As some of you may know, I’m a member of The Perfectly Sane Show podcast, and recently we recorded our final episodes of the year in which we debated and decided our Game of the Year winners. It devolved into a drunken discussion that ended with a compromise. Halo Reach won our overall Game of the Year. My personal pick was Epic Mickey, but nobody had played it because they’re biased against the Wii, and they blindly chose to believe the critics when it came to that game, even though outlets like X-Play loved it.
Our choices sparked an interesting discussion about what’s most important in a game—the overall package or pure gameplay? I’m one of “those people” who argue that gameplay trumps everything else. In fact, I rarely even bother to follow the story in a game. We were split on what matters most. Chris and I argued for games like Pac-Man Championship Edition DX and Halo Reach because they were tightly designed from a gameplay standpoint and quite simply the most fun to play. As great and ambitious as Red Dead Redemption is, honestly, it bored me to tears in the second half, and when that happens, I feel the game is ignoring its primary job.
It’s a tough debate, though, one I’ve begun to struggle with internally. Roughly a month ago, I had Donkey Kong Country Returns near the top of my list because I felt it was the most flawlessly designed game I had played all year. It’s also a game in the purest sense of the word. Like old arcade games, it is meant to be played over and over until you perfect a level and beat it. It doesn’t really have a story, but it doesn’t need one, because narrative should never be the primary reason we play games. We have books, movies, and television for that. Some would strongly argue against that point, and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. But then I played Epic Mickey, and it forced me to question my rigid, old-school stance, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Beyond the question of what matters more (gameplay vs. the whole package) is another related debate that I find unique to video games. It is the only medium where I consistently have to choose between what I think is technically the most innovative and well designed, and what I personally loved the most. When it comes to movies, I don’t have this problem. I never say to myself, “Well, ‘Inception’ is a masterpiece, but damn, I really had fun with ‘Piranha 3-D.’ How do I choose?” I always easily side with the most well-made film, because ultimately, it is the one I enjoy the most. (By the way, this year so far it’s not “Inception,” but a little indie thriller titled “Frozen.”) I think it’s because film is almost exclusively about narrative, and video games are primarily about fun. However, as video games evolve as an art form, it becomes harder to focus solely on fun gameplay when there are so many facets driving the experience.
This tension between gameplay and the overall experience came to a head when I began playing Epic Mickey. I went in with my strict belief that gameplay matters more than anything and Donkey Kong Country Returns, Halo Reach, and Pac-Man Championship Edition DX battling it out for my personal game of the year. It didn’t take long before Epic Mickey defeated them all, which is funny because it’s a great game plagued by serious flaws in its gameplay. For once, it was about the overall experience for me. Epic Mickey felt special. It made me feel something.
I have to give full disclosure. There is something you have to understand about me, but it should not be the only thing you understand; it should not cloud your judgment and allow you dismiss Epic Mickey without playing it. When I was growing up, my parents took me to Disney World nearly every year. I’m not an obsessive fan of all things Disney, but I am an obsessive fan of Disney World—the parks, the rides, all the little details within them. On the old IGN blogs, I wrote a detailed post on my vision for Disney World simulator game.
Epic Mickey is not a Disney World simulator, but nearly every level is either based on an old Disney movie, cartoon, or ride. Most of the major levels are based on classic Disney rides—It’s a Small World, Space Mountain, and The Haunted Mansion, to name a few. At one point, you fight Pete (dressed up in a Tron outfit) on top of Space Mountain. In the first main level, you jump from boat to boat through a broke down It’s a Small World ride. In the Haunted Mansion level, you have to solve a ridiculously complex level in the stretching room with the macabre paintings. Hell, the hub world is a dark version of Main Street U.S.A. called Mean Street, complete with a cinema, town hall, fire department, and penny arcade. It would be nearly impossible for me not to fall for this game on some level, but I must stress that my enjoyment of Epic Mickey doesn’t solely derive from my love of Disney World.
There are two major issues—camera and controls—holding Epic Mickey back from perfection, but those issues are outshined by interesting gameplay and stellar music, atmosphere, and storytelling. The camera is controlled by the D-pad, which is somewhat awkard but mostly manageable; the problem arrives when it gets stuck in crucial situations. The controls are a bit awkward and clunky, but the only real problem I have with them is your only attack is performed by shaking the Wiimote, and you really have to shake it for the game to register the attack. In the rare tough combat situations, these problems can combine to create a temporarily frustrating experience.
The good stuff in Epic Mickey outweighs those issues and should be appreciated by gamers of all ages, especially those who still have an ounce of a child-like sense of wonder in them. Like the best animated Disney films, the story is simple, but it’s well told and pulls at the heartstrings. (Unlike most video game stories, I cared about it, and there is one moment that nearly brought me to tears.) The setting and atmosphere is pure Disney perfection—bright, colorful, dark, scary, nostalgic, magical, and filled with details for fans. The music is simply unparalleled by any game in recent memory. It’s a travesty that Red Dead Redemption won the best music category on The Perfectly Sane Show over Epic Mickey. Give the soundtrack a listen and see if you don’t agree.
But of course, underneath all that is the game, which is also great, despite issues with the core mechanics. It’s a throwback to N64-era 3D platformers. You know, games that had hub worlds and tons of items to collect and places to explore. Games that lasted more than five hours. And if it was just that, it would be enough for me. I appreciate the slimmer design in modern games, but I miss those old, massive platformers, flaws and all. They were games you could dig into and play over and over. They also had charm. Playing Epic Mickey is a bit like sitting on a couch with a blanket and eating grilled cheese sandwiches. Throw in some Saturday morning cartoons, and you get the idea.
But on top of that core throwback design, Warren Spector and Junction Point Studios introduce a fresh layer of RPG elements. The RPG stuff isn’t exactly new or incredibly deep, but it’s never been so cleverly applied to an old-school 3D platformer. You can choose to use paint or thinner (good or evil) to complete most missions, essentially deciding whether to destroy this world of forgotten Disney characters and artifacts or restore them. Your choices have a dramatic impact on the outcome of the story. There are also smaller RPG touches, such as multiple active quests and the ability to fail them, or complete them in distinct ways. In a level based on Mickeytown U.S.A., I had to get into a safe that was dangling by a rope over a character’s head. Instead of finding the combination, I sprayed thinner on the rope, and the safe fell on the character and killed him. I got the contents of the safe, but when I got back to Mean Street, some characters didn’t trust me, and my evil deed had made the local paper.
Like I said, I have a pretty strict and narrow set of guidelines when it comes to judging games, but Epic Mickey has shaken them. Few games have done that to me. And despite its flaws, Epic Mickey stands apart from (and made me feel more than) any other game this year. There is something truly defiant and special about it. Objectively, it’s hard to make a case for the game. It’s not the best game of the year from a technical standpoint, but I enjoyed it the most. Bottom line: I love it, and that’s why it’s my Game of the Year. What’s yours? And how do you choose?