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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Retro Review Tuesday: Mickey's Safari in Letterland

You may be asking yourself what grown people are doing playing and reviewing an educational game intended for 3 to 6 year olds. To you people I say, you clearly aren't having enough fun in life.


Back in the early days of gaming some poor unfortunate souls had parents who thought that the age old justification for playing video games all day, "improves hand eye coordination" was not enough of a reason to let us sit in front of them all day. So these parents with the help of some misguided game companies foisted upon us a slew of "edugames". Some of these games were fantastic like Carmen Sandiego. Some were not so awesome like Mario's Fun With Numbers. Some were somewhere in between, that's where Mickey's Safari in Letterland falls.

Mickey's Safari in Letterland Title


Your storyline is simple, Mickey and Goofy have become archaeologists, apparently in Letterland to become an archaeologist one simply need wear the appropriate outfit, no bothering with a degree or any of that pesky education. The impeccably dressed Mickey and Goofy are in the employ of the Letterland museum curated by Ludwig Von Drake. For reasons that aren't completely clear Mr.Von Drake sends them out looking for the ancient letters of the alphabet which have been hidden in 6 different locations across the world.

This is a very basic platformer for the NES so as one would probably guess, the controls are quite simple. Mickey moves side to side with the D-pad, Jumps with and swings his net with B and A. The controls are fairly responsive not hair trigger, but not any sort of significant delay.

I think this is supposed to be a muscle but he should probably have a doctor checkout that arm.
Graphically it's lacking a bit. There's a limited color palette a lot of repeating graphics and choppy animations, nothing too terrible, but it was 1993 and there was a Disney budget for this, it could have and should have looked better. The graphics do have a few high points,using the term high point very liberally. The still shots of the of the words you spell feature some hilariously absurd looking depictions of every day animals and objects. Mickey himself has quite a few funny expressions and animations for example, what I like to refer to as sneaky pimp walking Mickey. Send him over an icy pond and you'll see what I mean.

Musically it seems fine at first, just your standard cartoony sounding platformer music. As the game progresses and it endlessly repeats it begins to morph into the sort of obnoxious cacaphony of 8-bit horror that drives men mad. If the music doesn't get you,  Mickey speaks a bit and his laughs and shouts of "oh boy!" can easily send you over the edge and into insanity. However his pronunciation of the individual letters can prove pretty amusing of your the easily amused sort (like me),so you might want to refrain from turning off the sound immediately.


 You start off by selecting your difficulty, Normal, Advanced or Super Advanced. On Normal you only collect a small part of the alphabet and Mickey does a lot of things automatically. On Advanced you collect more of the alphabet(though still not all of it) and have to in control all of your own movements. On Super advanced you have to make all your movements and find the entire alphabet.

This cloud is kind of freaking me out to be honest.

After making the tough decision about difficulty you're brought to a map screeen where you choose which area you want to head to. You can go to the Yukon, The Swamp, the Pyramids,  The Caribbean , the Forest and the Jungle. Seems a bit odd that this "letterland" has regions with similar climates, topography and the same names as our earth regions. Though I suppose the  3 continents easily conveys that this is an entirely new and different fantasy land, created by someone just bursting with creativity!

How Mickey fits a tablet that's nearly as big as he is in that net certainly stretches the laws of physics

  One you've chosen your destination, you wander looking for the ancient hidden letters the museum is after.  Hidden really being quite subjective as many of the lost letters as sitting in plain sight, though it is covered in some sort of ancient gravy preventing you from seeing what it is before you bring it back to the museum. So you just sidle on up to the sprite which looks like a giant frosted rice crispy treat pull out your net and grab it. I do feel compelled to point out that the letter is stationary so I'm not quite sure why you have to net it. But well I guess it's one of the ancient mysteries of Letterland.

He wants the V

 On your way to the ancient letter you can also net three random letter balloons in each level which will spell a randomly determined three letter word. Strangely you don't have to grab these in order to get your letter relic and continue with the game. Though if you do, Mickey will spell out the word, though not say it, and you'll see a completely ridiculous illustration of whatever animal or object you found. Additional if you're a "make your own" fun sort of person, you take bets on what the word will be before you collect all three (which is totally a real thing people would do with an NES educational game). Interesting to note that the game designers apparently thought small children could only spell simple 3 letter words, but thought reading words like museum and Caribbean would pose no issues.

Balancing balls is so 19th century, 20th century seals balanced anthropomorphic mice

Getting these letter can't be all easy of course. So, depending on the region you've chosen you're faced with different adversaries including, but not limited to: penguins, anthropomorphic mushrooms, snakes and porcupines. Of course none of these things can actually hurt you or kill you. They just get in the way and push Mickey around like a school yard bully, they'd probably take his lunch money if he  had any. Additionally you can  fall from a significant distance which will slow you down for a bit while you brush yourself off. But more importantly it will cause you to see the Mickey falling on his ass animation, which quite frankly is 80% of the reason I ever play this game.

Whether you bet on your word, or even bother collecting the extra letters for it once you've collected the ancient letter you're taken to a screen where you'll see Goofy operating some sort of letter cleaning machine. You pop the letter in and in a few seconds it pops out clean and readable. This is also a good time to take bets on which letter is would be. After the letter is revealed you have to put it  in the right spot in the alphabet. Then you start the process over again.

Seems like putting them in order would be of more educational value/less busy work if the outline wasn't there...

So basically you go through each level 4 or 5 times collecting the ancient letter and making words if you feel like it. That's the whole game right there.Once you've made the entire alphabet you take your carefully organized letters and throw them into a pile in front of the museum and Ludwig. Meanwhile the alphabet song plays and the balloon letters cross the screen. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done.


Mickey's Safari in Letterland honestly fails in a lot of areas. Educationally it teaches you the alphabet, and then just barely. There's the added spelling words component, but it's optional and even if you choose to do them, Mickey says the letters but never the word, certainly a missed education opportunity, especially given how poorly rendered many of the illustrative representations of the words are. As a game it's boring and tedious. However, if you're willing to look at with the right sort of eye, you can have a lot of fun with this one. My siblings and I had endless fun slamming Mickey on to his bottom and making fun of his less than standard pronunciation and diction. As we've aged we enjoy taking bets on what the net word or letter will be, getting fairly intense about it. The fun is there, you've just got to uncover it.


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