And so I return to Wonderland. Because, it would seem, all ways bring me back here.
Alice in Wonderland (by which I mean Lewis Carroll’s two novels and the assorted iconography surrounding them), collectively, is my favourite story. There is literally no time I can recall in which I wasn’t profoundly shaped and influenced by Alice, or which I didn’t view my life through a lens ground from the philosophy of her story. Even those parts of my life that could have potentially occurred before I first read Alice, I now understand within the context of Alice. And Alice must have always been there, partially because Alice is part of the cosmic cultural background radiation we are all exposed to from birth, but also because I know she was. And Alice is not an it. Alice is a she.
I have previously (perhaps infamously, for longtime followers of my writing) attempted to explore and explain my experiences with video games and my understanding of their logic alongside my experience with Alice by comparing them. Probably bit off a bit more than I could chew with that one, but that’s something to grapple with in another time and another place. But Alice and games and Alice games provide a useful metaphor of a sort, in particular, the fact that a great deal of them are some manner of abortive. Of course, I am a perfectionist and have my own visions of things, and perhaps you can just chalk all of that up to me being impossible to satisfy when it comes to something like this. And that may be true: I am, after all, quite mad. But my madness is irreducible from my positionality, and my positionality is irreducible from my creative work. That’s sort of how this all works.
In 1995, there was an Alice in Wonderland game made exclusively for the Super Famicom. Developed by SAS Sakata and published by Epoch, Alice no Paint Adventure was based on the 1951 Disney Animated Canon adaptation of the story. First things first, however, I must mount a brief but necessary defense of this movie because a whole lot of Alice aficionados and Carrollians utterly despise it along with, somewhat surprisingly, a lot of Disney fans and historians. Carrollians see it as the ultimate example of “Americanization”, and you see an awful lot of teeth gnashing about its departures from the “canon text” (the idea of an Alice in Wonderland canon is even more self-evidently preposterous than canon in general already is) and pearl-clutching about fears people (read: people less intelligent and cultured than Carrollians) will get their first and primary exposure to this story through this movie, which will in turn displace the books.
What’s especially curious about this argument is the fact that in order for a movie to completely displace a book, one would think it would have to be wildly more successful than the book. For that to happen, the movie would have to be successful at all. Which the 1951 Alice in Wonderland was decidedly not. It was a complete bomb. It bombed so hard, in fact, it’s the only Disney movie to be more or less unofficially stricken from the Animated Canon (Disney doesn’t pretend it doesn’t exist and rather you not ask questions, but neither does it go out of its way to promote it either). Walt Disney himself, as big a Carrollian as you would ever hope to meet, hated this movie, and his legions of followers have followed suit. Which is a terribly harsh and unfair thing to say about a generally inoffensive and charming little film that’s at least *somewhat* more creative than it gets credit for being. It’s one of my favourite adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, in fact (certainly the adaptation that had the single biggest impact on me personally), and while I don’t think it’s perfect, I do think it’s perfectly acceptable. The film’s reputation has softened a bit with age and people have started to warm up to it in recent years (in no small part due to a pair of other Disney movies, which I sha’n’t go into right now), I speak from sad experience when I say this most certainly wasn’t always the case.
I have been to Walt Disney World three times in my life, but I have not been there as of this writing in over a decade so I have little idea how much it’s changed since then. But one one of the first two times I went I was actually around Alice’s age in the books (not in this movie, mind, which is a different matter altogether), and I was very sad to see how underrepresented she was in the park. There was the tea cup ride, obviously, and of course there were character actors, but compared to some of the other feature attractions I got the general sense they were there more out of obligation instead of being there to be proudly showed off. I remember being very annoyed that California’s Disneyland had not only an Alice in Wonderland hedge maze, but a dark ride as well, while us on the east coast got none of that. There was a very beautiful (and very expensive) Alice in Wonderland chess set I remember seeing in one of the gift shops, but apart from that there was practically nothing: I would have loved a little doll or a figure, or just anything I could take home as a physical memento. It was doubly frustrating as not only was this Alice, it was also one of the only Disney things I actually cared about anymore at that point in my life (my relatives were always more into this whole Disney business than I ever was), and I tried not to take it personally.
(I do also recall acquiring during one of my visits a Barbie-style Alice doll from a gift shop at the park somewhere. She wasn’t an amazing likeness if I’m honest, had next to no accessories and wasn’t terribly playable, but I treasured her. Until one day her head snapped off because it was very shoddily made and I proceeded to make things infinitely worse by attempting to reattach it. I also had a lovely Alice rag doll I adored very much. I think she was lost when my mother set the basement on fire one year. So I went back to the only other Alice totem I’ve ever owned, a shitty McDonald’s Happy Meal toy with three points of articulation that has somehow managed to survive time and the elements. I still have that.)
I remember actually going up and filling out a guest survey at the end of that visit (we were staying in one of the Disney villas my grandparents had rented out for us) and actually writing in the space where you were supposed to say if there was anything that could have improved your stay that I wanted more recognition of Alice in Wonderland at the park, specifically merchandise. Once we got back, one of my aunts took me to the local Disney Store, presumably because she thought I was sad about leaving and needed to cheer me up. And I don’t know if it was synchronicity or what, but that particular Disney store happened to have a *huge* display of Alice in Wonderland things! I think I bought one of everything they had.
Which brings me back to Alice no Paint Adventure, because if ever there was something I would never, ever get the chance to see and hold and feel and experience, this was it. This was a game based on a movie that nobody but me seemed to like released on a console I didn’t have exclusive to a region on the opposite end of the planet to me. In fact, I didn’t even know Alice no Paint Adventure existed until at least half a decade after the fact when I got the Internet and saw it listed on a website for .midi covers of video game songs. And even then I had no idea what it was until video game archival became more fashionable a decade *later* and I actually got to play a version of it.
The Japan exclusivity is, in hindsight, understandable and fitting. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was in fact a fanbase for 1951 Disney Alice movie, it just wasn’t anywhere I was able to join in. Later on I learned Alice in general is very big in Japan, and this movie in particular has quite a substantial following. So a Super Famicom exclusive tie-in game released the same year as the black diamond Walt Disney Masterpieces edition of the movie on home video makes a lot of sense. It also, annoyingly, makes sense that my favourite Disney movie would be the one that is much better liked in Japan than it is in North America. Everything about Alice no Paint Adventure is effectively a metaphor for my life. Down to the fact that the game itself is frustratingly underwhelming.
This is not to say the game is particularly bad. Like all Super Nintendo games, the production qualities are sumptuous and contribute to a remarkably evocative and memorable atmosphere. Which is good, because as much as I like the original movie, it’s one of those works of visual media I enjoy the iconography of more than I do the actual thing-in-itself, and Alice no Paint Adventure is basically pure iconography. The sprite art is absolutely beautiful, and Alice herself looks completely adorable. The Super Nintendo sound chip gets a great workout, and the soundtrack to this game is a classic example of the orchestral synth sample sound the console is so famous for. And this is another thing that helps the source material, because one of my biggest problems with the original movie is that I feel the songs (of which there are far, far too many of to begin with, but that’s another rant) all tend to be very off-puttingly overproduced and over-orchestrated. To me, they actually sound much better downmixed to 16-bit on the Super Nintendo, and this version of the movie’s theme song is probably my favourite.
I also want to praise the game’s attempt at a story which, while simplistic and purely functional, is still admirable for its reach in its own way. I can’t read or speak Japanese and this game has never been translated to English so I’m forced to rely on secondary sources here, but as I understand it Alice no Paint Adventure is actually meant as a *sequel* to the 1951 Alice in Wonderland movie wherein Alice, who seems to have taken up permanent residence in Wonderland (or at least in some metaphysical space between) is called upon for help by the White Rabbit when the Queen of Hearts activates a mechanism which drains all the colour from the world. Alice must travel around to different locations, both familiar and new, to recover a series of colour orbs which contain Wonderland’s colour energy (or something like that) while painting in scenes herself as she goes. I don’t really understand how she’s meant to be doing this; she doesn’t have a paintbrush or anything (even a magic one), it’s just a mystical ability she seems to innately have.
I could complain about the sort of generic find-the-macguffin video game plot and the way the game pushes the Queen of Hearts even further into generic villain territory than the movie did, and I do object to those things. But there are things here that actually intrigue me too: One my first (and for years one of my only) pieces of Alice paraphernalia was a colouring book based on this movie, so a game that posits itself as a sequel involving painting a digital colouring book holds a special sentimental appeal to me. I love the ambiguous role Alice seems to have in the narrative, and the even more ambiguous way the reality of Wonderland is depicted. I love the new areas, which include a level under the sea and a land above the clouds (and speaking of under the sea, there’s an Easter Egg early in the game I absolutely adore where you can briefly dye Alice’s hair red. She doesn’t like it, but her general appearance in this scene puts me mildly in mind of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or perhaps even the redheaded Alice from the 1980s anime version of Alice in Wonderland). As a sequel to the 1951 movie, Alice no Paint Adventure is not at all a bad idea, doubling down on that film’s sense of wonder and lushness while excising most of its more obnoxious qualities. And by distilling, accentuating and reinforcing the themes and sense of aesthetics that made up the film at its best, I’d say the game is actually very much on the right track.
If only it played better. This is explicitly a kids’ game so one shouldn’t go into it expecting unfathomable depths (and superficiality is more important than depth anyway), but Alice no Paint Adventure barely even qualifies as interactive. Each “level” consists of one screen and can be completed simply by clicking on the right object, or series of objects in order. You don’t even get a palate of paint or anything like that, and “puzzles” consist of restoring colour to Wonderland’s inhabitants by clicking on them, at which point their correct colour will be instantly restored. You can beat the entire game in about 11 minutes, though it would probably take me longer because I can’t read the on-screen prompts. Aside from the main story, there’s also a freestyle paint mode that’s a bit like Mario Paint, except more way more simplistic and not as good. There’s also a second story mode (which is bafflingly the *first* option on the main menu) that somehow manages to be *even less* interactive than the main campaign: It’s just an abbreviated retelling of the movie’s story, and literally all you do is click on Alice to move to the next screen. That’s the extent of the “gameplay” here: Pushing the Y button over and over again to play a series of 16-bit cutscenes. I hate to say it, but if I want to watch the movie, I’ll watch the movie.
It’s not even that I object to games that are nothing but a collection of things to interact and play with. In fact, I think we could stand to see a lot more video games like that. Pre-Myst, Cyan Worlds built their name on those kind of games (Myst itself I think is let down by its focus on puzzles, for what it’s worth. Once you solve the puzzles, there’s not much reason to go back to the game), and I think a true Alice in Wonderland game should probably actually look like that. And Cyan’s early games were made for children too: They were all full of whimsical toys hidden away in enchanted worlds to be discovered and tinkered with in creative ways. That’s something I think Lewis Carroll himself would have found charming, in fact. But, in contrast with Cyan Worlds’ games, there’s no creativity or sense of play to the interaction in Alice no Paint Adventure: It really is nothing more than finding the right thing to click on through trial and error, then moving on to the next screen to do the same thing again.
But the biggest thing that upsets me about Alice no Paint Adventure is that you’re not actually playing as Alice. Not really-Even in the main story, which is presumably a quest Alice herself is undertaking, you’re just clicking random objects while she stands on the left side of the screen reacting to things. You don’t control her directly. This isn’t a criticism I give to Alice no Paint Adventure uniquely, as it’s a weird problem most Alice in Wonderland games have, but it is a problem with the game and it does let it down. For some reason, very few games based on this story seem to be comfortable letting you actually step into Alice’s shoes, which is a concept that would seem to me to be self-evident. Without going into too much of a textual analysis of Alice in Wonderland (I could be here for days), I’ll just say that this seems to undermine a lot of the point of the story. And furthermore, denying me that level of performance and presentation affects me perhaps more then it might others because of the particulars of my personal relationship with this story and this character. And it’s the perfect logical end result of the rest of the game keeping me at a frustrating distance.
It’s really sad, because the overwhelming feeling I get is that Alice no Paint Adventure *almost* created something really special, but it keeps falling maddeningly short of profundity. Although on the other hand, perhaps a denial of desire and inability to present are just part of my story with Alice in Wonderland. Jam to-morrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today. Perhaps there’s something about the story that facilitates this, from the text’s own liminal obscurantism to Lewis Carroll’s suspiciously evasive and seemingly occult behaviour during his lifetime. In terms of video games, this movie at least eventually did get one truly stellar video game adaption in 2000’s Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland for the Game Boy Colour; very possibly the greatest Alice in Wonderland game ever made, unless you count the Super Mario Bros. series or The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (and Alice herself isn’t in any of those games anyway). And there is one other game that provides an interesting contrast in this regard, also a Super Famicom release.
In some ways, Umihara Kawase almost feels like a thematic response to Alice no Paint Adventure. It’s just that, in true Carrollian fashion, it came out the year before. Unlike the lush and sumptuous Alice no Paint Adventure, Umihara Kawase is basically an early indie game with the bare-bones production values to match (though there is a very simple, yet evocative, theme song that plays throughout the game that also takes advantage of the SNES sound chip). But as soon as I laid eyes on it, I knew instantly that this game was going to work on me at a very specific level. It is the most straightforwardly dreamlike game I have ever played, entirely eschewing a linear narrative of any sort for a collection of images and situations vaguely connected through dream logic. It is a game expressly intended to immerse you in the dreams of a young girl named Umihara, who likes fishing. So her world involves chasing after sea life with legs and navigating platforms made of school supplies, building blocks, street signs, vegetables and magic doors with an elastic fishing line. Even the name of the game, and of our heroine, is a play on words: “Umihara Kawase” is a pun on a Japanese expression meaning, more or less, “sea fish are fat in the belly; river fish are fat in the back”. I absolutely love it.
In terms of gameplay, Umihara Kawase is exactly the kind of title I enjoy playing. Like arcade sports games and Sonic the Hedgehog (when it’s working), there’s nothing between you and the mechanics, and it’s *all about* those mechanics. Umihara Kawase was designed as an extrapolation and distillation of the physics of Bionic Commando, tossing aside any distracting video game clutter and all of Bionic Commando‘s testosterone. This is a game purely about environmental exploration, navigation and performance (well, almost. The randomly spawning enemies are a bit annoying), which is a perfect match for the wistful dreamlike atmosphere. The physics alone apparently took a truly mad amount of time and meticulous, bordering on obsessive, attention to detail to perfect, and the rest of the game was built around them. The first game remains something of a masterwork of console programming in that regard. That I personally suck at it is irrelevant: People have spent a lifetime practicing and perfecting this game, and I just got it less than a year ago.
Umihara Kawase isn’t really an Alice in Wonderland adaptation, but it invokes much of what I like about Alice in Wonderland in parallel. Umi’s not Alice, but she’s important to me for her own reasons. She’s more visibly tomboyish than a lot of characters of her type, and her hair style, hair colour, eye colour and general build are a closer match to my own, which I kind of like. And I love how the series feels born from memories of traipsing around ponds and coastlines looking for fish, frogs and sea life, which is something I definitely relate to. And, just like Alice in the original Alice in Wonderland stories, Umi is allowed to grow up on her own terms. Although the box art for the first game depicts her as older, in-game Umi looks to be about in her single digits. But in this game’s two sequels, she seems to grow subtly but noticeably older each time, culminating in her appearance in Sayonara, Umihara Kawase as a full-fledged adult sushi chef, complete with a supporting cast that includes her younger self and a time-travelling daughter of her own from one possible future timeline. Which makes exactly as much sense in context as it sounds like it would.
What Umihara Kawase would seem to do then (at least for me) is tap into the ideaspace to metaphorically transform and ascend Alice in Wonderland’s themes and iconography through a unique context in order to create something new. Would that then make this the purest kind of adaptation of and greatest sort of tribute to Alice in Wonderland one could ever give it?