Playing a modernized version of Sega's Castle of Illusion makes it difficult to believe that it was formerly a Genesis title. And that's a great thing for a remake to do--to feel like a unique product while simultaneously honoring the source material. This new Castle of Illusion is vivid and charming in ways that the original wasn't. It also preserves the game's severe brevity and adds a few new mechanical issues of its own, which is not as endearing, but it's generally an enjoyable platformer nonetheless.
The biggest feat of Sega Studios Australia's reimagining is the presentation, which absolutely nails the distinct vibe of a Disney production. The most notable addition is the narration provided by Richard McGonagle (or said another way, Sully from the Uncharted series), who sounds as if he's reading fairy tales from a children's book. His calm, reassuring voice makes even the relatively trite setup--this is, after all, a game about collecting seven colored gems, climbing a castle, and saving a love interest--feel just the slightest bit whimsical.
Mickey himself is also exquisitely animated, as is absolutely everything else in Castle of Illusion. It's a game that exudes personality even in places where it needn't, and it helps that the level themes almost never take the easy route. Outside of a relatively bog standard forest world at the beginning of the game, nothing here could really be filed under "generic." Toy fortresses and enormous libraries manage to make mundane objects both awe-inspiring and menacing, and a fully revamped Candy Land, featuring milkshake rivers and a licorice dragon, could win the award for the most colorful set piece of the year. Castle of Illusion may be short, but its abundance of ideas never runs dry, and that's never been more evident than in this HD remake.
As a platformer, it's fairly standard, benefiting from a rapid-fire pace and hampered by some newfound control issues. In particular, while the 3D segments open up a few new possibilities that weren't feasible before--one puzzle involving a checkerboard and a mirror is pretty inventive--these sequences don't control as fluidly as they should. The lack of camera control hurts, as does, oddly enough, Mickey's barely visible shadow, which often makes it extremely difficult to tell where he's going to land. The transitions between 2D and 3D movement can awkwardly send you lurching in unexpected directions, as well. The boss battles have a nasty habit of changing perspective without notice, and it'll throw you off a few times.
Even when Castle of Illusion is sticking to its side-scrolling roots, however, Mickey doesn't handle as well as he should. His movement is both sluggish and imprecise, which can make some of the timing-intensive obstacles more frustrating than they should be. The worst is Mickey's bounce attack, which is often required to reach higher platforms but almost always has a split-second delay. Not helping is the harsh hit detection, which will often cause Mickey to take damage from enemies that he hasn't quite come into contact with. All of this said, the movement issues may only impact those with certain HDTVs, and switching to Game Mode in your TV's menu options (assuming you have a TV that supports this option) should resolve these problems.
For a while, Castle of Illusion's primary source of challenge is wrestling with the controls. But the game finds its rhythm in a big way during the game's last few levels, when you must outmaneuver enormous books and mace-wielding suits of armor. The game also leaps from one eye-catching set piece to the next--outrunning a giant apple here, swimming through an ocean of tea there--so quickly that it's never dull. That the game can be completed in less than three hours is both a curse and a blessing. On one hand, Castle of Illusion won't last you very long. On the other hand, it certainly never runs out of steam along the way.
The game also succeeds in feeling like a faithful homage not just to the Genesis original, but to old-school platformers as a whole. The completely redesigned hub world, which has Mickey exploring a witch's castle and using amassed collectibles to unlock doors, feels like something out of a Nintendo 64 game. Even better, Sega employed Grant Kirkhope, who wrote the music for games like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, to remaster Castle of Illusion's soundtrack. He has the ability to make music that's simultaneously playful and grandiose, and his work here is magnificent. Even if you hold no affinity for the original title, this version will likely make you nostalgic for something.
Castle of Illusion is a solid remake all-around, offering a unique vision of the core design that will give fans something fresh to delve into while modernizing the experience for newcomers. The controls do need some work, but while Castle of Illusion is high on mechanic problems, it's even higher on whimsy. It's too charming to dislike.
This review was conducted using the Xbox 360 version of the game.