Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Epic Mickey: the little mouse makes a big splash on the Wii

Epic Mickey, an adventure-game exclusive to the Nintendo Wii gaming system, produced by Warren Spector, is a charming and entertaining game that really caters to the longtime Disney fan.

A quick synopsis of the premise: one night, Mickey Mouse sneaks into the workshop of Yen Sid (the sorcerer he was apprenticed to in Fantasia), and accidentally spills a bunch of paint thinner into what appears to be a huge model of a theme park somewhat resembling Disneyland. It turns out this model is actually another dimension, The Wasteland, and when Mickey gets sucked into it, he learns it's the home of a legion of forgotten and/or rejected Disney characters.

Ruling over the Wasteland is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney's original cartoon star. Oswald is bitter that Walt Disney abandonded him in favor of Mickey. Mickey could probably straighten this out explaining that Oswald was created under a contract with Universal, and that Walt didn't abandon him so much as lose control of him thanks to lawyers and legalities (Disney recently gained Oswald back in 2006, when they traded sports commentator Al Michaels for him. Seriously). I suppose a lesson in history and copyrights wouldn't be quite as much fun as embarking on a dangerous adventure, though, so that's what happens instead.

Oswald confronts Mickey.

Following Mickey's big spill, the Wasteland has been threatened by the twin menaces of The Mad Doctor with his army of animatronic monsters, and the Phantom Blot and his legion of devious drippings. Mickey has to head into various sections of the Wasteland and carrying out a number of missions to make up for the damage he's done.

One of the really interesting wrinkles to Epic Mickey is that there are usually at least two solutions to every obstacle, often with a moral choice involved. The majority of these involve simple choices: Mickey weilds both paint and thinner in the game. Paint can be used to quickly disolve most enemies, but taking a little longer to cover them with paint will convert most enemies to allies. The more moral route takes more effort in the short-term, but often results an easier overall path.

Some choices aren't even so clear-cut. One example (with just a minor spoiler). Oswald's girlfriend Ortensia, has gone missing. When Mickey finds her locket, another character suggests bringing it to the museum to earn several E-tickets (which function as money in the game). However, if you realize on your own that it would be nicer to give it to Oswald, he rewards you by increasing your maximum health (making Mickey tougher throughout the rest of the game). It doesn't take a huge amount of thought to come to this conclusion, but it does require both initiative and intuition on the part of the player, and I was pleasantly surprised by that.

As a fan of the Disney theme parks, I was both delighted and occasionally frustrated by the game's environments. The locales are all warped, fun-house mirror reflections of the Disneyland/Magic Kingdom lands: Main Street becomes Mean Street, Tomorrowland becomes Tomorrow City, Adventureland is represented as Ventureland, Toontown is replaced by Ostown, New Orleans Square becomes Bog Easy, Fantasyland is Gremlin Village, and allegedly the surreal Mickeyjunk Mountain (a massive mountain made up of old Mickey Mouse merchandise) is kind of, sort of the Matterhorn.

Some of these levels really hit the mark they're aiming for. Mean Street and Tomrrow City, especially, feel like the twisted versions of their counterparts they're intended to be, full of clear connections and counterparts to attractions and locations in the real parks. Ventureland is a pretty big disappointment, featuring a Jungle level that's utterly generic. How hard would it have been to include visual references to The Jungle Cruise and the Enchanted Tiki Room? Probably not too hard. Lonesome Manor is a combination of the various Haunted Mansions around the world and the haunted house from the old Lonesome Ghosts cartoon. As a big Haunted Mansion fan, I enjoyed the inclusion of Madame Leota and the stretching portraits, but was still left wanting a little more.

Mickey paints the entrance to Ventureland.

Mickey travels between these realms through magic screens in which he has to pass through mini side-scrolling adventures set in some of his (and Oswald's) old cartoon shorts like Clock Cleaners, The Alpine Climbers, and Mickey's Mechanical Man. These are both fun and highly-detailed diversions and one of my favorite things about Epic Mickey. 20s and 30s style cartoons combined with 80s and 90s style gaming add up to a unexpected double dose of retro fun.

Mickey in the Lonesome Ghosts side-scroller.

One of the stated goals with Epic Mickey was to boost the recognition of the characters featured within, even that of its exteremly well-known lead. I think it was a great idea to cast Mickey as the main character of a fun adventure game. Aside from the Mickey Mouse Clubhose show (which is aimed squarely at preschoolers), it's been much too long since Mickey was treated as an actual character, rather than just a corporate symbol or a picture on a T-shirt. Even as a longtime Disney fan, I left Epic Mickey thinking more of the little mouse. It was nice to see little appearances from old-timers like Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, but it did feel like this concept wasn't taken as far as it could've been. Instead, Wasteland is mostly peopled by an army of generic horses, cows, goofs, and pirates - many of which I'm sure were never really specific Disney characters. Why not trade some of those appearances by Clara Cluck, Elmer Elephant, the Three Little Pigs, and so on? They and many others are as forgotten as poor Horace.

It's a minor complaint, though, as are any I can come up with (like sure, sometimes the camera isn't cooperative. Sure, it is frustrating that you can return to some levels, but not others. Yes, there are a few too many missions during which Mickey is essentially playing messanger boy.). On the whole, Epic Mickey is delightful both as a game and a catalog of Disney references. I'm looking forward to more such games on the Wii, and not just the already hinted-at direct sequels, but hopefully other quality Wii games from Disney. Could I request an adventure set in the world of Disney Ducks please, starring Donald, Scrooge, Daisy, and the nephews? How about a Mario Party style game featuring Mickey and friends? Mickey racing?

In the meantime, I think I'll play Epic Mickey at least once more. Unlike most adventure games, I'm actually interested in revisiting this one and seeing how making different choices effects the game.

I'm giving Epic Mickey 8/10 mice.

If you care to buy Epic Mickey:

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