Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meet the New Mouse, Same as the Old Mouse . . . Really

Epic Mickey Box Art
I'm horrible when it comes to video games. Over the years, I've lost track of how many adventure games I've never finished because I got bored, distracted by life, or just reached a roadblock in a game that I quickly gave up on. Killing bosses has always been more trouble to me than it's worth. Such are the joys of having an ADD personality.

A slightly twisted version of the Disney universe may change all that.

Disney Interactive Studios and game developer Warren Spector will challenge the perceptions many fans have of Mickey Mouse when they release "Epic Mickey" for the Wii in fall 2010. As concept art from the game has been leaking out over the last few months, gaming fans have been speculating wildly on what the desolate look of a Magic Kindom gone horribly wrong is all about.

Epic Mickey Concept Art
Epic Mickey Concept Art
In an official announcement last week, Disney Interactive revealed the storyline of the game: Yen Sid, the powerful sorcerer from the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," has created this wonderful, mythical Cartoon Wasteland, where retired Disney characters live out an idyllic existence. Chief among them is none other than Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt's first animated star. Over time, however, he's become bitter that his successor, Mickey Mouse, has gone on to a stellar career in the "real" animated world (Personally, I think Oswald's just ticked that NBC Universal traded him back to Disney for Al Michaels, but I digress.), so when Mickey inadvertently stumbles into and wreaks havoc on Cartoon Wasteland, complications ensue. Armed with a brush, some paint and thinner, Mickey must then make things right and help restore Cartoon Wasteland to it's original glory . . . or not. That's the fun concept of "Epic Mickey." Mickey Mouse doesn't have to be the benign, easy-going everymouse most fans have come to know. In fact, the game may become a whole lot more interesting if he's not.

Scrapper MickeyIn today's New York Times, Brooks Barnes called this new video game persona for Mickey "risky" and "radical." I disagree. If anything, it sounds like Disney is taking Mickey back to his roots: that of a mischievous, even naughty, little rodent with plenty of spunk and heart. Watch "Steamboat Willie," "Plane Crazy" and numerous other animated shorts from Mickey's black and white days and you'll see an industrious scamp, full of tricks, who wasn't above making the occasional untoward advance on Minnie. This side of Mickey is not lost on Spector. "Mickey is an adventurous and rambunctious mouse," he says. "I want to bring his personality to the forefront, place him in a daunting world and connect his spirited character with video game players worldwide. Ultimately, each player decides for him - or herself what makes Mickey cool."

That Mickey can be cool again is a promising notion. His coolness factor dropped steadily in the decades since his meteoric rise to fame in the 1930s, even as his popularity remained intact. In order to continue being well received by a growing mass audience, Mickey's edgier personality quirks were gradually whittled away until this pleasant, mostly harmless character was left behind. Cute and charming, to be sure, but not much else--certainly not as entertaining as the clumsy, slap-happy Goofy or, especially, the irascible Donald. As animator Ward Kimball noted, "As we got more personality and character into the other cartoons, it became more and more difficult to cope with Mickey . . . Mickey was really an abstraction. He wasn't based on anything that was remotely real."

Mickey Mouse in action in Epic Mickey for the Nintendo WiiMickey eventually became more corporate symbol than character, his feistier origins largely forgotten or unnoticed with the passing years. He's still beloved by millions, but it's getting harder to explain why these days other than "he's Mickey Mouse."

It's about time Mickey got to stir up a little mischief again, and there's nothing radical about it whatsoever. After all, he'll be taking on Cartoon Wasteland with a paintbrush, not a chainsaw. What's intriguing, though, is this gaming star-turn will likely portend bigger and better future projects for him. That can't be bad.

Walt Disney himself said it best. "Mickey is forever. He'll have his moments in the shade, but he'll always come out in the bright lights again."

I'm looking forward to getting Mickey back in the spotlight. Let's see what he does with it. Maybe this time I'll even finish the game.

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