Despite the mixed critical reaction, Disney’s Epic Mickey is the best selling single platform game in Disney Interactive Studios’ history, which makes the fanfare surrounding the unveiling of the sequel, the smartly named Disney’s Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, in Austin, Texas this week completely understandable. In addition to playing and discussing the game with series creator Warren Spector, attendees were also treated to an exhibit of Disney memorabilia, some from Spector’s own personal collection, and a rare viewing of an early Disney cartoon short, which had been missing for decades.
After the obligatory introductory remarks, Spector takes the stage to talk about the reception of the original game and the changes we can expect to see in the sequel, due out this Fall for all three consoles. He talks about how positive the public’s perception was, both of the game itself and its characterization of Mickey. He talks about the demand for a sequel. While that’s all fairly standard for these types of announcements, Spector really grabbed the audience’s attention when he revealed that the new game would, in fact, be a musical.
Make no mistake; this is not a game with songs that interrupt the plot every now and then. This is a full musical, with score by James Dooley and lyrics by Disney’s own in-house lyricists, where the plot is driven by the songs. As a long-time fan of musical theater, it’s clear that Spector wants to do even more, referring to this game as an important “baby-step” towards this kind of storytelling in games. Epic Mickey 2 seems like the perfect place to take those steps. The whole idiom of American musical theater is so central to the entire Disney brand that it would seem strange for this game not to be a musical.
The game’s opening scene proves the point. Oswald strolls down the street of a recently restored Wasteland, where cartoon characters go when they are forgotten. Just as an earthquake begins to shake the street apart, the Mad Doctor and his Beetleworx creations arrive on the scene in a twisted sort of take on the Main Street Electrical Parade. The Doctor sings a stirring musical number, using the refrain “Help me help you” to convince Oswald to join forces with him to save the Wasteland. Once he leaves with the Doctor, Oswald’s girlfriend, Ortensia, again reaches out to Mickey to set things straight.
Before we get hands on with the game itself, Spector highlights a few key improvements the team is making. First, he promises that the camera has been improved with over 1000 specific changes. In fact, he says, the new camera is reportedly so much better that you should never even have to touch the manual controls at all while on the main story path through the game. He jokes, and not for the first time, that he could give an hour-long lecture on how difficult it was to make a game like the original Epic Mickey. In this particular case, the difficulty is in managing the transition between the higher angle perspective required by Mickey‘s platforming elements and the slightly lower angle required for the moments of combat and environmental interaction.
Fully voiced dialogue has been added as well. The previous game’s barking dialogue was another of Spector’s decisions, driven in part by a Japanese influence and also by the need to preserve Oswald’s character as a silent film star. In his second mea culpa of the night, Spector admits it just didn’t work. For the sequel, he and his team have hired Marv Wolfman to write the dialogue and recruited Disney-licensed actors to provide the voices for all the iconic characters. Veteran voice actor Frank Welker, probably best known as Fred from Scooby Doo, has been tapped to provide the first ever voice for Oswald.
The sequel’s third major improvement is it’s greater sense of “choice and consequence.” For a developer whose entire catalogue, from Wing Commander to Thief, is about player choice, that’s not much of a surprise, but it’s encouraging to know that the sequel will take those concepts even farther. Where the original game often reset a player’s choices each time they returned to a level, this time around the team is making sure that any decisions a player makes persist throughout the game, until that player intervenes to undo those choices.
Sadly, the hands on demos didn’t give us enough time to really appreciate the improvements made by the voice actors or the greater feeling of persistence. It did show, however, that the team still has a long way to go in terms of controls and cameras, particularly on the 360 and PS3 versions, which are being developed by separate studios. I’m always willing to view problems in these pre-release demos in the proper context, but the earlier comments about having solved the camera problems left me feeling a little discouraged when faced with some of the same issues in the demo.
That said, exploring Yinsed’s Workshop was genuinely fun. From first creating the iconic walking brooms to hopping across floating golden planets in a sort of magic orrery, the whole setting not only gets you in the mood for the rest of the game, but also serves as a bit of a tutorial or refresher on the basic mechanics. From there, the demo led to one of the interstitial side-scrolling levels, where Mickey and Oswald have to work together to solve a variety of environmental puzzles.
Mickey’s still able to use the paint and thinner to change the world around him, but there are some problems he just can’t solve. That’s where Oswald’s abilities come into play. He has a remote control that interacts with certain mechanical or electrical obstacles and can even use his giant ears to help Mickey glide through the air and reach otherwise inaccessible areas.
To make the most of these new mechanics, the new game offers drop-in-drop-out, splitscreen cooperative experience, which accounts for the abundance of “twos” in the title. It’s like double the twos of most other sequels, just so gamers don’t miss the point entirely. The number 2 is the one that says it’s a sequel, while the written two means you should get a friend. But even if you’re hopelessly alone in the real world, Oswald will also be with you in Epic Mickey 2. Driven by the AI, he’ll intervene as needed to help you move Mickey past whatever obstacles he’s facing.
I play lots of cooperative games with my kids, from Lego Star Wars to Kirby to Skylanders, so I’m particularly interested in how this dual mechanic works, particularly since each character has exclusive responsibilities in the world. The trick, according to the designers, it to recognize that play style matters and offer up multiple ways to solve problems and present multiple clues that point to those solutions. This moves beyond simple puzzle design to infuse the entire philosophy behind the game, that the player is free to use creation as well as destruction to face whatever challenges the game throws his or her way.
When asked if he struggled to design games that appeal across generations, Spector dismisses the idea altogether. “I make games that entertain me,” he told me, “and hope that there’s a large enough market of people like me.”