Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion is a faithful spiritual successor to the Genesis game
Disclaimer: Disney paid for air and ground transportation, as well as a two-night hotel stay. The early '90s were dominated by platformers. This is the age that brought us Mario, Sonic, Rayman, and a plethora of Disney games such as Aladdin and The Lion King for the SEGA Genesis. Some of these titles have aged better than others, but it's hard to argue with the quality of Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. That game, and the series it spawned, is getting a spiritual successor in the form of Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion for the 3DS. For those who don't recall or never played the first game, Castle of Illusion sent Mickey through a multitude of worlds and levels, many of which were inspired by Disney's own films or cartoon shorts. It was known for being surprisingly challenging for a game starring Mickey Mouse, as well as the vivid, varied worlds Mickey visited. Power of Illusion is purposefully designed to evoke those sentiments. Creative director Peter Ong told a small crowd of press at an event in Anaheim that the 16-bit Castle of Illusion was a great influence and inspiration in his early years as a gamer, and that in creating Power of Illusion, he wanted to recreate the feel of playing that game for the first time. I myself was a Castle of Illusion fan, and Power of Illusion feels like a return to the good ol' days.
You don't look a day over 20
One of the first things you'll notice about Power of Illusion is that it looks… Well, kind of crappy by today's standards. Backgrounds are beautifully painted and crisp, but Mickey and the enemies he encounters have pixelated edges to them, and movements aren't as smooth as you might like. This goes back to Ong's attempt to reproduce the feel of a 16-bit video game. It's not going to appeal to everyone, but '90s gamers will no doubt appreciate some of the subtleties. Here's a good example: as Ong was discussing the enemies Mickey would encounter in Power of Illusion, he displayed an image of Mickey battling Maleficent, the witch from Sleeping Beauty, in her dragon form. Remember how back in the day, lots of enemies with long dimensions such as a snake or streams of fire would appear as a series of overlapping circles? That's how Maleficent's neck appeared. The 3DS is more than capable of rendering these things smoothly, so this wasn't a hardware limitation. It's a design choice to evoke a retro vibe, and it works. Level design is likewise kept simple and accessible. There are no special tricks here, or at least none that I saw. There were no shooter levels, no power-ups, no 3D camera shifts. Mickey has two ranged attacks, one of which will cause defeated enemies to drop money, while the other will cause them to drop hearts, as well as an old-fashioned butt drop onto the heads of enemies. It controls well, with accurate responses and a good sense of weight to movement. The difficulty was high in the level I played. Enemies were plentiful and varied, corridors were narrow, spikes lined the walls, and obstacles constantly challenged me to maneuver carefully as I was being attacked. This isn't a “kiddie” game. While I wish there were more checkpoints littered throughout, I never became truly frustrated when I died. I went back and used my knowledge to do better the next time around. It's heartening to see a major studio develop an old-school platformer like this, proving that indie developers aren't the only ones who know how anymore.
Building a new extension to the house of mouse
That's not to say Power of Illusion is relying solely on nostalgia to generate buzz and goodwill. There's a new major component to the game Ong described as being aimed at the “lifestyle RPG community.” As Mickey progresses through the game, select paths might lead him to another Disney character who has been trapped by the game's villain, Mizrabel. Rescuing these characters will send them to a fortress, where they can give Mickey side quests. They'll also speak with Mickey and give some fun nods to fans, as well as special plot details. The more you interact with the characters you rescue in the world of Wasteland, the better their particular section of the fortress will become. Ong showed us Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales, who first appeared in a dark, barren room. Ong explained that as players interacted with him, more objects from the characters' respective worlds would appear. Soon there was a desk, then curtains, an adding machine, and so on until it matched the depiction of McDuck's room in the show. It reminded me of speaking to my crew aboard the Normandy in the Mass Effect games, but with nice visual representations of progress. Ong didn't say how many characters would for sure be in Power of Illusion, but he showed Simba, Peter Pan, Goofy, and McDuck. I didn't get any hands-on time with the fortress, but it seemed like an interesting addition. Let's hope the characters will be involved in an active way; pictures are nice and you can't mistake Disney's visual style, but “it looks pretty” won't be enough to interest that many players. Still, the concept is a fun layer to add onto the game that doesn't get in the way of core game play, and I'm looking forward to seeing who makes up the roster. Personally, I'm holding out for Darkwing Duck or Goliath. The team is betting hard on nostalgia here, with both the graphics and the cameos. It's an interesting move, and we'll have to wait to play the whole thing to see if it paid off.