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Opinion: On  Epic Mickey 's Epic... Success?
Opinion: On Epic Mickey's Epic... Success?
January 5, 2011 | By Jeffrey Matulef

January 5, 2011 | By Jeffrey Matulef
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[Gamasutra's Jeffrey Matulef explores the ways in which Warren Spector and Junction Point's Disney Epic Mickey succeeds at generating interest in Disney and Mickey Mouse's rich heritage.]

While Disney Epic Mickey certainly has its share of failures, as I discussed in a previous column, it's not all bad news. One of game creator Warren Spector's primary goals with the game is to honor Walt Disney's legacy and make Mickey Mouse culturally relevant again. In this sense, Epic Mickey is a triumph.

The general consensus among reviewers is that you have to be a huge Disney fan to overlook Epic Mickey's flaws. This doesn't take into account that just because you go into the game not a Disney fan, doesn't mean you won't end up one by the time the end credits roll.

Admittedly, I knew very little about Disney's history going in. As someone born in 1983, Mickey cartoons were never readily available to me. I'm sure I must have seen some in my youth, but I'll be damned if I could remember any of them. Embarrassingly, I couldn't even recall if he spoke before asking someone prior to Epic Mickey's release.

He starred in short films, right? Where do they even show short films anymore outside of DVD (note: I've since discovered some on YouTube, but many are under copyright and hard to find)? Perhaps I should have nagged my parents to shill out for the Disney Channel growing up. At the end of the day, I only had peripheral knowledge of these characters and nothing more.

Most of my knowledge of Disney was comprised of my recent trip to Disneyland this summer. I fell in love with the place immediately for reasons far too numerous to name, but what left the biggest impression on me was the rides: The pitch black skies, French architecture, and warm faux-night air of Pirates of the Caribbean, the ghostly dancing projections in the Haunted Mansion, and the psychedelic thrill of speeding along the stars in Space Mountain (still my favorite).

If you asked me about Mickey, Goofy or Donald, however, my knowledge of them would be limited to employees in plush costumes getting their picture taken with children, and random paraphernalia shaped like Mickey's head.

As much as I loved the theme park, it was all for reasons having nothing to do with the early animation from which the studio is founded on. Any desire I had to research this had all but evaporated by the time I returned home.

Epic Mickey, however, did inspire me to look into oldschool Disney cartoons for a myriad of reasons.

Mickey's descent into a wasteland of forgotten and rejected characters is a metaphor for him being forgotten. Sure his face is still plastered across every facet of all things Disney, but he's become nothing more than a corporate logo in the past several decades. I can't even think of the last time he starred in anything. Can you?*

Here he's given a personality, even if it is subject to change on a player's whim. He's curious, loyal, mischievous, good-hearted, and here's something we wouldn't necessarily expect from a corporate mascot; guilt-ridden. He's a hotshot movie star who accidentally ravaged a world of his old friends in the opening cinematic. He's not a bad guy exactly, but he is reckless and not necessarily deserving of his success. Watching the plucky little guy realize he's in over his head is fascinating.

Where most licensed games exclude those unfamiliar with the source material, Epic Mickey readily invites. It's okay if you don't know who Horace Horsecollar or Clarabelle Cow are. In fact, you're not expected to. You are expected to feel guilty for not knowing, but that fits with the story since neither does Mickey.

The most important character is Mickey's long lost older brother, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was Walt's first hugely popular creation that he lost the rights to in a copyright dispute with Universal. In Epic Mickey's Wasteland, Oswald reigns supreme and he's bitter and jealous of Mickey's success that should have been his. Rather than relegate him to a simple envious antagonist, Oswald is a complex creature who was a noble leader to his people before Mickey went and fouled everything up.

The way we're slowly introduced to Oswald builds up in an appropriately dramatic fashion. It takes a good third of the game before you meet him, though his likeness is plastered all throughout the Wasteland (just as Mickey's is at Disneyland).

His throne room, built upon a tower of junk related to Mickey, contains three of his films – presented as 2D platforming challenges -- that Mickey must endure (one of which, “Oh, What a Knight,” is presented in its entirety in the extras menu after a certain point and is an absolute delight). We're given snippets as to what his life was like before Mickey came along.

He was courageous, sly, and romantic. He also had a girlfriend, a cat named Ortensia, and while we're not told much about this, it's enough to whet our appetites and want to seek out more of these characters.

The game's setting is a tour de force. Focusing on one time period (the late 20s to 40s) gives a great sense of cohesion that you wouldn't get in say, Kingdom Hearts (not that I'm knocking that series. It's just going for something different). Environments manage to be ominous without being dreary, and optimistic despite their dismal state. There's a distinctly nostalgic feel about that game that permeates sadness throughout for this bygone era.

Art direction is inspired, adapting a near century old aesthetic onto 3D hardware. Usually 3D models of 2D characters look clunky and wrong, but Junction Point did a wonderful job with this, most notably with Mickey, whose ears rotate around his head to be visible from any angle. Mickey also stretches as he leaps, flattens when crushed, and other characters melt in a way that somehow doesn't look painful when sprayed with thinner.

The game's 2D platforming sequences in particular do a marvelous job of capturing the look and feel of the era, a reminder of how gorgeous it could be before everything went 3D. Even though they're rather basic from a gameplay standpoint, they're so stylish that I'd love to see these expanded upon and perhaps made into a full game (not that this will happen).

From the retro re-imagining of what Mickey looks like, to the fluid, curvy aesthetics of the 2D levels, to the glorious stained-glass portrayals of Oswald in happier times in Dark Beauty Castle, this is a world that's equal parts enchanting, tragic, and awe-inspiring without ever taking itself too seriously. It's a world you'll want to stay in, and the good news is you can. There's plenty of old Disney cartoons out there just begging to be cherished by a new audience.

I may not have been a fan of Mickey before, but I am now.

*Mickey's most recent theatrical release was Runaway Brain. After that he's only been in direct to DVD releases and TV. I like to think starring in a video game is a step up from that.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at G4TV.com, Eurogamer, and Joystiq among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]


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