Retro Review: Aladdin
No other way to say this, Aladdin is one of the best movie-game tie-ins ever made and holds up brilliantly today. Sure elements are dated, but comparing the game to other action-platformers of its time and you can see why Aladdin was so popular. The humour is still great, the gameplay is tight and the music is fan-dabby-dabulous (that's good). Well worth playing, even today.
It’s been two weeks since the great Robin Williams passed away, a shock to the world. And while it may have be too soon for some, The Requiem posted up his review of the Mega CD game, Hook, within 24 hours (incidentally he had already written it before the news broke about Robin’s death). Now, I heard the news on my drive to work that morning and instantly said to myself: “As soon as I get home I’m totally going to re-watch some of his classic movies!” I had the bug, I *had* to get my Robin Williams fix.
When I got home though, I didn’t rectify the situation – I had no idea what to watch. Aladdin was the movie I kept getting drawn towards – a childhood favourite of mine… in fact, still to this date, my favourite Disney movie. I love it and I loved Robin Williams’ Genie in particular. This might sound strange, but I didn’t have much of a sense of humour growing up and the first time I remember genuinely laughing at a movie was watching Aladdin, in particular the scene where the Genie first meets ‘Al’ – Robin Williams is basically the reason I have a sense of humour now.
But I didn’t watch Aladdin. Instead my eyes were drawn to my old, black, sexy, 16-bit Mega Drive. Aladdin the videogame! Of course! Another childhood favourite – this was actually the first game I played on my Mega Drive when I first got it (bought second-hand with about 16 games I decided to play them in alphabetical order).
So continuing our mark of respect for the great Robin Williams (who sadly passed away on Tuesday 12th August 2014), we offer you a retro review of much loved Disney classic, Aladdin for the Mega Drive.
Welcome to the Cave of Wonders
Once upon a time… *insert floaty clouds and tinkly music* …Disney movies were once animated cartoons, not CGI, gamers did not fear the now dreaded words “movie tie-in” and SEGA was a successful console manufacturer…
No, this is not some fairy-tale story or wishful fantasy – these times did indeed exist, even if for a brief period.
You see, amidst the vicious 16-bit console wars, certain movie tie-in games (mostly Disney-based ones) were not only playable titles, but actually incredibly fun games. Amongst these legends included: The Lion King, Toy Story, Jungle Book, Tail Spin and, (in case you didn’t guess), Aladdin.
Now, Aladdin actually made it onto a variety of consoles, but unlike some multiplatform titles around at the time (or indeed today), Aladdin on the Mega Drive (developed by Virgin Games) was a very different affair to the SNES version of the game (developed by Capcom). And I’m not talking about the odd level differing, or different visuals/sound effects – they were completely different games, different mechanics, different level designs, different playable characters… just different.
Anyway, in my opinion, the Mega Drive version was the best one. I’m not just saying that because this is a SEGA site, enough years have passed for me to acknowledge the many fantastic titles on Nintendo’s systems (truth be told – I never participated in the consoles wars and actually liked both the SNES and Mega Drive back in the day), personally I found the Mega Drive game to be more enjoyable, memorable and just a better game. The SNES version had arguably better/smoother visuals, better animated cut scenes and is truer to the source material, however, the gameplay was far more generic, the animations, while quite elaborate and impressive to the eye, were kind of clunky and the overall gameplay was much slower than the Mega Drive version. In fact, if you want to see a really good comparison – check out this excellent (if not a little cheesy) SNES vs Genesis video for the game.
And just to show I’m not being totally biased against Nintendo, I think both the Mega Drive and SNES versions were significantly better than the MasterSystem/GameGear release (developed by SIMS), which, while a good effort, just wasn’t a patch on the 16-bit versions. [Note: According to Wikipedia, the Mega Drive version was also ported to the original GameBoy and some other platforms later on]
Anyway, enough of this ridiculously long-winded intro, how has the game held up over the years? Will my Robin Williams-voiced genie grant my wish and the make the game as fun as I found it back in 1993… actually 1994 for me (that’s when I got my Mega Drive – but the game was released in 1993).
I can show you the world
Unlike so many movie tie-in games you have these days, one thing is clear about Aladdin (and other Disney games at the time), the developers were able to stick pretty darn close to the source material.
Unfortunately, due to the consoles limitations back then, it wasn’t possible to have fully animated sequences from the movie in the game, however, between each level, the story is told through a series of still (or sometimes very slightly animated) images that have been created specifically for the game, but tell almost the exact story from the movie (with one or two additions here and there) and explain just enough to clarify things for anyone who may not know the story from the film.
But, if you’re already a fan of the movie, I’m fairly certain that you will find Aladdin’s digital adventure just as enjoyable, as you are taken through the streets of Argrabah, across the desert, into the palace dungeons, into the cave of wonders and beyond… sorry I was just about to name basically every level in the game.
Essentially, my point is that though some of the level structure might be a tad different from scenes in the movie – such as Aladdin actually escaping the vast dungeons in the game, compared to just being ‘rescued’ by Jafar in disguise in the movie – the level settings all follow the locations and the journey viewers experienced in the film.
And, more to the point, the level designs in the game are very enjoyable. Aside from the visuals, Virgin has managed to maintain a creative spirit throughout and each level feels genuinely different enough to remain interesting throughout.
Unlike so many other platform games at the time, which might have you just running left to right, Aladdin’s levels vary in direction and gameplay. While you work your way up and across the street of Agrabah in the first level, you later find yourself escaping from molten lava on the back of the Magic Carpet in a very fast-paced and exciting ride out of the Cave of Wonders.
In fact, here’s a video of the Rug Ride level where you are escaping the cave of wonders (because a screenshot just won’t do it justice!)
~Back in the day, the sheer speed of this level blew my tiny mind. And while it’s a lot easier and shorter than I remember it being, it’s still pretty darn fast even by today’s standards… this actually took about eight attempts…~
You can call me Al… or maybe just Din… or how about Laddie?
The main gameplay though is similar enough to most 2D platformers, you jump and climb your way through levels and attack with either your sword or by picking up apples for long-distance attacks (and some enemies can only really be attacked safely with apples).
It’s simple, but highly enjoyable and effective. I think that’s partly due to the aforementioned level designs that make the game a joy to play throughout, as without the level variety, I’m sure the controls would be in jeopardy of becoming mundane, because they are so simple and easy.
Gameplay is made all the more enjoyable by the inclusion of humorous additions, such as being able to throw apples at a certain enemy type and see their trousers/pants fall down, displaying their colourful under garments and causing them to freeze for a moment (which happens in the movie at one point)
There are also other in-jokes, much like in the movie, such as a stop sign in the desert, old-school male, female and err Genie changing tents (like there used to be in olden day beaches), the funny sounding flamingos, Abu jumping up and down on the belly of a guard, guards yelling in pain as they walk across hot coals, the market salesman at the start of the movie crops up in every level selling you extra lives and continues for gems you find throughout the game, Mickey Mouse ears hanging in the Desert (so you can stand in front og them to give Aladdin Mickey ears) and even Sebastian the Crab (from Little Mermaid) makes an appearance in the Palace Dungeon level… plus more.
Friend like me
Other wonderful touches include the animation of the characters. Aladdin, for one, is done so damn well. All his movements make you feel like you are controlling a digitized version of the animated hero.
For example, changing direction you see Aladdin’s face move and look around. His arms flail about when you jump off heights and he looks to the ground, as though seeing where he’s going to land. And should you need to put down your controller, but forget to pause the game, you see Aladdin look around a bit and then throw an apple around, rolling it off his arm and flipping it up, much like in the movie.
Now these animations may not seem too impressive to you young folks – but back in that day, that was a massive achievement. Maybe Aladdin wasn’t the first game to do this, but it was surprisingly uncommon to have such animated characters in a game and really added some life to your on-screen persona. More importantly, it also means that Aladdin has managed to hold up beautifully over the years – compare it to some games of that era, which didn’t have as much animation and you can clearly see a difference in quality.
You also get the highly entertaining Abu Bonus Stages, by picking up Abu icons in the levels you unlock a bonus stage at the end of it. And the bonus stages change depending on the level Aladdin just completed.
But the bonus stages are pretty tough. Abu has to avoid falling pots and rocks and collect gems. Sometimes the gems indicate areas of safety, but then, later in the levels, you can’t always trust the gems’ locations. Abu does have a sword which can break pots, but it’s really a last resort, because it’s not always a guaranteed outcome when you swing the sword at the pots.
Infinite cosmic powers
Another brilliant thing about Aladdin is the music. Due to technological limitations of the day, the soundtrack isn’t a direct cut and paste of the movie’s score, but the tunes are very accurate digital representations of what you had in the movie (again, something missing from the SNES version). And there are plenty of tunes not directly taken from the film, however the music still matches up with the movies musical score – delivering that cartoony Arabian-vibe brilliantly.
Even from the first level, I can guarantee fans of the film will be humming the tunes and singing along in their heads – especially on the Genie’s Lamp level, where Aladdin is sucked into the lamp and have ‘A Friend Like Me’ playing throughout the level.
Yes, Aladdin doesn’t get sucked into the lamp in the movie, but this leads me on to another nice touch I found with the game. You see, games based on movie rarely are able to follow the movie exactly, needing to make up additional elements to the movie’s plot or new areas that may nnot have been in the movie at all. And sometimes the only thing a game might share with a movie is a name and the character(s) – much like SEGA’s awful Iron Man 2 videogame (at least Iron Man 1 tried to keep the movie’s plot and had some scenes from the movie).
Anyway, Aladdin adds scenes/levels that aren’t directly in the movie, but unlike a lot of games, it they manage to remain in keeping with the overall theme of the movie and game and don’t feel out of place at all, even to people who know the movie. As mentioned, the Genie’s Lamp level is a great example.
As I say, the game says that Aladdin is sucked into the lamp (which doesn’t happen in the movie), but it comes at the time in the movie when the Genie sings ‘A Friend Like Me’ and in the movie all these crazy and elaborate images crop up as the Genie sings. The level in the game, while perhaps not exactly the same, manages to replicate the song pretty darn well, as Aladdin makes his way through a zany level full of Genie’s faces and even elements from the song shown in the movie, like ‘Column A’ with meats on it and ‘Column B’ full of fruit… for those who don’t get that reference – go watch the movie!
Itty-bitty living space
Unfortunately, even the greatest games in the world have their downsides and Aladdin still suffers from some annoyances that games back then and even today still suffer from.
The first thing to note is how repetitive enemy types can be on levels. Now, throughout the game you do have different enemies depending on the level setting – however, through most of the game you do seem to face the same three or four palace guard types over and over again.
And while these guards are all wonderfully animated and each unique enough alone, when you have like 20 of each of them on a level, those niceties do start to wear somewhat thin.
Also, while the majority of jumping in the game is spot on, some levels do seem to have annoyingly difficult jumping spots – especially in the frenetic ‘Escape’ level – where you need to leave the Cave of Wonders and get chased by boulders and have to avoid molten lava jumping up at you. On several occasions, you run through tunnels, being chased by the aforementioned rolling rocks and have to jump onto a floating ledge just as you leave the tunnel to avoid the rocks – but those jumps always seem to be the hardest to pull off and quite often Aladdin wouldn’t even jump, he’d just run straight into the lava below – even though I definitely pressed the goddamn, smegging JUMP BUTTON!!! (Sorry… I had a controller throwing incident replaying this level… something never change).
As well as the Abu bonus stages, there are also Genie bonus segments, which play out like a casino machine – different items flash up in front of the screen and depending on when you press the button, you will ‘win’ whatever item stops. But I don’t know if I’m just terrible – but about 90% I just land on Jafar and that means you instantly lose all your goes for the bonus stage.
But those are actually the only three ‘real’ problems I faced when replaying the game. There are niggles some people won’t love, but as for genuine gameplay issues that can ruin enjoyment – that’s about it!
Do you trust me?
There is one more thing to be noted about Aladdin, its difficulty. Even in the ‘practise’ difficulty setting, the game can be surprisingly challenging. However, it’s not frustratingly difficult.
It’s actually quite refreshing to play a game these days that offers a challenge. While the enemies are repetitive and you learn their weaknesses quickly, the way they approach you and attack often means that Aladdin really has to be quick with his sword, or you have to move to a safe position and throw apples, to avoid getting hurt.
Also the level designs offer a fun challenge. While some jumping segments can become frustrating (as mentioned above) the majority of it is easy enough, you just have to be on the ball and make sure you are accurate with your landings. It’s classic platforming at its best – once you learn all the tricks, you’ll probably find that you can breeze through the game without losing any lives, but to begin with you’ll probably struggle.
I think it’s fair to say that I love Aladdin and I always have. But, before you think that I’m just wearing rose-tinted glasses and the caught the nostalgia bug, that’s not really me.
There are plenty of games that I played and loved back in the day, but have since gone back to and been woefully upset by how badly they have fared over time.
Until I reviewed this game, I hadn’t played Aladdin for about 8 years – enough time, I think, to forget the finer points of the game and just how it plays out.
Ultimately, I think that Aladdin has held up brilliantly. It suffers from a few minor annoyances, but the difficulty of the game, the level designs, the gameplay itself and the beautifully recreated music from the movie makes Aladdin one of the (if not *the*) best movie-game tie-ins ever.
And I think that’s a great place to end our brief Robin Williams movie-game tie-ins, from the mediocre Hook to the pretty terrible Toys, we can end on a high with Aladdin. Not only a fun movie, a very fun game and one of Robin Williams’ most memorable performances… even if you couldn’t see his funny, funny face.
+ Great visuals and animations that still hold up
+ OMG – the music!
+ Great humour throughout
+ Challenging, but not too frustrating
– Repetitive enemy types
– Some bloody annoying jumping bits on the Escape level