I feel sorry for Epic Mickey. It’s an ambitious game that casts the Disney brand in a fascinating light. A game which evaluates the way in which media contributes to our culture and how much of that media remains unseen by the public. It’s a poignant game with moments of emotional brilliance, which people largely dismissed because it wasn’t an edgy gorefest.
The game has been cast aside as toothless and neutered. A grim reinterpretation of Disney for an older audience, forced to revert course and be a kiddie game instead. There are kernels of truth in those sentiments, but damn does it sell Epic Mickey short.
The plot revolves around a world known as Wasteland. Once a magical replica of Disneyland, it has been ruined by a calamity that Mickey unwittingly caused. What was meant to be a comfortable home is now more of a corrupted dumping ground. Rivers of thinner erode everything beautiful in the world and oozing monsters prey on its inhabitants.
Mickey is abducted into this world, where a mad professor attempts to steal his heart. The experiment fails and Mickey breaks free, whereupon he finds a magical paintbrush. This brush spray either paint or thinner, with which Mickey can fend off monsters or alter the world around him. Paint heals and rebuilds, while thinner destroys all it touches.
Being a replica of Disneyland, there are a lot of homages to cartoon history. Levels, areas, props, and characters are almost all based on old cartoons and Disneyland attractions. You’ll find yourself in a spooky level that mixes Lonesome Ghosts with the Haunted Mansion ride. There are 2D stages based on old sketches and you’ll get to meet with characters like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, The Mad Doctor, and good ol’ Pete. It’s great!
However, people were expecting all that, but as a dark, gritty reimagining of Disney. They were expecting a tone bordering on horror, which Disney was clearly not going to let them actually do. This is no American McGee’s Alice meets Kingdom Hearts.
Instead, it’s a game about Mickey Mouse coming to grips with his privileged life. Wasteland is a world created for the cartoon characters that were forgotten. Protagonists from yesteryear, background extras, and scrapped protypes; they all end up in Wasteland. There is a lot of sadness about, as characters obsess over their bygone fame whilst living in a cheap copy of the real Disney world. Mickey is a painful reminder of what they all wanted to be, especially for the unlucky few that once co-starred with The Mouse. Not even their former “friend” remembers them, now that he has ascended to stardom while they wallow in obscurity. Posterity won’t even remember them as stepping stones.
There are a lot of brilliant moments that play with this angle; some explicit as spoken dialogue, others implied. I love, for example, that there is a replica of Mickey’s house in Wasteland already. Time marches on relentlessly and even the greatest icons will one day be forgotten. Wasteland is already prepared to receive Mickey, for when his times inevitably comes.
This tone is also reflected in some of the stages. Mickeyjunk Mountain is a garbage dump, where a literal fortress has been built out of forgotten merchandise. Rivers of plastic trash, now serving as platforms and nesting grounds for monsters. It’s not as macabre as the old concept art may have implied, but surely you can agree that it’s remarkably self-conscious of the Big Bad Disney. Admittedly, the theme does water down somewhat towards the end. While Mickey’s rivalry with Oswald keeps his redemption arc going, later levels lack the artsy cynicism that made places like Mickeyjunk work so well.
And as much as I defend the game, I too wasn’t a fan of the kiddie twists. Mickey teams up with these wacky Gremlin characters, who look jarringly out-of-place next to more old school designs that make up the majority of the supporting cast. The dialogue is also kept very simple and uses goofy noises in place of voice acting, further adding to the childish feel. As much as I like the aesthetics of black & white cartoons, I constantly felt too old to be playing Epic Mickey. Something I don’t usually feel when playing other games mainly directed at a younger audience.
I also have mixed feelings about the gameplay. On the one hand, its central mechanic of spraying paint is absolutely brilliant. You’re always pointing the Wii remote forward anyway, so it’s super easy to aim and spray while moving around at the same time. Other motion controls work about as seamlessly, like shaking the remote to do a basic attack. On the other hand, the actual platforming and action gameplay could only be said to be serviceable if we were to pretend that the GameCube never existed.
Playing Epic Mickey feels stiff in ways similar to much-older 3D action titles. The Mickster himself leaps around awkwardly, his jumps short and clumsy. At times he can only barely cross some of the gaps that get in your way and that’s as good as it can get. There are no other jumps or subtleties to Mickey’s mobility; just this one shitty double jump. This issue is amplified by shoddy terrain mapping that leave you sliding off platforms or bumping into invisible barriers, as well as a camera that is outright obnoxious.
The camera especially exhibits all the old flaws that early 3D games struggled with. Sometimes it’s zoomed out so far behind Mickey that it’s hard to judge his jumps. Sometimes it gets stuck behind scenery or flips out during intense moments, leaving you unable to react. I absolutely love it when I fall into thinner, but can’t get Mickey to safety because the camera is having a panic attack. Most baffling of all, however, is when the game insists on having a static camera angle. Your ability to adjust it, snap the view behind Mickey, or go into first-person mode is often taken away. This frustrates platforming immensely and also killed my enthusiasm for the item hunt side-quests. Have fun trying to find a bunch of hidden items while the game arbitrarily refuses to let you survey your surroundings.
While spraying paint and thinner works mechanically, it isn’t very satisfying to do in combat. You gotta hose enemies down for so long before they’re actually dealt with and these bastards come in packs. Outside of knocking enemies off stages in the few opportunities where you can, there is no alternative way to deal with them either. It gets repetitive quickly, which turns into annoyance as later enemies take literal minutes a piece to deal with. Sometimes those enemies respawn! Or you die and get to repeat entire combat encounters from scratch!
Did I mention that Mickey gets knocked back and stunned from hits, but receives no invincibility window during any of it? You can get knocked around between enemies and then get kicked into an instant-death pit. That’s not a hypothetical, that happened to me numerous times! Suffice it to say, I eventually began to avoid fights whenever I could.
The game shines in its boss fights. When it’s just you and one tough enemy in an arena suited for that specific encounter. The bosses are fun challenges that ask you to utilize the paint & thinner system in creative ways. They sometimes involve puzzles or platforming, and all of them feel entirely unique. I was especially fond of how they all offer different ways of defeating them. For example, one boss you can either defeat through solving a puzzle while fighting them at the same time or you can do a tricky platforming segment while they harass you.
This idea ties in with the game’s moral choice system, which is about what you’d expect from a game from this era. You can frequently decide to wrap up missions in different ways, usually a “good” way that utilizes paint and a “bad” way by using thinner. You can destroy someone’s cool machine so that the wreckage allows you to reach a chest. Or you repair it and see what they give you in return. Good decisions often require going out of your way for something, like with boss-fights being harder or by going on a side-quest to obtain something that you could also take forcefully. You can even decide to use paint to turn enemies to your side instead of using thinner to destroy them.
Some of these moments are pretty clever or don’t make the solutions too obvious, but at other times the scenarios do feel forced. Even the very first decision makes this mistake, when it gives you a choice between saving a dude or grabbing a treasure chest that’s sitting on a pressure plate. Theoretically nothing would stop you from saving the dude and then grabbing the chest. Except your newly-liberated friend then immediately breaks the machine in retaliation, causing you to lose access to that sweet loot.
It’s also a shame that the game only has 1 ending. For a story about Mickey’s route to redemption, I feel there should have been consequences if you played him like a complete bastard. The final cutscene even has a moment that seems like it was designed with such a pay off in mind. Did Disney veto an ending where Mickey would suffer consequences for your decisions? What’s that going to teach kids? Misbehave all you want because you’re special, so others will always forgive you in the end.
There is no denying that Epic Mickey is flawed, often to the point of frustration. I considered dropping it at a few low points in the game, but was ultimately glad that I persevered. It’s a beautiful game that has a lot to offer, especially if you have a soft spot for old-timey cartoons. Opportunities were missed to bring out its full potential, but what they did get out is a fine game in its own right.