A great looking Disney game lost to time
Hi, I’m not a native speaker, so feel free to point out any errors in the text. This is my first blog thingie here. Giant Bomb seems like a cool place. Anyway, on to the review.
“Giant metal spiders? Creepy ghost butlers? This thing could be deeper than anyone guessed… Might be time for a… Change of suit.”
And thus begins Maui Mallard’s odyssey. But who is this duck, and why does it look so familiar?
Well, fret not because Maui is nothing more than yet another alter ego of Donald Duck, something that us Europeans are probably more accustomed to thanks to the popularity of Disney comics (and especially his) over here.
Boring, Useless, Note:
This may be a touchy subject to some but part of my childhood was spent figuring out and playing with a few emulators based on systems like the Mega Drive, the NES or SNES. Back then there was no Internet to speak of anywhere near me and my older brothers’ machines (Spectrum ZX, NES, Amiga) were no longer functional. Eventually I got myself a computer (oh Windows Me, what fun) and amassed a collection of old games given to me by brothers and friends of friends.
It wasn’t the standard way of playing them, but this did allow me to discover, on my own, 16 bit gems like Gunstar Heroes, The Lost World, Quackshot, Comix Zone and, of course, Donald Duck in Maui Mallard/ Cold Shadow, which was released on the European Mega Drive only, as well as Brazil, in 1995 and was a year later followed by a vastly different port (as was sometimes the case with multiplatform titles back in the day) for the SNES, this time being granted a worldwide release.
But let’s go back a couple of years or so to 1993.
In 1993, David Perry had managed to make the most out of the 16 bit hardware available at the time by working with actual Disney animators and releasing the Genesis/Mega Drive version of the Aladdin videogame adaptation and, for the first time, managing to create big, bold sprites that emulated the movie’s animation perfectly (and on the weaker of the two main consoles to boot).
Personally, I’m a little bit more partial to the Capcom-developed SNES version. Lucky for me though, David would go on to form Shiny Interactive and release the (much more polished) sort-of-follow-up Earthworm Jim, making the most of his experience and delivering what one could argue is a playable cartoon.
However, Disney probably felt left out of the whole thing and decided to counter Jim with their own trademark duck, even attempting to build a new franchise out of it if possible.
The Look and Sound
Starting out as one of the first projects of the recently formed Disney Interactive Studios, Maui Mallard also benefitted from the help of Creative Capers (Nightmare Ned and other Disney and Warner Bros. projects) and composers Michael Giacchino (Medal of Honor, Ratatouille, Star Trek), Patrick J. Collins (sound effects) and Steve Duckworth (yes, not making this up, responsible for the orchestral score of the PC version).
Maui Mallard was pretty special to me, not because it emulated Earthworm Jim’s approach to recreating a cartoon in 16 bits (and not least because it featured my favorite duck ever), but because it still managed to be its own “thing”. As far as looks, sound and general ambiance go, Maui Mallard ranks up there with games like Jet Set Radio, Soul Reaver, Comix Zone, Madworld or, yes, Earthworm Jim as some of my favorite attempts at “art direction” in videogames.
The game casts Donald Duck in the role of Maui Mallard, a hot tempered detective tasked with reclaiming the Shabuhm Shabuhm idol, which is said to be the guardian spirit of the island this duck was supposedly vacationing in. Of course, Ninjas somehow become involved sooner or later (as well as ghost pirates) but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The developers of the game really made the most out of the hardware available, creating a new world for Donald. Darker and more menacing, but still such as bright and colorful. The noir detective tone, the Maui aesthetics, the horror influences, Art Deco and even ancient oriental influences all bounce off of each other fantastically and explode in a world of colors unlike anything previously seen on the consoles at the time. Rarely have I seen such a great use of colors in a game. Everything has a very neon tone to it with a lot of great contrast.
As for the soundtrack, it received such as much attention as the visuals. Some of the best tunes of the 16 bit generation are found here. The music and sounds follow the same deranged mix of influences of the visuals. They complement each level perfectly and wouldn’t look at all out of place in an actual, bigger budgeted cartoon version of the story. The SNES version in particular is still a regular listen to me. Some of the highlights for me are the Main Theme, Mojo Mansion, Ninja Training Grounds, and really, the whole thing. It’s no wonder Giacchino went on to score Pixar movies, you know.
Donald Duck in Maui Mallard for the Mega Drive is your standard 2D platformer, taking a lot of cues from Earthworm Jim’s school of level design with large, maze-like levels and many atrocities to shoot down as opposed to the usual butt-stomp. However, unlike Earthworm, Maui is a collectathon of sorts, focusing a large part of the adventure in finding most of the treasure hidden in the levels. Should you manage to find a large enough percentage of the booty in a level, you’ll be granted the chance to go to a bonus stage and try to find more stuff in a time limit, hopefully earning yourself a password.
It’s a really fun game and full of character, especially when you add the amazing visuals and sound (and especially if you’re a fan of the character). It really confuses me how this game is not talked about more when referring to 16 bit Disney games.
As with many other games of time ported to various consoles and/or computers, Cold Shadow, the SNES version of the game changes the level design quite a bit and even the physics/controls feel a little different. The soundtrack here also benefits from the SNES’ soundchip and pushes the console to its limits.
It’s not a perfect game though. The controls, however decent, suffer from being a little too floaty, requiring some annoyingly twitch-in-mid-air precise jumps when traversing smaller platforms. It doesn’t make it much harder when dealing with really small platforms, but it makes it pretty annoying. The camera also flips around way too much when turning left or right. Other than this though, it’s a very decent platformer that really doesn’t deserve to be forgotten when comparing it to other Disney platformers of the time. All of this is much more evident on the SNES version. It’s still very decent though.
The Mega Drive version however, suffers from occasional problems with collision detection. Hitting the right spots while swinging (from the second level onward) can be difficult at times and fighting certain bosses can become more troublesome than it should be.
I haven’t been able to play the PC version yet, but from my understanding, it plays like the Mega Drive version, looks like an upscaled, blurry version of the SNES game, and features an orchestral version of the same soundtrack. I haven’t touched the Game Boy version either, but it would be a tough game to port.
So, yeah, give it a try. It’s at least a really decent game that still looks and sounds pretty good.
Also, check out BigMex’s fantastic multi-part article on Donald Duck and its reinvention as Maui Mallard, private detective (one the articles was even posted on my birthday, what joy!).
And I’d recommend reading his blog, and his Remaking an Icon series for more context:
And consider that the original game was released on the Mega Drive only, and apparently, only the “(f1)” version of the rom plays at full speed on modern monitors, so have that in mind if you watch a youtube video of an emulated Mega Drive version and it looks way too slow.
That was a lot of text.