Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Epic Mickey

In 1928, Walt Disney’s creation Mickey Mouse (designed by Ub Iwerks) made a big splash in his debut short “Steamboat Willie” and has since become arguably the largest media juggernaut the world has ever known. The same could not be said for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney and Iwerks’ 1927 precursor to Mickey that was owned wholesale by Universal following his creation and debut in the short “Trolley Troubles”. With Oswald forgotten and Mickey’s own reputation declining at the time, director Warren Spector sought to fix both with the 2010 game Epic Mickey, which would only be possible once Disney traded sportscaster Al Michaels to NBC/Universal in exchange for ownership of Oswald in 2006. Alongside Oswald making a (sort of) comeback through Disney merch, the game Epic Mickey proved successful, spawning a sequel and spin-off game before the series ended completely. Having only been able to play the game recently after acquiring a Nintendo Wii, I found the game to be enjoyable despite its flaws while also leaving with the impression that Disney hasn’t done Oswald any real justice outside the game series.

Reminiscent of the Mickey short “Thru the Mirror”, a then-unknown Mickey Mouse enters a magical mirror, accidentally spilling paint thinner on a book overseen by the wizard Yen Sid. As Mickey becomes famous, a monster known as the Shadow Blot infects the world held inside the book. Eventually the Shadow Blot drags Mickey into the book through the magic mirror, with Mickey only grabbing a paint brush on Yen Sid’s desk before being completely sucked in.

The story is rather intriguing, particularly in the way it handles the relationship between Mickey and Oswald in a way that also works on a meta level. On his journey, Mickey also interacts with various side characters, some forgotten and some lesser-knowns that are still present in popular media. The interactions these characters have (both with Mickey and each other) can also be interesting, some of which even tell you some actual Mickey Mouse shorts they appeared in. Aside from the Shadow Blot, there’s a running side plot involving the Mad Doctor (from the Mickey short “The Mad Doctor”), who tries to take over Wasteland (the game’s setting) with evil contraptions. Overall the plot was balanced pretty well and may make you want to see more Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

The gameplay is interesting in the way it involves the Wii’s motion controls. Aside from a spin attack that can be performed with the flick of a wrist, you will primarily be using Paint (B on the Wiimote) or Thinner (Z on the Nunchuck) to deal with enemies and explore the environment. Paint can be used to restore parts of the environment and reveal hidden items, while Thinner can reveal hidden areas and alter parts of the environment. These can also be used on various Wasteland enemies and bosses; the way you approach these enemies (as well as some side quests) can alter the experience, including what sort of ending you receive (for the more important moments I tried to follow what was canon to Epic Mickey 2, though in some cases I lucked out when going this route). You can also acquire various Sketches to summon useful items, among them a TV that distracts enemies with “Steamboat Willie” and a Watch that temporarily slows down time. The camera is manipulated with the Nunchuck while aiming is done with the Wiimote, however there were times where the camera seemed to actively work against me and block my view with foreground objects or environments.

Mickey (Bret Iwan) using Paint to restore the environment.
(It is surprisingly difficult to find gameplay screencaps for this game.)

The graphics are good for a 2010 Wii game, though in general they feel a little unfinished; apparently the game was rushed a little to meet its release date, which would explain both this and the camera problems. Despite this, the visuals do a good job of capturing the cartoonish nature of the characters as well as the horrific nature of many Wasteland environments and enemies, essentially twisted versions of many Disneyland attractions. A highlight is Oswald’s post-Blot residence, Mickeyjunk Mountain, a mountain and monument to mockery built entirely out of accumulated (and real) Mickey Mouse memorabilia that fell into Wasteland; the atmosphere is a bit haunting, to say the least, and (along with various hints in some levels) summarizes how Oswald feels about Mickey and his popularity prior to their first interaction. Transitioning between levels is done through film projectors, featuring small platforming stages based largely on numerous Mickey Mouse shorts, displaying that  a lot of clear passion was put into making this game.

I would comment on the voice acting if the dialogue wasn’t basically a series of grunts and other noises, or what Warren Spector calls “bark-talk”. The one character with a full voice, however, is Yen Sid, voiced by Corey Burton and heard in both the opening and ending cutscenes. Though the character originates from the movie Fantasia, he is better known among gamers for his recurring role in the Kingdom Hearts series, where his also voiced by Burton, and his voice acting in Epic Mickey is as good as ever. The music by James Dooley is also good, some tracks being more memorable than others. A stand-out for me is the Clock Tower boss (the first boss of the game), whose theme sounds like a more twisted take on the (in)famous song “It’s a Small World (After All)” from the similarly-named ride, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the game.

While the game did manage to give Oswald a boost in popularity (myself included), it’s evident that he hasn’t reached the same level of recognition as the already-famous Mickey, as evidenced by the character lacking any major roles in Disney-produced media outside the Epic Mickey universe. While he has made cameos in various media, physical cameos including the 2013 Mickey short “Get a Horse!” and the Mickey Mouse Shorts short “Canned”, the only time he (and his wife Ortensia) had a starring role in a Disney production outside the games was in a Norwegian comic with the English title “Just Like Magic!”, collected in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #726. Many of the surviving Oswald shorts have also been collected as part of Wave Seven of the Walt Disney Treasure collection, although one of them, the 1928 short “Oh, What A Knight”, is unlockable for viewing in-game, as is the 1933 Mickey Mouse short “The Mad Doctor”.

Oswald (Frank Welker) as he appears in the game

As for Mickey, as mentioned earlier, his popularity had been sort of declining around the time of Epic Mickey’s release due to his image becoming increasingly squeaky-clean, contrasting the more mischievous character he started out as in his earlier shorts. Though an attempt was made to bring Mickey back to his roots with the 2005 short “Runaway Brain”, this short was apparently so scary that the Walt Disney Company tried to bury it, only releasing it later on home media after the risk with Epic Mickey proved successful. Mickey has since returned to his original characterization in various media, primarily in the new Mickey Mouse TV series, although his personality in media such as the long-running Kingdom Hearts franchise remains consistent.

Epic Mickey is a game that Disney and Mickey Mouse fans should not miss. Aside from some minor hiccups, the game has actually aged pretty well, thanks to its graphical quality along with the sound design and story flow. The game also makes good use of the Wii’s motion controls, although the camera gets a little frustrating on occasion. As this is the big re-introduction of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, his depiction in this game serves as a good introduction to the character and may even make you a fan yourself. Though this game is exclusive to the Wii, it should also be compatible with the Wii U console for those that didn’t throw theirs out when the new Super Smash Bros. game was announced.

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