Characters and stories we love can reveal our hopes, fears, and things we’re not aware of. People at the Walt Disney Company created legions of them, but few speak to us the way Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck do. In classic videogames, Mickey’s high-spirited whimsy and Donald’s cantankerous determination are too loud to ignore. Mickey speaks about the sunny side of our youth, and Donald about the side that hurts when the sunshine burns.

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Mickey debuted in short films in 1928, and by the time 1990’s Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse came out for the Sega Genesis, he’d been crowned Disney’s king of childhood glee. In his cartoons he’d been cheerful, happy-go-lucky, and the leader among his friends. He usually played nice and came out on top no matter what, and most kids could envy a guy like that. The game had him battling evil in a magic castle, and his smile almost never faltered. His unflinching optimism was admirable and unreal.

Maybe it was the level with the enchanted forest with giant leaves and spider webs so wet they shimmered like diamonds that was so endearing. Maybe it was the level with building blocks, toy soldiers, and toy planes. Maybe it was the level with milk rivers flowing under candy bridges and between platforms made of cake. Or maybe it was the way Mickey fought bad guys by throwing apples and marbles at them or bouncing off their heads on his frickin’ behind, but nearly everything about that game resembled a 16-bit dream world. The cherry on top, so to speak, was when Mickey walked across a rainbow to reach the final boss. Yes, folks, you read that right. A rainbow.

It would’ve been absurd if it hadn’t been so magnificent. That’s Mickey’s charm as Disney’s chief mascot, a symbol of unabashed innocence and joy. In Castle of Illusion, he’s your buddy who reminds you what it’s like to live with wide-eyed, childlike wonder before it vanishes with age.

The people who built the Disney machine manufactured childhood dreams for the masses, but childhood isn’t all sunshine. Kids yell, they get angry, and they get into trouble. Mickey can’t be our avatar for the ideal youth fantasy and the flawed part, too.

That’s what Donald Duck is for.

The Disney universe changed forever after his 1934 debut. While Mickey usually kept his temper in check in cartoons, Donald’s fuse was short, and when he got mad, he was rage unplugged. He shouted, wrecked property, and challenged others to fights. Even when he was happy he could be mischievous. He played tricks on other characters – bees, hens, roosters, chipmunks – for personal gain or just for laughs, and it usually got him in hot water.

Donald offered shenanigans of a different flavor. In 1991’s QuackShot Starring Donald Duck, Donald’s the protagonist, of course, but his motivation’s not heroic initially. He’s not trying to save anyone when you begin; he’s hunting for treasure so he can get rich. That’s not that pure, wholesome, or Mickey Mouse-like of him, but it’s pretty human and relatable. We know what it’s like to want fatter wallets, and so did Donald.

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In some ways, QuackShot was more grounded in reality than Castle of Illusion was. The levels all took place in the “real world,” or the one Donald lived in within the game universe. His travels included his hometown Duckburg, Mexico, the South Pole, and Egypt, all real locations as far as that game was concerned. The levels in Castle of Illusion? They all took place in a mystic castle with doors that led Mickey to fairytale worlds created by magic. The game’s title, Castle of Illusion, said it all; it was ethereal escape.

And sure, QuackShot had ghosts and a vampire in it, but magic and fantasy weren’t its point. That game was earthier with more edge. You saw it in the character designs. If you left your controller to go to the bathroom or get some food, Donald got impatient waiting. He frowned and tapped his foot in irritation. You know what Mickey did if you left him alone too long in Castle of Illusion? Nothing. He just stood there smiling, swaying his hips from side to side like he was bobbing to the background music – and would’ve done it forever. Donald wasn’t having that crap, and he gave bad guys hell with the right power-ups. If you collected five red peppers, Donald flew into a homicidal rage, killing everyone in his way. He was so wild you had trouble controlling him. Try getting Mickey to act like that in a Genesis game.

So if Mickey reminded you what it was like to dream as a kid, Donald reminded you what it was like to dream less inhibited. The fantasies may have been awesome, but you didn’t have to be. He reminded us what it was like to have that selfish, “mine, mine, mine” streak and to get pissed when we didn’t get our way. He had flaws, and so do we, but he got to be a hero in spite of them. We wished we could’ve done the same.

But our identification with Mickey and Donald doesn’t completely stop at childhood. The games also show us how they handle their loves lives. Castle of Illusion‘s introduction goes like this: Mickey and Minnie skip in the woods holding hands until a witch kidnaps Minnie and locks her in the castle. Mickey goes there to rescue her, a dutiful prince trying to save his fair lady. Even before Minnie’s taken, Mickey’s happy just spending time with her. In QuackShot‘s introduction, Donald’s supposed to have dinner with Daisy, but he stands her up so he can hunt gold and jewels. He’s about to leave town by plane with his nephews when she shows up to confront him for ditching her. Donald says that something came up and that he’ll bring her back something nice, and then he flies off leaving her fuming. It’s the videogame equivalent of flaking out on a date to drink with your buddies. Swap “drinking” with “treasure hunting” and “buddies” with “nephews,” and you’ve got QuackShot. Donald’s inconsiderate and selfish. Add in his rage issues, and he’s missing a lot in the romance department.

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You could basically assign each character one of two sides in the human psyche. Mickey’s the moral and considerate half, and Donald’s the mean-spirited and selfish half – the two halves each of us wavers between in our own heads.

That’s why it’s poignant when both characters share the spotlight in 1992’s World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. They retain their personalities, but they must work together to survive. Donald still taps his foot and frowns if you keep him waiting, and Mickey smiles and stares in mesmerized, stupefied wonder no matter how long he waits. Once things get moving, it’s all teamwork. If one player leaves the other behind on a platform, he lowers a rope to help him up. And when Donald gets stuck in tunnels, Mickey yanks him through from the other side. Our yin and yang unite to reach the same goal here, much like how we reconcile both the dual parts of ourselves to get through our lives.

But ultimately, the merry Disney spirit always shines through, no matter how dark any of the games get. Donald’s weapon in QuackShot was a gun that fired plungers, popcorn, or bubblegum at adversaries – tame and harmless imagery compared to what some other 90s games had. And Mickey’s face on a blimp flying by in the background on the rooftop stage in Duckburg served a reminder that this was all kid stuff under the surface.

No matter what happened in the games, the point was to relax and enjoy the fantasy. Mickey and Donald were just different cars in the same rollercoaster, and the ride was fun either way.

Hilton Collins loves all things science fiction and fantasy, and if he had to choose between videogames, comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm.

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