There was kind of a golden era of Disney games in the 1990s. Oh sure, some of the uber-difficult adaptations like THE LION KING (1994) looked great even as they made you pull your hair out, but starting with DUCKTALES (1989) and some others in the late ’80s, the House of Mouse invested wisely in good developers and publishers. That was the case with Sega and what became the simply titled “Illusion” series. Starting in 1990, these five games released in the 33 years since then are fine examples of the licensed platformers of their day…and now, one that lightly throws back to them to great effect. Omitted from this ranking are the 2013 remake of the first game per my usual habit of avoiding game remakes squarely based in the original, EPIC MICKEY: POWER OF ILLUSION (2012), greatly inspired by the Illusion series but rightfully belonging to the Epic Mickey franchise as I see it, and Sega-developed, similar-ish games like QUACKSHOT STARRING DONALD DUCK (1991) that don’t quite fit into my perspective of what could be called “Disney’s Illusion series.” As you’ll see, however, I’ve included a major inclusion that seems to be considered separate due to Sega’s lack of involvement, even as Disney and the Illusion title are the common factors to me.
All games developed by Sega unless otherwise noted.
#5 — LEGEND OF ILLUSION STARRING MICKEY MOUSE (1995)
Before its extended hiatus, the Illusion series was in somewhat of a diminished state. After two Genesis-first games, the next two devolved to only the 8-bit Game Gear and Master System. LEGEND OF ILLUSION STARRING MICKEY MOUSE was the second of those two games, releasing initially for the Game Gear in 1995 before being brought to the Master System in Brazil in 1998…13 years after Sega’s breakout-ish console was made. There’s a long story about why the Master System was still popular in Brazil that you should look up. But concerning the game in question: LEGEND OF ILLUSION is a competent yet totally minor platformer. None of the Sega Illusion games are very long (and in fact this might be longer than the first), but everything about it feels bite-sized, which makes sense for something developed for a handheld platform. The medieval fantasy setting of LEGEND OF ILLUSION isn’t quite as interesting as the variation from the previous games, while the move to throwing items at enemies instead of jumping on them just isn’t quite as satisfying. But the game looks decent enough for its advanced age on the Game Gear and the input and feel of the platforming is serviceable enough. In terms of licensed (and even just Game Gear) games, you could do far worse then and now. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but LEGEND OF ILLUSION isn’t bad!
#4 — LAND OF ILLUSION STARRING MICKEY MOUSE (1993)
LAND OF ILLUSION STARRING MICKEY MOUSE, LEGEND OF ILLUSION’s predecessor, isn’t much better. This Game Gear game was also released for Master System in Brazil, albeit just one year later. LAND OF ILLUSION has a similar straight forward fantasy vibe but it’s diversified a bit more, making its appearance with good little 8-bit graphics a tad more appealing. The platforming is solid and competent, while additional abilities and health upgrades make one feel like there’s something a bit deeper laid onto what is still essentially a pretty basic game. LAND OF ILLUSION is in the same quality camp as its handheld successor, but it has just a bit more going for it to elevate it.
#3 — CASTLE OF ILLUSION STARRING MICKEY MOUSE (1990)
Revisiting this series for this piece, I almost expected CASTLE OF ILLUSION STARRING MICKEY MOUSE, the game that started it all, to take the top spot. I’m not quite sure why I thought that because, in spite of my healthy dose of nostalgia and the clear positivity to its platforming execution, the game’s brevity and simplicity definitely don’t stand out that much even for its time. CASTLE OF ILLUSION looks great, communicating that “Disney feel” through early 16-bit graphics and sound effects. And there’s enough variation to the level design so as to elicit a few different ways to satisfyingly bounce across enemies’ heads. But CASTLE OF ILLUSION is somewhat underwhelming to return to, and as basically fun as it is, it’s not the best the series it spawned has to offer.
#2 — WORLD OF ILLUSION STARRING MICKEY MOUSE AND DONALD DUCK (1992)
That distinction nearly belongs to, and did for many years during the Illusion series’ lengthy hiatus, CASTLE OF ILLUSION’s direct sequel, WORLD OF ILLUSION STARRING MICKEY MOUSE AND DONALD DUCK. First of all, it gets many more points from me just for including Donald Duck, who is vastly superior to the character of Mickey. Then, just the two year difference allowed for a vast improvement on the graphic quality. Pulling inspiration from several classic Disney films, almost in a Kingdom Hearts-esque mashup method, WORLD OF ILLUSION looks absolutely gorgeous and evocative of its source materials’ whimsy. It’s not like I’ve had friends to play it with, but the cooperative element added to the CASTLE OF ILLUSION premise is also a potential plus. But even in single-player, WORLD OF ILLUSION just improves its platforming feel and enriches its stages with different routes depending on which character you’re playing as. When I began to play it for what I thought was the first time years ago, I had a nostalgically mindblowing moment where I realized I had played the game as a child. WORLD OF ILLUSION’s distinct look and character designs, and especially its sound effects, resonated through time. Even removing myself as much as possible from that experience, I can recognize that WORLD OF ILLUSION’s polish and platforming comfort is nearly the best the Illusion series has to offer.
#1 — DISNEY ILLUSION ISLAND (2023)
Developer: Dlala Studios
As mentioned, WORLD OF ILLUSION held the top series spot for years. Also as mentioned, the inclusion of this game is a bit outside the bounds of what is still considered the Illusion series, if anyone is really discussing it that much. Sega has nothing to do with DISNEY ILLUSION ISLAND, which was developed by Dlala Studios, who had previously executed another great dormant franchise revival with BATTLETOADS (2020), and published by Disney’s video game arm. But based on its literal name and very general continuation of the Illusion series’ concepts, I see it as the next installment, coming after the biggest gap in the series at 28 years. Developers and publishers can change, of course, and as mentioned, the Disney characters and name are the common factor here. In any case, DISNEY ILLUSION ISLAND is still quite different than anything else that came before it in the series. Styled like, both in terms of look and humor, and “set in the world” of the postmodern MICKEY MOUSE (2013–2019) and THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF MICKEY MOUSE (2020–2023) TV series, the game is also a Metroidvania, unlike any of the previous installments. Playable with up to four people, as either Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, or Donald (I played it alone with the last, of course), DISNEY ILLUSION ISLAND hinges on a big open map with walled-off areas that can be accessed after receiving a later power-up. Oh, and there are a ton of collectibles, some readily accessible, more hidden by secret walls and ceilings. And it’s all great fun. DISNEY ILLUSION ISLAND isn’t exactly the next great Metroidvania, but navigating its colorful and well-animated world feels really satisfying, with typical abilities like double and wall jumps and swinging hooks. Enemies can’t be defeated in any way, let alone by jumping on their heads, but that feeds into the game’s feeling of a big ol’ obstacle course. DISNEY ILLUSION ISLAND is a bit story-heavy, with lengthy cutscenes that look just like its source shows, and collectibles identifying many characters and elements of its world’s lore that are neither met nor mentioned in the actual progression of the game. But it all does feel well-designed and fairly intriguing, even if some of it is a bit confusing. In any event, DISNEY ILLUSION ISLAND is a tight little platformer that is, if not innovative, a lengthy enough experience of exploration and obstacle-dodging, full of abilities and discoveries that clearly make it the richest entry in the admittedly mostly old-fashioned Illusion series. I don’t often think that newer games in a series are by default superior than their predecessors, but in this case, the revival DISNEY ILLUSION ISLAND represents totally spun the name into much more smoothly enjoyable territory.