It's hard to overstate how unforgiving ’90s game culture was for kids. Unlike today’s diversified gaming landscape, the 16-bit era was built almost exclusively for children. Video games had barely evolved past their toy company roots and while consoles were a common feature in many American homes, your average game library was typically limited to the free game that came with the console (unheard of these days) and a few titles added during the year for holidays, birthdays, and the occasional tantrum. This meant you were expected to play a new game for weeks if not months. And if that game sucked or was extremely hard, you were screwed. There was no Google or YouTube. Your only salvation was the occasional guide in a gaming magazine or someone’s older brother.
Aladdin has an interesting place in collective gamer nostalgia because there were two versions. There was the SNES game from Capcom and a Sega Genesis version from Virgin Games, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary on November 11, 1993. The key gameplay difference between the two is Sega’s Aladdin wields a sword and can hack through enemies, whereas the more kid-friendly SNES version is pure platforming. The SNES version is also way easier, taking only a few hours to complete. The Genesis version is the stuff of legend, a “walk uphill both ways” tale old-time gamers like to share. But why was it so hard? Or so popular?
The popularity of Aladdin is easier to answer. It debuted in 1993, putting it in the back half of the Genesis’ life cycle with a robust install base. The Disney movie was a gargantuan hit, bringing in more than $500 million at the box office the previous year, which made it the most successful animated film at the time. The VHS version, which also launched in 1993, eventually sold 25 million copies. The Genesis game sold more than 4 million copies, making it the third-best-selling title behind Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
It wasn’t just riding a zeitgeist, Aladdin is a legit gem for the Sega Genesis. Aesthetically, it was miles ahead of its SNES counterpart thanks to the pioneering Digicel animation style, which took hand-drawn animations and turned them into fully functional game characters. The results were stunning. Aladdin made players feel like they were playing a cartoon.
Unfortunately for players, the care and consideration placed on the aesthetics didn’t always transfer over to level design. Aladdin was full of peaks and valleys, skill-wise. The Agrabah market is a breezy romp, but the flying carpet cave escape is the stuff of nightmares. Disney and Virgin stuck with this template for future projects, too. The Sega Genesis version of The Lion King looks just as stunning but is even harder to play.
Although the SNES version of Aladdin is generally considered to be the inferior version based on looks, the Capcom team allegedly crunched hard after the Genesis version debuted at CES 1993 to try and close the graphics gap. It’s also more consistent in its gameplay. It’s a shorter, easier game without the schizophrenic difficulty spikes of the Genesis version. The final boss in both games, Jafar in his giant serpent form, is much more dynamic on SNES as well. In the Genesis version, Aladdin’s sword is useless against the slithering enemy. This is an odd choice considering the entire game is built around slashing enemies, and the only effective attack against Jafar is… throwing apples at him?
Aladdin is a Genesis legend for a reason. In an era where movie adaptations made for some god-awful games, Aladdin set the bar high thanks to its innovative tech and aesthetics that still hold up today. It’s easily one of the best-looking games of its era and holds a special place in the hearts of 90s kids everywhere, even if the magic carpet level led to a few smashed controllers. (Sorry, Mom.)