Soapbox: 10 Years On, We Need More Brave, Worthwhile Experiments Like Epic Mickey
In some ways, the Wii era feels further away than it actually is. The modern gaming landscape, though certainly influenced by Nintendo’s approachable little console, seems so laser focused on pixel counts, framerates and raytracing that Wii feels incredibly old-school in 2020. The idea that just ten years ago we were still playing anything sub-HD out of the box feels quaint and even a little unbelievable. Then again, 2020 has done a number on my perception of time and space. Tuesdays feel like Thursdays and weeks feel like months, except when they zip by and you wonder how the hell we’re knocking on December’s door already.
Still, believe it or not, a decade ago Nintendo’s little white box was still serving up off-the-wall treats and curious titles at a pathetically paltry 480p (how we ever survived the insult remains a mystery). One of the console’s most intriguing games — and one which makes me smile when I see it on the shelf — saw the ever-affable and vapidly genial Disney mascot Mickey Mouse cast in an adventure that tapped into his more mischievous roots. Epic Mickey — which released in the UK on 25th November 2010 — is a game I have great affection for, warts-and-all. In many areas it falls well short of platforming perfection, but it’s one of those games that managed to pull me through those imperfections with the power of its world and ideas.
Platforming though a ‘Wasteland’ of forgotten Disney characters, you encounter Oswald the Rabbit, Walt Disney’s original mascot character before the mouse arrived on the scene and stole the limelight, and revisit the past in a way that made Mickey feel relevant again to someone who’d lost touch with him over the previous decades. He seemed like a real character, more than a mere mascot. Finally, Mickey Mouse had some teeth again!
In fact, as per an odd Disney directive, the developers weren’t allowed to show the character’s actual teeth (as explained by industry luminary and series director Warren Spector several years ago), but the game showcased the titular mouse as something other than a bland corporate icon for the first time in what felt like a long time. Lovely NL contributer Alan Lopez spoke to Spector a few years ago at a little industry tradeshow called E3 (ask your parents, kids) and the Deus Ex veteran looks back on the project with a real sense of pride. As well he should; it’s a brilliantly imaginative and refreshing take on the most popular of characters, one that’s been with us for over ninety years now and needs constant reinvention if he’s to stay relevant (and out of public domain, of course).
I’ve always had an interest in early animation, and Mickey Mouse was practically the first character I ever controlled in a video game (Castle of Illusion on Mega Drive, if you’re wondering). Mickey Mania was another 2D platformer that played on fans’ affection for the past and tapped into his animated history, but it was only ever Disney set dressing to fire up the feels, really. Epic Mickey represented a change of approach to the character himself.
For a 3D platformer about a mascot mouse running around with a paintbrush, Epic Mickey had a hint of danger about it.
The game gave you opportunities to choose between helping and hindering the characters you come across. It wasn’t always a simple case of binary ‘good versus evil’ or ‘paragon versus renegade’, but the fact that Mickey Mouse of all people (or rodents) might do something that wasn’t the absolute goody-two-shoes option? That felt incredibly different at the time. For a colourful 3D platformer about a mascot mouse running around with a paintbrush, Epic Mickey had a hint of danger about it.
And Epic Mickey is a colourful game; this isn’t just ‘grimdark’ Mickey. It doesn’t feel like Zack Snyder was given the keys to the House of Mouse to pump out a dull and drearily self-serious take on the world’s most famous animated character. Junction Point simply dialled up the contrast and didn’t shy away from the darkness — just as Disney itself doesn’t in much of its finest work. Forget Bambi’s mum — have you watched Fantasia recently? How about some pink elephants or disturbing donkey transformations? Spector and Junction Point brought back to the Disney universe some of that texture which had been rubbed away in the years prior. Even as a mascot platformer on a system with a bunch of those, Epic Mickey feels different.
It sold well enough, too, and two further Epic Mickeys materialised in 2012: the disappointing Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two on Wii (and Wii U, and other platforms), and the disappointing Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion on 3DS. If you hadn’t guessed it from the title, the former added a co-op mode with Oswald, but by all accounts it needed more time in the oven; the latter mashed together the Epic Mickey universe with Castle of Illusion and its antagonist Mizrabel. Results were mixed and reactions indifferent from critics and players. Another Epic follow-up featuring Donald Duck was on the drawing board before getting canned along with Junction Point itself, and we haven’t heard from the series since. I never got around to playing either of the other Epic Mickeys, which says a lot for someone who holds Castle of Illusion in such high regard. (In fact, give me a moment to pop to eBay…)
While the original entry stands as the best of the Epic series, it’s still a decidedly imperfect experience. You spend much of the game wrestling with the camera, the platforming itself can get pernickety, the paint and the thinner mechanic can get a little tedious, and many of the gameplay objectives are arguably humdrum, nuts and bolts tasks however well the clever paint/thinner mechanic disguises them. Another year in development might have brought out the best in Epic Mickey, with the polish and refinement to match the imagination of the art, setting and story, but it wasn’t to be.
All the polish in the world won’t make a difference if the underlying concept isn’t fresh and interesting, two qualities Epic Mickey has in abundance.
Still, even with all those marks against it, Epic Mickey sticks in my memory far more than many ‘better’ games. All the polish in the world won’t make a difference if the underlying concept isn’t fresh and interesting, two qualities Epic Mickey has in abundance. I get the urge to revisit it whenever I spy it on the shelf. I never do, of course — too many video games, not enough time, see? — but the spine on the box emanates warm, exciting, positive feelings for me.
Perhaps more importantly than its video game legacy is how it spearheaded a revitalisation of the character and exposed an appetite for new takes, and not just for fans of old school animation who hadn’t engaged with Mickey Mouse since he became a byword for sanitised, pre-school entertainment. He’s still entertaining pre-schoolers and young kids, of course, but Disney are tapping that nostalgia vein now with clever call backs and new spins on the classic formula — new vehicles which channel some of the manic, madcap animated energy of old with a modern slant.
Rumours of a potential remaster or re-release have been doing the rounds for a while, and we included it on our list of games we’d like to see get a modern remaster earlier in the year. There’s certainly no shortage of ways the game could be improved with another lick of paint and a touch-up, and I can’t think of a game more deserving of a second chance.
Even if there’s a long laundry list of ways in which the game could be much better, as Spector himself says, screw all that. Epic Mickey was an incredible experiment, and a worthwhile risk in a media landscape where companies pump out the same old formula again and again as a matter of course. It proved that being ‘perfect’ isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, so long as you’re exciting. Whether it’s down to age or experience, over the years I’ve become far better at not getting het up about elements in games (or TV series or movies) that fall short, and doing my best to appreciate the positives — and Epic Mickey has plenty of those.
I’ve found that to be good advice when dealing with people, too. Nobody’s perfect, right?
Do you have fond memories of Epic Mickey? You know what to do…