Of Mice and Monkeys

It is a great time to be a Wii owner!  While the unwashed masses are slogging their way through the latest repackaging of their precious war franchise, we video game fans are getting some amazing games.  I am currently working my way through two of them.

When the rumor trickled prior to E3 2010 that Retro were working on a Donkey Kong game, I was super excited.  This was the developer, after all, that completely revitalized the Metroid franchise, bringing it crashing into the current generation without losing a bit of the unique characteristics the series was known for.  What they did with Metroid was nothing short of brilliant, and god knows the Donkey Kong franchise – having degenerated into a handful of ultragimmicky niche titles – could use some kind of revolutionary update.  I instantly began daydreaming about guiding a photorealistic gorilla through lush 3D jungle environments.

So when it was announced that Retro’s game would be a new side-scrolling Donkey Kong Country, and the whole world began rejoicing and jerking off into each other’s mouths, I was kind of secretly bummed.  I love Donkey Kong Country, but Retro made their name by completely rethinking an old franchise and making it wholly their own, so it was disappointing that when they got their hands on something like Donkey Kong, they decided to just create an old-school-styled retread of another developer’s game.  Besides, I thought, isn’t this trend of retro-2D platformers getting a little tiresome?  The reason New Super Mario Bros. is so awesome is because it exists side-by-side with the Galaxy games.  The reason Kirby’s Epic Yarn is so awesome is because who gives a shit, it’s Kirby.  In a world where Donkey Kong hasn’t been significantly reimagined in almost two decades, does the world really need a new 2D Donkey Kong Country title?

The answer, of course, is yes yes YES, and once I started playing Donkey Kong Country Returns, I almost immediately forgot about all of that other bullshit, and just let myself sink into pure bliss.  Did Retro revolutionize this franchise in any way?  Fuck no.  Did they do anything more than fiddle around with the building blocks Rare created in 1994?  Not at all.  But with their almost unbelievable attention to detail, and crazy-impressive level design skills, they did manage to make the single best Donkey Kong game of all time.  It seriously blows Rare’s classic games out of the water.  I started playing this shit, and I was instantly a kid again… thoughts of innovation and franchise revitalization were replaced in my mind with thoughts of HOLY FUCK HOW AM I GOING TO NAVIGATE THIS BARREL AROUND ALL THOSE BATS?!?!?  Bleary-eyed at 3am, I found myself falling prey to that old-fashioned “just one more level” disease, something I rarely if ever feel anymore.  I was – and still am – kind of disappointed with Retro’s decision here, but I am also very, very, very glad that this game exists.  It’s magical.

Speaking of magic…

Epic Mickey is fucking magical, man.  For a Disney nerd like me, it’s still sort of difficult to believe that it really exists.  I am up to what I assume is the last level, so I don’t want to say too much or spoil anything, but suffice to say that if you’re a fan of Disney – especially Disney’s early cartoon shorts and theme parks – this game will awe you.  The environments, the visual style, the characters… it’s all gorgeous and totally scratches that fanboy itch.

There are a few flaws, however, and I’ll address those before moving on to the things the game gets right.  First, as great as all the Disney shit is, I kind of wish they’d gone further with it.  The game’s plot revolves around a world of “forgotten Disney characters,” but it really seems like the designers’ imaginations when it comes to this concept got to a certain point and then hit a brick wall.  With like 900 years of Disney lore to draw from, couldn’t they populate this game with more than just a bunch of clones of Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow and fucking Goofy?  What about, off the top of my head, Clara Cluck?  Or since the Phantom Blot is around, why not other characters from the Mickey Mouse comic universe, like Eega Beeva?  Or since this takes place in a twisted version of the Magic Kingdom, what about more characters like the Country Bears?  I mean, I pulled those three ideas out of my ass right now!  I guess I’m just being a total fanboy here, but I would have liked to see this game dive even deeper into this well.

Even Warren Spector forgot about you, Clara!

I still mostly agree with myself that the play control in this game is pretty tight.  Mickey’s jumps feel really intuitive to me, and the point-and-shoot paintbrush mechanic works just fine.  However, like everyone else in the world who has reviewed this game, I am totally appalled by the camera.  No matter how Warren Spector justifies it, there is no denying that the camera is just plain fucked.  I’ve played a lot of 3D platforming games, and have never encountered anything this troublesome that wasn’t in some shitty shovelware game.  This is not a shitty shovelware game.  This is a fantastic game, the player’s enjoyment of which is often ground to a halt by an embarrassingly awful camera.  This often makes both the platforming and the combat, both of which are just fine otherwise, unfuckingbearable.  I like the game enough to get past this, but I can totally understand if others are unable to; it’s that bad.  “Everybody gets it wrong,” Warren?  No they don’t.  But, sadly, you did this time.  Please do it better next time!

Hey you don't mind if I just kinda stare at the wall while you get beaten to death by robot pirates, right? Cool.

Those are just about the only complaints I have.  Everything else is pure wonder and fun.  The environments are great, and the way they transform when you add or remove layers of paint make this shit more than just Super Mickey Sunshine.  It makes the painting mechanic addictive as hell… these worlds scream out to be made as beautiful as they should be, but they also tempt you to wipe them all away to see what secrets lie beneath.  Finding that balance between destruction and reconstruction is a big part of what makes this game really work for me.  The fact that you’re doing that in a fucked up version of Adventureland is just the icing on an already-awesome cake.
I really love the 2D platforming segments too.  They’re just brief enough that they always leave you wanting more, and they never overstay their welcome.  They also look amazing, and I would love to play a spin-off game that expands them into proper levels, perhaps on the 3DS.

I wouldn't want to live in a world where this didn't exist.

Epic Mickey succeeds in almost every way as a great video game, but what gives it that special touch of Disney magic is its story.  It is fantastic to see Oswald the Lucky Rabbit brought back into the Disney fold in such a poignant, interesting way.  And Mickey’s journey, so far, is really touching.  The best thing about anything Disney is the opportunity to escape into a place where everything is just a lot fucking simpler, where everything can be the way it’s supposed to be if you just really want it to.  In Epic Mickey, assholes can be turned into friends with a splash of paint, the dying ruins of the places you used to know can be built back up to their former glory, and forgiveness for your mistakes is just a handshake and a smile away.  In this awful, shitty world, I am really grateful to be able to escape to such a place for a little while, even if it does has a crappy camera.  Thank you, Mickey Mouse.

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