In a previous feature, we went over how Disney successfully perfected a formula for their 16-bit platformers, by working with third party developers who were among the best on the market. But, at the end of the 90s, it seemed the Disney formula was slowly going out of fashion. Once, an Aladdin or Lion King platformer would easily grace the covers of gaming magazines. That would never happen in the Pocahontas era or, worse, with Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Disney seemed to not be hip with gamers any more or, at least, not in the same way. That’s why the story behind the development of Epic Mickey, feels like one final shot at the title. The real ending of that long period of Disney being at the forefront of the best platformers ever. Maybe not the ending of the “they all lived happily ever after” kind, but one in any case.
It all started with a dream, a word which is repeated often when looking back at the development history of Epic Mickey. The project, in some way, should have been parallel to Kingdom Hearts, but where the series by Square brought modern Disney characters to an entire new and unfamiliar genre (and audience, probably), Epic Mickey would have been the opposite. This 3D platformer would have been about nostalgia and the past. In some way, this idea was quite ahead of the curve, since 20 years ago nostalgia wasn’t yet the “end-all” to sell a product.
The pitch for Epic Mickey was originally created by a small group of devs at Buena Vista Interactive in 2003. While it would soon catch the eye of producer Bob Iger, there was an obstacle. The rights to Oswald, the original co-protagonist, had been sold to NBC. Still Iger was not going to give up and, in 2006, he negotiated the rights back to Disney, as in the meantime he had also become the CEO of Buena Vista Interactive. Work on the game, though, would only start in 2007, after BVG also acquired Junction Point, the studio helmed by Warren Spector (Deus Ex).
Spector remembers thinking it was a dream, being given the opportunity to work on Epic Mickey. The occasion was unique, he could use years and years of archive cartoons and comics. The idea was to bring Mickey in a different and more obscure light, which is why - Spector would reveal later - the initial concept art was very dark indeed. “We leaked the concept art on purpose, since I wanted to see how far Disney was willing to go”, would say the designer years later on Reddit.
Spector mentions that, despite the game taking years, Disney never really pressured them to hurry up. “My choice was not to show any characters in-game created after 1967, I wanted the entire project to be an homage to Walt”. More than a hundred people contributed, over the years of work, to Epic Mickey with ideas, concept art and drawings.
After a first showing at 2010's E3, the audience seemed to react positively. But, in the end, Epic Mickey only gets released on Wii, a decision which, somehow, is still controversial. The general critical reception was quite mixed, with many, especially, noting how the game, despite being marketed as a “dark tale”, seemed to still be nothing more than a kids game. Others pointed to the problem with the camera and many dated platforming ideas. For all of its good intentions, Epic Mickey was not quite up to the 2010's 3D platforming standards to be taken seriously by gamers.
Spector would still come back for an Epic Mickey sequel, announced by many gaming magazines, bringing back the “Disney on the front cover” at least for one more time in 2012. This time, according to the designer, “more than 700 people” worked on Epic Mickey 2, for a release which would fix one of the original's issues and hit all major platforms. The one true new feature would be a co-op mode, with a second player which could guide Oswald, next to Mickey. Also, at any moment, Oswald could go back to be controlled by AI.
Despite a huge marketing campaign and gaming magazines previewing the game everywhere, Epic Mickey 2 seemed to do even worse than its predecessor, selling little more than 500k copies, compared to the 2 millions which Disney was expecting. Two months after its release, Junction Point would close its doors with Spector commenting “I can’t say for sure if the series is dead, but I doubt we’ll ever see a third Epic Mickey title”. There were already had ideas for the sequel, which would have taken place outside of Wasteland. A spin-off featuring Donald Duck was also cancelled.
Along with the second title, a curious 2D platformer exclusive for Nintendo 3DS, would also be released, calling back to the classic Illusion series. Epic Mickey: The Power of Illusion married the classic 2D platforming mechanics to the classic gameplay of the main series. Despite the intentions of being an homage to Castle of Illusion, it wasn’t very well received, the 2D gameplay works but having to go back and forth to get objects to the various Disney characters gets tiresome quickly. It seemed to share the same fate of the Epic Mickey series: great intentions, lacklustre results.
The closing of Warren Spector' studio in 2013 seems to be the true fatal ending to the Disney dream of perfecting a formula to capture all kinds of audience, from kids to adults. Been given the right attention to gameplay, Epic Mickey could have been a true modern Disney series and a strong franchise we would have easily seen continuing to this day. Alas, that was not to be.
Since 2013, we know all too well what Disney has been up to; that is, the warpath. They have been conquering and buying companies left and right. Honestly, if we had to talk about a modern Disney game today, along with mentioning Dreamlight Valley, perhaps we’d even have to consider Jedi Survivor in the mix. Times have changed, that’s for sure. And, as for this old journalist, I’d rather go back to that sweet Land of Illusion, to once again save Minnie from the clutches of the evil witch Mizrabel. It was a more naive time, and, perhaps, that guise of less evil Disney was just that, a disguise. But, well, I sure preferred it that way. Can you blame me?
For more articles like this, take a look at our Features page.