‘Epic Mickey’ is a Hidden Gem for Disney Nerds

Ten years ago a Mickey Mouse driven game was released onto the Nintendo Wii to mediocre reviews and average sales. Needless to say, we’re getting into this one a bit behind the ball, but we have good reason (we didn’t have a Nintendo). I think the biggest issue faced by this title was the extraordinarily niche audience who would most appreciate it. Famed games critic Yahtzee Croshaw commented on the game not having chosen an adult or young target audience, but I think it has an audience – the very specialist group of Disney and Disney Park nerds.

Before we get into why every Disney Stan who hasn’t played ‘Epic Mickey’ should be checking it out, let’s look at the history of the game and why people had a weird set of expectations coming up to its release. The concept for the game, which was part of an attempt to rebrand flagship character Mickey Mouse to appeal to a modern audience. Buena Vista Games pitched the idea to company president Bob Iger, who was keen on the idea but lamented one of the central characters not being owned by the Disney Company.

The concept was thus: the sorcerer Yen Sid has a created a world resembling an alternate version of Disneyland. Within this world is all the forgotten Disney characters, those who have been scrapped, evolved into other better known characters, faded into obscurity or never made it out of the planning stage. Ruling over all these is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an alternate form of Mickey Mouse, who is trying to undo the damage wrought by Mickey’s arrival. Oswald is the character who Disney didn’t own the rights to in spite of it being an early creation of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks at the start of their animation career. The legendary pair created Oswald to sell to Universal, and the studio retained control over the character since. When Bob Iger took over as CEO of the Walt Disney Company he made a point to regain the rights to the character (among other things) in trade for sportscaster Al Michaels.

‘Epic Mickey’ would showcase the return of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to the Walt Disney family of anthropomorphic characters, and featured the first appearance of Oswald alongside his replacement Mickey Mouse. This unto itself makes it noteworthy for fans of Disney history and trivia buffs. When you get further into the game you begin meeting characters from many points in the history of Disney Animation who represent lost characters and alternate versions of better known characters, such as various versions of Big Pete and Clarabell Cow. One of the most commonly encountered are The Gremlins, the title characters of an abandoned project written by Roald Dahl. As Mickey Mouse the player would explore and rebuild the world while battling villains known as ‘inkblots’.

As fun as this concept is, it’s not actually what players were expecting from the upcoming title. They were expecting something significantly darker. This ultimately incorrect perception came about when a series of art designs for the game were released and they took people by surprise with how grim they were. Mangled up animatronic abominations of Goofy would have made Toy Story’s Sid feel a chill, a menacing Mickey dripping ink and paint off his body and nightmarish landscapes appeared across gaming press months before the games release. They were met with incredulity, shock and anticipation, but it would turn out to be something of a ruse.

The alleged story is that the games director Warren Spector wanted to make a Disney game with a much darker bent, incorporating steampunk design elements in familiar Disneyland settings. He knew, as many do, that Disney is notoriously protective of their property and are very strict with how their characters and worlds are depicted. Spector’s gamble was to push so far past the point of acceptable that the compromise would land within the spectrum he wanted to work in. If true, this isn’t the first time such a move against censorship worked, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone wound up with a more explicit sex scene in Team America then intended by submitting for approval a much, much, MUCH more shocking sequence and having less than expected cut out.

I don’t think we cam emphasise just how dark and fucked-up some of this concept art was.

This was part of the reason the game received tepid reviews upon release, and wasn’t the complete rebranding of Mickey’s image that was intended. Terrible camera controls and obscure characters, plus budget limitations cutting out voice work, was also a factor, but the haunting images that introduced the world to Epic Mickey proved a major sticking point. Not that the game did badly in sales, as it moved enough units to warrant a sequel. At the end of the day, the lacklustre public response is the most likely reason Disney history nerds missed the boat on this one.

Now it’s time to point out the very nice things that Disney fans will find with this game. And by Disney fans we mean nerds. Park nerds, animation nerds and history nerds. You will find the first on-screen encounter between Mickey and Oswald, as well as a large number of characters who only appear in the earliest cartoon shorts, some of which being lost to time. Horace the Horse, Moody and all manner of different characters from the golden age of animation are here to interact with. You also get to play through some of these films as 2D side-scrolling platform sections that appear between world hubs. Within each world is a film reel to be collected, a complete set of which allows the player to watch the films in the Extras menu. You’ll bound to find some content you haven’t seen before.

For park fans (such a thing exists) there’s the layout of the world itself. Oswald has build an alternative Disneyland for the characters who have been forgotten (and it is miserable every time one of them is trying to remind Mickey who they are and he’s drawing a blank). For the first couple of hours you’re playing your way through the Small World attraction before battling the ride’s facade itself, and then you find yourself on ‘Mean Street’, the alternate version to Main Street. From here you start branching out into other areas of the Wasteland, each one modelled on another part of the Disneyland park. Toontown becomes OsTown, Tomorrowland becomes Tomorrow City and the Matterhorn becomes Mickeyjunk Mountain, a trash-pile of retro merchandise.

We’re not here to argue that this is an unfairly maligned game. It’s got some gameplay problems. What we are here to say is that if you’re the sort of person who looks for Hidden Mickeys, then this is worth looking into. If you’re the person who watches Defunctland, makes a point of collecting limited edition pins and pride yourself on picking up the references in Cuphead, then at least check out a playthrough. If you know what the D23 Expo is, and you haven’t checked out Epic Mickey, then obvious you should. It’s a weird, twisted ode to the past and the forgotten and while it didn’t strike a chord with the overall gaming community, it might just fit your niche.

Also you can beat the snot out of Small World, if that takes your fancy.