Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Disappointment and Regret - Memory Log #29

Mickey Mousecapade

There are all of those games you personally owned and remember best for how you intimately explored them from within the dependable surroundings of your childhood abode, and then there are those specially slotted games you strongly associate with the houses of the friends and relatives who introduced you to them. Many of my most fondly retained memories were born from my experiences with games from the latter group--the enduring mental images not rendered exclusively by the aesthetics of titles like Contra, Bionic Commando, Altered Beast, Golden Axe and Blaster Master but also by the toy-filled bedrooms, wood-walled dens, and carpeted basements in which I played them.  Part of their substance is the very air of these spaces--the lighting, the garnishments, and the influence of whatever defining backdrop the windows were inclined to provide me.

Specifically, there are games like Mickey Mousecapade, which I first played at my uncle's house in New Jersey. It was a rather large house, and I liked going there because it was fairly isolated and surrounded by woodland, which I thought was the perfect setting for a weekend getaway. What I appreciated most were the breathtaking views it provided depending upon which room you were in. From the second floor, and particularly my cousins' bedroom, you could see just over the treetops, whose assemblage seemed to stretch on forever, yielding only to the far-off skyline; if the sun was bright that day, the room would be saturated not just with sunlight but with light shadows of dancing foliage. I couldn't think of a better atmosphere for playing video games.

Why, the aesthetics of Mickey Mousecapade's first stage seemed almost tailor-made to capture the essence of how it felt to play NES games in this setting! I loved everything about that opening Fun House stage, from the delightful, whimsical music, which oozed early-8-bit spirit, to the quaint, colorfully rendered level design. I normally turned my nose up at video games based off of movies and cartoons--and particularly those aimed at children--but I was immediately envious of my cousins' ownership of this Mickey Mouse game with its amazing sense of whimsy and fantastical setting. I found myself fully immersed as they showed me the ropes--how to effectively eliminate the hyperactive enemies and use Mickey and Minnie's star-shaped projectiles to unveil secret items--and imparted me with knowledge of the trick every kid knew: Since Minnie was invincible, it was possible to easily take out the stage's witch boss if you could somehow separate her from Mickey and finagle your way up to the room's top level. It was cheating, sure, but finding ways to abuse the game's team-based system was part of the fun!

I was so enamored by what had transpired in that Fun House stage that I couldn't wait to see more of Mickey Mousecapade.

And then that second stage, The Ocean, happened. I wasn't in control of the action at the time, so I could only look on as an observer as things quickly started to go south. "Now what is this?" I silently contemplated, my thoughts tinged with sense of foreboding. It was only moments before that Mickey Mousecapade seemed so remarkably distinct--so determined to present itself as a creature of its own desires--and now it wanted to be Adventure Island without a net? It had suddenly turned into a standard platformer and not a very good one, evident by the questionable level design, the cruel enemy placement, the unavoidable waves, and my cousins' inability to keep the mimicking Minnie Mouse from slipping off platforms and falling into the watery abyss. This wouldn't have been as big an issue were Mickey allowed to continue on alone, but losing Minnie spelled death for both, which made the challenge seem so much more intimidating. 

I had to experience the Ocean's horror's for myself to confirm that my suspicions were correct, that Mickey Mousecapade's quality had taken a literal plunge. I could fare no better, repeatedly missing jumps with Minnie and otherwise failing to endure past all of the craziness the game was throwing at me. I don't remember if we gave up by our own volition or if we had to stop because it was dinnertime, but, frankly, after being put through the Ocean's ring of torture, I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to see Mickey Mousecapade again. (Well, at least not past that first stage.)

Oh, but I wasn't finished with Mickey Mousecapade. I didn't go out and buy it for myself, which I was usually apt to do, but I played it a bunch of times at my friend Mike's house. In time, I improved enough to where I could reach the third stage, The Woods, with regularity. Though I never became a fan of the direction it took following the Fun House stage, I continued playing it with the intention of making greater progress and more so with the hope that the game would soon realize its potential. Don't get me wrong: It wasn't that I felt Mickey Mousecapade was getting worse; it was that the game had a way of constantly inventing new scenarios that were nonetheless equally torturous. This woodsy stage, for instance, continued to toss our waves of aggressive, annoyingly placed enemies but separated itself with an irksome maze element whereby areas looped and selecting the wrong door sent you back to a previous area; and then it had the gall to reintroduce the secret-finding mechanic as an essential component, requiring that you jump all around and randomly fire at open space to uncover the locations of hidden exits.

Now, once you figured out that you had blast certain tree trunks to reveal these unseen exits, it wasn't too difficult to advance to the stage's later areas, but what stumped most everyone, including me, was the stage's final leg, which seemingly had no exit. In reality, the exit was right there, inches from the starting point, but it wouldn't trigger until you cycled around the area a single time, which was entirely arcane. If you didn't know that such a mechanic existed, you could potentially find yourself stuck there forever, though it was more likely that you'd run out of health before you could realize what was going on. 

This game, man.

In those early years, that's as far as I ever got. I never made it beyond the Woods or figured out what it was that Mickey and Minnie were fighting for. I had hoped to reach the much-talked-about Pirate Ship stage, which took on an almost mystical quality, but it seemed as though I wasn't meant to lay eyes on it. It took maybe five years before I could make it to that abbreviated Pirate Ship, which, as the theme continued, didn't live up my expectations, since it was too short and its boss, Peg-Leg Pete, could be taken out easily with the invincible-Minnie trick. I can tell you that it was no fine warm-up to the torrid final stage, The Castle, which was massive and featured frustrating, haphazard level design whose navigation required carefully managing Minnie's delayed movement and somehow getting her to arrive at a room's exit point beside Mickey. Combine that harrowing task with the usual enemy onslaughts and I was ready to swear the game off for good.

Another half-decade would drop off before I could find the courage to play it through to the end. And after two hours or so of irritation, I'd go on to defeat the evil Maleficent, which I don't recall evoking any particular sense of accomplishment or catharsis--only relief that I'd never have to play through this awful final stage again. At the least, I was happy to scratch Mickey Mousecapade off my list of unfinished games, on which it had been lingering for over 12 years.

Though, I'll give Mickey Mousecapade this: I was pleasantly surprised by its ending, which revealed that the duo was attempting to rescue Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Until then, I had no clue that she had any involvement in the game or that its scope expanded beyond the basic Mickey Mouse universe. Sure--I would have known had I seen the manual, but I'm glad I didn't; my ignorance provided the game an opportunity to display some of that bold whimsy I hadn't sensed since I first played it way back when. It was a fitting way to end my story with Mickey Mousecapade, which had come full-circle.

Despite it all, I have a real soft for Mickey Mousecapade even though I don't think it's worth playing past that first stage, which I consider one of the most memorable of its kind. I think it's a shame that the game's final 4/5ths didn't learn more from it. 

Still, Mickey Mousecapade manages to exude that powerful 8-bit spirit that so commonly radiates from early NES games, including even a lot of the bad ones. I can't say for certain that I ever plan to play it again, but I'll continue to fondly remember it for the indelible impression its strong opening aesthetics made on me back on that sunny day in New Jersey.

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