It has been 14 years since Super Mario 64 came out, a game that many mark as the turning point that made 3D platforming a viable game genre. This holiday, Disney Interactive Studios and Junction Point released Epic Mickey, totally ignoring most of the principle groundwork that Mario 64 laid out.
The story follows cultural icon Mickey Mouse. Years ago, he stumbled upon The Wasteland, a home for forgotten cartoon characters, and with his usual reckless curiosity, Mickey nearly destroys it by spilling a large portion of paint thinner over the landscape and accidentally creating a sentient amalgam of paint and thinner called The Blot--we've all been there. Mickey flees before his mistakes are noticed, but as time passes, The Blot returns and spirits Mickey into the Wasteland, for a purpose our rodent friend won’t learn until later.
Mickey defends himself with a magic paintbrush he happened to get his four-fingered gloves on as he was dragged into The Wasteland. His paintbrush can spray gobs of paint or paint thinner onto other characters and the environment, to either’s benefit or hindrance, depending on how you want to play. As the game progresses, Mickey also collects an assortment of attacks in paint/thinner elementals called Tints and Turps, and in sketches that can transform into solid objects like anvils and televisions.
Gameplay comes primarily in two forms, which are essentially 3D “rooms” and 2D “hallways”. 3D areas are large sections, usually with a quest or series of quests to unlock the path to the next “room”, and jammed with hidden collectibles and side quests. The 2D sections are the pathways between 3D areas, and are charmingly stylized on classic Disney cartoons. Unfortunately, I found the short, less-than-a-minute 2D sections to be the most enjoyable sections of the game.
The controls fall apart in the 3D sections. I don’t want to use the word ‘broken‘, because the controls to work, they just don’t work well. The camera is the wonkiest I’ve seen in a modern game in years, often refusing to go where you want it to, and it even lost me a few times, leaving me to wander blindly off-screen until I found my way back to it and knocked it loose. The camera even features a picky first-person view. A few times, totally frustrated with the camera’s lack of co-operation, I tried to kick into to first-person view to see the area I wanted a better look at. Much to my frustration, the game decided that this wasn’t a moment it wanted me to have first-person, and disabled it on me completely.
Adding to the camera frustrations is Mickey’s paint spray. The Burton-esque lack of right angles in the game means that often you won’t be able to paint an area directly in front of you because the curvature of the ground has just such a slant to make your paint splatter helplessly on the floor in front you. Couple this with the lousy camera, and you can be prepared for several hair-yanking spats of painting the wrong object, or more likely nothing at all.
For the degree of shortfalls in the game’s mechanics, though, you will find an equal level of creativity and charm in the design that has gone missing in most games of the current generation. The world of the Wasteland is patterned after what looks to be a Clive Barker version of Disneyland, and playing 'spot-the-difference' on familiar landmarks adds a fun extra element. The 2D classic cartoon levels each have unique art styles that perfectly mimic the original shorts, including characters that look more composed of ink and paint than bits and polygons. Occasional plays on classic Disney tropes, such as meshing Peg-Leg Pete with Peter Pan, will keep your inner child chucking as well.
In the end, though, the game seems to not know who its audience is. If it wants to skew to an older gaming audience, it has totally thrown out the book of lessons the industry has learned from previous 3D platformers, eschewing such necessities as a competent camera and a “checklist” system to let you know when you’ve picked an area clean of collectibles and side quests. If it wants to appeal to kids, it is under-stimulating, with its dark, don’t-play-with-the-lights-on-if-you-want-to-pick-out-detail levels and a lack of voice acting anywhere in the game. If it’s going after casual gamers, the levels are too abstract, forcing you to go miles off the beaten path to find side quest items. And if it’s to appeal to the hardcore audience, well, it shouldn’t be on (just) the Wii.
As it stands, it is basically two things: a Disney Fan Game, by which I mean a game that the feverish Disney fans will buy because they have to, or a Christmas Game, a game that is going to end up in more homes than Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors merely on the strength that parents will walk into random-big-box-retailer’s electronics section and say “Hey, Mickey Mouse. That’s a safe choice.”
The game has enough hooks to keep you playing, but enough frustrations that you won’t really be sure why. I spent much of my time after unlocking the two included vintage cartoons (something that happens relatively early, if you’re trying) questioning why I was still at it. Early interviews with Warren Spector about Epic Mickey mentioned that he had conceived a trilogy out of it (which shouldn’t be news--you can’t get a publisher to touch an original IP these days until you convince them you can make it into a trilogy), and despite the games flaws, I’m sure that it will sell enough to warrant a sequel. I just hope that before Junction Point ships the sequel out the door they take time to evaluate the product and fix the easily redeemable flaws.