Somewhere in London. "DJ Something" is pumping out noisy beats that bounce on the brick walls in the cavernous party hall, trying to time the scratching with the loops of Steamboat Willie projected on the walls. Mickey Mouse is being re-invented. Legendary developer and Deus Ex-creator Warren Spector has just been talking on DJ What's-his-name's stage about the constant reincarnations of the mouse and how silly Mickey looked in an 80´s suit and shoulder pads. That statement is quite ironic at the moment when the black and white Mickey's animal torture cruise is being cut into spastic loops, MTV-style, and the fixation of the present is reaching the very same heights. But the basic idea for the game Epic Mickey, and not all the PR around it, is genuinely interesting. Spector's Wii exclusive doesn't need either DJ Hey-Ho or slogans like "a Mickey for the 21st century" to be intriguing.
Here's the thing: Spector isn't actually looking forward or in the present, but back in time. In Epic Mickey a gallery of forgotten Disney characters will play a big part of the story. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for instance, the comic world's answer to Pete Best or Buzz Aldrin, isn't well known by everyone. The Phantom Blob has never been a huge star. And just like me, perhaps you didn't know that "Gremlins" isn't just a horror comedy from the eighties, but also a gang of vicious Disney characters. In Epic Mickey, all these forgotten guys live in their own world, a kind of limbo called Cartoon Wasteland, where they have to wait for all eternity for an audience. It's a brilliant idea and Warren Spector gives a lot of credit to his "think thank", a group of smart guys that have come up with most of the basic concept.
In the intro sequence that Spector shows, Mickey is pulled out of his bed by a black blobish being that takes him to the Cartoon Wasteland. According to Spector, the first part of the game is simply about getting the answer to the question "where am I" and when Mickey is tied to some kind of torture machine(!) that seems like a relevant query. The long-eared rabbit Oswald fortunately appears and saves Mickey and the game becomes playable. Early on, Mickey's powers are introduced. The mouse has a paintbrush, paint and thinner and these can be used in either creative or destructive ways. In the beginning of the level we can see that bits of a staircase are missing and with some waggling with the Wiimote the steps appear. With the thinner Mickey can remove certain parts of the environment.
After some exploring Mickey bumps in to.. well, it is Donald Duck, but he's not quite the same. His eyes are red and he consists of metal parts. Not enough of them however, and the cyborg duck (created by the desperately lonely Oswald) is in need of repairs and Mickey gets the quest of finding metal duck parts that are scattered over the level. This quest is optional and that's how Epic Mickey will work; a lot of open levels where you choose what you want to do. Side quests give you rewards like "sketches", paintings of new abilities that will give you ...new abilities. One of these is a clock that slows down time, which is perfect in the harder platforming challenges.
It's up to you how you play the game. Do you want to use your paintbrush to create or destroy things? A good or an (almost) evil Mickey will emerge depending on how you tackle the quests, and how you use your equipment. Mickeys abilities, and even his animations, will change according to your good or evil playstyle. Spector promises us though that Mickey will be a hero, whatever road you choose.
Design-wise, it's a homerun. Epic Mickey is unique, dark and really creative. Cartoon Wasteland is far from a happy Disney world and Warren Spector ensures us during the presentation that "we haven't even shown you the really dark places yet". That Spector's crew has taken these liberties and gone for something more mature is very welcome indeed, and the possibility to create a more angry Mickey feels strangely alluring. The question then arises, will Junction Point and Disney reach out to the younger players with this approach?
- We'll reach the young players simply by making Epic Mickey a game, and not for instance a movie or a comic book. The Wii is a strong platform among young gamers and in spite of the premise we're counting on reaching both young people and the ones in there mid-twenties, Warren Spector tells Gamereactor.
In spite of the grown-up and slightly surreal design it's hard to shake off that feeling that all the artwork really could have come to life on a console with more horse power. An Epic Mickey in HD would be yummy indeed, and even if the adventure looks well crafted it isn't in the same ball park as for instance Super Mario Galaxy, and miles from the big brother consoles. But according to Spector, the game might appear on other formats as well:
- "Never" is a strong word. Originally we were going to develop Epic Mickey for several platforms. My goal was however to ensure quality, and one of the ways of doing that was to focus. In this case focus on doing just one version. It was a risky choice, but that's how we did it. I wanted to make the best game ever, and I can only do that if we focus, Spector explains.
All in all, the concept is brilliant, the recycling of forgotten characters is a smart solution and aesthetically it is very appealing. We need to know more about the level design and how the controls actually feel to know if this is going to be a hit, however. But if Mickey Mouse is going to be re-invented this is a good way of doing it. 2010 could be the year of the mouse.