Judging from that first paragraph then, it’s pretty clear I’m a massive fan of classic animation, and indeed Disney animation. I’m not going to lie; yes, I am indeed. I’m a lifetime Disney dork. From collecting the classic cartoons to the classic animated features Walt Disney produced, I’m a huge Disney animation aficionado. Although, whilst I truly adore the classic Mickey Mouse cartoons, the cartoons ranging from the 20’s right up to the early 40’s, I will have to admit, Mickey Mouse’s reputation as an icon has been fading a little. Okay, well, not a little; quite a bit actually. Mickey just isn’t considered the hero he once used to be eighty years back anymore, really becoming nothing more than a mere corporate logo rather than a character. Mickey’s face continues to be plastered on shirts, watches, games made for Vtech, and making appearances on Playhouse Disney… but that’s really it. Mickey isn’t the star of a cartoon anymore; much less the hero of one. However, once in every year, Mickey appears in something that truly surprises you. Disney Epic Mickey is certainly one of those occasions.
Even though the final product isn’t quite as dark as the really, rather fantastic concept art that was unveiled for the game early in 2009 in Game Informer, Disney Epic Mickey is still far darker from the norm. The supposed Utopia that is Disneyland, the place that Mr. Walt Disney himself described as “The Happiest Place on Earth”, is now near enough, in complete ruin. Instead of the expected serene, jolly and optimistic world Disney products often are associated with, The Cartoon Wasteland in Disney Epic Mickey turns this philosophy completely on its head. The Cartoon Wasteland is actually quite dismal, dark, in some places haunting, and many others, really quite melancholic. The Cartoon Wasteland is a world for forgotten, rejected characters from Disney’s long forgotten creative efforts.
The basic premise for Disney Epic Mickey is Mickey’s curiosity and mischief get the best of him this time around. After fiddling around with the paint, brush and thinner, Mickey Mouse accidentally creates The Thinner Disaster, which destroys the Wasteland, and put the inhabitants in that world into a depression. What’s more is the dreaded Phantom Blot (a character used in a 1930’s Mickey Mouse comic called Mickey & The Phantom Blot and once used in a House of Mouse animated short in 1999) has ruled the land, and his minions: The Blotlings roam the land. Mickey then gets pulled into the Wasteland, and it’s up to him to set things right with his magic paintbrush. Along the way, Mickey will reconnect with long-lost friends such as Horace Horsecollar, Mickey’s trusty assistant who appeared in the famous Mickey short in 1935: The Band Concert, Clarabelle, and yes, even learn about his half-brother: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Yes. Walt Disney’s first true animated star, until he lost the rights to him in a contract dispute with a Universal Studios executive. That is awesome.
Easily, the best thing about Disney Epic Mickey is its story. Even if you don’t know about 80 plus years of Disney’s creative heritage, the story still works well on multiple levels. The game does a great job at making you feel immense sympathy for both our main hero: Mickey, and the forgotten characters such as Oswald himself. The story is bittersweet, surprisingly mature, at times gloomy, but emotional and even, witty. The story greatly balances both light and dark moments in a slightly Burtonesque way, but the story is presented with the artistic, creative flair of classic Disney animated features in the early 30’s to the 50’s era. The ending, I will admit, actually made me shed a few tears. Kids will love the bold revisionist story, seeing their favourite characters such as Donald and Goofy as animatronics (no, really, that part is true indeed) and the humour throughout the cutscenes, and older, seasoned gamers will be charmed by the winning characterizations and strong storytelling.
The game play of Disney Epic Mickey would be best described as a game that would be something at home on the Nintendo 64; however, in the context of this game, that’s both for the best and the worst. The best is that Disney Epic Mickey has great, expert level design, both in the 2D side-scrolling sections and the 3D open-ended hub spaces. Mean Street, which is a reverse twist on Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland, acts as your main hub space in the game. There, Mickey will be allowed to access certain places in The Cartoon Wasteland such as Tomorrow City, Lonesome Manor, and lots of others. Cleverly enough, the designers at Junction Point Studios clearly based The Wasteland as a warped version of Walt Disney World, and as a Disney buff, the references were instantly noticed. In the regard to picking out and noticing bits and pieces of Disney art and memorabilia, Disney Epic Mickey absolutely shines. There are just boundless nods to everything Disney, whether it is a character such as Horace and his Detective Agency, or a theme park attraction such as the It’s A Small World ride. Disney fanatics like myself, will be in true heaven, and it really is quite amazing to see how much Warren Spector and his team turned everything completely on it’s head. However, the actual game play of Disney Epic Mickey is a less than heavenly affair.
The game play mechanic lying at the heart of Disney Epic Mickey is the use of Paint and Thinner. Paint can be used in order to befriend enemies, repaint different parts of different buildings and so on. The Thinner on the other hand allows Mickey to erase anything he pleases, in order to find a hidden item or to, even, help out a nearby civilian. The strongest part of Disney Epic Mickey in the game play department is how well the game balances all of these different game play concepts almost simultaneously. None of the game play mechanics feel out-of-place, awkward or disjointed. The base game play engine here is stellar and intriguing, and the moral choice system helps give it some bite. However, despite the strong ideas at work here, a few fundamental flaws hold Disney Epic Mickey back. The camera in Disney Epic Mickey is a cumbersome ordeal at times, making it extremely difficult to get Mickey to see a precise view of what’s he actually meant to be doing. It doesn’t destroy the game by any means, but considering the amount of time the game had in development, the camera problems could’ve been fixed much earlier in the process. When the controls work, Mickey responds nimbly, with the exact amount of precision you’d expect, however, when he doesn’t, Mickey leads himself to a few aggravating cheap deaths. Also, there are some moments where some of Disney Epic Mickey’s greatest moments are brought to a screeching halt. A tedious fetch quest often makes the gears wound tightly in Epic Mickey. However, it’s not long before a moment of something worthwhile to come around the corner, so these flaws soon disappear.
Perhaps, some of the best moments of Disney Epic Mickey are in the 2D side-scrolling sections in between levels. These 2D side-scrolling levels are truly brilliant, and are designed fantastically. Clearly inspired by the old 2D Nintendo platforms of the 8-bit yesteryear, these sections are a lovingly crafted tribute to some of the best moments in the legendary Mouse’s career, such as level based on Thru The Mirror, Mickey’s Mechanical Man, and even, Oswald cartoons such as Trolley Troubles and Oh, What a Knight. Whilst these levels are absolute bliss for people like myself, they end way too quickly. If these sections were just a bit longer and maybe just a little more challenging, then these levels would’ve been close to perfect.
Even with it’s most glaring problems aside, Disney Epic Mickey is a game that is the rarest of things in today’s post-Call of Duty world of video games: ambitious, daring, filled with a ton of imagination, and does something very few companies even try to do: do something radically different with a historic character. It’s camera issues, moments of clunky control, and where at times, the ambition outstrips the execution; Disney Epic Mickey has such a strong core to it that you won’t even care. It’s far from perfect, but Disney Epic Mickey will be looked back as a cult game someday, and really, how refreshing it is to see how ambition can intrigue any type of gamer. Just be wary of its flaws though; if you’re patient with Disney Epic Mickey, it’ll be a very satisfying experience indeed.