‘We’re here to talk about “Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two,” clearly the best kept secret in video gaming,’ jokes Warren Spector, Creative Director and Vice President of Disney Interactive’s Junction Point Studio in Austin, TX at an after-hours media event held earlier this week at the Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History.
Before he takes the stage, however, he is introduced by Brenda Gunn, Associate Director at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. Gunn speaks on Austin’s role in shaping the video game industry beginning in the 1970s and commends Spector who — along with Richard Garriott, George Sanger, and Bill Bottorff — inspired the University to create and maintain its massive collection of thousands of video games, consoles and development materials including concept art, design documents, game proposals and internal correspondence.
When it’s his turn to address the small crowd, Spector offers a refresher course on the first ‘Disney Epic Mickey’ via a trailer and stats. ‘Disney Epic Mickey was — and remains — the best selling single platform game in Disney Interactive’s history,’ he notes,’ So obviously we appealed to players.’
He continues on to explain that their objective with the first game was to create a game ‘that had the same broad appeal as a Pixar film or a classic film from Disney.’ Not intended to reach any specific demographic, he says, but to reach every one. Recapping the results of survey Disney administered to ‘Epic Mickey’ players, Spector says, ‘We really did make a game that appealed to everyone. Over half of our audience around the world was made up of adults. So I think on that score I’d have to say the game was pretty successful.’ So successful in fact, that according to the survey, Spector reports that over 90% of participants in every territory worldwide were interested in a sequel.
But tooting the company’s horn only goes so far as Spector owns up to what he felt could have potentially been handled better in the first game. He explains, ‘The first time out, creating a studio, creating a team, creating a tech base, creating a world, figuring out who these characters are, creating new game play patterns and new game systems, you never get everything right.’ He announces three things he seeked out to change in the sequel: camera, voice and persistence.
It’s of little surprise that the issue of the camera comes up as it is easily the feature from the first title that receives the most complaints. Seemingly defiant to the cause, Spector has famously defended the camera’s team and continues to do so, although he admits changes were needed. ‘The reality is we made a game that allowed players to determine whether the game felt like a platform game or an action-adventure game and those two genres require very different game camera systems… I think the team did an amazing job on the first game but we knew we could do better,’ he says. He then goes on to explain that in anticipation of the sequel, he dedicated the team from the beginning to work on improving the system. As a result, more than 1,000 specific changes were made to the automatic game camera system with the objective of the player never needing to touch the manual camera controls if sticking to the main story path.
When it comes characters speaking, Spector explains the reasoning behind choosing what they call ‘bark text’ in the original ‘Disney Epic Mickey.’ ‘We did that for two reasons,’ he says, ‘both of them really dumb and both of them my decisions.’ He explains that although the team was inspired by Disney for the original game, they also found inspiration in old Nintendo games and Japanese RPGs. His idea is then solidified when he decides that since Oswald was a silent film star and couldn’t talk, then nobody could: ‘I thought that was funny, that’s how dumb this is.’
To make up for it, Junction Point brought in comics writer Marv Wolfman (who already has a storied history with both Disney and Marvel in particular). Wolfman helped craft the game’s story and wrote the dialogue for all of the characters who are voiced by their respective Disney voice talent. Returning as the (actual) voice of Oswald is Frank Welker. We later have the opportunity to hear Oswald’s voice very briefly, which to me sounds a bit like a slightly higher pitched version of another of Welker’s famous characters, Fred Jones of ‘Scooby Doo’ (though I reserve the right to regret that description later on). Oswald’s significant other, Ortensia, ‘is a character from start to finish that you interact with a lot,’ though who providers her voice is currently a secret. Gremlins also take a more prominent role in the sequel and are fully voiced, but Spector tells us only that they are voiced by some ‘interesting names.’ It would later be confided in me that one of the mysterious voices is that of actor Cary Elwes (famously of The Princess Bride and recently featured in The Adventures of Tintin).
If speaking weren’t enough, Spector also pronounces ‘Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two’ as being the first musical comedy video game. He says, ‘much of the story is told through song, so I want all the Gleeks to turn out in force for it.’ While Jim Dooley returned to compose the music for the game (whose tone changes based on the mood of the game), the songs’ lyrics are penned by Mike Himselstein (who we’re told performs double duty as the voice of Yen Sid). How many songs are in the game is a secret (we will later hear one as part of the opening cinematic), but I was told ‘at least five,’ that you will have to play the game through different ways to hear them all and we can expect 1 or two additional songs to debut at E3.
The third obstacle Spector looked to tackle was persistence: ‘If your choices actually aren’t permanent — if they don’t matter — if when you leave a map, the changes you made revert when you come back, play style doesn’t matter as much as it should… every thing you do in “Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two” is forever until you decide to undo it… if you erase something, it stays erased. If someone doesn’t like you, they stay not liking you until you change your mind.’
While the game will include familiar places and settings such as Mean Streets, it offers ‘many all new places’ to visit as well as new takes on familiar ones. Whereas in the first game, Yen Sid’s workshop was only seen in the cinematic, it now serves as the training ground for Mickey to explore. OsTown becomes significantly more involved although Spector notes it has since been changed by ‘seemingly natural events’ since Mickey has seen it last. Spector also shows us a still from ‘let’s just say a version of Frontierland,’ noting it was ‘something we wanted to do in the first game… Frontierland has changed more than any other part of the Disney Parks, so there’s plenty of forgotten, rejected stuff to have fun with there.’
A new army has risen in the Wastelands too, a curious hybrid of Blotlings and Beetleworx known as Blotworx. How exactly this new species came about is all part of the mystery surrounding the sequel’s story.
Spector then treats us to the opening cinematic for the game which clocks in at around 4 1/2 minutes and helps to explain what’s been occurring between the two titles as well as introduces us to our first song and sets the initial mood for the game.
‘If “Disney Epic Mickey” was the story of Mickey as a hero, reminding people that he is a video game star,’ Spector says, ‘”Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two” is as much about Oswald and — now that we’ve reminded the world who he is — making him a big star.’
He then introduces Becky Cline, Director of the Walt Disney Archives, to dole out some history on Oswald, how he came to be, how Walt Disney lost control and how Robert Iger bartered for Oswald by offering up sportscaster Al Michaels. She talks about some of the Oswald items she has brought from the archives to share, some of which just recently discovered and never displayed publicly, but her biggest treat by far is being convinced by Spector to screen a copy of ‘Hungry Hoboes’ for the audience of media and Junction Point developers. The 1928 short was thought to be lost for good but was just recently discovered at the Huntley Film Archive of Herefordshire, UK. The only known print of the short went up for auction last December and sold to an anonymous buyer for $31,250 and is now in the hands of The Walt Disney Company.
It’s an incredible thrill to see the short by Walt Disney that only a handful outside of Disney have seen in more than eight decades. It’s an absolutely funny (and sadistic) film loaded with one sight gag after another — let’s just say I learned a whole new way to collect eggs from a chicken.
I will later have the opportunity to speak with Cline after the event and ask about plans to release it, but the film has yet to be fully soundtracked and restored, so it may be some time before that will happen. Cline will also explain how most of the films that are recovered tend to be from overseas because they generally didn’t require the films to be returned to the distributor. Also of interest is that while the title card of the film does actually read ‘Hungry Hobos,’ the official title and copyright is for ‘Hungry Hoboes,’ with the Disney Archives at a loss for why the discrepancy.
Spector then re-addresses the group to discuss the ‘couch co-op’ play aspect of the game. ‘The two characters have distinct and unique, complementary abilities,’ he says. Mickey has the ability to use his sketches, paint and thinner, while Oswald has a remote control that allows him to zap enemies and repair and even reprogram electronics and animatronics throughout the Wasteland. Oswald also has ‘helicopter ears,’ which while don’t really afford him the ability to fly, they allow him to glide slowly back to earth, allowing Mickey to hop on for a ride as needed (or for fun). Speaking of sketches, Spector doesn’t mention it, but Mickey has a new one in ‘Disney Epic Mickey 2,’ the fairy sketch, which allows Mickey to make objects light enough to levitate and move through space. Oswald himself has another unspoken talent, the ability to detach his leg and use it as a boomerang to battle enemies.
The split-screen, ‘couch co-op’ play is drop-in, drop-out and is supplemented by AI. Oswald is with Mickey every step of the way, whether there is a second player or not. If co-op play isn’t taking place, Oswald will assist brother Mickey the best he can.
Note no mention of rumored ‘Power of Illusion’ Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Android or Apple iOS devices is made during the presentation.
I now have the opportunity to actually play a demo of the game on all three consoles. Areas to explore include the training level in Yen Sid’s workshop and Mickey’s ‘house,’ OsTown and the 2D transition levels known as the Dahl Engineering Corridors (DECs), so named for noted children’s author Roald Dahl who created the Gremlins and worked with Walt Disney on related projects.
The first thing I notice is how remarkably similar the game play is between the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii. There are some differences of course, the most notable one being the lower resolution on the Wii, which is almost sad after experiencing it on the NextGen consoles. While PlayStation Move support is expected (but not available for the demo), the Wii does have another major advantage in the controls, those being the Wii Remote and Nunchuk controllers. In fact there is at least one sequence in which Oswald re-programs a device by slowly turning the Wii Remote. On that note, the Junction Point team also brought along working prototypes of an Oswald Remote Control Nunchuck which complements the ‘Epic Mickey’ paintbrush one. Surprisingly, I find the controls on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to be really simple to use and get accustomed to, although I do not like how the crosshairs automatically snap back to the center of the screen when you let go of the analog control, making aiming particularly challenging at times.
The DEC transition level proves to be fun and entertaining enough and is full of Disneyana and tributes to Disney films and characters, featuring everything from a giant Chip head to the judge from Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to a Dumbo comic book to Goofy pogs that were part of a one-time publicity event, but reside in the Disney Archives as a result. Here is also a not-so-hidden basketball hoop which is one of the elements that exists in every game by Warren Spector (in ‘Epic Mickey,’ it was in a hidden room).
The co-op play is pretty fun and direct although it appears that Oswald sometimes has an artificial mind of his own within the mode. It may simply be a matter of the game still being developed, but it can usually be easily remedied by dropping out and back in after he sets himself straight. When not in co-op mode, Oswald is on his own and usually does a pretty good job at supporting Mickey, although he sometimes seems a bit bored through the process and will either entertain himself by removing his foot and studying it. On occasion, he will do something that doesn’t quite make sense, although it turns out that he seems to be aware of elements of the game that haven’t quite made it into the demo too.
The automatic camera control seems way more refined for me when I play on the Xbox 360, so much so that it’s almost obvious to me how much better it is, but as time goes on, I start falling out of love with it, often finding myself having to switch to manual operations, either because the automatic system didn’t keep up with me, or I’ve managed to require some odd perspective to complete a task. Often times I also end up with the screen being obfuscated by large polygons I can only presume to be my head. That aside, I find the d-pad manual controls easy to use on the NextGen devices and have little problem managing the camera as I need to do to unlock a Hidden Mickey constellation in the training level.
One other discouraging element, ironically enough, is the voice. The demo environment is so noisy that it was impossible to hear most of the gameplay so I find myself wishing subtitles were at least an option. It is still in development, however, so hopefully they will be added in the future, not just for noisy environments, but for playing with the sound muted in quiet environments and, of course, out of courtesy for the deaf.
Below are some photos from the event as well the box art and some screenshots from the NextGen and Wii consoles provided to us by Disney Interactive as well as some raw gameplay footage and the game’s announcement trailer.
Lastly, in celebration of the announcement, I would like to offer the opportunity for one Stitch Kingdom reader to receive this limited edition ‘Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two’ t-shirt. Featuring Mickey and Oswald against the Texas star, this shirt was produced for the Junction Point development team as well as event invitees. It is sold orange aside from the design and features the ‘Epic Mickey 2′ logo in white on the back. Please note you must be 18+ and a US resident to win.