I've actually been lucky enough to see Epic Mickey twice now, once at a pre-E3 event a few weeks ago and then again this week at E3. And while my first reaction to the game was twinged with disappointment (which I'll explain in just a minute), after seeing it a second time, and talking with Warren Spector himself, I think the game will turn out to be something really special.
What changed in between then and now? Honestly, I don't think they're showing the right demo. The Epic Mickey you can see on the floor of E3 this week shows a middling-to-above-average platformer, with few simple stages and a paint/thinner mechanic that allows you to draw and erase various walls and platforms. But I am convinced anyway (perhaps wrongly, I'll admit) that there's a lot more to this game than that.
The disappointment I felt the first time I finally laid eyes on Spector's Epic Mickey came mostly from the graphics. Frankly put, they're not impressive. Textures are pixelated and blocky, and at times the game looks even older than the already limited Wii hardware it's running on. That's a disappointment -- the concept art that we thrilled at showed a game that could escape the limits of its hardware into the art of its design, and so far, that just hasn't happened. While the graphics are colorful, they're not beautiful, and in a game based on a primarily visual medium, that's a serious disappointment.
But of course, good gameplay can overcome technical limitations, and in that regard, Mickey is coming along well. The platforming is solid, the exploration is fun, and the paint/thinner mechanic already shows some complexity even in the two short levels at E3. You can use Mickey's paint and thinner to draw in walls, fill up or break evil machines, or befriend or attack enemies. You can solve puzzles by erasing doors or drawing in certain areas, and you can find and unlock secrets and collectibles by spraying paint or thinner around in the right places.
At that point, Epic Mickey is like any other above-average platformer -- it's got some good ideas, but it's not amazing. But I'm not ruling out greatness just yet. Because when you start to pull at some of the threads in the short demo we're seeing, you start to uncover more complexity and mastery woven into the fabric.
Mickey can undertake a few simple quests during the demo, and while at least one of them is a simple rote task (find five items by following platforms around), the others hint at a deeper story. In one, you're assigned to find three tiki masks for a shop keeper, but clever use of thinner means you can give him one mask, sneak into his storehouse and steal it, and return the same mask two more times, tricking him into thinking you've done your job. Another quest has you helping a pirate Romeo pick a gift for his cartoon cow, but recommending the wrong gift can make the couple even more miserable than before you got involved.
The final area has a machine in it churning out bad guys, and Mickey can either use paint to convert the machine into a good-guy creator, or fill the gears with thinner to shut it down completely. Either way is perfectly valid in terms of the game world, and while we didn't get to see any major consequences to all of these actions before the demo ended, it's hinted that Mickey isn't just choosing what's fun -- he's profoundly affecting the world he's exploring.
And finally, Spector himself lays out the story: the game takes place in the Wasteland, an island of Walt Disney's misfit toys, where lost and forlorn cartoon characters go to spend the rest of their days. Mickey, very much not a lost or forlorn character, accidentally causes trouble in this land. And when you realize that Mickey is really a stranger in this world he's exploring, the changes he's slowly enabling seem much more important. Who is he, a somebody, to meddle in these nobodies' lives? And what makes Mickey so epic compared all of Walt Disney's other creations?
I might be wrong -- the Wii certainly has its share of less-than-stellar platformers, and Spector is so invested in the license and Disney's history that he could be missing the boat on the game's quality. But I'm convinced otherwise. I think there's a lot more, in terms of the progression and story and meaning of the game, that we haven't yet seen. Right now, Epic Mickey's look and feel doesn't quite match up to the high expectations set by its concept art. But before all is said and done, the game itself just might.