The Making of Aladdin
despite a crushing deadline, Virgin turned disney’s Aladdin into a Mega drive classic. david Bishop and William Anderson tell Rory Milne how the firm created its platformer in just over three months
By the early Nineties, commercial pressures had transformed the UK games industry from a sector driven by lone developers into one that relied on large companies with global aspirations. Virgin Games was one such firm, having set up a Californian studio at the turn of the decade, and it wasn’t shy about hiring British talent, as former Virgin US head designer David Bishop recalls. “We had some big UK developers of the time like Steve Crow and Dave Perry. They had been working in England, and we said: ‘Do you want to come and live and work in California?’ So we got them out, one after another, and formed this great team that ended up doing a bunch of different platform games.”
But as well as platformers such as Global Gladiators and Cool Spot, Virgin’s US arm was also working on a beat-‘em-up intended to cash in on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze, which ended up being instrumental to the studio securing an equally hot movie licence. “A guy joined us from the traditional animation world called Andy Luckey,” David recollects, “and we were working with him on this Dynoblaze demo – Dynoblaze were these dinosaurs on skates. Then there was a company up in LA doing Ren & Stimpy – the first big show that used digital inking. So we were using traditional animation and then scanning and digitally painting the frames, and we were getting really good results. So part of our pitch to Disney was the Dynoblaze demo – to show what we thought we could bring to Aladdin to make it stand out from other games.”
However, due to a stalled attempt by Blue Sky Software, the Aladdin Mega
Drive licence came with a tight deadline, as Virgin’s lead level designer at the time William Anderson recalls. “What we were told by Disney and Sega was that they didn’t approve of a thing that they were seeing out of Blue Sky, and they were getting pissed off with it. The reason that Disney and Sega brought it to us was that we had done Cool Spot in six and a half months, they had been spinning their wheels with Blue Sky and they wanted to have this out for the VHS movie release.”
A second condition of landing the Aladdin deal required Virgin to produce a design document, which resulted in the team spending days in a secure location in Florida doing research. “I remember being in a locked room with a guard watching a Laserdisc of the film,” David reveals. “Disney wouldn’t let us take a copy of it away, so we had to basically go up there and watch the film over and over again. It wasn’t that hard to pick the scenes that we were going to base the game on – there was so much
I remember being in a locked room with a guard watching a Laserdisc of the film. Disney wouldn’t let us take a copy of it David Bishop
content in the film that it was more what we weren’t going to put in. We got the whole design done in days.”
Before finalising the deal, however, Disney asked to see Virgin’s proposed designs for the first level of its adaptation, which didn’t yet exist. “I was called into David Bishop’s office because I was leading the gameplay design for Jungle Book,” says William, “and he scared the crap out of me. He said, ‘What are you working on?’ I said, ‘I’m working on Jungle Book.’ He said, ‘No you’re not,’ and gave me this long pause. I was pissing my pants, but he was like: ‘You’re now working on Aladdin. How do you feel about going home and coming back in the morning with a level design? We’ve got less than 24 hours to put a level on Disney’s desk to get approval for the project.’”
This time limit proved to be enough, though William concedes that a consignment of Disney assets made his task easier. “Disney gave me these long sheets of full-colour images; I think they were the scrolling backgrounds that it used for the movie. It was a lot easier thinking up level stuff when you could think: ‘Okay, this is the environment.’ I mean, obviously I had to break them up into a platform level system, but having those was key. So I came back with the first Agrabah level, Virgin sent it off to Disney and it signed off on it.”
But where Disney played an oversight role on its licensed games, the studio viewed Aladdin as a chance to take a more hands-on role. “Disney was very into the idea of having its animators down in Florida that worked on the film being involved in the project,” David notes. “Some of them took to it like a duck to water, and others couldn’t get on with it at all, but what we ended up getting had such a different, fluid feel, because everyone had basically used Deluxe Paint until then. We had a talented animator called Mike Dietz liaising with them, and
then there was a lot of reviewing and feedback before we got what we needed.”
As Virgin’s Aladdin team expanded across two states, the talented coder creating the game’s engine found himself co-ordinating the output of the project’s other contributors. “Dave Perry worked 16 hours a day,” David discloses. “People would just come in and out of his office checking in code and assets, so he was very much the hub of the whole thing, but everyone on the team was best of breed.”
A crucial member of the team was level and gameplay designer William Anderson, who reflects on the reasons for arming Aladdin with apples. “We wanted to add more action to it, and the idea of him throwing stuff really added to the game. Since we had come off Cool Spot – and because we were coming off of that game engine – it was just finding something to use as part of that same play mechanic instead of trying a whole new thing. So the apples were a long-range weapon, plus they reflected the theme of Aladdin being a street urchin.”
Aladdin he was also given the means to get into sword fights. “Our focus was making a solid platform game in the
It was the most stressful game because it was three and a half months to get it done William Anderson
Aladdin world,” William says, “so the sword fighting was just adding a little more energy to that. But no one sat down and said: ‘We’re going to have sword fighting be a major component of it,’ it was just one of the components that we had.”
A third weapon – of sorts – was subsequently implemented as William and his level design team added a camel that when jumped on would spit at and take down foes. “It was putting something in that was cute more than anything else,” William argues. “We just saw the camels and thought:
‘What can we do with those type of characters?’ I forget who came up with the idea of jumping on them, but I think it came from one of the jokes that Robin Williams told in the cartoon – he said something about: ‘Camels – they spit!’”
Equally humorous was a stage based on the Aladdin movie’s inspired introduction of Robin Williams’ genie. “We were quite pleased with how that turned out,“David enthuses, “because it was a bit like the dream sequence in Dumbo. It was quite ‘druggy,’ and I think we did a reasonable job of capturing that.”
Bonus levels were also devised for Aladdin – unlike the Virgin platformers that preceded it – including stages featuring monkey sidekick Abu and a power-up dispensing fruit machine.
“The previous games we had done had a certain amount of repetition because we were doing one platform level after another without breaking,” William concedes. “We realised from looking at games coming out of Sega that we were going to need more diversity.
What we wanted to do was expand upon the product, but do it in such a way that we weren’t creating levels that were going to take up too much time.”
In fact, no part of Aladdin’s development could take too long, even down to the last minute testing done by Sega before giving approval for the game’s release. “Normally when you submitted a game to Sega, Sega Of Europe would play the game and approve it, and then Sega Of America and finally Sega Of Japan.” David explains. “But Sega actually had all three divisions playing Aladdin concurrently on different continents. They even had the Japanese people come in during a national holiday because time was pushing on.”
Following Aladdin’s release on the Mega Drive alongside the home release of the movie, the game accrued sales in the millions and received top marks in many reviews, although David has bittersweet memories of its launch. “We always felt we could have done a better job if we had more time, but within the time that we had we felt like we had produced something that looked different, played well and paid homage to the film.”
Looking back at Aladdin now, William Anderson highlights the game as his best despite the pressure involved in designing for it. “It was the most stressful game because it was three and a half months to get it done, but it holds up the best as far as my portfolio is concerned because it was the one that we did with the most diversity.”
In closing, David Bishop can think of few changes that he would make to Aladdin, but he does sing the praises of the team that he created the game with. “I think it stands the test of time as well as any game has, and I wouldn’t change that much. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a more talented bunch of people. I was just along for the ride in some respects, but it was fantastic.”
Thanks to David and William for sharing their memories.
» [Mega Drive] Virgin used a demo of a project called Dynoblaze as part of its pitch for Aladdin. on » David Bishop was head designer classics. Aladdin and various other Virgin
» William Anderson working on a level design during his time with
» [Mega Drive] The early levels in Aladdin have camels that spit at guards when they’re jumped on.
» [Mega Drive] Aladdin’s apples provide humour when thrown at overweight guards.
Agrabah stage » The original designs for Aladdin’s the finished level. involve more gameplay than in THE know » Publisher: Sega » Developer: Virgin Games » released: 1993 » Platform: Mega Drive, Various » Platform: Platformer
» [Mega Drive] In a scene straight out of the movie, Aladdin leaps over a sea of flowing lava. » [Mega Drive] The penultimate boss fight in Aladdin pits the protagonist against Jafar’s feathered stooge Iago. » [Mega Drive] A living, teleporting statue provides Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders stage with a tricky boss fight. » [Mega Drive]
To escape from
Aladdin has to the Sultan’ use moving masonry as ste