If you’re a fan of the family-friendly fun of Disney’s animated films, you’ll undoubtedly remember the early Nineties with a great deal of fondness. Having recovered from the commercial disappointments of the Seventies and Eighties, as well as the blow of losing Don Bluth and a number of other animators, the company had entered a renaissance period of critically and commercially-successful films. The Little Mermaid had done well with both critics and the cinema-going public, and Beauty And The Beast had blown it out of the water in terms of box office takings. Not to be outdone, the directors of The Little Mermaid returned with an adaptation of the Arabian folk tale Aladdin and managed to take the record for the highest-grossing animated film of all time.
While Aladdin featured all the hallmarks of a great Disney film, from beautiful animation to memorable songs, the film was able to draw on star power that hadn’t been available to its predecessors. While Aladdin, his love interest Jasmine and the dastardly Jafar all had actors who weren’t well known, the genie of the lamp was played by Robin Williams – a huge deal at a time when actors would rarely cross over from live-action roles to voice acting. With over $500 million taken at the box office, it wasn’t a question of if the tie-in merchandise would arrive, but just how much of it.
For gaming fans, that meant licensed games, and there was cause to be excited about that – the last few years had seen a number of excellent Disney licensed games on consoles, including the likes of DuckTales and Castle Of Illusion. Recognising the value of the Aladdin licence, Disney did something unusual and split the rights amongst a number of parties. Three companies ended up with the rights to publish games; Sega was granted the right to publish games on its own platforms, Capcom got the licence for the SNES, and Virgin had the option to produce versions for other computers and consoles.
First out of the blocks was Sega. The company initially assigned the project to BlueSky Software, which had previously delivered Ariel The Little Mermaid for the publisher. However, progress was slow as the small team was also working on Jurassic Park. With no easy way to prioritise either project and Disney growing displeased with the lack of progress, the plug was pulled on BlueSky’s version. Luckily for Sega, which had lost a lot of time, Disney had a preferred partner which was willing to do business in the form of Virgin Games. It helped that the company’s president, Martin Alper, had a previous relationship with Sega from his time at Mastertronic, which had distributed the company’s hardware and software in Europe until 1991. What’s more, Virgin had a team capable of delivering high-quality Mega Drive games, as it had proven itself with Cool Spot.
The resulting three-way deal saw Sega handle publishing duties, Virgin Games taking on development and Disney providing animation and licensing rights. Animation cels would be hand-drawn by Disney’s own animators, then sent to Virgin for digitising and programming into the game. The result was striking – other games had skilful imitation of Disney animation, but Aladdin had the real thing. Enemies lost their trousers when hit and danced painfully across hot coals in the streets of Agrabah, and Aladdin himself was a restless chap, constantly scouting the area for guards. Very rarely did a game live up to the promise of cartoon-quality animation, but it was easy to see that Aladdin did as the titular character shimmied his way up ropes and engaged in swordplay.
The game wasn’t just visually stunning. As programmer and project manager, David Perry delivered his best platform game yet. Aladdin felt like Cool Spot in his movements, particularly when jumping around, but the game was a step ahead in terms of level design – in part, just because the film offered so much inspiration. Aladdin’s acrobatic escape from Agrabah’s guards, the magic carpet ride from an exploding Cave Of Wonders and even the song Never Had a Friend Like Me all provided ideas for stages. Additionally, attacking enemies was fun. You could lob apples if you liked, but there was more fun in sidling up to an enemy and swiping with a sword. Excellent renditions of the film’s music from Tommy Tallarico and Donald S. Griffin capped the whole thing off.
On the SNES side of things, Capcom took a different approach. The planner was a pre-Resident Evil Shinji Mikami, whose previous cartoon licence work included Goof Troop and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Capcom’s game was amongst the most aesthetically pleasing on the console, with excellent visuals and audio, but Disney’s lighter level of involvement showed – the sprites all looked beautiful, but the refined shading ensured that they didn’t quite look like Disney’s work.
Other changes were afoot, too. While Aladdin didn’t look as close to his film counterpart as in the Mega Drive game, he acted a lot more similarly. His athletic abilities were heavily emphasised, as he could clamber up platforms, vault over posts, swing from poles and a lot more. Everyone’s favourite street rat could still chuck apples, but swordplay was off the menu. Instead, he was able to jump on the heads of enemies in the traditional platform game style.
Mikami has famously said that he’d have bought the Mega Drive version if he hadn’t made the SNES version, as he liked that game’s swordplay. We’d say that downplays the quality of his own game, though. Capcom’s Aladdin is an excellent platformer in its own right, featuring a different style of gameplay and some top class level design. These days, you don’t have to pick and we’d argue that both games are well worth playing – indeed, some will prefer the agility-focused SNES game over the more combat-oriented Mega Drive one.
Of course, back in 1993 that wasn’t the case. Both games arrived in November 1993, shortly after the home video release of the film. Aladdin did well for Capcom on the SNES, but didn’t hit the million sales mark – thus falling a long way short of the Mega Drive version, which came out a couple of weeks earlier and was given Sega’s full marketing support. Between retail sales and console bundle deals, Aladdin shifted a massive 4 million copies and became the Mega Drive’s third highest-selling game ever, behind only the first two Sonic games. The Capcom version of the game only reappeared once, for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, so it was the Mega Drive version that would go on to have a greater legacy. Thanks to Virgin Games’ publishing rights for other platforms, conversions of Aladdin made their way to the PC, Amiga, NES and Game Boy in 1994. The game was also reconverted to Game Boy Color by Crawfish for Ubisoft in 2000. In 1994, Sega published Aladdin for the Master System and Game Gear. Rather than going with Virgin again it assigned the game to its subsidiary SIMS, which had previously designed Tom & Jerry: The Movie. It ended up with a whole new design, and much like the team’s previous game it was one of the best-looking games ever to appear on Sega’s 8-bit formats, but didn’t have the gameplay to match the gorgeous looks.
Aladdin was a much less combative protagonist in SIMS’ game, with limited attacking opportunities meaning that he spent most of his time running from hazards instead. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the game wasn’t particularly interesting or challenging – beside a poor jumping mechanic, the game offered too many bland forced-scrolling levels. Unsurprisingly, this version never received any new conversions after 1994. Still, these lesser versions did nothing to tarnish Aladdin’s name, as Virgin Games had stolen all the headlines. Disney established Disney Interactive Studios in 1994, a move that would have been inconceivable prior to Aladdin. Just as it was a watershed moment for animated films with the unprecedented involvement of a celebrity actor in a voice role, the most-played version of Aladdin marked a turning point for licensed games with the unprecedented involvement of a rights holder in doing its videogame justice.