I’m genuinely not sure why Mickey Mouse hasn’t been the star of more video games of late, given Disney’s ongoing love of a bit o’ cash and the world’s most recognisable rodent being a massive draw, but the list of titles he has starred in over the years actually has some certified bangers. The Epic Mickey games wound up being a highlight in the Nintendo Wii’s catalogue, for example, and if we’re counting Kingdom Hearts, well, there’s no argument there.
If you’re old enough (like I am) though, it’s the “Illusion” brand of Disney/Mickey games that are the most memorable with some entries considered among the best platformers of the 8/16-bit generation. Dlala Studios’ Switch-exclusive Disney Illusion Island isn’t strictly a part of the loose series of Illusion titles but it’s definitely a de facto spiritual successor and instantly brings to mind memories of playing those games (for me, it was often at one of those combination cafe/indoor playground places where the controllers regularly had bite marks and the screens were smeared with buttered 100s & 1000s).
This new adventure sees Mickey Mouse, along with Minnie, Donald and Goofy, travel to the mysterious island of Monoth for the purpose of what’s meant to be a relaxing picnic. The gang quickly realises they’ve been called to Monoth for a purpose though, with its adorable residents requesting their help in locating three stolen, magical tomes from the three distinct biomes of Monoth in order to restore some semblance of peace. It’s a simple enough setup with some (incredibly predictable) twists but it’s entertaining enough thanks to great dialogue and attractive cutscenes moving the action along.
In a move I maybe wouldn’t have expected from a family-friendly Disney mascot platformer, Illusion Island is essentially a metroidvania. That’s to say it’s set in a single, open map marked by distinct biomes that has players explore further and deeper as they gain new abilities with which to overcome once-insurmountable obstacles. It’s probably a bit closer to a My First Metroidvania though, as it’s completely free of combat and remains rather simple throughout its brisk, six-to-eight hour runtime. It definitely gets a little tougher in the later areas and you can set your own difficulty in a way by choosing how many “hearts” you start with as a base, but it’s pretty easy-going overall.
There are enemies dotted across the map, but they serve more as mobile obstacles and can’t be directly contended with (can I coin the term “avoidvania” or is that cringe?). Even the handful of boss-type encounters you’ll wind up in are more about flexing newfound traversal abilities than dealing direct damage, a choice that I can respect but that makes them rather toothless and unexciting. It’s a good thing then that moving about this 2D world is a heap of fun and gets progressively more so as you gain new skills like gliding, swinging and wall jumping, as is seeking out and collecting all the different bits and baubles tucked in every nook.
Co-op is where the game really shines though, especially if you’re someone more experienced playing with young children or infrequent gamers. Rather than just let players bounce around the world in unison and call it a day, Dlala has implemented a number of added features that make co-op play for up to four players on a single screen feel more constructive and collaborative. New abilities are opened up when more players join in, like being able to hug another player for a health boost or drop a rope from any platform to give them a leg up, which instantly makes for a great way to help younger kids play through the game or introduce less seasoned gamers to the genre.
Although the game can be knocked over in just shy of half a dozen hours, there’s enough reason to stick around and explore more of the secrets the sizeable map has to offer thanks to a bunch of different collectibles and “Accomplishments” to unlock, many of which dive into Mickey and Friends history to give players a veritable museum of neat throwbacks and curios to pore over.
Something that Disney Illusion Island has in spades is style, perfectly capturing the essence of Mickey and Friends history while also giving Dlala the chance to put their own stamp on things. Character designs are very reminiscent of the modern Mickey shorts, with exaggerated lines and simple colours given life through incredibly energetic animation. I adore the way that each character gets their own bespoke ability designs and animations to make them look unique from each other even if they’re mechanically identical. It also makes for some amusing story moments when Donald typically gets the worst-looking equipment among the crew.
My only gripe, which is really only because of how otherwise superb the game’s animation work is, is that player characters often look quite tiny on screen. It’s likely a necessary evil when it comes to accommodating four players across every area but it makes it harder to appreciate how fantastic a job the studio has done. I hadn’t realised before doing some quick Googling about Dlala that they were behind the recent Battletoads reboot but it makes perfect sense – they’ve clearly mastered the art of translating the quintessential Saturday morning cartoon animation into a playable format.
The game’s various biomes echo that idea with a noticeably flat and bold look to platforming elements against understated but rich backgrounds. Each major section of the map is distinct and abstract in a way that makes them enjoyable to look at and has each stand out nicely with its own palette and motifs.
The animated cutscenes sprinkled throughout the adventure are a definite highlight as well, and shockingly they’ve been crafted by the studio itself in-house – I’d absolutely watch a Dlala-led Mickey series if it existed. The proper voice cast is along for the ride too, which is great, although it’s a touch disappointing they’re not utilised outside of cutscenes. Instead we get regular ol’ text boxes peppered by the occasional cry or quip.
Disney Illusion Island is a competent and approachable metroidvania-style platformer that does a great job at accommodating players of all skill levels and offers up a great take on Mickey and Friends, but a relatively short runtime combined with overly simple mechanics and some disappointing presentational choices means that it falls just short of true magic.
Great character and environment designs
Entertaining and well-produced cutscenes
Good support for multiple players of varying skill
Late-game platforming feels fun and challenging
At less than six hours it's over just as it's getting good