Relaunching the most recognizable cartoon icon in world is very serious business. But that's exactly what famed game designer Warren Spector, best known for making mature titles like Deus Ex and Thief, intends to do this holiday season with Epic Mickey exclusively for the Nintendo Wii. He's taking Disney's most widely known character -- Mickey Mouse -- and tapping into his rich history to bring back the mischievous and youthful mouse that permeated his early short films. This darker, steampunk-inspired game is easily one of the most daring and ambitious projects of this year, if not this console generation.
During Nintendo of Canada's Eh!3 (a play on E3) event in Toronto, I had the rare chance to get a live demo of the game followed by a short hands-on session. Here's a run-down of what I saw and heard:
The game is a hybrid platformer/action-adventure/role-playing game taking the best elements of each and combining them into a unique character-driven story that draws upon more than eighty years of Disney history. In the game's opening narrative, the powerful sorcerer Yen Sid ("Disney" spelled backwards), first seen in 1940's Fantasia during The Sorcerer's Apprentice, creates a Disney theme park known as the Wasteland where all the retired and forgotten characters thrive. The earliest inhabitant of this wasteland is Walt Disney's first cartoon star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created in 1927 and the prototype for what would one day become Mickey Mouse.
As time passes Oswald develops growing resentment over Mickey's fame in the outside world. Mickey, curiously inspecting the Wasteland one day, inadvertently spills paint and paint thinner onto the model. Unbeknown to Mickey, the accident creates a being known as the Phantom Blot, who takes control of the Wasteland, forcing Oswald into exile. Mickey is drawn into the twisted world and must thwart the evil plans of the Phantom Blot and gain the trust of Oswald back in order to restore order to the Wasteland.
What's really important to note here is that Epic Mickey is focused on reviving cast away characters that have been locked in the Disney vault for decades, signaling a new interest on the part of Disney to explore its own past and popularize some forgotten characters. On top of the classic characters such as Oswald, Yen Sid, and the Phantom Blot, you'll also encounter characters such as Tiki Sam (a modified version of Goofy), The Mad Doctor (who teams with the Phantom Blot), and Gremlin Gus who serves in a Jiminy Cricket role and advises Mickey on his journey. Characters and locations are taken from all eras of Disney's past so you'll see black and white characters next to coloured characters, you'll see characters you almost recognize, and locations that will be familiar, but have received a Wasteland makeover. As an example, in the demo I saw Skull Island, a Wasteland version of Skull Rock from Peter Pan. Some of the worlds are based on Disney animated feature or short films, while others might be from theme park rides, so it's this incredible mash-up of years of Disney history.
Goofy, dressed as Tiki Sam, is a shopkeeper found in Epic Mickey
Skull Island, a Wasteland version of Skull Rock from Peter Pan
As imaginative as the plot is, the gameplay is just as novel. As Mickey you use the Wii Remote as a paintbrush to wield magical blue paint and green paint thinner to reshape and alter the world around you. Paint lets you fill in gaps, create walls/floors, draw characters or convert enemies into friends. Paint thinner is the exact opposite, allowing you to destroy obstacles that obstruct your path, erase characters, and eliminate enemies for good. The game uses a morality system similar to Fallout 3 that has the world dynamically alter depending on your play style, be it heroic or mischievous.
Changing the world on the fly is how you solve problems and advance in the game -- but there's a twist. There's no right or wrong way to solve problems, and in most cases there are multiple ways to solve them, and multiple outcomes. For example if a characters is blocking your path perhaps there's a way to negotiate your passing peacefully, or for the edgier players you may opt to simply splash a bit of paint thinner on the character and erase them altogether. Each method achieves your goals, but the outcome may be different (e.g. perhaps the erased character could have assisted your later in your journey).
Mickey using his blue paint to colour a house
Mickey uses green paint thinner to erase an enemy
The Disney rep who gave me the guided toured emphasized that there are no right or wrong outcomes in Epic Mickey. The game is about choices and the consequences your actions have on the environment, interactions with other characters, and even Mickey's physical appearance and abilities. How you proceed is up to you, what abilities you develop is up to you, and who is friendly or antagonist is up to you. This shifting spectrum of outcomes feels empowering and adds a deep layer of realism to Epic Mickey.
The game is mostly played navigating the 3D world of Wasteland however there are numerous 2D platforming levels that serves to bridge the gap between locations. These levels look and feel like classic black and white Mickey Mouse short films, such as Steamboat Willie level I played, and has players collecting tickets (the in-game currency), which can be used to purchase new items and upgrades. The 2D worlds were gorgeous and the gameplay tight, it really did feel like I was interacting with a 1930s Mickey film complete with classic characters and sounds.
2D black and white platforming level resembling classic Mickey short films
Epic Mickey is not a misnomer -- the game is already shaping up to be an unforgettable experience. The storyline is genius, the paint/thinner mechanic feels innovative and intuitive, and the graphics mimic the classic Disney vibe perfectly. For too long now Mickey Mouse has been devoid of personality (let's admit it, even in Kingdom Hearts Mickey was flat), and it's great to see Disney attempting something so daring as to revive the mouse's original sense of playfulness and purpose. This is a game all Wii gamers, or gamers in general should be watching out for this holiday season. Believe me, it's already showing classic potential.
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