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REVIEW: Epic Mickey

Disney Epic Mickey Title: Disney Epic Mickey
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Pub Date: November 30, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Rich Game Play and Well-crafted Storytelling

Epic Mickey is an excellent installation in the Mickey Mouse oevre from the designers at Disney Interactive. Combining excellent storytelling, appropriate art design, decent level construction, and varied and smooth gameplay, Epic Mickey is a great way for kids (and their parents) to meet Mickey Mouse.

In fact, let me start by saying that I have never been a Mickey Mouse fan. Forget Disney, I always thought. I loved Bugs, and Daffy, and Wile E. Coyote…no squeaky rodents or incomprehensible mallards for me, thank you very much. So while I was excited by Epic Mickey, I didn’t come to it with any particular affinity for the characters. In point of fact, having actively disliked the characters since childhood, I’d say I was initially skeptical about the whole affair. The premise of the game, however, abated my skepticism at least a little bit.

A sorceror uses a magic brush to create a home for all of the unwanted, unloved, forgotten cartoons. He tries to make a safe, welcoming, comfortable home for the rejects of the Disney universe: old Disney characters like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (the prototype for Mickey Mouse), or Gremlin Gus (from the early Disney comics), etc. But of course, Mickey goes and screws it up by spilling paint and then paint thinner over the work-in-progress. This has two principle effects: first, it destroys much of the countryside, turning it into The Wasteland. And it introduces evil (a “blot”) into the rejects’ idyllic home. Mickey, of course, is oblivious to all of this and goes on his merry way. Some time later, Mickey gets sucked into the Wasteland by an alliance between the Shadow Blot (the personification of evil), the Mad Doctor (a crazy mad scientist), and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (the de facto head of state in The Wasteland). Armed with magic paint and magic thinner, Mickey has to find some way of escaping The Wasteland. Along the way, he can either try to improve things (by painting objects using his paint brush) or make them worse (by thinning them using his thinner).

The idea of Mickey traveling a land of forgotten cartoons and having to constantly choose whether to do good or bad gives the game a thematic appeal that I’ve always found missing in Disney’s short cartoons. The game designers clearly held this premise foremost in mind when designing the game, because everything is subordinate to it. As most of these forgotten cartoons are old (from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, etc.) the art direction has a solid retro feel. But, this retro feel is most palpable during the game’s cinematic sequences, and in the “platform worlds” interspersed between major game chapters. When actually playing the game, it feels like walking through a stage set up to look like the 1950s: complete with cardboard cutouts that Mickey can either make more or less real. The net result is that art direction at each point in the game lends valuable support to the core premise.

Epic Mickey Screenshot, Ostown

Epic Mickey, Screenshot originally from:

The writing within the game is excellent, and also tightly supports by both the wonderful art and the premise. The story follows Mickey through a logical progression of discovering The Wasteland and responding to a dizzying array of characters he meets there. During the game’s many cinematic sequences, the animation is fluid and the audio reasonably good. Some folks I’ve spoken to complain about not having much voice acting in the game, but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. I thought the choice actually contributed to the “retro” feel of the game. Within the game itself, Mickey interacts with characters (good and bad) who react to him in different ways based on the ongoing choices he makes. Not having been a big Disney fan, I can’t say if this interactions are true to these characters’ histories, but the writing for them is excellent, in that it accomplishes several valuable goals:

World-building Each of the characters Mickey interacts with has a past that starts before Wasteland was created. Some ask Mickey if he remembers them from when they had bit parts in early Mickey cartoons, for example. Others talk about what life was like before the disaster that turned their home into Wasteland. This serves to really cement the gamer in the world of Watseland.
Thematic Tension Because the characters have pasts, because they react to the disaster, and because their behavior changes based on the ongoing choices Mickey makes during the game, their writing serves to maintain the thematic tension introduced by the basic premise. Mickey holds the fate of Wasteland in his hand: what will he do? As the game progresses, this thematic tension increases and the writing reflects that.
Game Progression The writing for all of the characters, and the interactions and quests that they give Mickey serve to really round-out the storyline. It becomes multi-linear about an hour or so into the gameplay and really opens up the world for experimentation and enjoyment. The writing really serves to make this interaction and the branching game play paths it offers quite seamless.

The game play itself is reasonably varied. The primary action in the game occurs as a three-dimensional platform game, not unlike Super Mario Galaxy or the Sly Cooper (PS2) games. However, the level design is a lot less complicated than in Super Mario Galaxy, with a much greater focus on how levels relate to the world of Wasteland and the story of Epic Mickey. In this respect, the level design much more resembles Sly Cooper (PS2) franchise. And, in the case of this game, this is good because it more tightly links the level design to the underlying premise and story.

The initial worlds provide a decent orientation to the game play, introducing the player to the techniques they will use throughout the game (especially techniques for painting and thinning aspects of the world). However, I found that the “orientation” worlds lasted a little too long for my taste (about 10 – 15% of the game or so). However, that may be because I’m a video game player in my late 20s who has seven video game systems hooked up to his television. Don’t get me wrong, the orientation worlds were fun. But the game play changes when a more quest-oriented system is introduced after the first two worlds. The action continues to be three-dimensional and platform-style, but the motivation and the places that Mickey can go become much more broad. At that point, Mickey can choose which quests he wishes to complete, where he wants to go, and how he wants to complete those quests. With the game’s horizons opened in this fashion, I found I enjoyed the game much more from this point. It gave me greater engagement with the character and the story, and became about more than slogging may way through a bunch of linear worlds.

The quests break up the game play nicely, but so too do the “inter-world” levels. These are more traditional, two-dimensional platform levels. They are “traveling” worlds that Mickey needs to get through to proceed from one section of the Wasteland to another. What’s great about them is their design: they are designed like old 1930’s or 1940’s film strips, complete with undulating film reel border. Some are in color, while others are in black and white. This brief 2D switch up provides great variety in the game, while their design makes them a real treat to play.

Epic Mickey is a very solid game. With excellent writing and superb design, the game provides many hours of enjoyment. The biggest complaint I have about this game is its camera control. That’s not unique to this game (I find it’s a common problem on many Wii games), but this game was especially prone to placing me in positions where I could not position the camera such that I could see where I would be jumping, or to allow me to adequately aim my paintbrush at objects/enemies. While I still enjoyed the game and I was able to play through it without too much swearing, this problem was sufficient enough of me to knock a star off of my rating for it. However, despite that complaint I still think this is a great game for kids and adults alike. While the premise and the theme are dark and complex enough for adults to get a kick out of, like the best middle-grade novels, they are still presented in a fashion that an eight year old will enjoy just as much.

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