Disney Epic Mickey Review

By Matt Keil - Posted Nov 25, 2010

Legendary designer Warren Spector and the Junction Point Studios team have delivered a dark, weird, and wonderful treat in the form of Disney Epic Mickey. Mickey Mouse has been sucked into a twisted reflection of Disneyland populated by forgotten Disney characters from the early days of animation. He must escape this Wasteland and possibly help the inhabitants conquer an evil that Mickey himself has unleashed upon them.

The Pros
  • Daring reimagining of Disney's best known character
  • Excellent level design packed with secrets and multiple ways to accomplish objectives
  • Tons of references to obscure Disney characters and animation
  • Paint/Thinner mechanic makes for high replay value
The Cons
  • Camera can be difficult to manage
  • 2D sidescrolling levels must be repeated often while traveling between areas

Disney Epic Mickey Review:

It has been my experience that Disney Epic Mickey has been the source of much confusion among players. Some believe it’s a kiddy title, some dismiss it as a cartoony third-person platformer, and others have no idea what to think of it. In truth, Disney Epic Mickey is a love letter to early Disney animation, Disneyland itself, and Mickey Mouse’s history of not being just a comedic character, but a heroic one. It’s a third-person platformer that is also part RPG, part morality test, and even a bit of a trivia quiz for those who care to dig a bit. It’s also the best Disney game to see the light of day since the 16-bit era.

Epic Mickey has its roots in creative director Warren Spector’s love for Disney animation and the history of the risky enterprise that Walt Disney built into an empire in the mid-twentieth century. It begins with Mickey walking through the mirror in his bedroom, in a to-the-frame recreation of the beginning of the classic animated short Through the Mirror. On the other side, he finds Yen Sid, the sorcerer from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, building an alternate version of Disneyland for the rejected and forgotten characters of Disney history using a magic paintbrush. Upon Yen Sid’s departure, Mickey begins messing with the paintbrush and manages to not only create a malicious inky monster called the Shadow Blot, but also spills thinner across the new park. Mickey makes a hasty getaway before Yen Sid returns, but the damage has been done. Years later, the Shadow Blot pops out of Mickey’s mirror and drags him back through, down into the now ravaged world he ruined so long ago. This dark reflection of Disneyland is called Wasteland, and the thinner Mickey spilled has turned it into a bleak and horrible place.

Leader of the Club

The leader of Wasteland is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney’s flagship character when he was making cartoons for Universal in the 1920s. After losing the rights to Oswald due to contractual stipulations, Disney started his own studio, created Mickey Mouse, and the rest is, of course, history. Disney Epic Mickey marks Oswald’s first appearance in an original Disney property in over 80 years (although, strangely enough, not his first appearance in a videogame, as he guest-starred in a Woody Woodpecker Sega Master System game released in Brazil in 1996). Naturally, Oswald is a bit resentful of his ultra-successful half-brother, and so Mickey’s quest in Wasteland leads him to win the trust of Oswald and stop the Shadow Blot.

Whether Mickey wins that trust or not is entirely up to the player. Before the Blot pulls him into Wasteland, Mickey manages to snag the aforementioned magic paintbrush, which lets him fire off Paint and Thinner. Streams of blue Paint can re-create and restore objects and characters in Wasteland, while Thinner will dissolve and destroy them. The environments in the game are extremely changeable due to this. Load of boulders in the way? You could find a platforming method around them, or maybe just use Thinner to dissolve the ground beneath them and drop them out of your way. But is there something underneath that the boulders will damage or crush? Enemies can be thinned into oblivion or painted until they become your friend. This applies to bosses, as well, and boss fights can turn out very differently depending on which flavor of magic liquid you choose to lean on.

Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, but it basically breaks down to Paint being the helpful choice and Thinner being the quick and selfish choice. You control your Paint and Thinner streams with the Wii remote, which is thankfully about as intuitive a process as you can get with motion controls. Because the reticule does not also control the viewpoint camera, it’s very easy to settle into using the Wiimote as a natural extension of the control scheme.

Accomplishing things using Paint often tends to be more difficult, but leads to more heroic outcomes, while Thinner will accomplish Mickey’s goals at the expense of others’ needs and, occasionally, their well-being. Your choices add up, and will drastically affect how characters in Wasteland react to you. It’s not really “good” or “evil,” as Mickey is not an evil character, but Disney Epic Mickey does give you the opportunity to play him as a bit of a jerk at times. This is actually a return to form for Mickey, whose early portrayals were often that of a more mischievous nature than the squeaky clean corporate logo he’s known as today.

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Shall I at least set my lands in order?

Wasteland itself is a dark reflection of Disneyland, featuring twisted but familiar equivalents of every major location in the Anaheim theme park. Main Street becomes Mean Street, Tommorrowland becomes Tomorrow City, ToonTown becomes OsTown, and the Matterhorn becomes the phenomenally realized Mickeyjunk Mountain, a massive peak constructed entirely of old Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Scattered across these lands are characters from Disney cartoons past, such as Pegleg Pete and his many relatives, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, and even twisted animatronic versions of Mickey’s well-known friends like Goofy and Donald. Nearly everyone you meet has problems needing solving, and this is where the RPG element comes into play.

Disney Epic Mickey is indeed a platformer, and a very good one at that. In fact, the game is reminiscent of the classic Nintendo 64 platformers like Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 in many ways, and that’s a compliment. The levels are large and meticulously constructed to take advantage of the dual Paint/Thinner mechanic, with tons of secrets to find and hidden areas to uncover. The game also has dozens of actual quests to complete, however, which range from main story progression to fetching objects for people to repairing Wasteland’s rides. How you accomplish these tasks can vary greatly, and impact events later in the game, both minor and major. Being helpful to certain characters may result in other characters being friendlier to you later on. In some cases bosses will decide you’re not such a bad guy and just let you pass, no battling required.

Show me the Mickey

The one unwelcome similarity to the N64 titles of yore lies is the camera. Disney Epic Mickey’s camera does not handle tight spaces well. Tapping the C button centers the camera behind Mickey – usually – and the D-pad rotates and tilts it – also usually. It’s not uncommon to end up with the camera stuck in a tremendously disadvantageous position while trying to explore nooks and crannies. Sometimes it can seem like you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be, even though rewards lying in wait indicate you clearly are meant to explore the area in question. Combat can also be more difficult than it should be thanks to the lack of a convenient Z-targeting system. The game checkpoints very generously, so the rare death-by-camera doesn’t rob you of much progress, but immersion is broken often enough to make it a frustration.

Traversing between locations sends you into 2D sidescrolling levels based on classic Disney cartoon shorts. These range from classics like Steamboat Willie and Lonesome Ghosts to more esoteric choices like Plutopia and the old Oswald shorts. They’re very short, often a minute long or so, and you’ll have to repeat a few of them many times due to crossing from one area to another to complete quests. Some may find this irritating, but it’s kind of like being forced to eat a piece of chocolate every time you change locations – sure, you get a little sick of it after a while, but hey, it’s still chocolate.

To All Who Come To This Happy Place: Welcome

That’s a lot of time spent explaining what Disney Epic Mickey is, which I do because I don’t think a lot of people are all that clear on the details of this game. So with that out of the way, how is it? Put simply – it is exceptional. The way all the elements come together in a strange swirl of nostalgia and re-imagination is a constant source of surprise and delight. Every land and location is packed with subtle nods to obscure tidbits of Disneyland and Disney animation history. To its credit, the game never feels the need to explain its references, and not getting some of them won’t damage your enjoyment of the game. Those well versed in the lore, however, may get a little extra kick out of knowing things like the Shadow Blot’s origins as a character in classic Mickey comics called the Phantom Blot, or the slightly off-kilter versions of “It’s A Small World After All” that play as you navigate the Wasteland equivalent of that famous attraction.

The Paint/Thinner duality works extremely well, whether you stick to one approach or simply use whatever you feel is best for each situation. The game is very newbie friendly, always offering a simple way through tougher puzzles and areas, while advanced players can take far more difficult routes to their goals, and are often rewarded in extra ways for doing so.

The game is lengthy, clocking in at around 15 hours for a single playthrough that includes heavy exploration. A second and possibly third playthrough will be necessary to see different quest outcomes, gather collectibles inaccessible the first time, and simply to see how different the game can be based on how you choose to tackle each quest. Perhaps most importantly, there is a weight to the moments between Mickey and Oswald. There is a tangible sense of Disney history in the making in many of their scenes together.

It all started with a mouse

Disney Epic Mickey
is the rare ambitious game that manages to hit all of its declared targets. Disney fans (particularly those who love Disneyland) absolutely must play this game. Platformer fans (particularly those who love N64 platformers) absolutely must play this game. If you love meaningful player choice, freeform gameplay, piles of quests to complete, inventive level design, and an ending that can break or warm your heart depending on your decisions, you are Disney Epic Mickey’s target audience. It is relentlessly imaginative, surprisingly thoughtful and strikingly fresh. It takes Mickey Mouse and uses him to do something most modern audiences didn’t think he could: surprise us.

Walt would have loved it.