Everyone has a favorite Disney game. Not because so many of them have exceeded expectations, but because they’re now so numerous that you simply must have a favorite. From the ancient days of the NES all the way to the next-gen era, Disney has churned out title after title based on their properties, with everything from games based on movies, TV shows and Disneyland rides to cross-genre and cross-franchise adventures featuring their most popular licences.
However, despite all of their game properties, few would consider Disney a gaming company and Disney on your home console has always been a hit or miss affair. Occasionally, the games have been less than stellar, but their misses only serve to highlight their hits even more. With the impending release of Disney Epic Mickey -- a genuine attempt at an orignal AAA title -- it's important to look at where Disney is going and to do that, you have to look at where they've been.
Historically, Disney has created dozens of games based on their movie and cartoon properties. Many of these games were originally developed for the PC like the original 101 Dalmatians: Escape from DeVil Manor. Several were specifically based on the popular princess movies of the late 80s and early 90s, including five -- count ‘em, five -- Beauty & The Beast games, and at least three different iterations of the The Little Mermaid. Alice in Wonderland and Pocahontas also made the leap to your computer screen.
Movies without princesses got the interactive treatment, too. Games bred from The Lion King, Tarzan, Atlantis, Lilo & Stitch, Hercules, Fantasia, Bolt and many more followed as the years progressed, each with varying degress of quality. The latest movie-based title being the critically praised and fiscally successful adaptation of Toy Story 3.
With today’s titles, Disney focuses on a multi-platform strategy, but it’s a gameplan they developed long before the next-gen market. For example, Aladdin (1993) appeared on the Genesis, Amiga, MS-DOS, NES, and Game Boy. Each version was a totally unique gaming experience and the Genesis version of the game was a side-scroller that gained popularity for its gameplay and graphics. It was one of the first games in the genre to stand out as more than a Disney cash-grab and was regarded as one of the best games for the Genesis at the time.
While the company’s film properties continue to represent the most notable face of Disney’s gaming efforts, television shows have rapidly become a constant presence in the market. Two different versions of Darkwing Duck were developed for the TurboGrafx 16 and were followed by versions for the NES and Game Boy. Another group of popular duck-centric games appeared based on the TV show DuckTales in which gamers had to seek out treasure in order to become the world's richest duck...pants optional, of course.
Other video games based on 90s TV shows included Bonkers, Gargoyles, Goof Troop and TaleSpin. In the 2000's, three Cheetah Girls video games were ordered up, one for the Game Boy and two for the Nintendo DS. More recent shows like That's So Raven, Wizards of Waverly Place and Kim Possible have also made appeareances, but none have been quite as successful as Disney’s most recognizable TV franchise, Hannah Montana. With three Nintendo DS games, a PSP title, a Wii version and a PS2 game, (as well as another adaptation of her recent movie that appeared on each of the major consoles) the Hannah Montana brand has carved out its own niche of non-hardcore game fans.
Never one to waste merchandising and distribution rights, Disney has also released a few games based on its most popular Disneyland rides. Adventures in the Magic Kingdom came out in 1990 for the NES, followed by Magical Racing Tour and The Haunted Mansion. Then there were twelve Pirates of the Caribbean games developed, which were no doubt bolstered by the massive success of the Bruckheimer films.
However, where Disney has commonly found their most interesting successes is when they have teamed up with other developers. The most notable of these collaborations is the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts was the fusion of Final Fantasy storytelling and Disney nostalgia, which equals an odd blend of hardcore RPG icons and cartoon mainstays. Many doubted the ability of master RPG craftsman Square Enix to co-exist with Disney, a company that is, traditionally, particularly possessive and fiercely protective of its brand. All doubt was put aside in 2002, however, when the first game in the series was released. Six Kingdom Hearts titles have since followed, not counting a number of mobile versions. Two more titles are currently in production, one for the PSP and the other for the Nintendo 3DS.
Disney characters have also made appearances in other video game franchises, including Dance Dance Revolution: Disney Grooves, Disney Sing It: Pop Hits, SingStar: Singalong with Disney, Magical Tetris Challange, and Scene It? Disney.
Perhaps, however, the most highly anticipated Disney title aside from Epic Mickey is the return of Tron in Tron: Evolution.
It comes as no surprise that a movie about a video game would itself spawn several video games. From 1982 to 2010, seven Tron games have been released. The most popular game among fans of the movie is the original Tron arcade game, but the upcoming title Tron: Evolution is apparently shaping up to deliver a first-rate, next-gen gameplay experience. It is slated to com out on December 7th in conjuction with the film.
For the moment, however, true Disney nostalgics are left drooling for the arrival of Warren Spector’s Disney Epic Mickey. Between 1981 and 2003 there have been over 25 video games centered around Disney’s mascot, Mickey Mouse. The last seven years we’ve seen a dry spell that will soon end with this wholly original and impressively imaginative adventure.
Disney Epic Mickey is being helmed by Warren Spector and Junction Point Studios. The game will serve as a rebirth for Mickey Mouse, showing off his more mischievous side rather than his squeaky clean image. Unlike most Disney games, this title is starting completely from scratch. Mickey and Oswald the Rabbit are duking it out in this platformer with RPG and action-adventure elements. Rather than focus on the most well-known characters, Disney Epic Mickey takes a look at the forgotten figures from Disney’s early years, promising a darker, more mature game than virtually any release mentioned in this article.
But what does the future hold for Disney in a post-Epic Mickey market? A renewed commitment to creativity? Or a return to the cash-grabbing ways of cheaply developed movie tie-ins? Only time will tell, well, time and the consumer. Disney has proven that they are more than capable of making games based on their existing properties and collaborating with larger, more experienced developers to do so, almost always to tremendous success; however, Disney has also shown a commitment to chasing the dollar. We’d bet a few of our own dollars that if gamers don’t flock to these smarter and more polished titles, a slip back to the easy money games is inevitable.
It’d be a terrible time for a slippage in creativity, however, given Disney’s recent acquisition of a little-known comic company called Marvel. So far, Disney’s exercised a hands-off approach with regard to Marvel’s many franchises, while Marvel held to previously-established contracts with other developers to make games based off of their characters. Disney was forced to honor these contracts, which is why the latest Iron Man game was made by Sega and the upcoming Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is being handled by Capcom. It could be years before the rights to these characters are back in Disney’s hands, but when that happens, oh, the possibilities!
Mickey vs. Wolverine, anybody?
Disney has the characters, worlds, stories and know-how to make an in-depth Marvel cross-over RPG. Or, perhaps just give us a proper Kingdom Hearts 3. Either one, because we’re hardly picky. No matter what the future holds for Disney, you can bet they’ll continue to release as many games as they can for all their upcoming moves, TV shows and whatever else they can exploit. However smart they can be about partnering with first-rate creatives, this is still a money-making business, and if we don’t support the good stuff, we can’t ever truly complain about the bad.
Additional reporting by Nikole Zivalich