Alice in Wonderland: Curiously Entertaining

When I’m tired, bored, depressed or, most commonly, a combination of all three, there’s something that I occasionally like to do.

Once I’ve cleaned up the mess from doing that, I like to delve into what I will euphemistically refer to as my vast collection of digitally preserved retro video games and pick something at semi-random. I’ll scroll through a platform I typically don’t give a lot of attention to, pick out something that I probably wouldn’t typically make the choice to play under normal circumstances, and then give it an honest go.

And so it was that as last week drew to a close and Friday evening became Friday night, I found myself playing Digital Eclipse’s official Game Boy Colour adaptation of the classic Disney movie Alice in Wonderland. A couple of hours later, I’d accidentally beaten the damn thing, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit sorry.

Digital Eclipse is a name that I — and, likely, most of you out there — primarily associate with commercial emulation. Indeed, many of their best-known releases over the years are emulated versions of classic arcade and console games for various platforms; most recently, we’ve seen the Mega Man Legacy Collection, Disney Afternoon Collection, Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection and SNK 40th Anniversary Collection from them.

Back in the days of the Game Boy Colour, Digital Eclipse found that the variation on the Zilog Z80 processor found in the then-new handheld was ideal for emulation of a number of classic arcade games that used very similar hardware, so they put out a large number of arcade conversions for the platform.

But they also made use of their mastery over the technology in Nintendo’s handheld to produce several Game Boy Colour-specific takes on established properties, including Disney’s Tarzan, laser disc classic Dragon’s Lair and, yes, Alice in Wonderland. Each of these were among some of the most technically accomplished on the platform, particularly from a visual presentation standpoint.

Alice in Wonderland follows the narrative of the 1951 animated Disney movie, beginning with Alice falling asleep in a tree rather than paying attention to her history lesson, and continuing through a series of levels loosely based on some key events from the film’s narrative.

For the most part, the game unfolds as an impressively animated side-scrolling platformer, where you take control of Alice and must find your way through perilous, labyrinthine environments in order to proceed to the next area. But there are numerous sequences where the game changes to other play styles; some of these are considerably more successful than others, but you certainly can’t accuse the game of getting tired and boring over the course of its short runtime.

The platforming itself is tight and responsive. Alice’s main sprite is beautifully animated and moves fluidly, and you never feel like you’re fighting the controls. One button on the Game Boy Colour jumps; the other causes Alice to run instead of walk — the two can, naturally, be combined in order to make bigger jumps. The levels are designed in such a way that you never really need to be completely pixel-perfect in your accuracy; Alice will “snap” to moving platforms if the arc of your jump is at least in the right general area, and you’re always given plenty of room to manoeuvre.

There’s a fun sense of exploration throughout each of the platforming levels. While there’s generally only a single route to proceed through, very few of them are a straight left-to-right run to a finish line. More often than not, you’re given the feeling of navigating your way through a maze, with the critical path twisting and turning all over the place on the way to your destination. You’ll also have to find keys to open doors — which, this being Alice in Wonderland, will verbally berate you if you dare to approach them without said keys in hand.

Many of the levels feature another distinctly Alice in Wonderland twist by providing mushrooms for Alice to consume. Touching one of these will swap Alice between being normal-sized and small; the latter status means she can fit through smaller gaps but can’t jump as high. She also can’t defeat enemies by jumping on them when she is small; while enemies are relatively minimal in number over the course of the game as a whole, it is occasionally useful to be able to get them out of the way to make life a bit safer. As such, you’ll need to make sure Alice is fully grown before leaping on a foe’s head.

During Alice’s initial journey into Wonderland, the gameplay is mixed up with a couple of infuriating sequences that are based on a combination of luck and trial and error. Firstly, as Alice falls down the rabbit hole, you’ll need to ensure she avoids the various items of garbage that are floating up from beneath; secondly, once she inadvertently floods the area with her tears after losing sight of the White Rabbit, you’ll need to help her float down the impromptu “river” in a bottle while avoiding the sharp rocks and tentacle monsters that were apparently living in her bodily fluids.

Honestly, I wouldn’t blame anyone for giving up on Alice in Wonderland after the bottle level, which is an exercise in both memorisation and reactions — and significantly more difficult than anything else in the game — but persist and you’ll find the game’s most interesting section.

Once Alice arrives in Wonderland Forest, the perspective switches to top-down as you freely explore the region and encounter Wonderland’s various residents. Each of them has lost something, and Alice, being a thoroughly polite young girl, foolishly offers to go and find each and every single lost item. From here, you’ll need to visit the various stages that branch off from the main Wonderland Forest “hub”, complete a particular challenge, retrieve the lost item and ultimately find four card-themed badges that will allow you to enter the Queen of Hearts’ castle.

This whole section feels oddly reminiscent of classic Sierra adventures in atmosphere — the bright, vibrant colours of the visuals and inordinately catchy yet rather screechy music only add to this feeling — and, again, provides a great deal of variety in gameplay. One moment you’ll be platforming in a fairly conventional fashion; the next you’ll be floating around in bubbles to reach various areas; then you’ll be engaging in a top-down chase to retrieve several gate keys from the Dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

In one memorable sequence, you’ll temporarily take on the role of minor character Bill the Lizard and his ladder as you attempt to climb to the top of the White Rabbit’s house and deal with an accidentally oversized Alice. As in the movie, Bill is never seen or heard from again after Alice sneezes him into next week, but the peculiarly puzzly nature of this short sequence is certainly one of many enjoyable twists that this adventure takes along the way.

Aside from the aforementioned trial-and-error segments, the game’s only real weak spots are its boss fights, which pretty much all unfold in the same way despite involving a variety of characters: watch how boss moves back and forth, jump on its head at the right time, repeat several times. The only one of these where you’ll ever feel in danger of losing is the climactic showdown against an entire pack of the Queen of Hearts’ card soldiers; here, the pace ramps up significantly and actually becomes rather challenging towards the end, but as what is pretty much the grand finale to a not especially difficult game, you’d hope it put up a bit of a fight, at least.

Alice in Wonderland isn’t an all-time classic game destined to be fondly remembered forevermore or anything like that — and there’s arguably little reason to return to it if and when you beat it. (Unless you have a Game Boy Printer, that is, since the game allows you to create your own scenes and then print them out onto stickers — and finding the few hidden secrets in the game unlocks some additional art to use.)

But it is a competently put together, beautifully presented game that serves as a solid reminder of why, when it comes to video game preservation, we shouldn’t just focus on the “big names”. Titles like this are interesting to explore every so often too — and, indeed, after greatly enjoying my time with Alice in Wonderland, despite its irritating segments, I can’t help but wonder what other relatively unknown treats the humble Game Boy Colour has waiting for me to discover in its vast library.

Well, only one way to find out, I guess…

More about Alice in Wonderland

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