As a denizen of Southern California, Disneyland played a rather large role in my childhood. It’s built up to be The Happiest Place on Earth, where you can be whisked into new and exciting worlds via thrill rides. Everything in the park, from the music to the sights, is meticulously crafted to be as vibrant and whimsical as possible.
So obviously, when Disney put out Epic Mickey, more than a few heads were turned.
Epic Mickey was a game that came out of nowhere, a bizarre 3D platformer headed by Warren Spector (System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex) of all people. As far as gameplay goes, it was fairly mediocre, filled with bizarre roadblocks, terrible pacing, and finicky platforming. However, it still holds a special place in my heart for its unique setting, the dystopian world known as the Cartoon Wasteland.
The Cartoon Wasteland is the last thing you’d expect to see in a game based on a Disney property—a less-than-pleasant recreation of the Happiest Place on Earth populated by forgotten Disney characters. As the name indicates, it’s nowhere near as nice of a locale as the original park, and the distorted architecture mixed with the alarming danger helps make it entirely clear that this is not the Disneyland that Walt envisioned. Despite the strange and almost gothic style everything has, it’s still immediately recognizable as Disneyland, and that’s what makes everything so fascinating.
The Matterhorn is made out of discarded Mickey merchandise. It’s A Small World is a deathtrap of broken animatronics and toxic water. The Haunted Mansion is literally haunted, and the ghosts aren’t quite as harmless as you might remember. The worlds that once gave thrills to children across the world have been perverted into a twisted shadow of itself, and every level manages to feel like something you’d find from American McGee’s Alice rather than an officially licensed game starring Mickey Mouse.
But Epic Mickey isn’t just content to make the corrupted Disneyland nothing more than a setting, even the foes you encounter have roots in the magical world of Disney. The Beetleworx enemies fought throughout the game are amalgamations of both classic Disney characters and attractions, such as cars from Toontown sporting a robotic version of Hades’ head from Hercules. However, the best example has to be the first boss fight, where Mickey squares off against a psychotic version of the Clock Tower that adorns the front of Small World. If anything can sum up what makes Epic Mickey interesting, a murderous clock tower with arms punching Mickey while a distorted version of the infamous It’s A Small World plays just about does the trick.
While Epic Mickey may not be a very good video game, I think it’s impossible to deny that it has one of the stronger concepts in recent years. It’s perfectly serviceable as a world of its own, but I must admit, my upbringing in California probably contributes quite a bit to my enthusiasm for the wasteland. While others have told me they enjoyed the world just fine, it’s probably safe to assume that being able to connect my own happy memories of the park to the notably unhappy world on display is really what stuck with me.
A few months after I played through Epic Mickey, I found myself at Disneyland once more with my family, and I remember looking up at that smiling clock tower while in line for Small World. The very first thing I thought of was that opening boss fight.
And that has to be worth something.