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Video Game Review: Disney’s Epic Mickey
Posted By Adam Robert Thomas On December 7, 2010 @ 4:47 pm In Games,Video Games | No Comments
Release Date: November 30th, 2010
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Creative Director: Warren Spector
Developer: Junction Point
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Genre: Integrated Choice Platforming Adventure
ESRB: E for Everybody
Every generation has their childhood icons. From Captain Kangaroo to Mario to Harry Potter, they’re constantly replaced as time marches on, and we remember them sweetly even if they really weren’t that impressive in retrospect (I’m looking at you Transformers!). Only a very select number can maintain that status from decade to decade though, and for quite a while, Mickey Mouse was one of them. Even as far as the 90’s, though his star had faded, he could still command attention in the occasional television special or in the sidescrollers I remember enjoying in my youth.
Today however, he seems to have faded from most of the public consciousness. Though Disney has still maintained plenty of films, television shows and games for kids, the status of their resident rodent rockstar seems to be a bit nebulous. Sure his appearances in the Kingdom Hearts games have certainly been cool, but he was merely part of a huge ensemble, and he doesn’t have anything these days that he could call his own.
Just in time for the holidays, Epic Mickey has come along from Junction Point Studios and Creative Director Warren Spector and it’s trying to put Mickey on the map once again. But with a media landscape that seems to generate more and more products and personas designed to appeal to the 9-year olds in all of us (or just the actual 9-year olds), how can they make a white gloved mouse wearing red shorts relevant? Is it even a good idea to try?
In a delightful introduction, Mickey sneaks into the magical hobbyshop of the wizard from Fantasia, Yen Sid, and ends up causing a bit of a ruckus. He flees the scene of his crime, and happily forgets what happened, probably thinking it was all a moldy cheese induced nightmare. Until of course many years later, a monstrous form rips Mickey out of his bed and drags him kicking and screaming into an alternate dimension while the mouse struggles in vain to escape, only barely grabbing a paint brush during the ordeal.
He is thrust into the Wasteland, a twisted version of the happiest place on earth, Disneyland. It’s a place originally created for the characters that lost popularity over the years, a sort of retirement home for cartoons. Unfortunately, when Mickey was messing around in the Wizard’s home he kind of caused an animated apocalypse for the place, and even created a satanic analogue called The Blot, an ink demon that has nearly limitless power to cover this land in darkness and shadow.
Now trapped here with the rest of the forgotten cartoon characters of the studio’s past, who include Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey has to use that paint brush to either build or break his way out of this demented doppelganger of Disneyland and somehow return home. Along the way, he might even find a way to redeem himself of the mistakes he’s made.
For the jaded amongst us, it’s really easy to say that the game is a sort of “dark reboot” that’s attempting to cash in on a trend Warner Bros and Christopher Nolan begat with Batman Begins. While fundamentally this isn’t far from the truth, and the game definitely presents some grisly locations and situations, you shouldn’t worry that Mickey will be killing terrorists or getting involved in “adult content.” If you really want to see that, the internet exists, and you can find it there.
Rather the game is more a return to the roots of the Mickey Mouse of the 1930’s. Back then he was a bit more of an everyman adventurer who would just as likely be found fighting in a bar as he would be exploring skeleton filled mansions. In later years he was cleaned up and turned into a squeaky spokes-rat, but in Epic Mickey as in his first single-reel escapades, he’s back to basics.
This can immediately be seen in the game’s presentation, which retrofits the older style of the character into a world that can switch between vibrant life and decayed ruins at a moments notice. It’s a world that’s always teeming with animation and truly sells the depression-era feel, especially when you start moving through several small levels based off of actual cartoons, ranging from Steamboat Willie to Fantasia. This classic feel is also maintained with a distinct lack of voice-overs, which comes off as a bit odd since Mickey and friends have had voices since the first talkies.
Of course voice work doesn’t matter as much as gameplay, so how’s that?
Perhaps in keeping with the classic look, the developers had Epic Mickey rely on “classic” platformer mechanics in the vein of a Mario or Spyro game. You’re going to jump and double-jump Mickey over obstacles and on enemies in the environment along the way to objectives; usually various doodads and thingamabobs that characters want you to collect and return to them. You’ll encounter enemies and traps, the occasional boss and even get a handy dandy mostly invisible guide when Mickey teams up with a gremlin named Gus. Lo and behold, Gus dispenses advice and tutorials about a minute after you first encounter him! Didn’t see that one coming!
But after you learn the sheer basics of moving about and escape an insane animatronic Swiss-army knife, you’re introduced to the main mechanic that separates this from other platformers: the paint brush. It has the ability to squirt out paint like a firehose, and magically restores anything it touches. The brush can also emit paint thinner which dissolves objects and enemies like the dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so the primary dichotomy of the game is then to use the thinner to destroy walls and enemies, and paint to build platforms and walls while you navigate your way around.
As with the rest of the art style, the brush is a visual marvel, effortlessly “painting” objects into the world where there was nothing before, and for the most part it controls rather well. In fact most of controls work rather flawlessly and ably use the Wii-remote/nunchuk scheme perfectly, except, wait for it . . . the camera! Oh well, an otherwise perfect control scheme marred by an unresponsive camera is as “classic” as most of the other elements of 3D platformers found here.
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing new here other than a nifty build/erase mechanic either, since Junction Point goes far further in the game design department than the vast majority of platformers, both in an individual level area, and in a meta-game “morality” mechanic. If you played the now classic Deus Ex, you should know that Warren Spector doesn’t believe in a single solution to any encounter, and that every choice you make should carry weight. This “problem not puzzle” philosophy the man is famous for is present in Epic Mickey from the 2nd room onwards and in conjunction with some excellent level design, the paint/destroy mechanic makes the game world feel truly malleable to your actions. Combined with the fact that you can accidentally discover an assortment of hidden objects behind seemingly any wall, the game holds an air of magical mystery throughout.
However, as Dr. Egon once said, “The door swings both ways.” In a brilliant but often frustrating move, you’ll notice that Epic Mickey saves your progress automatically and seemingly every four seconds. Usually this ensures that you won’t get too miffed if you die, which does happen once you encounter some of the nastier enemies; but it also ensures that you have to live with every decision you make, even if you didn’t know you were making one. Since the game actively tries to generate that “mysterious” vibe, a lot of things aren’t explained up front or right away, and there were several points in the game where I found myself moving along to the next area when I didn’t mean to, or solved a problem in one way that cut off access to items or quests I only discovered later. You simply have to grit your teeth and move on, which makes a large degree of sense for the choices that you’re informed about, but each time you make one you had no idea was coming, you feel a little cheated.
In a generation of games that never allow you to move forward without twelve different warning notifications, it’s a rather bold choice. If you accept it, the system works to actually involve you in the game, and instills a sense of responsibility over your actions — sure it hurts when you make a mistake and you regret it, but hey that’s life! However, there will be plenty of folks who might find this to be quite aggravating, and it’s quite likely to anger many of the children who the game is targeted toward.
But then, it’s difficult to tell if that’s the audience that Disney’s trying to go for. The entire tone, while artfully done, is constantly filled with as much decaying and somber imagery as wacky cartoon antics. This is best seen in the Mickeyjunk Mountain level, where you scramble up a diabolical Matterhorn over crumbling and desecrated pieces of actual Mickey Mouse merchandise, from phones and dolls, to old SNES game cartridges of Magical Adventure Starring Mickey Mouse. In these areas, the metaphor of poring over your cherished childhood possessions and memories becomes a literal part of the game world!
Then there is the bleak subject matter concerning Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald is obviously the “original” version and figurative mirror of Mickey himself. He treats Walt Disney as their father and feels, perhaps like many older siblings that he was ignored once the “baby” of the family came into the picture (or in this case pictures). He resents Mickey’s popularity, lashes out and blames him for all of the hardships he’s had to face from almost a century of banishment from the popular imagination. But at the same time, he also wants to be the mouse, almost in the way Buffalo Bill wanted to be a woman in The Silence of the Lambs; even to the point of constructing animatronic versions of Mickey’s friends Goofy, Daisy, and Donald so he could have them himself.
In the midst of a game that’s dark, but never actually enters into a zone unsafe for kids, the relationship between Oswald and Mickey always seems about two steps away from taking the subject matter too far. It never actually does, and always reverts to a very standard friendly rivalry, but there is always a palpable pathos lurking behind every moment the two have together. By the end, it’s actually Oswald that steals the show, even though it’s supposed to be Mickey’s game!
“Actual emotional investment” has never been a detractor from a creative endeavor though, and while most of this subtext will seem obvious to those past puberty, it will more than likely get ignored by younger minds. It actually works to create some of the same sentiment found in more recent Pixar films: kids will love the simple good time of everything, their parents might pick up on some deeper meaning here or there; which is exactly what Disney entertainment should be. The best they’ve ever offered has brought this same mix of child-like wonder whilst surviving amidst a backdrop of utter terror. Look at Pinocchio or Snow White for probably the two best examples, and these are rightfully considered classics of film, not just animation.
It’s difficult to say if that’s what Epic Mickey will become. It’s certainly capable of such a status as it’s an excellent game all around, lives up to Mickey’s other gaming exploits and even sets the bar high for the next wave of platformers. It’s a romp through the tragic truths of nostalgia, and an active lesson in responsibility, but the sheer fact that it’s a video game might prevent many from seeing just how important it could be. If Disney and Junction Point can’t put Mickey Mouse on the Map with this effort, it might be time to let him retire with Oswald.
Then again, it’s definitely on the right system to get played by everyone in the world. I mean, who doesn’t own a Wii?
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