When industry luminary Warren Spector was offered the helm of the project that would later become Epic Mickey, so the story goes, he initially refused on the grounds that nobody cared about Mickey Mouse anymore. Surprisingly, the Disney suits agreed. Disney was as aware as anyone that the famous cartoon mouse was painfully obsolete in the age of SpongeBob SquarePants and Mario, and wanted to reinvigorate the character – and specifically, to do so through a videogame, the Disney executives told Spector.
Sadly, Disney’s quest to rescue its iconic mouse from the pitfalls of obsolescence with Epic Mickey didn’t quite pan out. The game received mixed reviews upon release, Spector claimed that critics didn’t understand the game, and while it eventually moved over a million copies, it hardly topped best-seller lists. Still, it’s hard to understand why Disney was banking on a game like Epic Mickey to propel the Mouse to modern relevance when already established videogame property could have done just that: Kingdom Hearts.
In the world of crossovers, the Final Fantasy-meets-Disney mix of Kingdom Hearts was our version of “Archie meets the Punisher.” On one hand, you had the angsty, melodramatic casts of the modern Final Fantasy games who fought world-ending monstrosities; on the other, you had the upbeat and colorful Disney cartoons whose worst trials involved getting stuck in the door of Rabbit’s house. And yet, when all was said and done, the first Kingdom Hearts proved that the mix was more like dipping French fries in a milkshake – a combination that sounds bizarre on paper, yet proves to be strangely appetizing.
While Kingdom Hearts‘ main protagonist and primary antagonists were all original Square-Enix creations, the supporting cast and in-game party members were Disney icons one and all. Goofy was the stalwart knight who bashed enemies with his shield, Donald was the wizard blasting foes with fire and lightning, and the likes of Peter Pan and Ariel the mermaid joined you as temporary party members. As for Mickey, well, he was an enigma – an intrepid king off to save the multiverse from a mysterious new threat. He never even appeared in the first game until the very end, but it was a memorable moment all the same.
What was surprising was how well the cheery Disney universe meshed with the darker underpinnings of Kingdom Hearts. The game never lost its idealistic bent – this was a ship that ran on smiles, after all – but it had plot twists, betrayals, and epic duels, and it worked. The fangirls and fanboys might have squealed for Cloud and Squall, but it was the sinister machinations of Malificent along with Goofy and Donald’s heroic choice to stand by their comrade in defiance of orders that made the game more than just a generic JRPG.
With Kingdom Hearts, Disney certainly had a game that made Goofy and Donald cool. Donald’s nigh-unintelligible quacks were as present (and hilarious) as ever, but watching the duck clear a room full of baddies by invoking the tremendous power of a thunderstorm gave players a newfound respect for the pantsless waterfowl.
But what about Disney’s number-one star? If there were one and only one reason for Mickey Mouse’s growing irrelevance in the modern world, it would be that he had become utterly bland over time. Since becoming Disney’s most recognizable mascot, the Mouse had deteriorated over time into a safe, generically “good” character who would have never engaged in the mischief that marked his early days – and that’s simply boring. Epic Mickey purported to get the character back in touch with his rascally roots, but “Mean Mickey” never found his way into the final product.
Kingdom Hearts, on the other hand, did what Epic Mickey could have only dreamed of: It made Mickey Mouse a certifiable badass. While only making a cameo in the first game, his role was greatly expanded in Kingdom Hearts II, not-so-coincidentally dovetailing with the sequel’s edgier, less childish tone.
The player’s introduction to Mickey came several hours into the game, when the king came out of nowhere to rescue Sora, Donald, and Goofy from certain destruction. Kingdom Hearts‘ trenchcoat-clad Mickey Mouse was half-Batman, with his swift, sudden entrances (and exits) at the height of dramatic timing, and half-Yoda with his acrobatic, aerial style of combat. He was a warrior king, fighting the forces of darkness and twilight with a legendary weapon that would have made Arthur Pendragon weep.
What’s more was that Kingdom Hearts II made King Mickey playable as your savior from sudden death. Whenever Sora was defeated in battle, there was a chance for the game to give the player the option of continuing the fight instead of going straight to the Game Over screen – and the player’s refusal to give up would summon Mickey to the rescue. Not only could Mickey singlehandedly fight foes that had wiped the floor with a team including the likes of Sora and the Beast, he could instantly resurrect the party to fight again in his absence. No matter how much the player leveled up, his characters would never be as capable as Mickey Mouse, in all his round-eared and squeaky-voiced glory.
There was a moment in Kingdom Hearts II where lovable dope Goofy pushes King Mickey out of the way of a falling rock and gets conked on the head – only to collapse, apparently dead. (He turns out to be just fine, of course, but the mind boggles at the mere existence of a game bearing the Disney brand that had the audacity to seemingly kill one of Walt’s iconic characters). Mickey Mouse trembles in fury, before dramatically casting off his cloak, summoning his legendary Keyblade, vowing revenge and charging the enemy position.
Epic Mickey called itself “epic,” but with moments like that, Kingdom Hearts was an epic. One might argue that the entire appeal was the novelty of these classic cartoon characters in the midst of a life-or-death struggle that would have been entirely out of place in the Happiest Place on Earth, but the Kingdom Hearts series lent Mickey and friends genuine gravitas, making it easier to take them more seriously as actual characters rather than bland corporate mascots.
Perhaps it’s that Disney wanted to focus more on games produced by its own Disney Interactive Studios, or perhaps the Kingdom Hearts games ended up being too serious for the House of Mouse. Either way, Epic Mickey‘s sales paled in comparison to the twelve-million-plus sales of the Kingdom Hearts series, and Disney’s greatest opportunity to revitalize the popular image of Mickey Mouse and the like may have long since faded away.
John Funk knows now beyond all doubt that Kingdom Hearts … is light!