Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: Disney Epic Mickey

Full Review:
Disney Epic Mickey

Developed by Junction Point
Published by Disney Interactive Studios
for the Nintendo Wii
Released November 30th, 2010

Not the epic it hoped to be:
Never has the gaming community anticipated a Mickey Mouse game as much as they have with Disney Epic Mickey. As soon as gamers saw the cover of Game Informer over a year ago which displayed a darker style of Mickey Mouse, speculation and anticipation grew everywhere. Warren Spector and his Junction Point team promised to take Mickey Mouse into untraversed territory and turn Mickey into a video game star on the same par as Mario and Sonic. Epic Mickey brings a lot to the table but ultimately falls short in too many areas for it to be considered a classic.

The game starts out with a mischievous Mickey Mouse venturing through a magical mirror in his bedroom ultimately ending up in the workshop of wizard Yen Sid of Fantasia fame. There Yen Sid is putting the finishing touches on a land where forgotten Disney characters can live in peace created using a magical paint brush. After Yen Sid retires to his chambers, Mickey decided to add some of his own artistic touches to this wondrous world. Through his mischievous meandering with Yen Sid's brush he creates an evil entity known as the Blot and spills thinner all over the land sending the world into a spiral of disarray. Mickey escapes through the mirror leaving a blatantly obvious abyss where Yen Sid's new world once lied. Nearly a year later, Mickey is famous having made cartoons from Steamboat Willie to Fantasia. The Blot, stronger than ever, drags Mickey through the mirror and into the Wasteland. Mickey must now restore the Wasteland to its former glory and return safely home.

The story brings a unique and bizarre twist to the lore of Mickey Mouse. It's interesting to see so many Disney characters living in a world of disrepair and gloom. The characters in Epic Mickey were once huge stars of the Disney world before being forgotten in the Disney renaissance of the 90's. Familiar faces like Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horse appear as major quest characters while more notable characters such Goofy and Donald appear as frightening robots but still have their familiar charm. The most notable character included in the game who drives the entire plot is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Oswald once was Walt Disney's proud mascot and superstar but Disney lost the rights to him when he and Universal split ways in 1928. It wasn't until about 70 years later, Disney got the rights back to the forgotten animated star. In the Wasteland, Oswald acts as the world's leader, looking out for all of the forgotten characters by creating a safe home for them all. Oswald creates Mean Street (his version of Disney's Main Street), OsTown (a variant of ToonTown) and most notably a recreation of the famous statue of Walt Disney pointing to the sky but with Oswald, not Mickey, holding the creator's hand. Oswald's character is well developed, acting as the jealous older brother of Mickey who wants nothing do to with him. The character of Oswald drives the game's story the entire way and provides much depth. The story and characters drove the game and kept me interested in continuing. Unfortunately, the actually gameplay of Epic Mickey had the exact opposite effect.

Epic Mickey offers a plethora of main quest missions and sidequests but none of them are much fun. Every mission consists of either finding, painting, or thinning, a certain number of objects for various characters in order to continue. It's an experience that's fun and unique at first; painting a gear to make platforms move or thinning away walls to find hidden treasure, but after awhile the missions start becoming monotonous with a lack of variety. I can safely say that, with the exception of boss battles, the same type of missions you'll play at the beginning of the game, will be the same type of missions you play near the end and throughout. When something new does come it either isn't implemented nearly as much as it should be or quickly wears out its welcome.

The 2-D Sidescrolling projector sequences are examples of the latter. The projector sequences take away the use of the brush and bring the player a pure side-scrolling experience much like the older Mickey Mouse games on the SNES or Genesis but unlike such classics as Mickey's World of Illusion, it's not fun. The projector sequences were based on various Mickey and Oswald cartoons of the past. The game does a great job of bringing these old cartoons back to life through these levels; so much so that the presentation of the levels is the only enjoyable part of it. Seeing the old Steamboat Willie boat propped up like a cardboard set reminds the player that these are Oswald's attempts of creating a false glory for himself despite being forgotten. It's very interesting to think about but it seems that they spent too much time paying homage to the past and not focusing on whether or not jumping on platforms or dodging the stage-prop enemies was actually fun. The answer is no as the layout is much too simple and requires absolutely no thought process to complete.

The projector sequences act as portals that link to different areas of the Wasteland and only by completing them can one continue their journey. The worst part is that even after completing each sequence the first time, the game gives you no option to skip these stages any other time. So even during vital missions that require you to traverse back and forth between areas, you are forced to play through the projector sequences time and time again which really takes the player out of the story.

Another area of gameplay that really leaves a blemish on the game is the playability. First of all the controls are not layed out well. Everything seems to be cluttered; A to jump of course, Z to shoot thinner, B to shoot paint, d-pad to control the camera, plus to scroll through your items, minus to use them, 1 to place the camera in back of you and 2 to go into your menu. Every button has a purpose which is fine but during the heat of battle it can be difficult to execute.

The camera is bad. When up against a wall, the camera does not know where to go and ends up placing itself in a horrendous view that leaves you vulnerable to all enemies nearby. Controlling it is no cakewalk either. Changing your thumb placement to the d-pad takes away the ability to jump therefore causing death. The camera could have been executed much better but because of its awkward placement at times the game suffers greatly.

Unlike the controls, the graphics and music were done right. The character models look great and are animated to move in the same feel as they did in their glory days of Disney. The dripping affect on Mickey is an awesome touch as well. The paint/thinner splashes remind me of the water affects of Super Mario Sunshine which definitely isn't a bad thing. The areas represent a cartoony town in dismay and showing the difference between a painted object and a thinned one is done well with a favorable art style committed to both. The backgrounds are some of the most beautiful designs I've seen in any game.

While the opening cutscene looks gorgeous in all its CG glory, I can't say the same for the in-game cutscenes. They chose an odd art style that is supposed to represent the paint theme of the entire game. It does nothing for it however, neither reminding the player of the classic style of art that Disney cartoons are known for nor providing any justice for the art style represented in the game. The game would be much better off using the CG graphics displayed in the opening cutscene.

The music is surprisingly tolerable. While every tune has a campy rhythm to it that I thought would definitely get on my nerves, they do achieve in quality. The campy style of every song is balanced by a dark portion of the song that reminds the player that this world, although cartoony in nature, is in distress. The OsTown theme is a great example to this. Dark alterations to old Disney themes such as "It's a Small World" sound awesome and definitely provide a unique take on the world Epic Mickey is trying to portray. The sound effects especially the muffled voices of the older cartoon characters and constant rolling of the projector wheel in the projector sequences are great as well.

An upsetting part of the sound is the lack of voice acting. Instead of speech, short grunts or chuckles are used to show that a character is speaking. The lack of voice acting is unnecessary and the game would have greatly benefited from the voices of the characters that created over 80 years of classic cartoons.

Warren Spector and Junction Point clearly focused more on rehashing the history and art of Disney rather than creating a gameplay experience worthy of playing. The game is all show and not much else. Disney Epic Mickey has enough content to keep a Disney fans and younger gamers content but more experienced gamers hoping to have a Mickey Mouse game that's on par with video game platform stars like Mario are going to be disappointed with this entry.

Fun:  3/5
Controls:  2/5
Lasting Appeal:  2/3
Graphics: 2/2
Sound: 2/2


Monday, May 21, 2012

Feature: Video Games as Art

With the dawning of the modern age of video games, the debate of whether or not video games can be considered art has raged through the video game industry. Gaming fanatics who believe they are an art form note the unique graphic visuals, beautiful or appealing music, and emotionally driven story-lines. Those opposed consider them money-grabs, or that the elements are not defined enough to be compared with other art forms such as paintings, poetry, music, or movies.

I want to start by saying that my stance on whether video games can be considered art is dependent upon two factors. The first is whether movies and music are considered art. If movies and music are considered art then video games surely can be. Video games take the audience into deeper emotional trips than music or movies ever could. Video games place the player directly into their story and have them experience the visuals, music, story first-hand. The second factor is the definition of art itself. Everyone has there own definition. My definition of art is anything that is portrayed to an audience which brings forth personal emotions through music and/or visuals, and/or story-telling. Video games fit this very well.

The Opposition:
Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear Series, (which is considered by many to be a great example of video game art itself), has gone on record as saying that video games are not or will ever be art.

"The thing is, art is something that radiates the artist, the person who creates that piece of art. If 100 people walk by and a single person is captivated by whatever that piece radiates, it's art. But videogames aren't trying to capture one person. A videogame should make sure that all 100 people that play that game should enjoy the service provided by that videogame. It's something of a service. It's not art. But I guess the way of providing service with that videogame is an artistic style, a form of art." - Hideo Kojima

Kojima's ideas seem to be more business related rather than content driven. He never states whether or not the story, graphic style, or music that he and the developers put into the game can be considered art. I wonder if spending so much time as a game developer working on a video game, putting your ideas and even your emotions into a project makes you an artist. According to Kojima, it does not. But of course, Kojima and I are working on totally different definitions of art.

Roger Ebert made the video game media turn upside with protested rage when he put up a blog at the Sun Times website called "Video games can never be art." Ebert believes art is "the creation of one" and that group projects such as cathedrals or tribal dances all originate from one mind; one artist. It reminds me of how video games are created. There are many people working on a single video game at one time. But the original story, character concepts, and overall feel of the game usually come from one or a set few whose mind created the entire project in the first place. He takes games like Braid and Flower, which people often cite for the debate, and blows them off as if he just only watched the trailers. He only took small portions of the piece and criticized it. (It's obvious he didn't take the time to play Braid or he would have noted the importance of theme in gameplay. And don't get me started on his view of Flower.) Ebert is definitely entitled to his opinion but he should take a deeper look into the realm of video games before making such obviously hasty assumptions.

Those For:
Kellee Santiago, a game designer and producer for Thatgamecompany (creators of Flower, a game which was described by Game Informer magazine as "poetry"), defended video games as an art form during a presentation at USC. Santiago uses video games such as Waco Resurrection (an odd choice), Braid and Flower. While being a terrible game, Waco Resurrection was described by Santiago as being a certain person's representation of the events that occurred during the FBI siege of the Camp Davidian compound. David Koresh never summoned magical spells to fend off the officers. It was the developers artistic style and thought and it does follow Plato's definition of art. It's an imitation of nature or in this case history. She also uses Braid and Flower as examples which I will touch on later.

I disagree with her idea that video games are in the cave wall paintings era of art. I believe they are more advanced whereas the old-late-70's-early-80's-Atari-era of video games fit the lines of cave wall paintings. (The ancient cave painters, as Santiago says, were the great artists of their time.) She also says that no one has ever mentioned a video game that could be compared to the great poets, story-tellers or artists. This may be true but how many artists, poets, and writers today could be compared to the greats of the past?

Game Informer magazine presented a feature titled "The Great Debate" in which various members of their staff chose certain video games that they felt exemplified what it meant to actually be art and explained why. Adam Biessener said how Mass Effect 2's method of giving the player numerous ways to progress. He said giving players the opportunity to meddle with on-going genocides, war, and other moral issues while feeling the emotion of your endeavors and consequences is art. "The NPCs (non-playable characters) in Mass Effect 2 are collections of pixels, code, and audio recordings just as Saving Private Ryan is made of celluloid and Anna Karenina is born of ink and paper."

Matt Miller describes video games as "musical themes, visual images, and writing" which is how I define art. Miller uses Super Mario Bros. as an artistic synthesis between these elements blended into one experience. "Ultimately, Super Mario Bros. is an artistic experience because, like all good art, it affects one experiencing it emotionally and empirically."

The Exhibition:
I have selected a few examples of gaming art. Each of these games use some, if not all, types of artistic element to bridge an emotional gap between it and the audience.

Shadow of the Colossus is a massively empty game yet filled with perseverance, courage, strength, and love. You set out as a young man named Wander who is determined to revive a woman named Mono from an eternal rest. A disembodied entity named Dormin tells Wander that it can revive her only if he were to destroy sixteen colossi. The entire game is basically you fighting against these gigantic beings. You travel vast lands of green emptiness only stopping, not for a rest, but to slay these massive beasts. The art comes from the story and design. Wander must venture and endure battle with Colossus, that are comparable to skyscrapers in height, and continue to fight them with every succeeding Colossus being more difficult than the last. It's the story of David and Goliath with an intimate and affection twist.

Braid is about theme, interpretation, art and emotion. The premise seems simple enough; a Mario-like game where you platform across an odd world, solving puzzles, in hopes of rescuing a sweet princess from an evil knight. Each level has a theme and short anecdotes that shed light, not on the story, but on the psyche of the protagonist, Tim. The first level, Time and Forgiveness, begins with a book that explains that Tim is off to rescue the princess from an evil monster. This happened because Tim made many mistakes. This level introduces the power to reverse time, thus preventing any mistakes the player may have made that would lead to Tim's death. Braid is a perfect example of gameplay, literary themes and story melded together to tell a story of perception through art. (Video contains spoilers.)

Using nothing but the PS3's motion controls, you guide a single flower petal through grassy plains and city suburbs in order to preserve the beauty of nature in an ever growing industrialized world. The message, through metaphor in imagery, is not preaching how ugly industrialization destroys the beauty of nature but rather that true beauty is finding a balance between these two opposing forces.

metal gear solid 4 Pictures, Images and Photos

The art of Metal Gear comes from its portrayal of war and those involved in it. It's not just about mindless killing (you can play through the game without killing a single person), it's about the evolution of each character. Metal Gear started out as a simple stealth action game with the goal to thwart the plans of a terrorist from getting their hands on a weapon that could potentially destroy the world. The series ended in a way that makes you rethink every event in the series past. The evil terrorists you hated at the beginning of the series you will look at as war heroes and honorable patriots by the end. Each character is an epic all into themselves and there lies the art. The emotion that comes with the trailer alone is proof enough that Kojima is wrong and his brain child is gorgeous artwork.

Imagine that your first born child was killed in a car accident. Despite it being an accident, the blame and neglect falls on your shoulders. Your wife divorces you and your youngest child hasn't the faintest of interest in being around you anymore. Then your youngest is kidnapped by an infamous serial killer who prays on children. The blame is once again on you. This is the premise of Heavy Rain. You play as the father of a kidnapped child, a former detective searching for the killer, an FBI agent prying for justice, and a journalist who just happens to be entangled in the entire matter. Each character searches and fights their way to the killer in their own way. However, what they are searching for and what they are fighting for varies from character to character. The choice is given to the player. Would you kill an innocent person to save your son? Would you risk the termination of your job to see that a killer is behind bars? Would you risk being raped to help a friend? In a way, each character is a different personality of the player. You choose what they will say and what they will do. That's the art of it all. A medium that allows you to place yourself in crisis and gives you the consequences of your actions in the form of cutscenes.

The Verdict:

Art is something that entices people's emotion. Art is anything musical, visual, or story driven that has a certain purpose. Video games combine all these. All I have to say to the art community: Video games do have a place as an art form. The definition of art varies from person to person and in the minds of those loyal to the games, it is art. If something is so strong emotionally as to bring you to tears with its story, in awe with its visuals, or in a trance with its music; yeah, that's art.