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Mini-Review: Disney Epic Mickey

Mickey Mouse Confession time: I'm not much of a fan of the classic Disney characters.  I watched Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons as a kid and did the whole Magic Kingdom / Walt Disney World thing, but it's been a long time since I felt the need to catch up with any of it.  The Disney brand caters largely to children, after all, and as a adult the whole Wonderful World of Disney thing just doesn't appeal to me.  Long-time PTB readers know that I do love my share of fictional  characters, of course, but those are characters that are aimed at fans of all ages.  Mickey Mouse and friends are pitched at the kiddies (outside of nostalgia collector markets).  That's not a criticism.  Just a fact.  That's why I was so surprised to see that Disney was handing the keys to the Magic Kingdom over to designer Warren Spector in a partnership that eventually gave rise to a Nintendo Wii game starring Mickey Mouse that's meant for players of all ages.  Kids can play and enjoy seeing Mickey bound around, while adults are in for a delightful nostalgia ride (and history lesson) without being insulted with overtly childish material.  Disney Epic Mickey is a step back in the right direction for a famous character despite its few flaws and shortcomings.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit When Mickey Mouse is dragged into an inky domain known as the Wasteland populated by forgotten Disney characters from decades gone by, he's forced to take up a magic paintbrush in order to escape.  Simple premise, yes, but one that runs surprisingly deep.  The Wasteland's inhabitants are all characters from older Disney productions that haven't been seen in new material in a very long time.  The best example of a forgotten character has to be Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of Walt Disney's first character creations that the animator did not actually own the rights to use in his own productions.  Disney itself finally regained control of Oswald several years ago, and he turns up here as a bitter, neglected, misunderstood ruler of the Wasteland and supremely jealous of Mickey's rise to fame and prominence.  He's wonderfully ego-driven, having recreated places such as Disneyland's Main Street USA in his own image as Mean Street featuring an animation theater with "Steamboat Oswald" on the marquee and the familiar "Partners" statue of Walt Disney holding Mickey Mouse's hand...  except that in this incarnation of the statue, Disney is holding Oswald's hand.  Casting Oswald in this role is a brilliant decision and a fun way to integrate him back into the Disney fold.

Speaking of the Wasteland, it's practically built from forgotten settings and places in the Disney world as well as the Disney World (proper noun there).  Amusement park rides that were closed years ago (or never opened at all) turn up again here in dilapidated form along with warped versions of familiar places (you don't know depressing terror until you've heard "It's A Small World" played in a minor key), and as Mickey moves his way through them, they come back to life and regain a little spark of what they once were.  Many of the areas in the Wasteland tickled some long-forgotten memory in my brain as I knew I recognized, say, a boat or a paint scheme from somewhere, and it often took time and an Internet search to identify the semi-familiar elements.  However, many of the areas were lost on me as I had no idea what I was supposed to recognize.  I just don't have the Disney background to recognize everything.  Fortunately, most of the more important forgotten characters that are important to the story will introduce themselves with glee, only to become downtrodden when Mickey admits that he doesn't remember them.  In the end it became impossible for me to tell the revived elements from the fantastical original creations, and much of the built-in genius bonus went over my head. 

Disney Epic Mickey As for Mickey himself, he's taken to the 3D action/platformer role quite nicely thanks to his magic paintbrush that allows him to use paint or thinner to reshape the environments in the Wasteland.  In what feels like a mechanic adapted from the stellar Super Mario Sunshine or the subpar SPRay, the brush can spray a stream of paint at certain empty spaces in order to create bridges, walls, platforms, gears, pipes, and other surfaces (it can also be used on enemies to turn them into friends)  Thinner causes those surfaces (or enemies) to melt away into nothingness.  Being able to alter the environment on a whim is key to Disney Epic Mickey, as much of the platforming challenge comes from knowing what to build or remove and when to do it.  There were plenty of hidden areas behind thinnable walls, for instance, and I enjoyed keeping an eye out for these secret spots and others like them.  The whole experience changes depending on how Mickey achieves goals, casting him as the traditional helpful hero or a more mischevious scrapper among the Wasteland population through what's become a traditional gaming morality system model.  There is no right or wrong way to behave while achieving goals, but some actions have better payoffs than others.  Collectible pins, film reels, and other such things mark Mickey's progress, and collecting enough stuff unlocks concept artwork and classic cartoons starring either Mickey or Oswald.

All of this adds up to an interesting concept for an adventure, but there are a few flaws to gum up the works.  As discussed on Episode 32 of the Power Button podcast, the camera has issues.  Specifically, it has a mind of its own and a knack for shifting angles by itself at the worst possible moments, causing the player to accidentally sink Mickey into damaging muck in mid-jump all too often.  Sometimes it aims in the wrong direction or at an angle that's just plain unhelpful, then becomes stuck there.  I dealt with it swinging behind a wall once, leaving me unable to see what was going on.  Warren Spector has defended the camera in post-release interviews, but I have a hard time doing the same.  I also must admit that the game really didn't hold my interest for very long.  The first hour of the game represents a weak start, and it's not until Mickey reaches Mean Street that the full potential of the experience starts to open up.  Additionally, areas of the Wasteland are linked together in what feels like a single unending slog of locations, making it difficult to feel as if I was making any overall progress.  I think it would help if I recognized more of the Disney lore on display, as much of the fun comes from recognizing those old Disney elements.  The level of detail on display clearly shows that it was a labor of love for the developers at Junction Point Studios.

Disney Epic Mickey While the "epicness" of Disney Epic Mickey is a step up from past video games starring Mickey Mouse, I'd imagine that a die-hard Disney fan would get much more out of it than I do.  Half of the fun is seeing the forgotten or obscure characters and settings back in action, and my knowledge of Disney history just isn't complete enough for me to get much mileage out of that aspect.  It's definitely recommended for serious Disney fans, but others may want to give it a rental first before making a final decision.  It's a worthy project and I'm glad that it exists even if I cannot completely appreciate it.