When you list the most recognizable images in the world, images that have made a lasting impression on our lives in terms of history and pop culture, few would rank higher on that list than Mickey Mouse. Mickey is right up there with the Golden Arches and the Nike swoosh as part of the iconography that has shaped the modern age. It is an image most people know, and it is a property that can stand up to any. In Disney’s Epic Mickey, developer Junction Point Studios has created a game for the Nintendo Wii that honors the nearly 100-year history of the character, and does so in an imaginative, but ultimately flawed way.
Some things in Epic Mickey work amazingly well. The history is wrapped into the game in such a way that fans of the property will feel the scope of the character. Older gamers will likely feel pangs of nostalgia, while younger ones will be entranced by the world presented to them. Mickey is the perfect character to create a game with a self-sustained world around, and in that sense, the game succeeds perfectly. On the other hand, technical glitches mar this game from the start, pacing issues slow the beginning of the game down, and a handful of other odd choices including uneven combat that quickly can become tedious make this a solid, but not spectacular game. Fans of Mickey will find a lot to like about this game. For everyone else, there is a lot to enjoy, but you need to have patience to see it.
The happiest game on Earth
The Epic Mickey story begins in the Wasteland, an area that contains forgotten cartoons, and attractions, and is ruled over by Mickey’s half brother Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. After discovering a magic mirror in his house, Mickey enters the Wasteland, and discovers the workshop of the sorcerer Yen Sid, who has created a magical paintbrush. Mickey examines the paintbrush, but in doing so he accidentally releases the ink-based creature known as the Shadow Blot. In an attempt to correct his mistake, Mickey douses the creature with paint thinner, and escapes back to his house through the mirror.
Years pass, when suddenly the Blot returns and drags Mickey back into the Wasteland, which he discovers to have been ruined by the Blot. Armed with the magical paintbrush, which can either delete by using paint thinner, or create by using paint, Mickey sets off to attempt to defeat the Blot and restore the world he accidentally helped destroy.
The Wasteland is a place where forgotten cartoons, attractions, and other Disney ideas go to retire, so the game will have the hint of familiarity while still feeling fresh and unique. Everything is inspired by cartoons you may know, but it is also twisted and warped by the Blot. The selling point of this game is the rich and compelling world that you can’t help but have at least a passing familiarity with from your childhood. Most will probably find themselves shocked at just how many areas ring familiar with them, and that is the true genius of this game.
The game will eventually take you to a central hub called Mean Street, where some of the forgotten characters of Disney lore will mingle with warped versions of familiar faces. There you can stop and stock up on supplies and initiate quests, but once you begin a level, you must complete it then, as you are generally forced to move forward. How you treat the area — whether you help revitalize or destroy it — will also have long-reaching implications in the way the game plays out. It is at this point that the game picks up.
The first few levels are essentially very long tutorials, and the gameplay is repetitive. The paintbrush is also little more than a gimmick, and the choice of thinner or paint is never really much of a choice — you just hit the proper button to progress. Unfortunately Epic Mickey will lose a lot of players to the first few levels, but those that keep at it will begin to see what the game is all about (roughly three hours in).
There are also several short mini-stages where you enter one of Mickey’s old cartoons for a brief trip through the history of the character, such as a level based on the “Steamboat Willy” cartoon, or the “Mickey and the Bean Stalk” short. These stages are a true highlight, and although they tend to be little more than brief platforming sections, they connect the game to the world of Mickey in a unique and interesting way.
Rather than just being a platforming version of the PlayStation’s Kingdom Hearts — a game which combined Disney characters with Square Enix characters — Epic Mickey relies on the lush past of Mickey that has ebbed and flowed. But Mickey is still Mickey, and there is something timeless that makes it difficult to identify exactly when the game draws its closest inspiration from. At times it feels like a post-World-War-II-inspired game, while other moments seem to be from the dawn of the Space Age. Then again, there is a modern influence as well, and the character was originally created at the start of the Great Depression. Bits and pieces of that exist throughout, and to its great credit, the game honors that long history.
The consequences of choice
As you progress through the Epic Mickey, the plight of the Wasteland unfolds before you, and Mickey is faced with options of how to proceed. This actually becomes a morality based system along similar lines as games like Fallout 3 and Fable, which make subtle changes based on the types of decisions you make. Mickey can either help the people he comes across, or he can ignore them and progress more quickly through the game.
The results of Mickey’s actions do not always become immediately apparent — a character you helped may come to your aid later in the game, or something you did or did not do will be reflected at the end of the game. For example, early on you will have the option of freeing several gremlins. To do so will take you a bit longer, and the path will be harder, but in return you can then watch as they take care of a puzzle for you. Some boss battles can also be skipped entirely if you make certain choices, but it is not until later in the game that you see this sort of consequence-reward scenario.
The game will feature several subtle differences based on your choices, but many of them you won’t even realize until you play through the game a second time. The main story should take you around 10 to 12 hours or so, but with quests you can expect that to increase quite a bit.
While some of the side quests will affect the plot or the gameplay, others will simply be to nab collectibles. Fans of Disney and Mickey should definitely consider partaking in these, as they unlock extra content, including cartoons that you can watch at the main menu. It isn’t a major point, but if you are a Mickey fan, then it adds to the package as a whole.
One of the more intriguing plot aspects is the character of Oswald, the ruler of the Wasteland, who is a real character that Disney lost the trademark to in 1927. The legal problems were what caused the birth of the character of Mickey Mouse in the first place, and without Oswald, there would be no Mickey. The game shows Oswald as a benevolent ruler of the Wasteland, but one who is resentful of Mickey’s success. When Mickey accidentally unleashes the Shadow Blot, it forces Oswald into hiding, and when Mickey returns, he must then gain the trust of his older half-brother to stop the Blot and save the Wasteland.
Mickey will confront Oswald, and the decisions you have made will affect whether Oswald holds a justifiable belief that Mickey is mischievous and destructive, or someone that truly wants to help. Oswald’s story is one of the best aspects of this game. He is a slightly tragic character (for an animated rabbit), and the more you understand about Oswald, the more impact the decisions you have made as Mickey come to either honor you, or haunt you.
Mickey’s most dangerous foe—the dreaded camera
The Achilles heel of many a solid platformer-style game is the camera. A good camera control is invisible; you don’t think about it, and it becomes a non-issue. But a bad camera control can render a game nearly unplayable. Epic Mickey has a handful of flaws, but none are nearly as bad as the camera angle. Several times it will make average levels difficult, and difficult areas frustratingly hard.
The game attempts to auto correct for you as Mickey dashes about the 3D world, and there is a center button, plus you can control the camera with the D-pad. Unfortunately on the Wii, using the D-pad is not the natural way to move your hand, so it becomes a last-ditch effort, while the center button seems to have a mind of its own. These issues would both be minor, except the game’s camera seems to actively try to cause your death for fun. Jumping puzzles can go from hard to impossible, especially when you combine them with anything more advanced, like a moving or rotating platform. Over and over you will fall, and many sidequests will probably be ignored out of frustration.
This, combined with the lackluster first few levels, will likely have more than a few fans lose interest at about a quarter of the way through the game, and that is fair. One serious flaw in this game is that it takes a while to get going. Once it does, Epic Mickey is a fun and entertaining game with a few frustrating parts that can be overlooked as a whole. But you need the patience to get that far, and not all players will have it.
Mickey coulda been a contender
The combat system will try the patience of many gamers who have played this style of platformer before, but it gets better as it progresses. Epic Mickey wants you to use the magic paintbrush as often as possible, and that includes the combat. When you begin, your combat options are fairly limited. You can stun your enemies with spin attacks and jumping on them, but then you need to finish them off by painting or thinning them. If you use thinner, they will warp in appearance before disappearing, but if you paint them, they become friends and will attack your enemies.
The biggest flaw with the combat is a lock-on system that is frustrating at best, and downright broken at worst. This makes fighting enemies something to be endured rather than enjoyed. But as you get deeper into the game, you begin to unlock new features called sketches, which are almost always entertaining. When you drop a sketch, it can alter the environment, and most sketches act as special attacks of a sort. You can drop a TV, which enemies will wander over and watch, but it can also be used to power up platforms. An anvil can be dropped on an enemy and damage the surrounding area, but it can also be used on pressure plates. There are more, and they are all worth experimenting with.
You also level increase your health and paint supplies the more you play. It is not a major focus of the game, and the majority of the time you will not begrudge the scarcity of the paints you can hold, especially considering the abundance of items along the way. This does help with exploration though, a fun aspect of the game. Many of the best treasures are so well-hidden that finding them by using the paintbrush will feel like an accomplishment. These aren’t necessary to progress, but offer a bit of depth to the game.
The enemies you face along the way start out fairly unimpressive, but do get better. During the first few levels, the most common enemy you will see is a seer, which is basically just a blob. The tactics are simple — stun them and use paint or thinner — resulting in combat that feels hollow and tedious. As with the rest of the title, you need to have the patience to keep playing if you want to see the real game in action, but it takes determination at first. Even then, the broken targeting and frustrating cameras make the gameplay tough at times.
As you play through and begin to have more options, the gameplay will never reach the levels that you might hope it will, but it also won’t always be as dull as it is on the first few levels. A better camera system would help the movement, and a few tweaks (like the targeting) could have made the combat fun. The sketches do help add to the game, but they can’t solve existing technical problems. The gameplay is passable, but never thrilling, and rarely fun.
There is both good and bad in this game. The scope, story, and setting of this game are incredible, and the decision-making process will likely have many people playing through twice to see what they missed. On the other hand, the camera is painfully bad, the first few hours are tedious, and the combat is never all that great.
If you are a fan of Disney and Mickey, then the flaws are easy enough to overlook, and the game should be compelling enough to offer you a truly enjoyable time. If you are hoping to play Epic Mickey as an alternative to Super Mario, or a dozen other platformers, you will find yourself annoyed and bored.
The look and feel of this game prove that there is an amazing adventure here, that with a little more polish, could have easily been among the best games on the Wii. But it is not polished, and the results are going to prevent this game from reaching the potential that it could have.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Wii on a copy provided by Disney Interactive Studios)