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 as if 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 Tuesday for Nintendo's Wii. He found it in drawings and paintings created long before Donkey Kong tossed his first barrel.
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 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 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 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, although 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."