Disney Illusion Island Is a New Game with a Love for the PastGames Features Disney Illusion Island
“It’s not a gimmick. I genuinely love Mickey Mouse.”
AJ Grand-Scrutton wants to prove his bona fides. For the CEO of Dlala Studios, serving as the creative director on Disney Illusion Island isn’t just another development job. It’s a chance to work in a world he’s long loved, paying tribute to the classic cartoon shorts that made Mickey and his pals some of the most beloved and recognizable characters in the world. There’s “a lot of the ‘30s and ‘40s” Mickey in the game, as Grand-Scrutton notes, an era when Disney’s mouse wasn’t quite as mischievous as he was in his earliest 1920s cartoons, but still had a personality that could lead to unexpected hijinks and tomfoolery, especially when paired with his friends Goofy and Donald Duck. Those three are joined by Minnie Mouse as the four playable characters in Illusion Island, a platformer with Metroid-style elements that adopts the anarchic visual aesthetic of Disney’s recent Mickey Mouse shorts.
With its distinctive art style and surplus of charm, Illusion Island reminds me of Rayman Legends, only starring characters I’ve loved since before I could talk. It seems less frenetic, though, more focused on exploration and puzzle solving, in fitting with its Metroid inspirations. The four main characters all have their own unique skills and ways to move around, often having to interact with on-screen whatsises and gadgets to get to where they need to go. And although the hands-off demo I watched had a single player, up to four can play simultaneously, with each squad mate playing a different character. (Sorry, Daisy fans: Donald’s lady didn’t make the cut.) One thing none of them can do, though, is fight. That’s right: Disney Illusion Island is totally free of direct combat.
When he and lead designer Grant Allen “first started designing the high level of the game, all the walls were covered in Post-it notes,” Grand-Scrutton reveals. “So we were like, this is what the game could be. These are all the disparate parts that could be involved in the game. And as time went on, we started taking Post-its off the wall, like this doesn’t make sense anymore. And combat stayed up there. And nearly every day, we were like, do we have to have combat and we were like, yeah. And we kept going and we just kept leaving it out there. And then it got to a point where we were like, okay, we need to talk about it. Like, why is combat on the wall? And we were both like, well, because a Metroidvania has to have combat. So we’re like, is there any reason combat is on the wall, except for these other games that have come before us that share a structure that had combat? And the answer was no. There was nothing else keeping combat in the game for us. So we took the Post-it off the wall, and we threw it in the bin. And luckily for us, Disney supported us.”
Mickey Mouse might be best known as a sweet, supportive, always cheerful corporate mascot for the world’s premiere creator of children’s entertainment, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been violent in videogames in the past. He’s been wrecking monsters and weirdo creeps in games for decades. In stripping him of this violent streak, Disney Illusion Island understands the Mickey of the last 85 to 90 years better than pretty much any other game he’s been in. And that’s despite its visual influence being the modern day cartoon shorts instead of the classics.
At different points in the demo Mickey and his friends run into different new characters created specifically for the game—not just enemies, but NPCs who help move the story and quest along. “The real kind of fun challenge,” Grand-Scrutton says, is making “a cast of characters that is new and original and has unique abilities” but then has to interact with these very well-known, well-defined characters from Disney. “I’d obviously never written for Mickey Mouse before doing this game. So we were learning about writing these characters and the tone and the type of language they use, and then we’re making this whole new set of characters that had to have their own unique personalities and characteristics.” Having these new additions make sense in the world of Mickey Mouse and crafting conversations that fit both the new and classic characters was a writing exercise than Grand-Scrutton relished.
Again, it all points back to Grand-Scrutton’s deep love and familiarity with the original Disney shorts. His favorite is 1937’s “Lonesome Ghosts,” where Mickey, Donald and Goofy are ghost exterminators (almost 50 years before Ghostbusters) who are pranked by bored and mischievous ghosts. “It’s my absolute favorite,” Grand-Scrutton raves. “It embodies the stuff I really love about Mickey, which is like, he’s stupid. He’s slap-sticky. He’s very cheeky. It’s just really fun.”
“Lonesome Ghosts” inspired Disney Illusion Island in a few ways. One of the new characters bears a slight resemblance to the short’s ghosts, but Grand-Scrutton explains how it influenced the game’s approach to its central character dynamics, and especially its depiction of Minnie Mouse. “I use [“Lonesome Ghosts”] as a reference for the game. How different would that have been if Minnie was there? I mean, she’s not a party pooper, but she’s not as stupid as the boys are when they’re together. That’s what I said to the team: Minnie’s not coming in like, oh, I’m going to be boring because I’m smart. She’s going to go on the adventure, she’s going to slap the boys when they’re being idiots, but she’s going to still want to have all the same fun, and ‘Lonesome Ghosts’ was always the example I used.”
With its modern look and classic inspiration, Disney Illusion Island strives to appeal to every generation of Mickey Mouse fan. And with a Metroid-like structure, a multiplayer style that recalls the console New Super Mario Bros. games, and its Switch exclusivity, it’s also aiming directly for fans of another legendary family-friendly brand. Disney and Nintendo fans alike will be able to see how Grand-Scrutton and the team at Dlala fared when Disney Illusion Island hits the Switch on July 28.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.