Memories

Aladdin 26 years later — is Capcom’s title the rightful heir to the sultan’s throne?

Aladdin Header

Since its release in 1993, Aladdin for the Mega Drive has been widely regarded as the superior of the platformer’s 16-bit outings. But 26 years later, could it be that favour is shifting towards Capcom’s Super Nintendo edition, including, incredibly, my own?

Prompted by the Sega title’s anniversary, and its recent 2019 remaster for modern consoles and PC, I approached the SNES version for the very first time for a balanced consideration of the argument and a glimpse into a whole new world — of video gaming, that is.

(N.B. This article references the original 1993 edition of Sega’s Aladdin throughout.)

To this very day, Aladdin on the Mega Drive has remained one of my favourite platformers on the console. Since its release in 1993, I’d even go so far as to say it’s remained one of my top platformers, full stop.

Then a strange thing happened. Earlier this year, Disney released its live action version of Aladdin in the cinemas. Rather than convince me to buy a cinema ticket, it drove me to blow the dust from my cartridge and revisit my Mega Drive edition of Aladdin.

And it seems I wasn’t the only one…

Around the time of Aladdin’s 2019 cinema release, the Retronauts podcast released an episode rather temptingly named ‘Aladdin Games’. Its online notes read:

“Virgin Interactive’s Genesis game mostly overshadowed Capcom’s SNES interpretation thanks to still-impressive technical tricks, but the conventional wisdom about the Sega version being superior might not hold together 2.5 decades later.”

So I gave the Retronauts episode a listen. To my surprise, the Sega version came off worse — by a very, very wide margin. Then it dawned on me — I’d never played Aladdin for the Super Nintendo.

Was Retronauts right? Could it be possible for the SNES version to rival its Sega counterpart? There was nothing for it, I had to see for myself.

I had to play Aladdin for the Super Nintendo.

26 years will give you such a crick in the neck!

Aladdin for the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo were two very different propositions. Both released shortly after Aladdin’s debut on VHS in October 1993, the Mega Drive edition was developed by Virgin Games, headed by David Perry (the other one). Famous for titles such as Cool Spot, Perry later became the founder of Shiny Entertainment — the software house behind Earthworm Jim and MDK. Later, he would work on the Playstation 4’s online platform.

Created by Capcom, Aladdin for the SNES was directed by Shinji Mikami, who a couple of years pervious, developed his first Disney-licensed game, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In 1996, Mikami went on to direct Capcom’s Resident Evil, no less.

Aladdin’s outing on the Super Nintendo was literally oceans apart from its Sega counterpart. With different graphics, soundtrack, level design and control set, for many years, Capcom’s Aladdin was seen as the lesser of the two 16-bit versions of the game. But now, with 26 years of hindsight — and based not only on Retronauts’ commentary, but on social media threads and countless other ‘Aladdin SNES vs Mega Drive’ articles — could popular opinion actually be shifting towards Capcom’s version?

I disturbed the Nintendo edition from its slumber to find if there was any truth to the claim.

 

One jump ahead

In the period that Aladdin for the SNES was developed, the Capcom retained the exclusive rights to develop Disney-themed titles on Nintendo consoles. Other than content approval, the SNES version of the game featured no direct involvement from Disney — at least, nothing on the scale that Virgin Games experienced.                          

Remarkably, Aladdin for the Sega Mega Drive was the first video game to feature hand-drawn cell animation and was the very first time that Disney provided its artistic services for the gaming medium. Looking at the game’s art, it certainly pops.

Taking nothing away from the Capcom title, while it’s definitely eye-catching, it just doesn’t have that Disney finesse.

So what was Virgin’s secret weapon? A process dubbed ‘Digicel’. Working with 10 Disney animators, all in-game character sprites for the Sega game were hand-drawn at Disney’s Florida HQ. Following approval, the frames were sent to Virgin’s California base where they were digitised for the Mega Drive.

Comprising 1,500 frames, animating the Mega Drive title took eight weeks. This was no mean feat considering the game was coded in three months, with overall development compressed into just nine months.

For its sheer innovation and overall visual appeal, round one goes to the Mega Drive.

 

Apples and swords

In a recent interview with Polygon, Shinji Mikami revealed his preference for Aladdin’s Mega Drive version. Why? It was all down to a certain character and his weapon of choice:

“If I didn’t actually make [the SNES game], I would probably buy the Genesis one… Animation-wise, I think the Genesis version’s better. The Genesis version had a sword, actually. I wanted to have a sword.”

The inclusion of a sword in the Mega Drive edition is certainly a point for debate — at no point in the Disney film does Aladdin actually possess/use a sword, so why feature it in the game? Nevertheless, the bladed weapon certainly adds an element of action not seen on the SNES.

In terms of combat, one area where both versions are similar is in the use of apples. Collectable apples are scattered throughout each level, which can be thrown at enemies from a distance. An unusual choice of weapon, being ‘appled’ to death is certainly a humiliating way for anyone to die.

Beware! Run out of apples in the Mega Drive edition and the sword will be your only method of combat. In true Nintendo style, the players on the SNES will have to resort to jumping onto enemies in order to defeat them.

I have to say that in the Mega Drive version, bare the boss fights, I rarely found the need to use the apples. On the SNES however, they’re a truly indispensable piece of kit. With apple supplies depleted, the satisfaction of successfully linking up a combo of leaps while taking out the odd enemy is a truly satisfying achievement. Gamers take caution — when combining leaps and enemy ‘jump’ attacks, the resulting ‘bounce’ effect can be truly difficult to style-out.

When it comes to the general movement and method of controlling the Aladdin sprite, both versions present an entirely different approach. First up, the SNES:

The Aladdin protagonist presented on the Nintendo console is a far more athletic character than that on the Mega Drive. Fittingly, Capcom’s Aladdin draws many comparisons to Prince of Persia in that we see a character with the ability to swing, hang and pull himself up from ledges. Where the game provides the opportunity to link together a series of jumps, Aladdin ties together a series of somersaults and spins to reach the other side — a rewarding feat if pulled off, deadly if not.

While Capcom’s hero is certainly a performer in the air, Virgin’s character is not without his own athletic abilities:

Having had the opportunity to compare both Mega Drive and SNES versions has certainly forced me to raise the question — given more time could Virgin have increased Aladdin’s move-set? The ability to swing, hang and rise from ledges certainly makes for a more dynamic, tactile gaming experience.

 

A magic carpet ride

Film conversions of the 16-bit era are notorious for their heavy dose of artistic license, and Aladdin for the Mega Drive and SNES come as no exception.

The plot of Disney’s animated feature needs no introduction — a story of rags to riches as Aladdin the ‘street rat’ uses his three wishes granted by the Genie to win the affection of Princess Jasmine and overcome the evil that stands in his way. The story takes us from the streets of Agrabah to the Cave of Wonders, a magic carpet ride, the Sultan’s palace and a final confrontation with the evil Jaffar before freeing the Genie and taking the hand of the princess.

Aladdin’s Mega Drive port comprises 10 levels: Agrabah Market, The Desert, Agrabah Rooftops, Sultan’s Dungeon, Cave of Wonders, The Escape, Rug Ride, Inside the Lamp, Sultan’s Palace and Jafar’s Palace.

Despite having a palette of just 512 colours, Aladdin for the Mega Drive is arguably one of the console’s most graphically impressive titles. Notably, all level artwork and backgrounds were drawn in-house by Virgin Games. But before we dive in, how does Capcom’s level progression compare?

The SNES version contains seven levels: The Market Place, The Cave of Wonders, Escape from the Cave of Wonders, Inside the Genie’s Lamp, Ancient Pyramid, Magic Carpet Ride and Jafar’s Palace. 

Unlike the Mega Drive version, each level for the SNES features multiple acts, providing a slight variation on the level theme. The Capcom-created levels do feel more dynamic, requiring an extra level of acrobatics and swift reactions from the player. Overall, this does feel like a much more serious outing than Virgin’s effort. Unfortunately, the level art and backgrounds just don’t have that ‘Disney’ feel about them.

What’s apparent is that the Mega Drive port feels like a living, breathing play-through of the film. Whereas the SNES version simply feels like an opportunity to guide Aladdin through a series of levels that neither truly look nor feel like the Disney feature.

That’s not to say that the game from Virgin Games is altogether innocent of a few gaming crimes…

 

Arabian oddities

Any Mega Drive gamer that makes their way through the familiar setting of Agrabah Market is immediately confronted with the game’s second level, The Desert. As a setting that simply doesn’t feature in the film, the level features a few other anomalies, including a Mickey Mouse hat hanging from a wash-line, fez-wearing snakes and male, female and ‘Genie’ public toilets. Unusual, but typical of the comedy in this title.

Notable in the Mega Drive version is the omission of the Aladdin/Jasmine magic carpet ride, or any reference to Aladdin as Prince Ali, or any reference to ‘evil Genie’ Jafar.

Although the SNES version of the game features a slightly steeper learning curve, ultimately, I was impressed with the game’s pacing and story progression. Towards the end of the game, the Aladdin/Jasmine magic carpet ride is a welcome break to the frenetic pace, and provides a chance to power-up and restore energy before the final confrontation with Jafar. For the sake of storyline and of the player, I feel the Mega Drive port would certainly have benefitted from this change of tempo.

However, the Nintendo edition does take a few liberties of its own, including the inclusion of the Ancient Pyramid stage. According to the game’s storyline, this level takes place following the escape from the Cave of Wonders. Flying over the desert, Abu falls from the magic carpet, to the desert below — a plot point that simply isn’t present in the animated film.

Where each of the games do contain plot holes, and where further story clarification is required, both feature their own cutscene sequences.

Mega Drive:

 

Super Nintendo:

Despite, the SNES’s more cohesive storyline overall, full marks go to the Mega Drive for the vastly superior cutscene artwork. Overcoming Disney/Virgin Games’ artistic prowess was sure to be a challenge for Capcom to overcome — particularly with Disney feature artists on-board such as Anthony Michaels (Beauty & The Beast, Pocahontas, Mulan) and Paul Keith Newton (Pocahontas, Mulan). Tough competition for Capcom indeed.

The SNES does redeem itself somewhat with the inclusion of a password system, incredibly handy for players who wish to revisit their favourite levels in the game.

Aladdin Password Screen

Players confronted with the Game Over screen on the Mega Drive, however, have to play again right from the start. Ouch!

It’s a tight one, but the SNES just about emerges as the victor of this round. Sorry Mega Drive!

Aladdin 2019-05-29 21.01.48

 

Camel jazz

Although the SNES’s S-SMP sound chip is arguably a more dynamic piece of hardware than the Mega Drive’s YM2612, let’s not beat around the bush — in my opinion, the Sega console’s Aladdin soundtrack is far superior.

While the SNES soundtrack maintains an unmistakeable Arabic feel throughout and though it includes renditions of ‘A Whole New World’ and ‘Friend Like Me’, the remainder of the soundtrack just doesn’t feel like Aladdin. The pace and the pitch of many of the songs make for a soundtrack that, to be honest, is not a pleasant listen. But maybe it’s just me. Having no nostalgia attached to the SNES title, I was also a child accustomed a diet of electronic tones from the Mega Drive’s 16- and 8-bit sound chips, rather than the SNES’s dulcet tones.

Now, that’s not to say that Aladdin’s Mega Drive soundtrack is not without its peculiarities (‘Camel Jazz’, ‘Turban Jazz’ anyone?) and sure, the Mega Drive does fall someway short when recreating the actual instrumentation of the feature soundtrack. But all of that pales into comparison when you consider the Escape From the Cave song track — one of the Mega Drive’s very best, in my opinion.

Once again, the Mega Drive takes it.

 

A palace of peculiarities

But hang on a moment, this article was intended as a critique of Sega’s Aladdin, right? True, after recently playing the SNES version of Aladdin, I returned to the Sega version from an entirely new perspective. Though I was surprised by what flaws I saw, my love for the game certainly was not diminished.

But that certainly didn’t stop me from recognising some truly unusual abnormalities on Virgin Games’ side…

As the aforementioned Retronauts podcast notes of the Sega game, after escaping from the Genie’s lamp — and unlike the Disney feature — Aladdin heads to the Sultan’s Palace, the home of Jasmine. Here, Aladdin proceeds to mercilessly kill and obliterate all that stand in his path. Hardly a way to win the heart of a Princess, a crime far surpassing the evil of Jafar and not very ‘Disney’ in any way whatsoever!

Aladdin 2019-05-29 21.46.40

The same podcast mentions the game’s ‘busy’ backgrounds. The Sultan’s Dungeon is a case in hand where the multiple background and foreground planes block many of the level’s enemies (and even Aladdin) from view.

Aladdin 2019-05-29 21.08.17

This comes in addition to the HUD, which obscures much of the action in the top half of the level maps. Although the Aladdin remaster has incorporated a number of camera fixes, the hud still remains an issue in this release.

The Mega Drive edition also features a number of boss fights, many of whom are defeated using the same tactic — keep your distance and repeatedly throw apples. Even the game’s final boss (Jafar in human and snake-form) doesn’t escape this swift apple-flavoured downfall.

A final point of contention is that, when reaching the end-point of many of the levels, the Sega game simply fades to black without warning — a slightly jarring end to the action.

 

Critical reception

Second only to Street Fighter II, Capcom’s Aladdin became the developer’s highest selling title for the Super Nintendo, selling around 1.8 million copies worldwide — a figure eclipsed by the original cartridge release of Virgin Games’ Aladdin. Selling four million copies worldwide, the Mega Drive title became the Sega console’s third best-selling game of all time, beaten only the almighty Sonic 1 and Sonic 2.

But how did the critics react at the time?

 

Mega Drive:

“The graphics are outstanding. Aladdin looks good, with great movement and quirks. He’s also responsive to every button press, moving swiftly and smoothly through the levels. The backgrounds and terrain are all superbly designed, capturing the Disney atmosphere to great effect.” 92%

– Sega Force Mega — December 1993

 

“Like Disney’s cartoons, Aladdin on Mega Drive is lots of fun but perhaps suitable only to young children. But it does look lovely.” 80%

– CVG — December 1993

 

Super Nintendo:

“Unusually smooth, detailed animation brings Aladdin to life, and he has a variety of great moves that are fun to use. The play control is excellent. He can jump and make fingertip grabs to land on distance ledges. He also runs at different speeds and stops on a dime. Not as challenging as you would expect from Capcom.” 3.8/5

– Nintendo Power — December 1993

 

“Great to look at, very involving, and jam packed with laughs. Just like the film, in fact. But in no time at all it’s all over and, er, that’s it. It depends on what you’re after really — a short, intense burst of gaming heaven, or something you’re going to be playing a week later.” 85%

– Super Play — January 1994

 

The verdict

So, here’s the crux of it, with Capcom at the helm, it’s undeniable that the SNES port is far more willing to go the extra mile in terms of level design, controls and story progression.

Being nine years old at the time of Aladdin’s release, I remember owning the Mega Drive title and being overawed by a game that had the sound and truly looked like the full length Disney feature — a true novelty for console gaming at that time. Overall, the Virgin Games package just feels right.

Approaching the Super Nintendo version of Aladdin as a 30-something video gamer has certainly forced me to question a Mega Drive port that I previously held as an undeniably superior experience to its Nintendo counterpart. Even without the valuable Disney resources at its disposal, what Capcom achieved in terms of mirroring the feature’s storytelling certainly deserves high praise.

But for me, Aladdin for the Mega Drive is — and always will be — the diamond in the rough.

Lamp


Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King is out NOW for the Nintendo Switch, Sony Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC.

Featuring:

  • Aladdin for Sega Mega Drive and Game Boy
  • The Lion King for Sega Mega Drive, SNES and Game Boy

Amongst a host of bonus features for both Disney titles, the package introduces the Aladdin Mega Drive’s ‘final cut’ (complete with camera fixes, refined enemy variations and gameplay tweaks).

The release also includes the commercial debut of the 1993 Aladdin ‘trade show demo’.


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