But what about Disney's number-one star? If there were one and only one reason for Mickey Mouse's growing irrelevance in the modern world, it would be that he had become utterly bland over time. Since becoming Disney's most recognizable mascot, the Mouse had deteriorated over time into a safe, generically "good" character who would have never engaged in the mischief that marked his early days - and that's simply boring. Epic Mickey purported to get the character back in touch with his rascally roots, but "Mean Mickey" never found his way into the final product.
Kingdom Hearts, on the other hand, did what Epic Mickey could have only dreamed of: It made Mickey Mouse a certifiable badass. While only making a cameo in the first game, his role was greatly expanded in Kingdom Hearts II, not-so-coincidentally dovetailing with the sequel's edgier, less childish tone.
The player's introduction to Mickey came several hours into the game, when the king came out of nowhere to rescue Sora, Donald, and Goofy from certain destruction. Kingdom Hearts' trenchcoat-clad Mickey Mouse was half-Batman, with his swift, sudden entrances (and exits) at the height of dramatic timing, and half-Yoda with his acrobatic, aerial style of combat. He was a warrior king, fighting the forces of darkness and twilight with a legendary weapon that would have made Arthur Pendragon weep.
What's more was that Kingdom Hearts II made King Mickey playable as your savior from sudden death. Whenever Sora was defeated in battle, there was a chance for the game to give the player the option of continuing the fight instead of going straight to the Game Over screen - and the player's refusal to give up would summon Mickey to the rescue. Not only could Mickey singlehandedly fight foes that had wiped the floor with a team including the likes of Sora and the Beast, he could instantly resurrect the party to fight again in his absence. No matter how much the player leveled up, his characters would never be as capable as Mickey Mouse, in all his round-eared and squeaky-voiced glory.
There was a moment in Kingdom Hearts II where lovable dope Goofy pushes King Mickey out of the way of a falling rock and gets conked on the head - only to collapse, apparently dead. (He turns out to be just fine, of course, but the mind boggles at the mere existence of a game bearing the Disney brand that had the audacity to seemingly kill one of Walt's iconic characters). Mickey Mouse trembles in fury, before dramatically casting off his cloak, summoning his legendary Keyblade, vowing revenge and charging the enemy position.
Epic Mickey called itself "epic," but with moments like that, Kingdom Hearts was an epic. One might argue that the entire appeal was the novelty of these classic cartoon characters in the midst of a life-or-death struggle that would have been entirely out of place in the Happiest Place on Earth, but the Kingdom Hearts series lent Mickey and friends genuine gravitas, making it easier to take them more seriously as actual characters rather than bland corporate mascots.
Perhaps it's that Disney wanted to focus more on games produced by its own Disney Interactive Studios, or perhaps the Kingdom Hearts games ended up being too serious for the House of Mouse. Either way, Epic Mickey's sales paled in comparison to the twelve-million-plus sales of the Kingdom Hearts series, and Disney's greatest opportunity to revitalize the popular image of Mickey Mouse and the like may have long since faded away.
John Funk knows now beyond all doubt that Kingdom Hearts ... is light!