Disney animated movies have been inspiring audiences for decades. It’s only fair to hold their video games up to the same light to see which ones work and which ones do not. Disney magic is a hard thing to quantify, but there are a handful of games that capture the essence of what makes Disney so special. On the flip side, Disney has been notorious —across a wide range of industries— of selling out their beloved franchises. Here’s a chance for us to take a look at how they have treated their video game properties so far.
Luckily, Disney has been in the video game business since the very beginning. Everything from the original Nintendo Entertainment System to Kinect and iOS, Disney has been all over the map. They have hired Japanese studios and Western ones alike to develop their games. So many talented people have touched Disney games and so many players have seen that brilliance shine into their living rooms. If you read along, you’ll see that a handful of very famous video game developers got their start adapting Disney properties into games.
For the most part, we’re looking at games based on traditional Disney works, as opposed to covering the wide-reaching arm of Disney Corp. (from ESPN to Marvel and Star Wars). Of course, there is always a little cross-over, as Disney is a company that loves to diversify. Even in games, their titles span a wide-range of genres and styles.
15 Best: Disney Infinity
Infinity is a Disney tour-de-force. What separates Disney Infinity from so many other licensed games and cheap cash-in products is how well it plays. Disney and Avalanche Software put together a crack team of developers from a variety of studios. Disney Infinity 3.0 had combat designed by the developers of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Ninja Theory) and driving sections put together by the team responsible for Sonic & SEGA All-Star Racing (Sumo Digital). With so many different designers playing to their strengths, no one can argue with its mechanical caliber.
Pulling Star Wars, Marvel, and traditional Disney characters into one box worked surprisingly well. The creator tools inside Disney Infinity are startlingly robust, letting players build sprawling worlds to play inside. It is devastating that, in 2016, Disney pulled the plug on Infinity, depriving us of more games in the series.
14 Worst: Kinect: Disneyland Adventures
On paper, Kinect: Disneyland Adventures is a perfect Disney game. In execution it's wretched. The Disney theme parks are ripe for their own games, with level structure and unique areas already baked into their DNA.
The problem with Kinect: Disneyland Adventures is two-fold. For starters, it’s a relatively complex Kinect 1.0 game. As anyone who played with the original Kinect can tell you, it is way too difficult to do basic things like moving from one area to another. Requiring fine motor skills for simple tasks like, “hug Snow White” is too much for a lot of kids under ten. Frankly, it’s a pain for adults too. Secondly, most of the attractions in the park boiled down to boring score-chasing mini games. None of the charm or whimsy of rides like Pirates of the Caribbean or Space Mountain made it into the final product — and that is massively disappointing, to say the least.
13 Best: Epic Mickey
Epic Mickey is a love letter to vintage Mickey Mouse cartoons. Directed by the legendary Warren Spector (Deus Ex), Epic Mickey is exactly what you want Disney to spend their time —and money— making.
Epic Mickey harkens back to turn of the century 3D platformers. Mickey explores a defunct alternate Magic Kingdom created by Yen Sid’s magic where he meets Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Disney fanatics will know Oswald as one of Walt Disney’s original characters that never gained the fame or popularity of Mickey Mouse. Not unlike Super Mario Sunshine, Mickey shoots paint (or paint thinner) out of a brush to create or erase the world. The game also has a light morality system that rewards players for being a good Samaritan (this is Mickey Mouse after all).
12 Worst: Mickey Mousecapade
Mickey Mousecapade embodies everything bad about old NES games. It is unfair, frustrating, with aggravating music, and dull level design. Taking Mickey and Minnie through a generic series of 8-bit 2D levels is an exercise in tedium. It is hard to imagine that this challenging, painful game was marketed at kids. The only slight joy to take away from Mickey Mousecapade is the novelty of looking back to see how far we’ve come. Avoid Mickey Mousecapade at all costs!
Mousecapade was originally titled Mickey Mouse when it first released in Japan. Capcom eventually ported it to the west. The company gussied up the name and slapped their logo on the cover. In reality, Hudson Soft (known for Bomberman and Lode Runner) developed this terrible platformer. North American fans of Capcom and Disney were perplexed by the game’s miserable quality. Luckily, Capcom’s next licensed Disney game more than made up for it.
11 Best: DuckTales
DuckTales easily hangs with Mega Man, Castlevania, or even Super Mario Bros, as it is a wicked fun platformer. As a follow-up to Mickey Mousecapade, DuckTales blew players away. Licensed games had far from hit their stride, but DuckTales managed to bring some of the fun-filled feeling of the cartoon into its gameplay. Bouncing off enemy’s heads with Scrooge’s cane is still a gleeful experience. Even contemporary releases like Shovel Knight pay homage to Scrooges’ move-set from his NES debut.
Capcom and WayForward developed a remastered of DuckTales in 2013 for most major platforms including Windows PC. Alan Young returned for the rerelease to voice new dialogue for Scrooge. A surprising (and appreciated!) nod to fans. The remaster further developed some of the game's original levels, adding new objectives. More than anything else, though, it’s just great to see the classic game so well animated.
A-woo-oo! (couldn’t help it).
10 Worst: Disney’s Tarzan: Untamed
The tragedy of Disney’s Tarzan: Untamed isn’t that it is a bad game. It is — no surprises there. What’s so disappointing about Tarzan: Untamed is that it was developed by one of gaming’s most renowned studios: Ubisoft Montreal. Despite that, Disney’s Tarzan: Untamed is as bad a licensed tie-in as they come. The story picks up after the film and has Tarzan follow a mostly linear path picking up collectibles and freeing primate friends for a dramatic showdown at the end. Make no mistake, Ubisoft Montreal would show their true colours one year later with the groundbreaking release of the original Splinter Cell game. Still, it is a shame to see them squander the potential for a great Tarzan game. Tarzan wouldn’t get a proper video game representation until he popped up Kingdom Hearts on the PS2.
9 Best: Aladdin
Do you know the controversy surrounding Aladdin 1993? It was one of the most pronounced console-war moments of the era: Aladdin on SNES vs. Aladdin on Genesis. Believe it or not, these were completely different games — and the differences weren’t just skin deep. The Genesis game, developed by Virgin Games, let players swing a sword and had far more detailed animations. The Capcom version, developed for the Super Nintendo, had players jumping on enemies heads, but had the more sophisticated level design. Interestingly enough, the Super Nintendo edition’s lead designer, Shinji Mikami, would go on to create the Resident Evil series. It is no surprise people had so much to say. Not only was the Aladdin movie unbelievably popular, but the games were so great that they felt like a personal point of pride.
8 Worst: Disney Sports Skateboarding
Disney Sports Skateboarding is an exploitative money-grubbing excuse for a game. It’s insulting that Disney saw fit to release this as a retail product. Developed by Konami, and released in 2002 for the GameCube, nothing about Disney Sports Skateboarding was made with care. The game is wrought with poor controls, awful visuals, and laughable design. What's most upsetting is that it’s clear a gaggle of executives decided that none of this mattered, because kids will buy anything. That because Mickey Mouse and Goofy are on the box riding skateboards, somehow that makes it okay to sell to children. Well, that’s not fair. Most kids lucky enough to get a new game aren’t in a position to get more than one. Knowingly selling them garbage is despicable.
7 Best: Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse
A triumphant walk through Mickey Mouse’s history. Before Epic Mickey there was Mickey Mania. Gameplay-wise, Mickey Mania was a fairly straightforward platformer. Each level of Mickey Mania was based on a different classic Mickey vignette; stages included: Steamboat Willie, Lonesome Ghosts, and The Prince and the Pauper.
Mickey Mania straddled console generations. The game was released on Super Nintendo and Genesis, as well as Sega CD and the original PlayStation (under the title Mickey’s Wild Adventure). Of course, a very different set of expectations and standards apply to those different machines — a real testament to Mickey Mania’s quality. Mickey Mania was the first game that David Jaffe, the creator of God of War, worked on as a designer. Another Disney game that was a springboard for talented members of the industry.
6 Worst: Fantasia
It is shocking that you can make a game based on Fantasia this bad. One of the most innovative, beautiful, and inspiring Disney movies of all time relegated to a crummy platformer. In the Fantasia game, you need to traverse through uninspiring levels collecting music notes to deliver to the game’s composers. If you collect enough of these treasured music notes before reaching the end of the level, guess what? You’re going back to get it. Fun. Even more damning, when the Fantasia game released, technology wasn’t at a point where we could listen to orchestrated music. The result is soundtrack made up of butchered renditions of international masterpieces. The best thing you can say about the Fantasia game was that it looks pretty good for something released in 1991 — which is better than nothing.
5 Best: Fantasia: Music Evolved
Now here this is a real Fantasia game. It may not be as important for game history as the animated movie was for cinema, but gosh if it isn’t a fun game to play. Fantasia: Music Evolved on Xbox One uses the Kinect 2.0 to turn you into a conductor of sorts. Tracing lines with your arms, bursting stars with your hands, and switching orchestral styles is the bread of butter of Fantasia: Music Evolved. It is a little bit complex, with an overlong tutorial, but by the time you’re done, you feel like a genius of sound. Developed by Harmonix, the minds behind Dance Central and Rock Band, Music Evolved is exactly the expert-class rhythm game you would expect. It’s a unique experience with a bit of Disney magic.
4 Worst: Adventures in the Magic Kingdom
More than anything else, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is just a big disappointment. A stage-based platformer set in the Magic Kingdom could have been great, especially on the heels of games like DuckTales. Sadly, for whatever reason, Capcom dropped the ball with Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. The NES original proudly features Cinderella’s castle on the cover and even has a world map showing the layout of the park. Levels are based on marquee rides like Big Thunder Mountain and The Haunted Mansion, but are too frustrating to feel anything like the attractions. The idea is still solid and one of these days it might be fun to see a game set in Walt Disney World that does it justice.
3 Best: Where’s My Water?
It might surprise you to hear that the superb Where’s My Water? is a Disney game. There are a few clues that might have tipped you off. Where’s My Water? merchandise is available from both Disney Stores and Disney Parks alike, and Disney also quickly created a couple of Disney character specific spin-offs (specifically Perry the Platypus and Mickey Mouse).
The game stars Swampy, who is an alligator. Players need to swipe away dirt to help water reach the gator who desperately needs a bath. Like so many other great touch screen games, Where’s My Water? is addictive, but, more importantly, has challenging puzzles that are satisfying to solve. It’s wonderful bite-sized game for people of all ages. There’s something very exciting about seeing Disney create a new character (even small ones) inside a video game.
2 Worst: Hannah Montana: The Movie
Hannah Montana: The Movie also steps outside the classic Disney theme. This is a modern teen Disney property cut from the cloth of High School Musical’s fame. We needed to include Hannah Montana: The Movie (the game), to illustrate the lowest of the low. Three degrees of separation: a game based on a movie based on a TV show. The result is as bad as you would expect, an adventure game with arbitrary rhythm elements shoe-horned into its gameplay. It is also worth keeping in mind that this game released in 2009 and was available on the Wii (meaning waggle-controls were in full swing). There’s nothing wrong with licensed material --as we've seen in this list sometimes the results can be fantastic-- but Hannah Montana: The Movie (the game) is the worst case scenario. To repeat: it simply could not be worse.
1 Best: Kingdom Hearts
Of course, this is number one. No other game even attempts to capture Disney magic the way Kingdom Hearts does. Everything from the colours to the music explores Disney in a nostalgic light, without sacrificing a unique vision of its classic properties.
Kingdom Hearts marries the worlds of Square to Disney’s Vault of masterworks. There is truly nothing else like it — and there may never be again. A unique fusion of Eastern and Western works that celebrates both gaming and cinema history. All this wrapped inside a robust RPG that created a universe unto itself. The larger narrative of Kingdom Hearts may not be for everyone, but there’s no deny that Kingdom Hearts makes expert use of the Disney works it references. It is unquestionably the best video game representation of Disney. Truly, the best Disney game of all time.