- In "Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two," Oswald the Lucky Rabbit steps forward
- Oswald was created by Walt Disney in 1927, a year before Mickey Mouse
- Designers say while Mickey's a "Boy Scout," Oswald is edgier
- Even in the 1920s, Oswald was a gadget-obsessed techie
When the world first met Mickey Mouse, it was as a steamboat captain, a cowboy, a wizard's apprentice and in other roles that, while enduring, wouldn't exactly be considered tech-savvy to a 2013 audience.
But before the famous mouse came along, Walt Disney created a character who possessed many of the traits of today's gadget geek -- and who maintains his technological edge over Mickey to this day.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit will be familiar by now to players of "Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two," released in November, and the original title in the series from Disney Interactive Studios.
And his role in the innovative video game franchise might just be spurring a renaissance 80 years in the making for the long-forgotten character.
In the original game, Oswald appeared as a spurned toon jealous of Mickey's immense popularity. He ultimately comes to see the famous mouse as a younger brother. (Oswald was created by Disney in 1927. Mickey appeared the following year.)
But in their followup outing, they appear as equal partners.
Becky Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives, said despite being the older one, Oswald was much more into technology than his younger brother, Mickey. Early cartoons featuring Oswald portrayed him as a creative, mechanically inclined rabbit.
"One of his early cartoons was called 'The Mechanical Cow,' where he builds a robot cow," Cline said. "The character himself is very innovative and clever. He winds up his own ears and makes himself into a helicopter, or he takes off an ear and uses it to row a canoe."
In "Epic Mickey 2," the technology gap between the two characters remains. Oswald wields a radio device that allows him shoot electricity, create electrified fields and control robotic enemies. Mickey uses a magical paintbrush, allowing him to create using paint or destroy using thinner. In the game's story, the two combine their divergent powers to save Oswald's homeland from destruction (again).
Light Years blog: Mickey Mouse spotted on Mercury?
Creative director Warren Spector said Oswald's evolution in the franchise has been designed to reintroduce him to fans after being absent since 1951. His techie edge combines with physical and behavioral differences to set him apart from Mickey, Spector says.
"In the second game, they start out as allies, as companions, as collaborators," Spector said. "They're still brothers, though, so there is still tension between them. Brothers always have tension, but that doesn't mean they don't work together to accomplish common goals."
Spector said the differences between the more modern Oswald and the old-school Mickey is evident in their behaviors. He describes Mickey as "Boy Scout-like," "a good guy," "always doing the right thing."
"Oswald is more modern in a sense, because he's a little bit less well-behaved, a little bit quicker to anger, a little bit, dare I say, edgier," he said. "I think it was appropriate that he was the one who adopted the technology."
In the game, Mickey's paintbrush is better at dealing with other cartoon characters, while Oswald's high-tech gear more effectively takes on robots and other mechanical obstacles.
"He's a vintage character, but he has such a modern sensibility to him," Cline says. "He's kinda cool. Kids, teenagers, young people and adults, they're all finding him appealing, and he's a really funny character. He's really kinda hip, actually."
Spector said outside of the game, Oswald has caught on with fans quicker than he would have imagined.
"I hope it is just a start for something bigger for Oswald," he said. "He is a great character and deserves a life of his own in games and not just as Mickey's sidekick."
And none of it would have been possible if the animated techie hadn't once been swapped for a football announcer.
Walt Disney lost the rights to his rabbit to Universal shortly after creating him in 1927. However, when NBC wanted to bring sports announcer Al Michaels to their Sunday night football games in 2006, Disney had an opportunity to bring home the wayward character.
While there were many other parts to the deal, it is the Oswald-for-Michaels trade that people remember
"Oswald is definitely worth more than a fourth-round draft choice," Michaels said. "I'm going to be a trivia answer someday."
Oswald also, for the first time, gets a voice in "Epic Mickey 2." Famed voice actor Frank Welker, who did the voice of Fred in the Scooby-Doo cartoons and was a voice double for Leonard Nimoy in "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock," was chosen to be the voice of the Lucky Rabbit.
"I think he's probably the greatest living voice artist in the world," Spector said. "When it came to Oswald, (begins to mimic Oswald's voice) I hear Oswald in my head all the time, and he sounds sort of like this (normal voice) and they said what do you think about Frank Welker, and I just said yes."
For all his modern tendencies and techno toys, Spector wants people to just look at how "cartoony -- that's really the only word I can think of" Oswald is, a throwback to the old days of cartooning and cartoon characters.
"People have a tendency to think of Disney cartoons as being more realistic or more grounded and less anarchic and crazy and cartoony than some other studios," he said. "Oswald puts the lie to that. In every way that matters, Walt got there first."