Back during the NES era, Capcom produced a string of high quality licensed games based on Disney properties. Its DuckTales game would prove to be the most highly regarded, even earning itself a modern remaster, and they would eventually package quite a few of them together in The Disney Afternoon Collection for systems like the PS4 and Xbox One. However, among the many Capcom Disney titles of the time, you don’t hear too much about their take on The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid certainly does start off strangely, choosing to diverge from the plot of the movie to create an alternate telling of its events. After turning human to court Prince Eric, Ariel is called back into the ocean before they can wed so she can stop the sea witch Ursula who has mind-controlled many of the fish in the sea. It’s never really explained why only Ariel can stop her, but she does at least prove to be pretty capable as she goes through the places Ursula has already conquered and defeats her more powerful minions. Like many of the Disney Capcom games, The Little Mermaid builds itself around one central mechanic, in this case being the ability to bubble your enemies and throw them. With a swish of her tail, Ariel can encase most foes in a bubble that makes them safe to pick up and launch in most any direction but down. She doesn’t always have to rely on trapping baddies though, as the levels contain many seashells she can carry around and use in their stead, and the shells are also able to open treasure chests that contain helpful upgrades. Ariel can also go digging with her tail in the sand, a great way to find extra seashells if you accidentally waste or lose one of them.
When you start off, Ariel’s tail swish is pretty bad. The range of her bubbles is small and even the weakest enemies take two swishes to fully trap in a bubble. It’s not always entirely reliable either, meaning that if you don’t grab any upgrades soon, you’ll have to be very careful how you approach your foes. Thankfully, the first Red Pearl you find will make the bubble ability really good, and from there the upgrades are basically overkill. You can make the bubbles even better, capable of trapping even the larger foes, and you can increase the range of your swish with Green Pearls. The upgrade system feels like the main point of the game at times, with levels usually being designed mostly as sequences of treasure chests that you’ll have to find a way to break open to power yourself up. The power-ups aren’t really needed, but the game is a lot less enjoyable without the first power upgrade and too easy after getting it. Levels are short and most of the tasks found in them are optional diversions to make your tail swish stronger, so if you have all you need or just feel you’re good enough you don’t need any upgrades, levels are quickly completed and pretty bland. It doesn’t help that the game later adds empty treasure chests to the mix, further discouraging you from even trying to engage its upgrade system. It does seem like the game might be designed to be pretty accessible to the little girls who might want to play as the mermaid princess, but the weak starting attack feels like it might annoy a kid who isn’t going to be too good at solving the tiny puzzles around the treasure chests.
The weakness of the starting attack is exacerbated by how the game punishes you for dying. Surprisingly, while the game mostly feels pretty accessible for kids, its pretty stingy when it comes to health. You start off with three hearts and lose one when you get hit, and there are no obvious health pick-ups to be found. There are a few extra lives in plain sight, but for the most part, if you want to heal up, you have to uncover some obtuse hidden secrets. The levels do somewhat try to hint at where a secret might be, but these secrets sometimes have point items instead, which contribute to a point system that is only useful for racking up extra lives. After all, when you do beat the game, you don’t even get to see your final score. Dying is surprisingly punishing. Levels usually have one checkpoint but are so short it’s not too hard to get to where you were before, but they completely erase all your upgrades, necessitating the risky treasure chest opening process if you want to have a better time playing.
Outside of hinging themselves so strongly on the upgrade collecting mechanic, the levels in the game aren’t too bad. They all feel distinct from one another, even though Ariel’s interaction with the world mostly just involves swimming around and hitting stuff with the tail swish or the stuff she’s grabbed. The game does try to introduce some unique aspects for each level type though. Some areas have her flop on land for a brief period, perhaps just so they could get in some slippery ice for the ice level, and there are more than a few treasure chest puzzles based around whatever the level’s current gimmick happens to be. You’ll see a few enemies consistently, but they introduce the more difficult foes gradually and keep them unique to certain areas so that the levels don’t feel the same. The bosses feel a bit less varied. While they pull on different species and have different arenas, they all are focused around throwing stuff you’ve bubbled at the boss save for the Walrus boss, where the bubbling isn’t required. Some of them put up a pretty decent fight though, usually by crowding the area you have to swim in, but the Walrus boss is hilariously easy and the Shark at the start mostly seems to exist to teach you how bosses are going to work from then on. These at least seem pretty good for the game’s potentially young audience, and they aren’t really boring for an older player, just a little bit too easy.
That’s pretty much the game’s issue. It’s short and easy, with there not being much to do outside of swimming to the end and sometimes stopping your progress to grab upgrades, bubble up enemies, or throw seashells around.
THE VERDICT: The Little Mermaid doesn’t seem to be quite on par with the other Disney Capcom games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, but it’s not because it’s a failure in any way. The Little Mermaid bases itself around the mechanic of bubbling enemies and throwing things, but it doesn’t really go too far with the idea. It has the basic implementation of the idea without any of the real substance to it that would make it a worthwhile experience, but it does at least leave itself pretty open to being playable for the younger Little Mermaid fans.
And so, I give The Little Mermaid for the Nintendo Entertainment System…
An AVERAGE rating. A quick an inoffensive experience, The Little Mermaid just doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to leave a lasting impression. The game focuses a little too hard on its upgrade mechanic, with the basic attack being a bit too weak to be enjoyable and the simplest upgrade to it making it so good that you don’t need to really bother with any more treasure chests. Since every level seems to be more a cavalcade of opportunities to get more upgrades rather than providing barriers to your progression, the game can become even easier than it already is if you chose to ignore them, but then the bosses often checkpoint you at a point where you can’t get any upgrades for their battle.
The Little Mermaid is a cute game and fine for younger audiences, but it seems more memorable for its weird divergence from the source material and the catchy retro beats rather than the substance of its underutilized gameplay mechanics.