This December many Wii owners will be delving into the world of Disney Epic Mickey, taking a moment to appreciate Mickey's animated past with 2D platforming sections in that game which allow you to play through his classic cartoons. However, 16 years ago UK developer Traveller's Tales pre-empted Warren Spector's game by nostalgically representing a history of Mickey Mouse in Mickey Mania. This game enabled players to bound across six of his most famous 'Feature' cartoons, spanning an equally epic 62 years and his most famous appearances.
It's clear that in 2010 Mickey Mouse is being thrust back into gaming's limelight, but in 1994 Mickey Mania had big yellow boots to fill, because he was already established as a 16-bit video game star. The precedent was set in 1990 by SEGA as despite a sedate pacing Castle of Illusion was the standout Mega Drive platformer in the years before Sonic. Late in 1992 two more Mickey games impressed with lavish 16-bit visuals, both Capcom's SNES title The Magical Quest and SEGA's Mega Drive World of Illusion demonstrated that Disney's mascot was ideally suited to this genre.
This game's premise had a strong foundation, because you control Mickey as he relives his 'Timeless Adventures' starting with his first ever animated feature, Steamboat Willie (1928). The six levels run chronologically through the classics, after the black-and-white intro level Mickey's journey bounces through The Mad Doctor (1933), Moose Hunters (1937), Lonesome Ghosts (1937), Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947) and ends with a boss battle against his arch nemesis Pete after The Prince and the Pauper (1990). There is a loose story attached in which you rescue a classic Mickey trapped in each level and save Pluto, but the plot is really just a brilliant excuse to theme each level with a legendary cartoon background.
While it's true that Mickey Mania lacks originality, it is linear and there are not many secrets or chances to detour from a set path, conversely its design is pure retro platforming. Just like with Castle of Illusion it's deliberately slow paced, encouraging you to tiptoe through many of its levels. For example, Mickey's white finger splayed glove represents your energy bar and rushing through a level like Moose Hunters will see each finger crushed by falling boulders, branches and a charging moose. Controls are simple, with B for jump and Y to launch marbles at enemies. There's no double jump but you can bounce off enemies to reach a higher platform, and this is effective for killing weaker enemies, but neither this nor the marble attack will dispose of some larger foes. There are some basic puzzles included, but filling up a beaker with chemicals and heating it on a Bunsen burner or watering a tulip to make it grow into a platform are not likely to tax you for long.
Treading carefully and dodging is your most important strategy, as skeleton bones explode across the screen, insects burst out of pods and rocks spit out of lava, putting your D-Pad ducking skills to the test as you soon learn that it makes sense to run a few steps back until trouble has passed. The game makes up for a lack of originality with varied gameplay: Mickey swings from chains, an elevator carries you past lurking skeletons and you guide chandeliers towards a walkway, or take a ride on an acid leaping gurney. It's the set-pieces that ensure the gameplay stays fresh, but also the technical skill of the Traveller's Tales team at presenting each exciting moment. For example, towards the end of the game there is a climb up a rotating tower, and as barrels fall and wooden platforms collapse it feels like an homage to 8-bit title Nebulus, while boasting a visual effect rivalling the tower on the third level of Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts. Mickey Mania was also one of the first games to feature an out-of-the-screen chase sequence and even if the Moose Chase is short it is clear that it was an inspiration for similar sections in PlayStation games like Crash Bandicoot and Disney's Tarzan (also published by Sony).
In many ways the sprites steal the show, as Mickey teeters on the edge of a platform or skips with his feet as he charges down a slope. Once you reach the final credits you won't be surprised to learn that Disney Feature Animation Florida lent a helping hand to this project, and it's pleasing to see that just as much care and attention was spent on the enemies. The varied visuals extends to enemy and background design, enemies like the lonesome ghosts and crossbow wielding weasels are pure Disney, as is the colour that is packed into the oversized world of Willie the Giant or the lush parallax scrolling for the cutesy beetle infested tunnels.
The game has a wonderful charm to its presentation, which is also conveyed in its audio that sets out to represent the theme of each level; Steamboat Willie's tune is upbeat and catchy, Lonesome Ghosts is creepier with bone-tingling rhythms and Mickey and the Beanstalk is layered with the twinkling of magic for an enchanting melody. The audio also assists with the gameplay as Mickey's panicked sampled shriek of "eh oh" warns you that a Moose is incoming or a ghost is about to clobber you.
In theory, to a skilled player who knows the enemy placements and level layouts, there is under an hour worth of gameplay here. However, on a default 'Normal' difficulty with only three extra lives and just one extra credit, you will spend much longer than that mastering the game. The 'Easy' level treats you to three credits, but if you die at the very end section of a level and are forced to use a continue you're sent back to the very beginning of that particular 'Feature'. This becomes frustrating, particularly with 'one hit kill' enemies like a lipstick-touting spider that wipes out your entire energy bar with a single charge. Sadly, even with a hard difficulty mode, there is not a large amount of replay value for anyone who finally beats this game.
As a small UK developer, it was a relatively epic achievement that Traveller's Tales was confident enough to build a 2D Mickey Mouse platforming game, even competing with The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie. Traveller's Tales technical expertise, special effects and presentation showed the studio had plenty of untapped potential.
Although Mickey Mania's pure platform-rooted gameplay doesn't result in an original play experience, its sedate pace, lack of replay value and stiff challenge are balanced out by exciting set-pieces. The nostalgic history lesson through classic Mickey cartoons is a great setting, plus the visuals and audio carry all six level's themes off with aplomb. The game was so well crafted that Sony deemed it good enough to be converted to PSone two years later without massive alterations as Mickey's Wild Adventure, a strong indication of this 16-bit gem's quality.