Cartoon characters simply don't come any more iconic than Mickey Mouse. Immediately identifiable in silhouette, Mickey is, as Bart Simpson observes, "the logo of an evil corporation", but he's still one of the most enduring and endearing characters in contemporary history. That said, no one could have ever expected that the creator of Deus Ex, Warren Spector would end up working on a Mickey Mouse game for the Wii, no matter how iconic and enduring the helium-voiced vermin might be.
But here we are, and the famed designer behind one of the finest sci-fi FPS titles of all time is turning his hand to the House of Mouse's precious mascot. Ostensibly a platform game, Epic Mickey offers much more than simple hops, skips and jumps, with a number of large interconnected hub areas that present a number of different tasks to complete with a Mickey who is seemingly melting gradually as a side effect of the world he finds himself trapped inside. A Cartoon Wasteland accidentally created when Mickey spilled paint thinner on a model of it years earlier, giving birth to the malevolent Phantom Blot in the process, Epic Mickey's setting is strange and otherworldly, but filled with familiar faces, like a Goofy-type character called Tiki Sam for example.
The Blot pulls Mickey into this ravaged cartoon world, and the adventure begins as Mr. Mouse must interact with a huge cast of colourful Disney characters both well-known and relatively obscure, taken from the deepest, darkest annals of the Disney archives. Even Mickey's faithful spirit guide in the game, Gremlin Gus, is a long forgotten character rescued from the Disney vault. As our hands-off demo with the game demonstrates, there's a menagerie of different references and loving homages woven into the game world, from the environments to the characters and beyond.
Starting off in a Polynesian village-type location with bamboo huts and Tiki masks, we're first introduced to Mickey's magic paintbrush that enables him to paint out certain elements of scenery by spurting green thinner onto the area or draw in obliterated objects by splattering blue paint all over the affected region. Parts of buildings can be dissolved using thinner to reveal hidden items or Mickey can paint things like platforms into existence to gain access to otherwise unreachable sections.
This small, enclosed village is just one of Epic Mickey's many 3D hub locations, which are packed with things to discover, from simple fetch missions, to puzzles and hidden Easter eggs, the most significant of which in the demo is a projector screen in a room displaying 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon 'Steamboat Willie'. Take a look at it, and you'll be drawn inside for a short 2D platform section that recalls the old Mega Drive title, 'Mickey Mania', which also had its own Steamboat Willie-themed stage. It's a cool little treat and we hope there's more like them in the full game.
Collecting Mickey E-Tickets - Epic Mickey's colourful currency - enables you to purchase other items of interest, some of which apply to the quests you'll come across on your journey, such as helping a lovelorn pirate form an unholy union with Henrietta the Cow by giving him an object to help win her heart. In this particular case, it's an ice cream that does the job, which is pretty horrible when you think about it. You could have gone for the dairy-free alternative with a bunch of flowers, if you'd have preferred.
There are other tasks we're shown that stem from this single hub area, which leads Mickey to Skull Island, another open hub where we have to try and raise a sobbing Smee's (Captain Hook's sidekick in Peter Pan) sunken galleon, by using thinner to erase a series of anchors holding the huge vessel underwater. It's on Skull Island that we also encounter one of Epic Mickey's many moral choices, whether to erase the unfriendly mop-like creatures - like those seen in Fantasia - by turning them into paint puddles with thinner, or whether to spray them with paint and make them friendly.
Mickey can distract enemies like these with little television sets that show brief sketches on them, causing them to sit mesmerised by what they're watching. Also, Mickey can keep guardians handy, earned by filling a bar depending on your style of play. Fill your green thinner bar by wiping out enemies using the substance or fill out the blue bar by using more paint, and you'll gain a guardian that will instantly wipe out or paint-in an enemy when you get close to it. Completing Skull Island also requires filling several machines with paint or thinner, once again creating another moral choice. Do you turn the island's inhabitants into puddles or preserve them? What impact these decisions will have on the game's ongoing story and eventual outcome will be interesting.
It's on Skull Island that you also meet the Mad Doctor's Beetleworx robots, cobbled together out of disparate parts of Disney characters and objects, which will apparently play a larger part in the overall scheme of things in Epic Mickey's story (that aims to recapture the more mischievous side of the character) although what that part might be is currently unclear. It's certainly a much darker take on Mickey Mouse than we've ever seen before, which is an incredibly bold move, especially for a predominantly casual Wii audience.
It's refreshing to see a Mickey Mouse game with such a bold remit in taking such a beloved character and transporting him to a comparatively dark and mature setting. The Disney spirit still appears to be intact, and there's clearly a lot of care and attention being poured into the game, evident in certain hand-painted cells that make up some of the game's interiors, the cast of lesser known and famous characters and the neat allusions to Mickey's 82 year history. Still, it remains to be seen just how deep the game's moral choices will run and whether the paint and thinner from Mickey's magic brush can keep things varied and interesting throughout. On this showing though, we're optimistic that Spector and the team at developer Junction Point Studios, can deliver something genuinely unique for the world's most famous rodent.
Epic Mickey has been painted in for a November 2010 release.