I was fortunate enough to have grown up during the so-called Disney Renaissance, a highly creative and lucrative time in The Walt Disney Company's animation history that began in 1989 and lasted for about a decade. This period marked the final days when animators still drew on paper. They were the years that continued the company's tradition of giving age-old stories new life with beautifully crafted art and unforgettable music.

At the same time, there was another renaissance of sorts happening inside of the Music department at my elementary school. Every May, we had the Spring Show, a three-night dance and song recital, complete with costumes and a band accompaniment. It was mandatory. Thanks to these wonderful Disney songs coming from the minds of musical geniuses like Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice, we now had to sing/dutifully recite the lyrics to whatever hit Disney animated movie was playing in theaters. I remember "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast was one number that we practiced every week for two straight months, right up to when the volunteer moms were fitting us into our precious waiter suits with handkerchiefs and painting makeup on our unhappy little faces. (Those makeup moms were cruel; the more I fought, the harder they laughed until I gave up and stood helpless, pawing at my cheeks afterwards like a dog with an endless itch.)

Despite the tiring lessons, the embarrassing outfits, and the endless smatterings of rouge, at the precise moment when we lined up in a single file outside of the gymnasium, none of us would ever be able to remember a goddamn word past the chorus. Some shrugged and went back to caring for their Tamagotchis, while others just confused each other more with their own take on how they thought Lumiere the candelabra sang to Chip the teacup. As for myself, I was still trying to rub off the girly junk those horrible women put on me.

With butterflies in our stomachs, as well as Doritos, M&M's, and whatever other sugary foods that parents fed us to keep us awake, we'd all nervously waddle through the back doors and into the hot white spotlight of the stage, murmuring the verses and belting out the chorus, mimicking the dance routine of the person in front of us because they had a better view of our Music teacher who was doing all of the choreography offstage. She was a large woman, so her moves couldn't be missed.

To torture us more, these nightmarish kid Disney renditions were professionally videotaped so that copies could later be sold to our parents, forever memorializing the horrors until the cassette tapes magically disappeared whenever relatives or friends came over (sometimes never to be found again). I remember having to watch, as the camera zoomed in on me, myself mouthing so wordlessly that I appeared to be grazing on air or doing my best Pac-Man impression.

After I had butchered all of the songs, I'd be so drained that when I returned to the classroom, I'd fall fast asleep with my friend's Game Gear still in my hands. I would stay that way until a teacher woke me up to take me to the final curtain call or my parents gave up, cut their professional video tape loses, and just carried me to the car to go home.

I never let those shameful performances take away from my appreciation and love of the movies, however. Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King are still some of my favorite movies of all time. But there's one film from this era that I love the most, one in particular that I never grow tired of, one that I'll never stop singing poorly.

The Little Mermaid, the film that ushered in the start of the Disney Renaissance, is my favorite Disney movie. There, I said it.

I've always felt a connection to the sea; there's just something romantic and soothing about watching waves lap up against a rocky jetty, about the spraying salt air that makes your eyes heavier and your heart lighter. It was that relationship, born from long Jersey Shore summers, which first piqued my interest in the movie. As much as Ariel wanted to walk on land, I wanted to swim in the sea and join in a crustacean conga line already in progress. (The farther off coast from Atlantic City's floating brown foam, the better the conga.)

The Little Mermaid was an idea that began a long time ago at Disney. In fact, Walt Disney, himself, worked on the project for a while before it was put on hold. According to the documentary on the Special Edition DVD, the original idea for the film was darker and more in keeping with the ending of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. In the original story, the prince does not marry the little mermaid, so the sea witch's curse cannot be lifted, and the only way for her to survive is by killing him. When she refuses to do this, she dissolves into sea foam.

This is one change that I'm glad Disney made. I would've seen Ariel's body drifting along every time I vacationed, and then I probably wouldn't be writing this article right now.

I cannot possibly bring up The Little Mermaid without dredging up its whole phallic controversy. A concerned parent at the time complained that one of King Triton's castle spirals, seen in the background of the theatrical poster and VHS cover, looked startlingly similar to a penis. Why is it always the mothers who find the hidden dicks? Why can't they be looking for hidden Mickeys with their children?

That Ursula's hand is reaching towards the offending spiral doesn't help any, her eyes burning with a fiery desire for the glittering golden pillar.

Michelle Couch of Mesa, Arizona witnessed the offending cover at a grocery store chain called Bashas. The LA Times reported the story on July 27, 1990:

"A supermarket chain has pulled copies of the animated movie "The Little Mermaid" off its shelves because a customer complained that artwork on the cover contains an offensive phallic symbol."

"Because of the complaint, we've pulled the tape pending investigation," said Becca Anderson, a spokeswoman for Bashas' grocery stores. The tape remained off the shelves Thursday and it was uncertain when it would return, she said." (link)

A second woman, this time from Arkansas, named Janet Gilmer actually filed a lawsuit against Disney several years later. The following is an excerpt taken from the court documents: "Specifically, plaintiff alleges that the front cover of the plastic case in which The Little Mermaid was distributed in 1989 & 1990 contains a depiction of an erect penis on one of the spires of the castle drawn between the two main characters." The case was later withdrawn.

As a result of the complaints, Disney circumcised the castle's controversial undersea architecture, while the DVD re-release removed the castle completely.

The final renaissance that I want to talk about is Disney's partnership with Capcom, which was consummated in 1988 with the publishing of a Nintendo Entertainment System game called Mickey Mousecapade. Hudson Soft originally developed the adventure game in Japan.

Capcom's first in-house developed Disney game came in 1990 with DuckTales, a classic pogo stick platformer that many players still hold dear to this day.

Also in 1990, Rescue Rangers, one of my personal favorites, had gamers going through platforming levels cooperatively as Chip and Dale.

Fun Fact: Capcom used to have a tip line with game counselors available from 8 AM to 5 PM PST (408-727-1665). I'm positive that none of the calls concerned The Little Mermaid.

The next game in the partnership was Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, which was based on rides at the Disneyland theme park.

The Little Mermaid followed in July of 1991. It's considered to be the first Disney Princess game, a distinction that you would think might conflict with a genuinely well-made gaming experience. Miraculously, this game does not look down on girl gamers or make boys never want to play. The Little Mermaid does the unthinkable and proves that movie-based games don't have to be entirely empty exploitative capsules of the Hollywood advertising hype machine.

Released two years after the movie, you could say that the game doesn't rely on any of that media hype at all, actually. The Little Mermaid is simply a fun game that anyone can really pick up and enjoy. What a concept!

The game does not follow the events of the movie but rather picks up before Ariel is about to get hitched to her lover boy, Eric. She finds out that evil bloated sea hag Ursula is mucking things up again, so Ariel bails the sailor and dives back under the sea once again.

In place of platforming elements, the player maneuvers Ariel around the ocean's obstacles through coral reefs and haunted shipwrecks, and the relaxed controls give off the impression of gliding through the water. (Holding down B will make Ariel swim faster.)

At times, Ariel can hop out of the sea to reach items on dry land, and the controls appropriately change to feeling as if she's flopping around the deck of a boat like a fish. It's all rather intuitive and what we've come to expect from a Capcom Nintendo Entertainment System title.

Ariel attacks by throwing air bubbles at enemies to trap them. She can then go underwater bowling using other incoming fishy baddies as her pins. Fish-trapped bubbles can be thrown not only horizontally but also vertically and diagonally, sort of like the bouncy balls you pick up in Rescue Rangers. (Where this endless supply of air bubbles comes from, I cannot say with any certainty. My only hope is that Prince Eric takes full advantage of Ariel's time away to head to a seaside pharmacy and stock up on Gas-X. Girl's got serious gastrointestinal issues.)

Ariel has plenty problems of her own. It seems that Ursula has taken control over all of the ocean's inhabitants, and so they're all out to get her. Fish are fickle creatures.

DENIZENS OF THE DEEP

Underwater Mine: Momentarily stall them with your bubble attack, or put them out of commission with a conch shell. Just don't get spiked, Ariel. The fishermen at the pier will try to offer you free booze. But if they ask you to hold their fishing poles, don't do it! It's an old seaman's trick!
Blue Underwater Mine: Comes reigning down at you from Ursula's cauldron.
Orange Fish: The tamest of the fish, these guys swim along in a straight path, minding their own business. Tell these pacifists where to shove their aquatic Amnesty International membership cards!
Blue Fish: Watch out! Some blues will attack if you approach them. A fast bubble trap will do the trick.
Green Fish: Green fish appear during the shark boss fight. These greens aren't aggressive, making them easy to pick up and murder.
Light Blue Fish: Ursula's fish minions; these guys do nothing out of the ordinary but move to and fro with the changing tides. Kill whitey!
Red Fish: This fiery fish will charge when you swim nearby. Blow out his flame with a splash, and chow down if you like your seafood spicy.
Yellow Fish: Approach, and they'll speed ahead. Yer yellow!
Ice Block Fish: Fresh, never frozen, they ain't—wait until the ice thaws to wrap them up with a bubble for a speedy shipment back to the frozen section.
Fluke: It's not a total fluke that your attacks will only freeze this flathead for a few seconds. Cool Hand Fluke can take a beating and keep on ticking.
Shrimp: These shrimp will dash at you. Trap them in a bubble to fry 'em, and then dip 'em in some cocktail sauce.
Helmet Crab: You've heard of hermit crabs. Well, these are helmet crabs. You can't Bubble Bobble these guys and send them off to the fish market; all you can hope to do is stop them for a bit with your tail attack. A conch shell, though, will permanently knock their blocks off.
Poltergills: Exorcise these haunted halibut by splashing off their disguise and bubbling the blubber butts beneath the bed sheets.
Squid: This sucker will shoot pellets at you. If you have two red power pearls, you can wrap this squid up for bait with a splash from your mer-tail. I wish I had a mer-tail.
Sleeping Fatty: While this big fatty sweetly dreams about his next meal, he'll breathe out tiny fishies from his mouth. Come too close, and the cause of his sleep apnea will attack. Kiss him goodnight with a charged bubble or two conch hits, and then take care of the little ones. Better yet, stay far back and shoot a charged bubble to be done with them all. They gotta learn, and Ariel's gonna teach 'em!
Light Green Seahorse: Get too close and you'll spook this horsy. Giddy up!
Dark Green Seahorse: Same as above, except they're allowed to tell jokes and say words that the light green seahorses can't.
Blue Seahorse: The most common of the seahorses, they can be spotted in a number of levels and during the first fight against Ursula.
Red Starfish: Starfish will shoot for the stars, then come falling down all around you. Your tail attack can slow their rise and fall, and a fish bubble will send them crashing. Here's a sadistic thing to try out: Hold a conch over the area where the starfish come out of, and wait for the great starfish genocide to commence.
Blue Starfish: Also seen during your first fight against Ursula. She's got a whole blue theme going on. I admire that.
Sea Urchin: Growing right out of the sand, these bottom feeders don't bother anyone, but a few contain little fishies that'll go to town on poor Ariel if she's not careful. Sadistic thing to try out #2: Pick up a conch shell, hold it directly above a sea urchin's opening, and wait. Instant fish sticks!
Big Mouth Ass: This fish will do a swim-by, scattering four tiny fishies from his mouth.
Squirter: These freaky fish could learn a thing or two about manners. Somebody needs to explain the concept behind "swapping spit" to them, because Ariel's not impressed. Make them drool permanently with a splash from a fish bubble or conch shell.
Crabs: As a rule to live by, stay away from all crabs not on a seafood restaurant's menu. Speaking of, I love those seafood rolls. You know, the bread with the stuff inside? I'd make a meal out of those alone.
Lil' Gill: These tiny fish fellows travel in schools and can't be picked up as bubbles.
Poor Unfortunate Soul: These sea creatures make for good foreshadowing in the room before your battle with Ursula. You can't hurt them, but they can hurt you. Lose, and you may just join their numbers.

"The dinglehoppers and snarfblatts give you bonus points at the end of the level, and the hearts let you take extra bumps." -from The Little Mermaid instruction manual, or why my new dream is to find a writing job where I can put together such whimsical sentences.

Besides bubbling, Ariel can also use her tail as a shovel to dig up more shells and hidden items on the seafloor. Exploring sandy bottoms or nooks and crannies by throwing fish bubbles can sometimes reveal hearts for extra health or forks and pipes for bonus points. Essentially, if there's sand or a squarish hole somewhere in the environment, dig with your tail or throw a fish-trapped bubble in the hole to win a prize. Don't overanalyze it; this is a Disney game.

SEA TREASURES

Barrel: After gaining a red pearl, Ariel can roll these barrels to break open treasure chests. When you're pushing rocks or barrels off of stairs or a platform, you'll want to keep following along, or else they'll be magically lost to the deep blue sea (and the Nintendo's limited memory). Hold down B to make sure you don't fall too far behind.
Rock: Rocks work the same way as barrels.
Fork: 800 pts.
Pipe: 500 pts.
Large Heart: Recovers two hearts.
Small Heart: Recovers only one heart.
1-Up Ariel: Surf's up. Actually, one-up. As you swim around levels, you'll come across these mini-Ariel icons that grant you an extra life. Earning 10,000 points by collecting pearls and sea treasure will also net you another Ariel. (Get it? 'Net you?' As in fishing net?)
Vase: These treasures drop after beating a boss. Doesn't that technically make Ariel a grave robber?
Conch Shell: Scattered throughout levels are conch shells that can be carried to instantly turn sea life into seafood, as well as to open up treasure chests. In these chests are pearls. Shiny pearls.
Boulder: Put your tail fin into it and push!

Women love pearls, but in the case of Ariel, they give her power and special abilities! I don't know if that's the best message to be sending to little girls, that jewelry will make them better people. Then again, I'm a guy, and maybe I'm only trying to look out for what I love: my wallet. Unlike this redheaded mermaid, I don't come across too many treasure chests in my day-to-day life. Although there was that one time they found a guy's body chopped up in a chest in the Schuylkill River. No pearls, though.

There are two kinds of pearls to be found: red and green. There's a maximum upgrade of three per color type.

PEARLS

Red Pearls: Strengthens Ariel's butt bubble to more easily ensnare fishies or even move rocks.

Green Pearls: Expands Ariel's rump radius.

When Ariel dies, she loses all of her collected pearl powers. This should be incentive enough to keep both eyes open while you're playing.

There are a total of five levels in the game, each one relatively short: Sea of Coral, Sunken Ship, Sea of Ice, Undersea Volcano, and Ursula's Castle.

I don't know about you, but I love myself a good ghost level. Unfortunately, Sunken Ship doesn't so much deliver the boos as it makes me thoroughly depressed. Are fish with white bed sheets ghosts or the byproducts of offshore dumping? If I were Ariel, and these things were floating around me, would I call the Ghostbusters, the EPA, or both? If nothing else, these "ghosts" remind me of the poor fish that become stuck in plastic six-pack holes. There's no mouth hole! They cannot possibly survive! We all benefit from clean water, no more than fake ghost fish. What I'm trying to say is, support the EPA, and boycott the corporate white bed sheet dumpers.

Did you know that Japan is an volcanic island arc? Duck between the hot balls of magma in the Undersea Volcano stage or become fried mermaid. Did you know that in Japan they eat mermaids?

The levels are all fairly basic and don't require much discussion, except maybe for the final stage. Inside of Ursula's Castle, keep going until you see a doorway with flashing eyes. Enter by pressing A. When you're in the next room, press A again. You're now under a block of ice. Press A once more to go into the room where you'll be able to move forward. The rest of this level is, like the ones before it, pretty straightforward.

At the end of each level is a boss, one of the game's high points.

BAD-BASS BOSSES

Glut the Shark: (4 hits) The bigger they are, the more delicious they taste. Shark meat is expensive. Throw some fish-trapped bubbles his way, and take your meal to go.

Flotsam and Jetsam: (6 hits, 3 hits each) These slippery morays pop in and out of portholes. Sometimes they'll psych you out and hide before you can get to them, and other times they'll be brazen enough to charge across the screen. Wait for their eyes to appear, and get to a safe distance. Bubble the falling critters, and serve up some crab cakes. Show them that Ariel knows how to do the underwater electric slide. Boogie woogie woogie.
Wilford Brimley: (4 hits) The only land-bound boss in the game, this isn't the Seal who sings "Kiss From a Rose" and is married to Heidi Klum. No, this one kicks conch shells and ice block fish into arctic waters. Totally different. You weren't on the Batman Forever soundtrack, you imposter! Give it up! Toss the shells back at him to win. Actually, the more I look at the sprite, the more I think he's a walrus. If so, I take back everything that I said, Wilford.
Tangchaikovsky: (5 hits) Fish-boy here thinks he's a big shot. He'll wave his little baton to order underwater spikes and blue fish to fire at you from the shipwreck's canons. The spikes will pop your fish bubbles, so avoid them while you're aiming for Tangchaikovsky's giant snout and ego.
Ursula: (6 hits) It's a showdown with the original octomom! Don't get distracted by her amble cleavage, Ariel; Ursula will summon white sparks from her underwater cauldron. They will turn into seahorses, blue fish, starfish, or underwater spikes, so don't be too quick to pick one up before seeing what you're getting. Bubble up the seahorses or blue fish, and send them flying upward at her fat face. Alternatively, you can serve up the bubbles by swimming to her mouth. Now that's what I call service with a smile!
Ursula's Final Form: (7 hits) The Sea Bitch is back! Big Momma wants more. Time to give it to her all over again. Ursula has King Triton's trident (the golden staff, not the gum with aspartame) and so can now control the tides. Watch the kelp at the bottom of the screen to determine the change in the direction of the water. The white fish here only swim in straight paths, so they won't give you much to worry about if you keep track of the tide's movement. Pound Ursula seven times to make her pay for The Little Mermaid II and III straight-to-video sequels.

Fun Fact: Inside of certain Disney/Capcom game instruction manuals was a mail-in coupon for a free red "hip pack" (fanny pack) and $10 off The Disney Channel if you were a new subscriber. All you needed were two dissected UPCs from Disney/Capcom video game boxes and $3.25 for postage and handling. The offer expired January 1, 1992. Don't sweat it. Thing was ugly.

The game's score hits all the right notes. From Sunken Ship's hypnotically catchy and upbeat refrain to the frantic tune that plays during the boss rounds, The Little Mermaid has some marvelous melodies that do justice to the original source material. A version of the timeless "Under the Sea" song rounds things out and makes for a nice nod as the only adaptation of the brilliant, award-winning film soundtrack. I'm a bit bummed that more tracks weren't brought over from the movie, but if I had to only pick one song, Sebastian's little Caribbean ditty would've been my choice as well.

It's hard to believe that I once thought you could get good prototype deals on Yahoo! Japan Auctions. That all changed the summer after I witnessed a Monster Party Family Computer prototype reach $6,000.

But, really, I'm no better. In that same summer I saw a Family Computer Capcom prototype come up of Disney's The Little Mermaid, or Ningyo Hime, as the game is called in Japan. I figured none of these Japanese collectors would be interested in a "girl's game." I couldn't believe that any of these collectors are, in fact, girls.

I was wrong. They're girls, or very sick men.

And the auction was going so well, too. The price stayed at around 4,900 yen, about $60 bucks, up until the last day. Everything went to hell after that. If you're not familiar with how Yahoo works, unlike eBay, bidders cannot snipe on auctions at the last minute. Instead, the auction will automatically add minutes if a new bid comes in at the end. Three new bidders arrived during the final hours, one of them being the under bidder on the $6K prototype, and I broke the first rule of Internet auctions: Don't get into bidding wars, stupid.

I kid you not, 45 bids later, I had won the fight, but the Japanese—the Japanese had won the war. You see, under the sea is where I've finally drowned my sanity. I refuse to acknowledge the final price, but believe you me I'm still paying for the game in shame.

Fun Fact: If you look closely, the Japanese game's retail box uses the original poster art, making this the one and only example of a Family Computer phallus.

I jacked these photos of the retail game's front/back box from another Yahoo! Japan auction to make me feel a little bit better. I equate this with going up to the bowl of complementary mints at the end of an expensive dinner in a fancy restaurant and filling your pockets to the brim. In the end, it's an empty gesture that you'll soon regret because you'll probably forget about the mints once you get in the car, and so you'll wind up putting your pants in the washing machine later when you get home with them still inside. That's how I feel. My pants have mint stuck to them now, and I never even got to eat one.

The prototype left from Tokyo and traveled to Chiba, then picked up rice in Shanghai, shot a moose in Anchorage, AL, and got robbed in Newark. Such exotic locales! And Newark! Finally, the game arrived to me in Philadelphia. Hey, at least it's a step up from Newark.

The white cartridge has a matching white label that is slowly browning with age. The label shows the printed logo of the Japanese game title with a mysterious "T-30" handwritten in the corner.

There aren't any labels or writing on the back of the prototype, just the cartridge's belly button.

Capcom Family Computer prototypes typically have official company stickers either on the top or on the sides. I suppose the stickers were designed to deter people from opening up the games. Family Computer cartridges are a pain to open, anyway, with their tab-locking shells, so I don't need stickers to keep my fingers away. After breaking the bank, the last thing I want to do is break the plastic.

Upskirt pic. Blow on it, Japanese nerds. She's all mine.

Copyright Screen
This isn't much of a difference, but the 1991 copyright year in the prototype comes before, not after, the Capcom name. (The final Nintendo Entertainment System game shows the Nintendo of America license and a credit to Stephan L. Butler, a producer at Walt Disney who also worked on the excellent Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse for SEGA.)

Title Screen
Oddly enough, Capcom removed the trademark symbol on the title screen in the released Family Computer game. (The final Nintendo Entertainment System version retains the trademark.)

No Damage Mode
If you thought the game offered little challenge before, wait until you get a load of this: The prototype has the option of making Ariel completely invincible. Pressing Start on the prototype's title screen will bring up Normal and No Damage modes. I've heard of debug menus in prototypes before, but, come on! The Little Mermaid?! You could beat this game with your eyes submerged in an aquarium full of saltwater, burning, blurry sensation and all. I almost feel bad for Ursula at this point.

You can enable the same cheat in both the retail Japanese and the North American versions, but only after inputting a special code. Press and hold Right, B, and A on the second controller and then push Start on the first controller to have the option appear.

The only difference is that the cursor arrow is positioned closer to the text in the final retail game. (In the prototype, the arrow "becomes adjusted" to normal positioning once you push the Right button on the D-pad.)

Under The Sea Ad Finem
The "Under the Sea" title screen melody continues for the entire duration of the prototype's opening cutscene. An entirely different song plays in the final retail version.

Give Me Some Space
It's the first cutscene of the game and already we have issues. Spacing issues.

Give Me Some Space #2
For some reason, the prototype text isn't spaced out as much as the final Family Computer game. This is another example of that.

Give Me Some Space #3/In A Hurry
This last scene in the opening shows more of the same spatial irregularities, and in the prototype, the game doesn't wait for you to push a button to start the first level as in the final Family Computer retail version; the prototype automatically begins without waiting for the player's prompt. In the immortal words of Stephanie Tanner, "How rude!"

Give Me Some Space #4
More changes in text space. Not exciting stuff, I know, but I have to report these findings. As a geek, it's my sworn duty. I took a pledge.

Give Me Some Space #5
A small difference can be noticed in the cutscene after the walrus boss. There's less of a gap between the words in the prototype version. I bet you didn't see that one coming!

Give Me Some Space #6
Same as before: Beat the shipwreck boss, and the cutscene has less spacing between words.

Give Me Some Space #7
You'll encounter more spatial differences in the cutscene after your first run-in with Ursula.

Give Me Some Space #8
During the ending, there's, yet again, more strange spacing, with some words fitting on other screens.

In A Hurry #2
In the prototype, the text appears as King Triton's zapping Ariel back to human form again. The cutscene quickly goes on to the next screen so you only catch a fleeting glimpse of Ariel stretched out naked on the rock.

In the final retail game, more of the text appears in the same scene, but the player has to push a button in order to trigger the peep show. (That's your grown daughter, man. At least wait until she's waist up in the water.)

In A Hurry #3
During the next part of the ending sequence, in addition to yet even more changes in the spacing, the prototype doesn't wait for the player's input to go on to the next scene; just as before, the game zips right through the cutscene.

Capcom must have realized that little kids wouldn't possibly be able to read that fast, so they added button prompts in the final retail game. They, in turn, make the cutscenes feel like reading a child's storybook, with the arrows telling you to turn the page when you're done.

Give Me Some Space #9
Oh, for the love of! I'm ending this.