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Josh Bycer, Blogger

August 3, 2011

6 Min Read

Junction Point Studios' Epic Mickey had a lot riding on it. This was an original story on one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time, with veteran game designer Warren Spector at the helm. Previews had gamers excited for what was supposed to be an excellent third party title for the Wii. Unfortunately, instead of garnering universal praise, Epic Mickey was a polarizing experience. Having finally got my hands on it, I can say that it's not a horrible failure, nor is it a perfect success.

The story of Epic Mickey is one of the best parts of the game. Mickey, before he rose to popularity entered a magic mirror one night and stumbled into a wizard's home. There, the wizard was creating a world for forgotten characters using magic paint and thinner. After going to bed, Mickey decides to play around with the paint and creates a monster called the Phantom Blot and accidentally unleashed it on the world, causing untold destruction and creating the wasteland. Many years later, after Mickey has become the star that we all know, the blot returns and pulls him into the wasteland and now must escape.

For a story based on Mickey Mouse, this is one really dark story. Wandering around the wasteland, Mickey is constantly exposed to the damage he's done. When he meets Oswald, who was Disney's first big hit before they lost the rights to and created Mickey, Oswald hates his guts because of how popular Mickey became. The world is falling apart and while there are characters living here, Mickey doesn't have to care about their predicament, and this is where the choice system comes into play.

Mickey has the power of both paint and thinner at his disposal. Spraying paint allows him to reconstruct destroyed structures and can be used to convert some enemies to Mickey’s side. Thinner, dissolves objects and is use to destroy enemies. As Mickey explores the world he'll have opportunities to use both substances during quests, and getting around the levels.

The concept of having morality choices in an action-adventure title is interesting. Similar to Deus Ex (Spector's big hit), some choices will come back to effect Mickey later on in the world he's in. One thing that I really liked about this has to do with the boss fights. Instead of having Mickey choose at the end of the fight whether to be good or bad, his actions to beat the boss determine that.

(Spoiler alert: To discuss an example of this I will be spoiling the first boss fight in the game. If you don't want to know then skip the next paragraph.)

The first boss is a giant clock tower. The good way involves painting both arms to pacify them, allowing them to carry Mickey to the clock face to paint it and making it friendly. The arms, once stunned by paint will recover, requiring the player to paint a little of both at each time. The thinner way, requires the player to thin out the wood supports on the arms, so that when they crash down they break causing the arms to fall apart and the clock tower is destroyed.

Having morality choices actually factor into the gameplay is something that I want to see more of in game design. Besides combat, there are multiple collectibles for players to find, with some restricted by the player's choices. For the perfectionist, they will have to play through the game at least twice to get everything. Unfortunately, when it comes to playing the game, that's where things start to break down.

The elephant in the room would have to be the camera system; quite frankly this is one of the worse camera systems I've seen in a game. There are times when the camera can't be controlled when you want it to be, and then there are times when you want it to stay still and it moves. The camera would also get stuck on either Mickey or the environment, which can be a killer during plat forming sections.

The camera also causes trouble with aiming. To use either paint or thinner, the player has a reticule that is used for targeting. Because Mickey's direction is not taken into account, it makes it very hard to aim paint due to the camera. There were times where I wanted to paint something above Mickey but because the camera was viewing the action sideways, Mickey kept shooting paint to the left of him. Trying to hit something below Mickey is also a pain, as due to the camera views makes it hard not to shoot at the floor.

The camera also interferes during combat. Mickey's main form of offense is either converting enemies with paint or destroying them with thinner. This is all well and good for the beginning, but past the first quarter of the game, Mickey will run into enemies that can't be converted. These enemies require a two step process of covering them with thinner, then hitting a weak spot. The camera makes it hard to get a consistent burst of thinner on the enemy while trying to avoid their attacks.

While not as damning, the game also has a few design issues that need to be said. In order to move from section to section, Mickey enters a 2d plat forming section inspired by a classic Disney cartoon. When you’re in one of the worlds you only have to do this one time to move from area to area, however to travel between the central hub to the start of a world, you'll have to repeat the same section over and over again. This becomes painfully repetitive doing side-quests that require Mickey to travel back and forth between the worlds.

The checkpoint system also adds to frustration. The game uses checkpoints which also act as saves whenever Mickey turns in a quest or moves to a new section. The problem is that in the same section, it will only checkpoint after Mickey turns in the quest. If the player dies on the way back to the quest giver, they'll lose all progress with the quest and start from square one again.

The final complaint I have has to do with the stage design. Every section has one exit, but multiple ways of unlocking it. This is based on either using the solution involving paint (being good) or thinner (mischievous). The problem I have with this is with having multiple solutions in the level, it makes things unfocused in my opinion. There were some stages that without knowing it, I found two ways of opening the exit. It's hard to know at the start what actions will lead to the good or bad way, as thinner is used to clear objects from your path for both options.

With these complaints mentioned, the camera is still the biggest deterrent to playing the game. This is a shame when the worse problem a game has is technical. From the animated cut-scenes to the excellent story, you can tell this was a labor of love for the designers. Getting a mature Disney title these days is rare, with exception to the Kingdom Hearts series and hopefully this won't dissuade developers from trying again.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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