Disney. Just that one name, springs a flood of memories into my mind. Watching Lion King when I was a little boy, writing Walt Disney over & over in drawings, and watching the newest Disney & Pixar films to this day. Disney is something I have a lot of attachment too and while they are known for being one of the biggest leaders in film & animation, they also had there foots in the realm of gaming.
Today, we are going into Disney vault to take a look into the origins of Disney’s attempt at a large scale gaming franchise; The Epic Mickey Series. With former Deus Ex developers having hands in the project and the series exploring darker subject matters Disney normally avoids touching, how does series hold up & what is the games impact on gaming and Disney as a whole?
It All Stars with some Ducktails and an Illusion of an Adventure
In the 90’s, gaming was growing with Nintendo & SEGA releasing platforms like the NES, SNES & Sega Genesis. With those being successful, Disney was interested in having a number of there IP’s enter the realm of gaming. So they partnered with Capcom to produce a number of titles on Nintendo’s NES platform in the late 80’s to early 90’s.
Iconic games like Ducktails, Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, Tailspin & Darkwing Duck released. While cashing in on the at-the-time Disney Afternoon line of Disney shows, they were still very solid games with a lot of Capcom talent working on future releases like the Mega Man series. In fact, many developers behind the iconic Mega Man 2 worked on Disney projects on the side, using the money received from those projects to fund Mega Man 2 & develop it on there own time.
Soon, the mouse himself jumped and stomped his way into the gaming realm with SEGA’s Castle of Illusion series on the Genesis and it sparked a number of releases in the ‘Illusion’ series on the Genesis. What made the game so great was tight controls and well-done level design. The game as a big success back then too, to the point where SEGA put the sadly now shut down studio SEGA Australia to produce a large-scale remake of Castle of Illusion for modern systems (PS3, 360, PC and even iOS/Android). Adding in 3D platforming bits and having Grant Kirkhope composing the games score ensured this Genesis romp appealed to newer generations.
Capcom & Travelers Tales even made there own Mickey adventures, with the later’s being most noteworthy. Mickey Mania was a 2D platformer using hand-drawn animation working on SNES/Genesis/SEGA CD hardware & the game was a hit. It was later ported to the PS1. A fun fact about this title is that one of the minds behind God of War, David Jaffe, had a big hand in making this title.
So Mickey has a long track record with gaming…..but nothing on the scale of Mario or Sonic in terms of popularity. They sold very well, but Mickey never really jumped into the 3D platforming genre. Disney in late 2008 wanted to push their gaming division as something more then a movie-tie in studio and with efforts like Blur & Split-Second show this. Even the movie tie-ins were solid like Cars 2 & Toy Story 3 showing a higher level of quality then most expected. Mickey would be the cornerstone of this though, as they wanted there lead icon to show some personality again after years of just being a simple ‘icon of Disney’
Junction Point is Born, An Epic Tail Begins
Disney was working toward building up a successful line of studios to make games for them and one of the biggest ones was forming an internal studio; Junction Point. This studio was composed of developers known for making mature titles, with one developer standing out; Warden Spector. He was one of the lead minds behind the original Deus Ex on the PC and many loved that title. Him & the studio were working on a new concept…..with it involving the iconic Disney mouse.
He pitched the concept of a Mickey Mouse 3D platformer to Disney but with it telling a darker story of how Mickey had a more trouble making side & even commenting on the message of ‘lost memories’ and ‘lost franchises’ locked away inside the Disney vault. This was pushed by the idea of using Walt Disney’s first creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, for the first time in years. Disney even bought the IP rights from Universal in 2006 use the character, so the concept for this game excited Disney as it was one way they could use that recently re-acquired asset of Walt Disney’s legacy.
Some ideas from this pitch include the blow concept art, with it exploring some very dark groundwork. Much of this concept art screamed ‘horror’ game to me when I first saw it honestly and I was very interested when this was leaked online back in 2010.
Many were wondering ‘Wow, Disney is making a Dark mickey mouse game?!’ and I couldn’t help but be excited about the potential of a project like this. Deus Ex is known for its open-ended nature regarding the decisions you make and how your choices impact the game world around you. With that in mind, I wondered how that could be applied to a Mickey Mouse title.
After a few months of waiting, Game Informer published a long article and officially announced Epic Mickey. This would be a 3D platformer taking inspiration from Mario 64/Banjo Kazooie for its core gameplay but having the Okami like mechanic of interacting with the world around you using Paint (Create) & Thinner (Destroy) and like many expected considering Junction Points background, your choices had impact.
Mickey would have changed his appearance drastically if you used too much paint or thinner, bosses have different ways to be taken out & the visuals were darker then what many expected out of a Disney game. Many were interested in this project despite the hype being dwindled a bit with the leaked concept art not matching the gameplay images in the Game Informer issue. Warden Spector came out after the games launch and stated the darker concept art designs were purposely produced to see where the line can/should be crossed with Disney’s IP.
He answers, “There are a couple aspects to that. I think I’ve mentioned before, that I’m a big believer in finding out where the line is by pushing past it. There are lines that are on every project; every project exists in a creative box. For most of my games, I create that box and the team has to sort of work within it. In this case, there’s a creative box that I create, and there’s the creative box that Disney overlays on that. I know where my lines are, but I don’t know where Disney’s are. I had a lot of stuff generated that was very specifically designed to be provocative and to cross that line. I know it’s too far — or is it? You tell me. So it forces a confrontation or a decision. Some of what you saw was beyond the line, and so I learned something from it. Some of it was early design ideas that are no longer relevant. Some of it is stuff that’s still in the game, and I’m not saying what.”
The game was shown off again at Nintendo’s 2010 E3 Conference and we saw the Paint & Thinner mechanics in action; they could fill in parts of the world or remove parts of the world. The deeper mechanics that was implied does work with the combat though, as how you use paint & thinner with the blotlings (main foes) influenced how you dealt with combat encounters.
Level design for the platforming bits carried the Banjo/Mario 64 level design mentality and the game was getting closer to its Fall 2010 launch. The Wii exclusive finally released November 20th in North America & Nov. 25th/26th in Europe; it released in Japan a whole year later August 4th 2011 published by Nintendo.
Epic Expectations: Meet or Brushed Away?
When the game released, critical reception was split; some people loved the game and gave it high ratings while other reviews were harsher on the game, citing camera issues & backtracking being big issues. I was in a very strange place when I finally played this game. When I put the game into my Wii, I sat down, glued at the TV screen.
I loved the game and enjoyed it so much, I beat it ten times and loved the story it was trying to tell. It was so nice to be playing big project from Disney, that I blocked a lot of issues out of my head. I reflected on my time with the game and found a lot of issues I never thought about. The camera, the painting/thinning mechanics lacking depth, the backtracking and the fact that Epic Mickey never matched the image of the game I originally so excited for.
But less about me, what about the game? The title is set up like other collect-a-thon platformers but this time having a bit of Zelda sprinkled in. Mickey has the ability to use paint & thinner from a magical brush he took from Yen Sid and using this, he can fill in the ravaged world of the Wasteland, or cause further destruction.
The game was built in mind for this concept to be pushed, as you can play the game using paint mainly or using thinner mainly and rarely come across an foe/obstacle that demands usage of both mechanics or pushing one over the other. That was the games bright idea and allowed replay’s of the game to be rewarding.
Platforming & level design is mostly solid and while the camera does have issues, it isn’t a deal breaker. The main issue with the camera is that you move it with Wii Remotes D-Pad, considering you are aiming the remote at the screen to aim your paint/thinner icon, so it isn’t as responsive compared to an analog stick. The game also never informs you of the first person view (Pressing 1) or Lock-On mode (holding down the C-Button until it locks on to a foe). What the is the games biggest issue isn’t the backtracking or the small issues I have with the presentation (Mickey & company don’t talk in cut-scenes, its Banjo-like mumbles). It is that the game could have done more with its concept.
But one thing I really loved about the game and still enjoy from the title today, is the story. Mickey ventures into the Wasteland, which is a warped version of Disneyland, due to his own ‘big’ mistake. HE is the reason the world is in shambles and he has two options, do the bear-minimum to fix his mistake or do everything he can to restore the world before he finds a way home. The story’s animated cut-scenes don’t address this point, assuming Mickey is a good fellow even if he is destroying things left & right (and that is glaring) but in-game, that point is still clear. Mickey in the cut-scenes isn’t completely kind but he tries hard to fix his mistakes and I enjoyed seeing him interact with other characters in beautifully animated 2D Cut-scenes.
Oswald bluntly points out how he hates you if you keep destroying the world around you or warms up to you if you are making an attempt to fix your big mistake. I enjoyed this dynamic-interaction with the games many NPC’s (pulled across 40’s-60’s era Disney like Horace, the lost concept art of Disney’s Gremlins and more) but the full story was touching.
Oswald was the original Mickey Mouse, as due to Walt Disney’s issues with Universal in the 1920’s, he lost the rights to his cartoon rabbit. Later on, he tried again with close friends and ended up making Mickey Mouse, being the embodiment of Walt himself in some cases. But Oswald was forgotten and is the first member of this ‘Wasteland’ of forgotten Disney characters. Seeing him interact with Mickey is ground breaking and something many Disney fans wanted to see for decades. Now, he is a good friend of Mickey but seeing them meet each other again for the very first time…..is both touching & nice to see finally happen.
The darker take on many Disneyland attractions was cool & hearing the orchestrated musical score was great. It fits the scale you see in most Disney Film productions.
Overall, Epic Mickey is a game with a lot of promise but sometimes doesn’t match those expectations. But future sequels could have tighten up the issues presented here to produce a really strong game.
Epic Mickey Continues – Painting up two New Adventures
Epic Mickey sold very well for Disney, to the point where they signed on two more projects using the IP; Epic Mickey: The Power of Illusion & Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. Reports of the later game leaked out in 2011 but it was officially announced alongside Power of Illusion early 2012.
The focus on both projects was to improve upon the original games issues, more so with Power of Two. The focus on backtracking was pushed away, the game added support for co-op (with Oswald being playable), & hiring a larger team to work on the project.
Power of Illusion was an attempt to make a successor to the Castle of Illusion series, with many of that games core mechanics returning. Even Mickey’s jump work similar to that game and plot elements, such as the Castle of Illusion being brought to the Wasteland and iconic Disney characters from Mickey’s world being stuck inside it, were done to ensure it fit within Epic Mickey’s world.
While expectations for both projects were damped by the original Epic Mickey’s lukewarm reception post launch, people were willing to give the sequel a chance. Both came out Fall of 2012, and they were critically panned. Power of Illusion felt rushed and incomplete, with many critics siting excessive backtracking through older levels and many characters hinted at early in the game never appearing later on. Power of Illusion went down as a poor sequel to the Castle of Illusion series despite having great pixel-art visuals, gameplay & level design lining up with past titles and music being well done.
Power of Two was the more damning of the two games, as issues not present in the original Epic Mickey popping up (the AI of Oswald being surprisingly dumb) and issues from the original game not addressed (camera was still a problem, moral choice systems from the original game downplayed, ect). Some things were fixed, like a more streamlined world & every character being voice acted. This is a bit of a big deal, as the VA’s from mainline Disney productions came to voice characters like Mickey, Donald, Goofy and Oswald. Hearing Oswald’s voice for the first time was quite nice.
Epic Mickey: The Power of Two just felt disappointing and considering how the ground work for a better game was constructed with the original being a solid game despite its problems, it makes things feel worse.
The Future of Epic Mickey & Its Impact
Epic Mickey had quite the impact on Disney regarding gaming, as the failure of Epic Mickey 2 pushed Disney Interactive to placing all there bets into Disney Infinity; anything else they worked on was either shut down or re-tooled into working inside Disney Infinity. This also lead to Junction Point Studios being shut down, despite a racing game & a Donald Duck game entering conceptual production.
One good thing that came from Epic Mickey, is that Oswald is now part of Disney. He is used a lot in Japan for promotional material and even had a cameo inside one of Mickey’s new cartoons. Mickey also came back with new cartoons which aired on Disney Channel & Disney’s YouTube page. Lead by Paul Rudish, known for his work on Cartoon Network shows, they captured the spirit of the original Mickey shorts and have been a treat to watch since 2013.
Disney’s gaming division recently shut down with Disney Infinity 3.0’s Closure, now focusing on licencing out IP to studios like EA (Star Wars) for gaming productions.
The Iconic Mouse & The Lucky Rabbit
Epic Mickey is going to be remembered for a lot of different reasons. For its attempt to bring Mickey into the gaming landscape after having successful platforming romps in the 90’s, at bringing a darker edge to Disney’s more light hearted productions, in being a major gaming publisher & for putting Mickey into the modern era.
Mickey is in a good place now and we can thank that in some respects to Junction Point’s effort to give Mickey some epic adventures.
Source: ESPN News Report, 1-UP Interview, Mickey Mouse Cartoon YouTube Channel/Disney YouTube Channel, Epic Mickey Art Book (Link To Purchase It), Unseen 64 – Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned Article