Rich with paint; light on the mechanics.
In the wake of classic animated Mickey’s tragic absence, who better to revive him than RPG/FPS veteran Warren Spector? If it sounds bizarre already, don’t be concerned—it is. In fact, it’s a game unlike any other to date in the Disney universe, twisting bits and pieces of oddly familiar childhood reminiscence into mutated abominations of their former selves.
But all in the name of story. Disney Epic Mickey is a tale of the mouse’s sweeping fame and the effect that it has on the rest of the animated world as a culture. It features Wasteland, a melancholy amalgamation of familiar Disney ingredients modified to accommodate those characters who have been forgotten in the shadow of Mickey. Maintained by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (Walt Disney’s first creation, whose demise was actually foretold by a falling out between a Universal Studios exec and Disney), it is a resentful reminder of the inhabitants’ irrelevance, and the contrastingly colorful world of success which Mickey populates.
Wasteland is dominated by bitter adaptations of real-life Disney, including loosely-contrived copies of Walt Disney World theme park attractions (such as It’s a Small World and the Haunted Mansion) and a statue of Oswald holding hands with Disney. Oswald’s self-important acrimony is a constant theme; he’s so distraught about his situation that he’s even built a treacherous mountain out of Mickey Mouse merchandise and other paraphernalia to call home.
Nothing a little paint can't fix
The world is also in a constant state of disrepair, with pieces of buildings and landscape missing, and almost nothing working as intended—but it wasn’t always this way. In its early stages of existence, Wasteland experienced a catastrophe involving spilled paint thinner that altered its face forever. And the culprit? None other than an unsuspecting Mickey Mouse, who happened to stumble upon the Wasteland creator’s den after walking through his bedroom mirror one morning (in classic Mickey cartoon fashion).
Years later, Mickey is sucked back through his mirror and into Wasteland itself by one of the other products of his mishap: the terrible Phantom Blot. Here, he’s forced to finally face the products of his carelessness—and right them.
3-D Platforming, 1997-style
Disney Epic Mickey is a 3-D platformer of the slower-paced and explorative variety, perhaps more comparable to the N64 Banjo-Kazooie games than anything else. Rather than funnel you along a mostly-linear obstacle course toward your destination (Super Mario Galaxy style), it instead opts for a much more open-ended, nonlinear design, providing a series of quests for the player to choose from as they roam the world.
The “hook” is the paint and thinner mechanic, which provides a paintbrush-wielding Mickey with the unique ability to either repair or deconstruct the world around him as he explores. The left and right triggers (on nunchuk and Wii remote) are mapped to thinner and paint respectively, meaning that at any given time, the player has a choice of strategies. Spector has heavily referenced this choose-your-alignment aspect of the experience as an important ingredient.
Not everything is able to be influenced by Mickey’s brush; those elements around you which can are generally clearly marked by a different shade of color. Sometimes entire structures or walls can be removed to provide access to hidden areas, which nearly always house some sort of secret item (most often a collectible Mickey pin, of which there are over 100 in the game). Enemies, meanwhile, are also subject to the effects of the chemicals. Early on, nearly every foe can be either melted with a barrage of thinner or turned into a half-witted ally with paint. As the game progresses, your options thin; the tougher mechanical enemies later on all require a particular strategy (generally involving mostly thinner) to defeat.
Remember this cartoon? Of course you do!
But even the game’s boss battles provide multiple options for completion, and these options are always directly mapped to the choice between paint and thinner. For instance, you’ll encounter a mechanical Captain Hook, who can either be thinned to death off the plank or subverted by a certain man in green tights (summoned after Mickey chooses to free a sprite at the top of the ship). It’s a unique approach to mostly black-and-white decision making that results in some interesting variations on particular in-game sequences, dialogue, and cut scenes, sometimes even leading to the implied “death” (or otherwise mere disappearance) of certain characters. Ultimately, though, beyond the topical implications of Mickey’s decisions, not much else is affected; regardless of your approach, Mickey always ends up the hero of the day.
Following a romp through a twisted rendition of the Small World ride, Mickey lands in Mean Street—Wasteland’s version of Main Street, USA, and a sort of makeshift hub world for the rest of the game. Here, the familiar train station and shops from the Disney theme parks are superdeformed and staffed with black-and-white Disney ancients such as Pete and Horace Horsecollar, all of whom provide countless optional tasks for the player.
In Mean Street, Mickey enlists the help of a local Gremlin to help him repair some nearby projection screens, which serve as a means of transportation between the different areas of the world. The repair of these screens requires the use of so-called Power Sparks, which are earned by completing quests for Wasteland residents. In other words, the completion of some of the NPCs’ quests is required—just not all of them. You’ll also find Power Sparks hidden throughout the game’s worlds as you explore, as well as additional Gremlins in captivity, who provide help to you upon their rescue (sometimes even by emasculating an upcoming boss).
The aforementioned projection screens that whisk Mickey between the world’s areas actually do so by way of any number of cartoon side-scrolling bridging sequences, each of which is based on a particular classic Disney short from the earlier part of the 20th century (including Steamboat Willie, Thru the Mirror, Lonesome Ghosts, and many others). None of these is particularly challenging, and sometimes they honestly border on bland, but the thematic integration of the environments from these classic Disney shorts and the various characters and other elements that are featured do make for an entertaining ride at times. In total, there are a few dozen of these side-scrolling levels, though only around a third as many different classic cartoon derivations (as many of them share the same heritage).
Another one of those classic cartoon side-scrolling levels
Gameplay-wise, the rest of the package is purely ordinary. Mickey can run, jump, and spin attack with a shake of the Wii remote (which works fine). You’ll also earn a few additional moves later in the game to help you solve some lightweight puzzles. None of this is all that exciting, but Epic Mickey is absolutely not meant to be a showcase of gameplay innovations. Despite the sometimes clever implementation of the paint/thinner gimmick, the gameplay remains a means to an end—and that end is the exploration and discovery of the twisted Disney world that Spector and his team have created. As mildly depressing as Wasteland seeks to be, it is inevitably beautiful, featuring a sense of inspired art direction (both visually and musically) that is compelling beyond that of the vast majority of other Wii-based efforts to date. This is one of the most aesthetically impressive Wii games available.
Even the two-dimensional cut scenes (of which there are plenty) are very well done. They feature an attitude and animated style that closely mirrors that of the classic cartoons to which the game pays homage. The dialogue is a bit odd (rather than voice acting, which probably would have actually worked well, the cut scenes feature captions coupled with grunts and uhhs from the various characters), but that’s about the only presentational gripe that comes to mind.
Unfortunately, paint and thinner cannot correct mechanical flaws—and this is where Epic Mickey’s appeal falters. While Wasteland’s atmosphere is certainly uniquely enchanting, before long, the reality of the design sets in… and the player is faced with a relentless avalanche of camera battles and vapid fetch quests rarely seen since the days of the N64. It’s a downright shame, as given a few more months in the oven for playtesting, balancing, and some serious work in the camera department, Epic Mickey would have been a completely different product.
Warren Spector had alluded to some struggles with camera programming (when coupled with removable walls and obstacles) in a few interviews leading up to the game’s release. This might have sounded some alarm bells, but make no mistake about it: Epic Mickey’s camera is positively awful. In stark contrast to recent 3-D platforming triumphs (again, see Super Mario Galaxy), where the camera essentially takes care of itself ninety percent of the time, Epic Mickey expects you to babysit the viewing angle throughout most of the game via the C button (to center the camera behind Mickey) and the D-pad (for fine-tuning).
Perhaps this doesn’t sound so bad, but it’s far worse than that. Much of the time, the camera controls don’t even work (the game simply refuses to obey your button presses), and in other situations, its erratic behavior actually completely ruins the current platforming scenario. For instance, just try leaping off the clubhouse platforms in Ventureland to reach the central rotating lift conspicuously teasing you with the green ticket atop it. It’s literally impossible to do without the camera rotating such that you are jumping blindly toward the screen, hoping to haphazardly land on the lift.
Behold: Lonesome Manor
Speaking of tickets, the game frequently provides the option of skipping certain mundane tasks by “paying off” characters to accomplish them for you, or buying critical items off them to bypass an intermediary trial. This is made possible by the game’s central form of currency—tickets—which are ubiquitously strewn throughout the world. Although this is a solid concept, it’s unfortunate that nearly all of the quests available to the player—whether skippable or not—are tedious and pointless. Most of these trials amount to nothing more than mere fetch quests for random items, and often they require a significant degree of backtracking with very little reward to the player. There will be points throughout the game that you will likely consider quitting out of sheer dread of the task at hand; the hope is that your desire to experience the next bizarre reimagining of Disney IP will encourage you to persevere in spite of these roadblocks.
Finally, collision detection and other foundational basics are also less than perfect. There were multiple instances during my playthrough where Mickey was killed suddenly and unfairly, unwinding all of my progress since the last checkpoint (and, at least once, resulting in my missing a critical collectible the second time through thanks to ambiguous checkpointing). One of these involved leaping onto a parked People Mover car, which logically should not have harmed me at all. Instead, it trapped me in place, draining all five of my hits in a matter of seconds.
Again, a means to an end. The gameplay is far from perfect, but most of the time it suffices to the point of tolerance. It’s fortunate that the rest of what’s here to experience is as solid as it is, because without a captivating environment and story, Epic Mickey would have been far less epic indeed.