In 1990, Disney mascot Mickey Mouse starred in Castle Of Illusion, a Sega platformer in which the iconic rodent defeated enemies by hurling himself in the air and crushing them with his bottom.
One of the best of Mickey’s early forays into the videogame medium, Castle Of Illusion was followed up by other titles of more middling quality, culminating in the poorly received Magical Mirror and Disney’s Hide And Seek for the Nintendo GameCube in 2002 and 2003.
When Epic Mickey was announced back in 2008, however, it was with a real hope that Disney’s most recognisable character could get a current generation game he truly deserved. With legendary game designer Warren Spector, creator of such classics as System Shock and Deus Ex at the helm, the initial concepts for Epic Mickey unveiled last year looked genuinely promising.
Suggesting a very different stylistic direction for Mickey – a more adult re-working along the lines of the Kingdom Hearts RPG series – the concept art by Fred Gambino and Gary Glover depicted an imaginative steampunk world filled with towering, sinister machines and, best of all, a mechanical Goofy.
In the intervening months, the initial concepts for Epic Mickey have steadily evolved, and while some of the more radical ideas hinted at in the game’s earlier stages have been pared back, the preview build we got our hands on last week was nevertheless an engaging experience.
While the Wii has no shortage of exemplary platform games, the scale of Epic Mickey is, as the title suggests, highly ambitious. Epic Mickey sees the titular mouse attempt to restore balance to the surreal world of Cartoon Wasteland, a kind of cartoon limbo where unused characters and ideas go to die.
A kind of mixture of 3D platformer and the sort of open-ended RPG elements that Spector popularised in Deus Ex, Mickey’s weapons in his fight against the Phantom Blot are paint and thinner. Exploring the Wasteland, he can use the paint to ‘fill in’ sections of the environment, such as platforms or ledges, and thinner to erase them, revealing hidden objects and entrances. Similarly, paint can be splashed on enemies to change their allegiance, or squirting them with thinner kills them.
In terms of play mechanics, this element of the game feels a little like the GameCube’s Super Mario Sunshine‘s FLUDD system, though its integration with the Wii’s remote and nunchuck controls gives it a real sense of accuracy.
Visually, Epic Mickey is arguably the darkest Disney game we’ve yet seen, and a world apart, tonally, from the character’s bottom-bouncing days of the early 90s. And despite the oft-discussed limitations of the Wii, Epic Mickey‘s world is a beautifully wrought mixture of vivid neon colour and moody shadows.
Mickey Mouse is still recognisably himself, brought into the third dimension as a loose-limbed, athletic character with his signature red trousers, but the real revelation is the breadth of Epic Mickey‘ssupporting cast.
Spector and studio Junction Point have swept Disney’s back catalogue, filling Epic Mickey with a huge roster of characters that will act as pure fan service for animation buffs.
Cartoon Wasteland’s ousted ruler and longest serving resident is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character created by Ub Iwerks in the late-20s, and ultimately replaced by the virtually identical Mickey Mouse as Disney’s mascot. Exploring the game’s hub world, we bumped into Mr. Smee and a host of other pirates, last seen in the animated Peter Pan in 1953, and Clarabelle the cow who, we’re informed with a hint of mischief, is lactose intolerant.
But perhaps the biggest draw for Disney historians is Epic Mickey‘s constant references to the golden age of US animation. After talking to a few non-player characters and solving some simple puzzles, we unlocked a side-scrolling platform sequence based on 1928’s Steamboat Willie, complete with crackly black-and-white visuals. It’s a joyous, inventive scene, rendered all the more tantalising by its brevity.
The cut-scenes we were treated to display a similar historical literacy, and relate the game’s back story in a distinctive, colourful 2D style that recalls Disney’s animations of the 40s and 50s.
While our hands-on time with Epic Mickey was comparatively brief, it gave us a tantalising glimpse into the game’s mixture of simple combat, platforming and RPG elements, and was enough to convince us that, despite a few minor technical issues that are sure to be ironed out before its release, Epic Mickey could well see Disney’s most well-known character star in an adventure worthy of his name.
Epic Mickey is due for release on later this year for the Nintendo Wii.