Licensed games carry a number of stigmas, but sometimes a title rises above all that to truly excel. For a good number of years, Disney-licensed games stood firmly in this camp, due in large part to Capcom’s dedication to putting in effort and refined gameplay. As time wore on, however, titles like Tail Spin and Goof Troop began to tarnish this reputation. With the release of Disney’s Aladdin, Virgin wrestled the crown away from Capcom. While the latter’s version did return to form with a solid, nuanced platformer, the Genesis version truly captured the look and feel of the motion picture on which it was based and evolved Virgin’s platforming engine to boot.
Dave Perry continued to tweak his Global Gladiators engine during the development of Cool Spot, and though the platforming grew tighter and the stages more varied, he knew it still needed something. You couldn’t toss a license-appropriate but non-violent projectile in the early ’90s without hitting 10 or so decent platforming engines. So Virgin’s brain trust met to find the x-factor Perry needed. They found it in Disney’s upcoming animated film, Aladdin; not so much the license as the film itself. The new game would go beyond just populating its stages with popular characters—said characters would perfectly resemble their movie counterparts.
Virgin worked with Sega and Disney to develop the Digicel process, allowing actual animation cels to be converted into sprites for use in-game. Sprite animation already worked like an extremely limited version of the traditional hand-drawn method, so with a little out of the box thinking, Aladdin’s developers merged the two—where the earlier Global Gladiators chose to ignore its source material almost entirely, Aladdin immersed the player like never before. Whether re-enacting Aladdin’s exciting flight through Agrabah’s streets, or grabbing items from the questionable street vendor, this Genesis gem transported users to a faraway place where the caravan camels roam.
At a brass-tack level, Aladdin was merely an average licensed title exhibiting the paint-by-numbers quality so endemic of the genre. Aladdin attacked with a SCIMITAR or by throwing APPLES, triggering LAMP checkpoints that would display a GENIE when activated. However, the Disney film happened to look quite striking, with bold colors and a kinetic visual style. By mirroring this in-game, Perry and crew tapped into the heart of the license. This tactic proved successful, and at last Virgin had a hit on its hands. Digicel became an integral part of Dave Perry’s engine, and he continued to ape it for Disney licenses (Jungle Book, Lion King) as well as original properties (Earthworm Jim) for the duration of the 16-bit generation.
Article by Tomm Hulett
GameSpite Journal 12: Disney’s Aladdin