As I bounded over the dilapidated Mickey Mouse paraphernalia that dots the landscape in one particularly metafictional stage of Disney Epic Mickey, I couldn’t help but think about how little Mickey has had to do in recent years - besides serving as a corporate logo.
Amidst the Mickey-branded lunchboxes and NES cartridges of Mickey-starring games that comprise the environment of that stage (Mickeyjunk Mountain) there were probably some really great relics of the character’s glory days.
But Mickey’s recent history and especially his history in video games - perhaps today’s most important popular communications medium - has hardly come close to achieving the sort of artistic importance the character was known for in the days of “Steamboat Willie” and “Fantasia.”
And to a large degree, these points provide the reason for the existence of Junction Point’s Epic Mickey.
Disney recruited gaming god Warren Spector, the man behind such classics as “System Shock” and “Deus Ex,” to bring Mickey roaring into the 2010s but also to reawaken the character’s mischievous early personality.
Through its level designs, story and unlockable content, “Epic Mickey” doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the rich history of Mickey and the Walt Disney Company, and it also does a great job of making the character interesting again to a broad audience.
The game’s wonderful story begins in the opening cut scene, when one night Mickey's curiosity gets the better of him and he ends up in Yen Sid's workshop. There, the mouse finds the sorcerer working on a miniature world in which forgotten Disney characters can reside. When Mickey accidentally dumps a jar of paint thinner all over the vibrantly painted creation, the pastel colors wash away and the world becomes known as Wasteland.
Although Mickey escapes without incident that night, the Shadow Blot, the creature that Mickey's clumsiness birthed that fateful night, eventually pulls the mouse into the now-ravaged miniature world.
The player guides Mickey through an alternate-universe Disney World presided over by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - Walt's original animated rodent. Each of the areas is based on a section of a Disney theme park (Tomorrow City standing in for Tommorowland, Ventureland instead of Adventureland, etc.) and Mickey travels between them via 2D side-scrolling stages that are all based on classic Disney cartoons.
Although he’s initially standoffish and jealous of Mickey, Oswald comes around and teams up with the mouse to rid Wasteland of the destructive forces the Blot has brought and assist Mickey in returning to whence he came.
Along the journey, Mickey meets up with many half-remembered co-stars of his animated past, as well as a handful of familiar faces, and assists them in generally interesting side-quests.
All of the 2D levels are wonderfully designed and pay homage to some of the great, but largely forgotten early works of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. However, as the player travels through these levels over and over to advance the narrative and complete the numerous side-quests, the stages become nothing more than memorized series of platforms in need of transcending.
Mickey is equipped with a paint brush that, in the main 3D stages, can either restore the environment by shooting paint or degrade it by shooting thinner. In certain situations, the player can choose to use paint or thinner to different ends. A player who pursues the "thinner path" can often gain more e-tickets, the in-game currency, but risks upsetting some of the other characters. The "paint path" is sometimes more work but generally increases the cooperation and support from other characters.
This morality system doesn’t drastically affect the outcome of the game but you will occasionally see the decisions you make earlier come back to help or haunt you. One unfortunate aspect of the game is that in pursuing the game’s main mission objectives, your actions can permanently and without notice close off paths to side-quest items.
“Epic Mickey” also features an auto-save feature that exaggerates the side-quest-ending issue because once you reach an auto-save checkpoint, there’s no way to go back and first pursue a side-quest.
Learning to properly aim the paint stream takes some time and even once a player is hours into the game, he’ll likely have to contend with issues like Mickey firing at the ground or into the Z-axis, rather than away from it.
The camera too has issues, especially as the platforming becomes more involved in the game’s later stages. My inability to perceive how far the next ledge was because I couldn't adjust the camera properly definitely sent Mickey hurtling to his death a number of times.
“Epic Mickey” features quite a few imaginatively drawn cut scenes but for whatever reason, the entire game is devoid of voice acting. Just as in “Banjo-Kazooie” (circa 1998), each character makes only a distinct noise before his or her on-screen dialogue begins scrolling by. At first this illogical omission was glaring but as the game proceeded and my appreciation for the story, the music and the unlockable content grew, the lack of voice acting no longer struck me as such a big deal.
The game's narrative structure starts faltering and the gameplay really loses some of its freshness as the story putters to the end. The seemingly final boss battle with the Shadow Blot turns out to have simply been a fight with a lesser form of the real Blot.
Once Mickey catches up with the real Blot, there's no ultimate battle between the antagonist and the protagonist but rather a series of skirmishes with smaller enemies players have encountered numerous times throughout the game and some rudimentary puzzles to solve.
Imagine the final face-off with Ganon excised from the ending of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and replaced with an unchallenging but time-consuming mission to uncover four final heart pieces.
The feeling of accomplishment I felt after winning the game's hardest boss battle, the one against the Shadow Blot, greatly outweighed anything I experienced after the game's final quest: removing the last of the real Blot from Wasteland by shooting a few of his static tentacles with paint while smaller bad guys annoyed me somewhat.
Considering the sizable number of units it has sold since its November release and its interesting, updated approach to the character, “Disney Epic Mickey” should succeed wildly in reintroducing Mickey Mouse to the young Wii audience.
As for the merits of “Epic Mickey” not as a corporate marketing tool but as a video game, it too succeeds. It certainly has its flaws but none so big or persistent that the game ever loses its fun for too long.
“Epic Mickey” may never rank among Mickey Mouse’s classic depictions and it may not even be among the Wii’s best platformers, but its reverence for the iconic character’s past combined with some really enjoyable platforming and adventuring make for a wonderful and unique experience.
out of ten