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‘Epic Mickey’ draws on Disney history

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GLENDALE, Calif. - When veteran video game designer Warren Spector
spots a pamphlet for a never-erected extension of Disneyland's Main
Street U.S.A. inside the Walt Disney Co.'s archive vault, his eyes seem like they want to burst out of their sockets through his oval-shaped glasses. The expression is not unlike
the cartoons that power his geeky enthusiasm.

The last time the "Deus Ex" designer was here three years ago, he
plunged deep into the depository with his colleagues in search of
inspiration for "Disney Epic Mickey," a daring action-adventure game
starring Mickey Mouse set for release Nov. 30 for Nintendo's Wii. He found it in drawings and paintings created long before Donkey Kong tossed his first barrel.

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Epic Mickey - Disney

The archives where Disney stores most of its historic memorabilia
are more like sterile little museums than one giant magical vault.
Artifacts are tucked into every nook — from the mammoth original
concept drawing of Disneyland to crumbling reference sculptures used
for "Fantasia." If this was Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, Spector
would be Charlie Bucket.

"When Disney asked me if I was interested in making a Mickey Mouse
game, I tried to play it cool," said the lifelong fan. "Really, inside,
I was like, 'Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. OK. OK. OK. OK. I'm in.' Then, when
they said they were getting the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit back,
I was done. There was no way anyone was going to make this game but me."

Oswald, the wacky predecessor to Mickey created by Walt Disney
but lost in a 1928 contract dispute with Universal Studios, returned to
Disney's control in 2006. In the game, the rabbit serves as the warden
of Wasteland, a warped version of Disneyland populated with forgotten
characters and twisted theme park attractions that Mickey must navigate.

The gameplay within Wasteland alternates between 3-D lands that task
Mickey with using magic paint and thinner to create paths and brush off
baddies and 2-D levels modeled after bygone cartoons, such as
"Steamboat Willie." Throughout his quest to stop the evil Phantom Blot,
Mickey is presented with moral dilemmas that will affect the game's
outcome.

Unlike simplistic past games featuring the Mouse, such as 1990's
"Castle of Illusion" and 2002's "Magical Mirror," Spector set out to
craft a dynamic Mickey game that would pay homage to the 'toon while
equally appealing to both longtime Disney devotees and children who
probably don't revere the rodent with the same enthusiasm as previous
generations.

During excursions to California, Spector and his Austin, Texas-based
team from Junction Point Studios sought the foundations for their
wayward Wasteland denizens in the archives in Burbank and Glendale,
home to Disney Imagineering, the creative division of engineers,
designers and artists responsible for the look and feel of Disney theme
parks and resorts.

He and his crew were motivated by such specimens as a cast-aside
sketch from the animated film archive of a husky Captain Hook, which
inspired the game's maniacal animatronic version. Instructions for an
old Jolly Roger toy tucked inside a folder marked "Peter Pan" in the Imagineering library became the blueprint for a virtual pirate ship showdown.

"It just sort of explodes," said Spector while recently retracing
his steps in the archives. "I've often felt like a pachinko ball. I go
in looking for something specific and then — ping, ping, ping — all of
a sudden, I'm chasing down something I didn't even know existed, so
that's probably one of the reasons why the game took as long as it did
to make."

Spector said Disney brass warned him to stay away from including
characters already being mined elsewhere. He was fond of "Alice in
Wonderland" and Tinker Bell but opted against stepping on the toes of Tim Burton or the burgeoning Fairies franchise. However, there are a few nods to "Tron" in the lively Tomorrow City, the game's take on Tomorrowland.

One early "Epic Mickey" concept centered on the Mouse weaseling his
way into the actual Disney archives. It was scrapped. Another idea
ditched during the game's development had Mickey transforming into a
snarling rat when players made mischievous choices. Spector ultimately
focused on a retro rendition, but he insists that his Mickey is
different.

"When people look at our Mickey, they don't recognize the changes,"
said Spector. "The reality is there are hundreds of subtle changes
between what people actually think of as Mickey, and what we put on the
screen as Mickey in our game. We've been true to people's memories and
also come up with something that is unique, fresh and modern. I love
our Mickey."

Spector stretched out Mickey's limbs, filled in his eyes and
returned his face from modern-day tan to old-school white. Such
decisions didn't go unguided. Animators and other folks from across
Disney divisions formed a so-called Mickey Creative Council, which made
certain that Spector and his design team didn't tarnish their beloved
corporate symbol.

The result is poised to position the 82-year-old character as the
next Mario or Master Chief. Spector said the realm of Wasteland is
actually larger than what gamers will experience in "Epic Mickey," and
he has several ideas for additional adventures, though new treasures
unearthed in the Disney archives could steer possible sequels in other
directions.

"Just walking around the archives today, I've seen things, found
things and spotted files and folders that I didn't know existed," said
Spector. "If we get to do another game, I'll be back here with my team
doing a bunch of research that is going to completely change any story
I might have had in my head when we started thinking about this a long
time ago."

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