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Platform Nostalgia: Disney’s Aladdin

Despite involving a genie, a talking and fully autonomous parrot, and a flying carpet, Disney’s Aladdin was a fairly straightforward film. It followed the hero’s journey—the monomythic structure—pretty much exactly. Al starts out in the known world, stealing food on the streets of Agrabah with his pal Abu. Jafar’s initial deceit to free and use the two is our hero’s call to action, garner supernatural aid and pushing through the threshold into the unknown with the imprisoned genie (appropriately and simply named Genie). It all leads downhill to when Al just about literally dies and then exiled and almost dies again, both times coming back before finally atoning by defeating Jafar and returning to the known world of being a street rat, albeit with a princess in his arms.

Like I said, it follows the structure pretty closely. There’s nothing wrong with that as hot damn is Aladdin a great movie and has an amazing poster, but you can easily predict how the movie will go before watching it. The only question is how those things happen (some of which is just as easily predicted). But of course, couldn’t that be said about almost every movie?

As you would expect, the Aladdin video game hews pretty close to this foundation as well. Granted, I grew up playing and just played again the SNES version instead of the admittedly superior Sega Genesis version, but both have similar aspects that warrant discussion. The lack of a scimitar, however, is regrettable.

First and foremost, the look is pretty spectacular. I know the Genesis version developed by Virgin Interactive was heralded for its traditional art look—supervised by actual Disney animators and artists—but the SNES version was no slouch either. It is less like traditional cel art and more like enhanced pixel art. You can easily discern the blockiness of the game and see where corners had to be cut to make shadows look right, but the colors are so…intriguing. They’re bright and vibrant, drawing me in like a poisonous frog of the Amazon. The background alone is enough to sell me on the look of this game, telling its own story of the city and everything that follows.

Not mention that the animation is fantastic. It was well ahead of its time. Each move was smooth and unique, each necessary frame given to us rather than interpolated by our brains. It was the little touches, however, that makes the game. I love the way Aladdin’s hair flops around under his fez as he runs and the way he flails just a bit when he jumps, harkening back to the original Prince of Persia. His little skids when he suddenly changes directions is a nice addition that adds to the feeling that Aladdin always leaps before looking, always moving too fast for his own good.

And the way enemies react to you is pretty much spot-on. You can hear the BONK! noise in your head when you jump on someone or something, even with the sound all the way down. The way things interact and the way you move each generates a sound that you hear in your head, not because you expect it but because that what it is. What you hear in your head is the paragon of sound effects for that action, regardless of medium, and to evoke that through 16-bit sprites is rather astounding.

And speaking of sound, while the actual effects are somewhat lackluster (chirps and boings, mostly), the music is good. Some of it can wear pretty thin at times, but as a whole, the entire soundscape of the game is extremely evocative of the movie. And given that the movie won two Academy Awards for Best Music and Best Song, that’s a good thing. I mean, sure, most of it is just chip versions of the movie songs, but reducing grand, sweeping, orchestral pieces into 16-bit era tunes is an art in and of itself. And parts where it breaks off like the Genie wheel and inside the lamp, it still holds up.

What doesn’t hold up, however, is the intervening cutscenes. Or word screens. Whatever. Most of them attempt to elicit or straight jack jokes from the film, but the humor gets lost in the translation. Say what you will about Robin Williams as a comedian or Gilbert Gottfried as someone with a voice, but they are key to making the jokes work in the movie. Having Genie inexplicably wearing a Hawaiian shirt doesn’t do the same thing when I’m just reading words on the screen.

And as for how the game plays, it is very divisive. On one hand, most of what it does is pretty interesting. You have some great air control and can define how you want to bounce and vault off of things (which is to superficially mention the fact that you can bounce and vault off of things, an act that is fun even on its own) with some split-second decision making, but getting Aladdin to not run off ledges upon landing is kind of tricky. You have to acclimate to his odd inertia and, more than that, the fact that where you think he is landing isn’t really where he’ll be touching down. But the Prince of Persia-y things like hanging and climbing up ledges and swinging along hanging or jutting things and parachuting down is fun and makes the nine-year-old platforming still quite a bit of fun.

The Magic Carpet sequences, however, is still off-putting. Moving forward will just move you forward along the screen, but moving backwards will move you back and slow you down. So say you want to move back to give yourself some distance to make a drop under some rocks. Press left, however, will actually reduce your velocity so that whereas you were once moving at the same speed as the lava and the screen, you are now slower and subsequently closer. This not only makes you likely to burn up and die but also to miscalculate the timing on the drop to avoid the rocks. Just bad stuff.

But the amount of new stuff you get introduced to is still fairly impressive. Every new stage gets you at least some new enemy and look. Such as in the caves, you get bats and stalagmites and stalactites instead of chickens in jars(?) and street posts. But you also get crumbling walkways and falling stalactites in the mix. In the lamp, you are introduced to otherwise unbelievably platforming sequences that wouldn’t be feasible in the real world. The sheer variety makes progressing through the game worth it.

There are other quirks that are just quirks despite my desire to see them “fixed” in a way that would please me (getting a Genie on the wheel with fully expanded life hearts gets you nothing, not even a health refill), but when everything is taken into consideration, Aladdin is still a good game. The narration screens are painful and I wish I could skip them, but playing through the game is totally worth it. Parts are infuriating, sure, and the controls are wonky at parts/in general in some regards, but they’re easy to put up with when you want to know so desperately what can happen next in the game. Comparing the Genesis and the SNES versions is fruitless because they are such different games, so don’t let anyone tell you the SNES one isn’t worth your time.

I also still have a habit of typing out “Aladding” instead of just “Aladdin.” God dammit.

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