floats cooly with an umbrella and Donald uses a rocket before wildly flapping his wings in a panic. The characters are perhaps a little small, even on the big screen, but they're bursting with personality and lend the game a 'playable cartoon' feel. That extends to the animated cutscenes too, which really highlight the differing personalities of the characters, along with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour adults will appreciate as much as children.

It's classic Mickey that's inspired the art style. "We love the classic, cheeky Mickey: 1930s-1940s, white-faced Mickey where he's a little bit naughty," Grand-Scrutton says. It was also a purposeful move away from the Mickey of Playhouse Disney and the theme parks. "What we wanted to do is obviously keep the heritage in mind, think about those classic designs, and then redesign them specifically for the gameplay," he continues. "We wanted to harken back to Mickey's heritage but really do a fresh take on it."

It's authentic too, not only with its playful orchestrated soundtrack that mimics those classic films, but using the official Disney voice actors for each character. Yet there was still room for the Dlala team to inject their own original creations: the game takes place in the world of Monoth and features new characters like the Hokuns tribe, or Jido the map giver who hands out map expansions on slices of toast. It all ties together to feel consistently Disney, yet fresh and exciting.

"Working with Disney, this has been easy. This has been by far the most comfortable partnership we've ever had," says Grand-Scrutton. "Not many people get to write a Mickey Mouse story, let alone write for the voice actors and to work with Disney's games writer Chris Painter, who taught me how to write for these characters. It was always guidance and it was never 'don't do this, you can't do that'. They've definitely never said 'you can't', that word does not exist in this relationship. Their goal from day one has been: make an awesome Disney game."

Disney Illusion Island grinding obstacles
Disney Illusion Island fish enemies
There's a good number of obstacles to overcome that make use of Mickey's suite of abilities

The team certainly looks like it's on the path to achieving that. From what I've seen, Disney Illusion Island encapsulates the joy and magic of Mickey's world, with a healthy amount of options to ensure the game is accessible - and challenging - to all.

It's also nothing like Dlala's previous, unannounced Disney project. Back in 2016, Disney shut its internal development and publishing teams and - along with it - Dlala's game. Disney Illusion Island, Grand-Scrutton clarifies, is really nothing like that project. Instead the team "came in fresh" and the studio has grown considerably.

The enthusiasm for Disney is abundant here in the care Dlala has taken over these characters. It might be a cheesy Disney line, but for Grand-Scrutton this project seems like a dream come true. "It's Mickey Mouse, everyone knows who Mickey Mouse is," he says. "And it doesn't matter what Mickey Mouse you know, it doesn't matter what numbers it's doing at the box office, Mickey is still the mascot for the company.

"The documentary that came out on Disney Plus, where they spoke to people about what Mickey means to them... you watch that and you're like, 'okay, this is the pressure, it's not Disney'. Knowing that Mickey means so much to so many people, just do him right and everybody will be OK."

Disney Illusion Island is set for release on 28th July exclusively on Nintendo Switch.

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