There's nothing immediately striking about Mickey Mouse as a video game character. While plenty of games have featured the Disney mascot in a starring role, he doesn't exactly spring to mind when one is asked to think of memorable moments in video game history. This could be because Mickey is already an iconic character in his own domain, whose happy-go-lucky image has not changed a whole lot since his creation in 1928.
Trying to reimagine Mickey as a darker, troubled character in Disney Interactive's upcoming Wii game Epic Mickey was the first mistake that legendary game designer Warren Spector made when he took over the project. Luckily, it was also his last. Spector took the advice of those who play-tested the title during its early stages of development and returned the mouse to his optimistic self, undoubtedly not without feeling some disappointment that the world wasn't yet ready for a new Mickey. But things seemed to have turned out well regardless of the new direction, as we discovered when we played the game for the first time on the E3 2010 show floor.
Our hands-on demo took us through three of the game's rebooted Disney locales: Venture Land, Skull Island, and Steamboat Willie (a nod to the first Mickey Mouse cartoon with sound). Mickey’s objectives throughout the game will involve a combination of platforming, puzzle-solving, and role-playing and will also include a lot of exploration and side quests. Our demo began in Venture Land, which serves as a sort of questing zone for the game (think role-playing game).
The majority of the gameplay will involve Mickey performing one of two actions: painting or thinning. The aim will be to traverse the world and overcome obstacles and enemies by either painting them until they bend to your will and become an ally, or thinning them out of existence. Each action will affect how Mickey progresses through the game, with characters and situations changing depending on which substance Mickey uses most. Initially, these two actions represented good and evil, turning Mickey into a hero or villain depending on how each player wanted things to pan out, but the concept has since been tweaked as part of the game's new direction. Now, an emphasis on painting will earn Mickey more friends and open up new quests and areas of the game; an emphasis on thinning will make Mickey more feared and stronger in combat.
We started off with an introductory side quest in order to get acquainted with the game’s controls: helping Damian the pirate find the perfect birthday gift for Henrietta the cow. That may sound like a rudimentary mission, but it helped us navigate through some of the tougher platforming puzzles that Mickey will encounter. After making our way up a pile of rocks and into a tree (using the A button on the Wii Remote to perform jumps and double jumps), we came to a series of higher platforms that we had to reach. At this stage we noticed a translucent outline separating Mickey from the next platform, indicating that this area can be splashed with either paint or thinner. We decided on paint (B button), which produced a bridge, allowing us to move on. We then changed our mind and used thinner (Z button on the Nunchuk) just to see what would happen--the bridge disappeared into a big, black void.
The best thing about all of this was that we could use as much paint or thinner as we liked, because Mickey will never run out. While there are two colored meters on the right and left sides of the screen indicating how well stocked Mickey is in either substance (blue for paint, green for thinner), the meters automatically fill up to about 1/6 whenever you run low. After eventually working out that Henrietta would like some flowers for her birthday, we jumped ahead to the next world.
Steamboat Willie is one of the game’s 2D platforming levels, which has been put in to break up the main gameplay and give players a chance to collect tickets, the in-game currency, which can be used to buy items and upgrades. It’s also where Epic Mickey’s distinctive art style really comes into its own--the entire level is animated exactly like the original Disney cartoon of the same name, meaning that you’ll play in black and white and encounter a series of long-forgotten Disney friends.
The last level of the demo, Skull Island, gave us a chance to try out some of Mickey’s combat moves. We began on a beach and made our way toward a semi-sunken ship, where we encountered a group of seemingly drunk baddies. Pointing the Wii Remote at the screen produced a targeting reticule that helped us aim and fire a series of quick paint splashes, which turned the baddies into friendlies. We were also able to spin Mickey by shaking the Wii Remote, which allowed him to push the new group of enemies away (this move can also be used to break barrels to obtain health upgrades and get through other obstacles throughout the game). We finished the rest of the baddies off with a pickup called a "sketch," which allows Mickey to drop a television set in front of his enemies and render them temporarily distracted by old-school Mickey cartoons, leaving you free to paint them or thin them as you see fit.Despite its shift in concept, Epic Mickey looks on track to deliver a satisfying and immersive gameplay experience, and we look forward to seeing more of the title in the weeks to come.