Into the Vault: The Little Mermaid (NES)
I don’t think you can overestimate how important and influential The Little Mermaid was to Disney and animation overall. Arguably, Disney was in a pretty precarious position in the late 80s, nothing was hitting the highs of earlier decades, especially in the animation department. But then The Little Mermaid was released and suddenly Disney was hugely relevant again and the Disney renaissance started (and later stalled then started again, but that’s a whole other story). Without The Little Mermaid, it’s very arguable most of the fondly remembered classics of the 90s and even the early 2000s including movies that weren’t big hits at the time but have garnered loyal followings such as A Goofy Movie and Emperor’s New Groove.
In the world of licensed video games, The Little Mermaid hasn’t had that same seminal impact but has still managed to be relevant pretty much to modern-day. Ariel is a featured character in nearly any Disney mobile game that comes out that is focused on Disney IP as a whole, she’s been a major part of the mega-successful Kingdom Hearts series, and actually has a number of games she stars in ranging from the NES days to the Nintendo DS, which is quite the staying power for a movie that came out in 1989 and had a couple of forgettable straight to video sequels.
And while some of the later titles are probably disappointments (I say probably as I haven’t personally played them, but I do own pretty much every Little Mermaid game and will get around to reviewing all of them at some point), they got started off on the right foot for the most part with the NES game, which came out two years after the movie. And that’s probably pretty key here. A lot of games tied to specific movies often come out in the same release period as the movie. In a way, it certainly makes sense because obviously you want to capitalize on the movie while it’s fresh in people’s minds. But for game development, it’s a horrible idea. You don’t get to see the finished product before your game based on it releases which depending on how much access you have could be extremely different from the movie and it’s an extremely firm and often tight deadline to get the game out.
Little Mermaid for the NES takes the odd route of sort of retconning the movie? The basic premise is the same, Ariel gets turned into a human and she and Prince Eric fall in love, etc but in the game, Ursula, apparently not that invested in whether Ariel actually fulfills her contract, is just content to capture all of Ariel’s undersea friends, so Ariel must turn back into a mermaid to go rescue them and defeat Ursula. I think that would’ve been a pretty interesting way for the movie to go honestly.
This is a Disney game in the 90s made by Capcom. Is it one of their strongest efforts? Not really. It’s not quite the masterpieces that games like Ducktales and Rescue Rangers are, but it’s a pretty decent effort nonetheless. As Ariel you go through six stages, each with bosses to ultimately fight Ursula and your primary form of offense is a tail whip that generates bubbles that freeze enemies and can turn some into projectiles, which is key for literally every boss fight. You can upgrade these each level with pearls found in treasure chests but the upgrades aren’t permanent and the chests can only be opened with certain objects that sometimes it’s a bit of a puzzle to figure out how to get them to open the chests.
Functionally, The Little Mermaid is a fairly decent 2D action game. It’s bright and colorful, the sprite art is pretty well done and basically everything looks pretty close to what you’d expect an 8-bit game to be capable of when trying to resemble a movie. The music is surprisingly mostly original stuff and I don’t think it works very well. The title screen music is from the movie and is a pretty charming 8-bit rendition. I really wish they had done that for the stages, there’s literally tons of music they could’ve used.
I should note I played this on my Retron 5 using an 8bitdo Super NES controller so while actually playing it on an NES with might be a little different, it seemed to respond and control reasonably well. The biggest problems with the game are just ones that are very common for that era especially. The game isn’t particularly long (you can finish it in under an hour, but that’s really no different from other Capcom Disney games of the time and many other NES games in general), and there are definitely some hit detection issues where I seemingly didn’t touch an enemy but was still damaged by it, but this wasn’t to an egregious degree.
So ultimately, The Little Mermaid for the NES isn’t quite up to the top tier Capcom classics of the 90s, but it’s a pretty solid effort and probably worth revisiting for a quick dose of nostalgia if you have fond memories of it (as long as it’s not too much of an investment i.e. you already have something that you can easily play it on without too much hassle). It should be noted there is also a Gameboy version that doesn’t have color but is otherwise pretty much the same experience so that’s an option as well. That’s all for now, see ya real soon!