Having a favorite game that defines most of your childhood is something a lot of us can relate to. I was into matching icon games and racing games, which made me an outlier in my high school, where shooting games and MMORPGs were mostly played.
That said, my most recent favorite has to be Disney’s Emoji Blitz, which I got into in the 11th grade. I spent endless nights trying to collect all the character emojis available at the time, as well as the collections of objects, locations and effects that represented many iconic Disney moments. And it has only gotten bigger.
But looking back at the evolution of my vanquisher of boredom in mobile form over the years, I’ve noted a drastic change in its gameplay mechanics, available characters and “freebies” (actually, they were anything but), some for better, some for worse. I’ve also realized that this miniscule, cutesy game has so many insights into modern pop culture, economics and politics.
And it speaks volumes not only of the history and rise of mobile games in the 2010s but also the seedy operations, dark history, and current devolution of the very company that owns its trademark.
Let’s start with the three characters you’re offered at the beginning of the game: Sulley, Ariel and Simba. You get to choose which one you’ll play with for the rest of the tutorial.
Ariel and Simba are from films (“The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King,” in case you’ve been living under a rock) that formed a critical period in Disney’s movie history—the Disney Renaissance in 1989-1999. This period brought one box-office hit after another, in the form of animated Broadway spectaculars that didn’t take themselves seriously (at least according to Alan Merken who, along with the late Howard Ashman, came up with the idea). The creative strategy brought massive amounts of money for the company after a decade of creative stagnation, and helped revive the animated film industry as a whole in Hollywood.
Sulley is from a film (“Monsters Inc.”) made by Pixar, a CGI-specialized film animation studio that Disney would acquire in a highly publicized deal in 2006. Pixar is known primarily for its development of many rendering technologies (both for software and hardware) that would be crucial for the streamlining and efficiency of creating animated films and special effects worldwide. In addition, many of its films (most of which are represented in the character roster of the game) have become Oscar darlings, bagging Pixar a majority of awards in the Best Animated Feature and Best Animated Short categories, while beating the Disney Animation Studios itself almost every time.
So this is a great strategy: starting off with its most-known properties that people anywhere in the world, regardless of social standing or political ideology, could recognize.
But the argument of it being completely neutral just like Disney itself quickly gets off the rails the longer you play it. And it continues with a task given to you: Buy a silver character box.
The payment system
When you get past the tutorial, you’ll be awarded with gems and coins. Those are the game’s currencies, and you can use them to buy character emoji blind boxes, special power ups, and sparkly crates in a special round full of clouds and smiling celestial bodies that pop up every time you collect 200 points from items in-game (1 regular item=1 point, 1 premium item=10 points).
And one of the first things you need to buy is a silver box, which, at a cost of 15000 coins, will give you more emojis to add to your keyboard.
But there’s a catch (I bet you know where this is going; all mobile games are hit with it): To play with many of the features and events in Emoji Blitz, especially in getting new emojis, you need to do microtransactions.
They are arguably the most annoying part of any modern game, more so than software glitches or uncooperative toxic teammates from another country. You can’t have fun with a game entirely, unless you’re willing to spend more money than your local bank’s vault can hold.
Whether it’s to have an extra life, to use crucial power ups to grab items that you are so close to getting, or to get characters that won’t appear again until a few months later, they play a crucial role in the profit-making strategies of major gaming companies everywhere. It’s been an industry malpractice since the last decade, but Disney takes it to a whole other level.
The gems in Emoji Blitz especially are the worst, since the game has released more limited-edition character emojis than before, squeezing the pockets dry of anyone left wanting to play it for something close to free. Characters from “Star Wars,” “Kingdom Hearts” and the live-action “Jungle Cruise” (which isn’t as charming as the original Disneyland ride that inspired it, in my opinion) are hit especially hard with this. And don’t get me started on the story, rainbow and villain emoji categories, which are almost 230 out of the 554 available at this writing.
According to the ratings and comments I’ve seen from ex-players of the game on Google Play, it’s been super expensive to keep up with the updates and get every character for their emoji keyboards. These are people who have been with it since the beginning, saying that entire events need certain emojis with a certain power level to play, without which you’re restricted from playing the event at all.
There’s a repeated lament concerning the apparent corporate greed and callousness of Disney spilling over into everything it does, including its online games: Despite the billions of dollars in the vaults of the Big Mouse from its decades as animation pioneer, it remains unsatisfied.
Which brings me to its intellectual properties, many of which aren’t even ones it has built from the ground up.
Iger’s Property Gallery
You may argue that to measure Disney’s growth and influence, you need to see the many franchises it has acquired over the years. And in Emoji Blitz, it’s no different. You just need to check out its character roster.
(I’ve named this chapter after current Disney CEO Bob Iger, who succeeded Michael Eisner from 2005 to 2020. Iger masterminded many of the takeovers, stepped down when his contract ran out, and then took over the company again in 2021 after Bob Chapek’s disastrous run.)
The world of “Star Wars” is heavily laid out here, from the classic original trilogy to the divisive sequel series, and critically-acclaimed shows like “The Clone Wars” and “The Mandalorian.” This could only happen after LucasFilm, the company that owns the copyright, was bought by Disney in 2012.
The Muppets were part of a deal that was supposed to be completed between Disney and Jim Henson himself before his tragic death in 1990. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fonzie and everyone else in “The Muppet Show” were only some of the assets to be considered part of Disney after a decade of legal issues and infighting between it and the Jim Henson Company, which was finally settled in 2001.
Then there’s the controversial appearance of “Anastasia,” “Ice Age,” “Ron Gone Wrong” and “Titanic” characters, which occurred after the finalization of the takeover of the historic 20th Century Fox Studios and its affiliates (including Fox Animation Studios and Blue Sky Studios, as well as its majority stake in National Geographic) in 2019 for a whopping $71.3 billion. To this day, the anticompetitive undertones of the historic merger get US lawmakers and academics concerned about Disney’s growing media monopoly, still untouched by the money and political influence it wields.
Its iconic theme parks are represented here, too, which, before the pandemic, were some of the most visited leisure destinations in the world, with such attractions as the Haunted Mansion, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Journey into Imagination, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and The Main Street Electrical Parade.
But it’s not only Disney’s money-making practices or the gobbling up of independent companies. There’s also the controversy—too much of it.
Gimme, gimme, gimme
Another feature of Emoji Blitz is the many events referencing new properties and introducing obscure ones—a way to get new emojis, and to get a peek at the vast portfolio of works from Disney’s 100 years of existence (for example, the ones dedicated to “Hocus Pocus,” “Bolt,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” all cult classics).
It has also shown off the big strategy that Bob Chapek used when the company was trying to be profitable during the global pandemic shutdowns in 2020-2022 which suspended its theme park and movie operations, via Disney+. This has turned out to be a mixed bag, depending on the property, studio and business model needed to make it profitable.
“The Mandalorian,” “Onward,” “Soul,” “Luca” and “Turning Red” have all had their theatrical release on the service, which, while great for the first show (with Grogu aka Baby Yoda becoming a cultural phenomenon, and the series earning Emmy nominations and wins), decimated the box-office earnings of the latter four films (despite “Soul” winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature).
After all, the success of TV shows is based on how many are eyeballing it at one time during its premiere, which doesn’t require leaving your home, only a one-time payment for a streaming service. A movie needs both ticket sales and confection sales to make money for both the cinema and the movie company. Not a good strategy if the latter provides you a lot of your annual revenue on a good year, which won’t work if almost every country on Earth is being shut down by a Chinese-made virus.
And then there are the company’s many failures in the 2010s and into the 2020s being represented here, regardless of virus-related follies.
The recent “Lightyear,” for example, was criticized for its lackluster plot, its detachment from the main “Toy Story” series, and the controversy surrounding its inclusion of unexplored, arguably unnecessary, LGBT characters.
The sequels for both “Frozen” and “Wreck It Ralph” haven’t been as critically well-received as the originals, and have been called soulless and cheap money grabs. “Willow,” a sequel of the 1988 sleeper hit movie of the same title, is being cited as the ultimate symbol of the corporate hypocrisy and creative laziness afflicting modern Disney leadership.
And then there’s what has not been seen yet in the game, of which there are many.
Looking lost, like Vincent Vega
Have you ever scrolled through a game that’s IP-driven, expecting to see your favorite characters there, only to find out that the franchise isn’t even being considered for inclusion? That would drive any normal fanboy or fangirl to madness (pardon my Marvel-related pun).
One of these related issues is the lack of representation from its animated original series in the game, the very shows that helped make the Disney Channel the most watched network in the history of cable TV at its peak.
Sure, The Disney Afternoon (a programming block in the ‘80s and ‘90s that made classics like Gargoyles, DuckTales and Darkwing Duck) and The Proud Family are present in this game, but the same can’t be said for many other beloved, award-winning animated programs: Kim Possible, Recess, American Dragon Jake Long, Amphibia, Star vs the Forces of Evil, Big City Greens, The Ghost and Molly McGee, or even Phineas and Ferb, Owl House and Gravity Falls. (The latter two shows were nominated for Peabody Awards, with The Owl House winning one in 2021.)
This mirrors the apathy of Disney’s corporate leaders towards its TV division, with Alex Hirsch and Dana Terrace, two of the network’s most lauded creators, bashing them for certain issues, including excess censorship on trivial matters or lines by its managerial department, the constant flip-flopping of the company’s statements towards LGBT topics and policies (which actually made Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis remove Walt Disney World’s special tax-exempt operating licenses in the state), and the lack of merchandising for their respective shows despite their huge followings.
Of course, this isn’t isolated to Disney leaders. Many CEOs of Hollywood’s media giants still consider cartoons to be for kids, despite countless adults and even grandparents saying they’re watching the shows long after puberty has passed them. These comments further show the cultural and economic bubbles many of the top 1% entertainment heads live in: They don’t realize that their consumers are buying and seeing the very shows and movies that fuel their isolating lifestyles, literally and figuratively.
There’s also the lack of Marvel characters, which I completely understand. The rights governing who can use it and what for can be confusing even to the average industry professional. Add to that the thousands of characters that the comic book giant has created under its label in 80+ years, and the situation gets more complicated.
For the movies specifically, it always has been complicated, ever since the first major successful film release of a Marvel property (“Blade” in 1998). But when “Iron Man” was widely screened a decade later, it changed cinema history forever, and kick-started an influx of movies like it.
After Disney bought Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion, it has been locked in a rights war with Comcast (along with a few other Hollywood bigwigs). With adapting established comic book icons into film and TV properties shown to easily bring in billions of dollars, thus ensuring profitable bottom lines, the allure is just too strong. Besides, any change in the legal rights could impact all current and future theme park rides and attractions (like at Universal Orlando and numerous Disneylands worldwide).
In a nutshell, putting characters from a comic book behemoth into a game like Emoji Blitz will open the floodgates for brand fans demanding that more heroes be represented, without considering the possibility that such a move will be seen as peacocking by Disney. In addition, a legal minefield might erupt if a well-paid corporate lawyer from Comcast finds a clause that shows the move violates a deal.
With all that doom and gloom in an otherwise saccharine swiping icon game, what can be learned? Quite a lot.
Disney, now a monolith in entertainment, has humble beginnings. What started as a small animation studio in Burbank, California, has defied all doubters and become one of the world’s most successful corporations.
But greed has blinded people in the upper echelon of Disney leadership, dimming the creative spirit and depleting the enjoyability of anything they create. As I’ve said, it’s not isolated to Disney; it extends to other executives with degrees in finance and economics taking over entertainment studios and streaming platforms, and forgetting what made their companies famous: high-quality storytelling coupled with gorgeous animation.
One of the momentous parts of the childhood of five generations of humans is falling apart before our eyes.
Yet there are two small spots of hope. One can be told through the tale of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in the Mickey and Friends section.
Oswald was made in 1927 during a partnership between Disney and Universal Studios. It seems weird to focus on an insignificant cartoon character, but way back then, Oswald was one of Disney’s first breakout animated stars, in the league of Betty Boop and Felix the Cat.
In 1928, the trademark for using Oswald was taken by Charles Mintz, one of Walt Disney’s partners at Universal Studios, as were much of his staff. But the loss of Oswald inspired Disney to create his most iconic character and the very mascot of the entire Disney enterprise: Mickey Mouse.
Just like modern-day Disney, corporate greed almost snuffed out the light of the company before it could become a household name. Now that it is, it needs to remember what it once was.
Why am I even saying all this? Because despite its flaws, even a megacorporation can change its ways.
For the second spot of hope, let’s focus on another sad moment of the company: the period between the ‘60s and ‘80s, aka Disney’s Dark Age. It was the period after the deaths of Walt and Roy Disney in 1966 and 1971, respectively, when the company began reusing character outlines from previous films without the guidance of their founder—a bit of a scuffle from their previous standards of realistic, hand-drawn animation.
With that, Disney was almost bought out by many of its competitors, who smelled blood and wanted to absorb the prestige of the Disney name. It was also the time when the company’s animation division was almost shut down, no thanks to the box-office bomb of “The Black Cauldron” in 1985.
Disney eventually changed its strategy, with the shining-star moment being the release in 1988 of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” It planted the seeds of the Disney Renaissance.
I’m not saying all this to damage Disney’s image in any way. If anything, I love the company and what it stands for. I love the joy and energy of the names and properties it has made over the past century. They brought me companionship and laughter when I needed them most, even if from just a small mobile game that’s all smiling thunderclouds and rainbows. And I know I’m not alone.
Disney—the founder, the legacy and the idea, not just the brand—matters much for many people on the planet who have used its films and TV shows to uplift and enlighten themselves and their families, and to engage with the world around them. If that fades, then those who will witness its downfall will mourn the next generations’ loss of a chance to experience magic and wonder in their lives.
Isaac Camarillo, 23, is a customer and community media executive in a Singapore-based company. He holds a degree in creative writing from Ateneo de Manila University. His interests are psychology, world history and culture, and collecting Japanese stationery.