Thursday, September 25, 2014

Disney's DuckTales - Rewriting History
Scrooge McDuck--bless his bagpipes--broke the curse and cracked open an NES treasure.

When I take into account all of those personal biases I had and reflect upon my  rocky experiences with some of the era's most wretched licensed games, I consider it something of a miracle that I hold Disney's DuckTales in such high regard. In fact, I can imagine that I probably didn't react too enthusiastically to the news that there was a video game based on the DuckTales cartoon, which I was familiar with but very rarely watched (I thought its show-opening theme was amazing and always worth a view, but I didn't think the cartoon, itself, was all that interesting).

Even if I had tried to conceive of the idea of a game starring Uncle Scrooge McDuck, who I remembered more as the crotchety grinch from Mickey's Christmas Carol, there were two forces that would have begun stirring and summarily extinguished the flame: The first was my memory of Hudson's Mickey Mousecapade, which was a delightful, creative platformer whose aesthetic sensibilities captured my imagination and created a setting so alluring that I hoped to one day own the game for myself. Well, that's what I thought before reaching the second stage, at which point the game turned cruel and abusive and quickly flushed away all of those good feelings. Oh, I could eventually make it pretty far into the game--to Peg-Leg Pete's pirate ship, in fact--but only with much struggle and ultimately crushing failure.

With Mickey Mousecapade the only evidence, I'd deemed that Disney games were synonymous with "unfairly difficult" and wanted nothing more to do with them.

The other factor was my immediate disinterest in games that were based on either movies or television shows, including even the cartoons I otherwise enjoyed on a daily basis. I have no memory of how I became so inclined, nor could I cite any of my disposition's formative elements--I just know that I had a strong aversion to the crossing over these two mediums going back as far as I could remember. "A video game based on one of Arnold's summer flicks?" I'd consider. "How intensely boring." (Sorry, Commando!)

So it stands to reason that DuckTales wasn't a game I'd likely welcome with open arms, right?

Well, no. DuckTales, despite having every obstacle thrown in front of it, managed to hastily cement itself among the ranks of those I considered all-time NES classics--a list that included Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Contra, Super Mario Bros. 2, Mega Man 2 and Rygar. But you know what? It's just too bad I don't recall my first experience with DuckTales. I mean, nearly all of my friends and cousins owned the game, and I got to play it just about anywhere I went, but I'm not sure when, where or how it came into my life.

No--DuckTales, like Contra, is unfortunately another of those beloved gems that lacks an indelible "first memory," which to me has always been a cherished attribute of the games I so adore. I find that trying to pinpoint the time and place is like attempting to explain the origin of the universe: There's no known starting point and no satisfactory explanation for how it came to be. It was just always there. And that lack of knowledge is the type that constantly gnaws at me.

All I know is that DuckTales is firmly planted in my mind as a game that unquestionably belongs on any best-of-NES list.

 DuckTales' creation was exemplary of '80s-Capcom moxy when dealing with potentially uninspiring licensed properties. Its developers were tasked with answering a difficult question: "How do you craft a game around an elderly duck who has none in the way of physical abilities and make it interesting?" The average developer, beset by deadlines or lacking for intimate knowledge about the subject-matter, would simply take a ready-made platforming engine and sloppily plug in Scrooge and friends, creating only the loosest of interpretations by featuring lumbering rotisserie monsters, attacking currency, flying Beagle Boy heads, and a giant Flintheart Glomgold boss that would toss deadly repossession notices at you.

But if you were a top-tier development house like Capcom, you'd apply the most earnest of creative license and base the game's platforming aspect around a set of newly tested, lovingly applied mechanics. That is, you'd center the action around Scrooge's multipurpose walking cane, which could function as both an item-popping golf club and a versatile pogo stick effective for eliminating enemies, reaching greater heights, traversing deadly terrain, and cracking open treasure chests. You'd go out of your way to create something fun and memorable when a pedestrian run-and-jump platformer would probably have been sufficient enough for the licensee.

While the strength of the IP probably had something to do with its success, it was the pogo-jump mechanic in particular that defined what DuckTales was and helped it to stand out amongst late-'89's crowd of high-profile licensed software, which included the likes of Back to the Future, Fester's Quest and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It was a brilliantly conceived mechanic that the level designers utilized to great effect, the majority of the game's unique platforming scenarios built to exploit its use. For all of us, it was just a whole lot of fun to pogo around carelessly, bounce off of enemies' heads, and use our airborne propensity to try to breach every surface and discover all of the area's secrets. 

I was never a big fan of games that required the player to leap about incessantly in order to uncover items that were somehow concealed in open space (Adventure Island, Super Pitfall, Milon's Secret Castle, and such), but DuckTales' controls were so enjoyable in practice that they made me want to leap and pogo my way into every observable crevice, hoping to wriggle free even the tiniest of gems.

I was impressed with how DuckTales replicated the look of the cartoon's characters (more so Scrooge, who was the only one to display actual animation), but it was the NES' unmistakable aesthetics that provided the game's world its defining personality. The characters may have belonged to film medium, from which they were born, but the game's five distinct locales were pure NES creations: There was the default Amazon stage, whose unkempt jungle environment, trap-laden caverns, and catchy theme expertly supplied preview into the world beyond its reaches. You had that unforgettable Transylvania stage, whose standout theme provided the spook factor to a tattered, mysterious castle interior with its magical mirrors, illusion walls, and atmosphere reminiscent of Castlevania.

The African Mines wasn't my favorite stage, but I liked its cavernous setting; its pronounced earth-tone color scheme and craggled textures reminded me of the mountains from Rygar, for which I currently had growing adoration, and created a Guts Man vibe that I very much appreciated (actually, DuckTales shares a lot of Mega Man's values beyond just a similar stage-select function). Much the same, the Himalayas wasn't as much fun to explore (due to its combination of ice physics and how Scrooge would become helplessly embedded in the snow if he tried pogoing on its soft surface, which admittedly created an amusing visual), but I thought its cast of enemies--those cute burrowing rabbits that would dive up from the snow, the frolicking goats, and the hockey-masked ducks who could use their sticks to slap away those helpful canisters--were the game's most creative assortment.

And what else could be said about the Moon? It may have been insane to propose that a duck could walk upon the moon's surface completely unscathed, but Capcom unabashedly defied logic and physics to render one of video-gaming's most memorable settings, thanks in large part to its amazing stage theme. It's not often that you're playing a game and find yourself suddenly entranced by a piece of music that touches you in a way you can't describe and all you can do is stop, listen, and wonder about the state of being that led to its composition. "By which supernatural force was the composer possessed when he concocted this?" I'd wonder whenever struck by music just like it.

Whenever I played DuckTales, I couldn't wait to finally make it to the Moon stage, which was always my last pick. It made for the perfect capper to any of my play-throughs, its inspiring tune providing me the energy to eagerly push toward the endgame. If outer space was "the great beyond," then the Moon's magnificent stage theme was the perfect accompaniment to my contemplation about the mysteries of the universe, which I'd think about whenever my mind would wander as I made my routine trek across the docking spaceship. It was that ol' 8-bit magic, only possible at that time and place.

I didn't find DuckTales to be without its issues. For one, I thought its controls were a bit unpolished; most troublesome for me was that glitch that didn't allow for pogo attempts near platform edges, which usually resulted in my limply falling into the unwelcoming frame of enemy characters (though, this same glitch allowed me to somehow stand on the "edges" of upward-pointing spikes, so I suppose it had some benefit). I didn't like having to push Down plus B to pogo, which was too easy to screw up when in tight spaces. Also, the developers weren't keen to provide an adequate number of invincibility frames, which meant that platforming mistakes--such as failing to input the correct pogo command when negotiating spikey expanses or mistiming an enemy-bopping attempt--often drained my health meter in a hurry. These flaws were forgivable because Scrooge's pogoing was an obviously new and experimental mechanic, but that didn't make them any less frustrating.

The worst part of the game, though, were those mine carts from which you had to escape as they were dropping into bottomless pits. I'm not sure if I was just incompetent when it came to escaping from them or if it was a case of repeated control malfunctions, but there was always a 50% chance that I'd idly ride the cart into oblivion no matter how precise I thought my input to be. Talk about a true "rough spot"--I was apt to drop my entire stock total to any of of these sequences.

I trust that people who labeled DuckTales "easy" were unironically playing it on the "Easy" mode or otherwise citing the game's abbreviated nature. In truth, DuckTales could be completed in about ten minutes if you disregarded serious financial gain and took the direct path through each stage, but you could only earn the best ending if you played meticulously and accumulated over $10,000,000, which earned you the best ending (really, a simple visual and some altered text for those twenty minutes of extra work). It's difficult to ignore the reality of it, but I don't believe that its considerably short length should disqualify it from holding classic status; rather, DuckTales is the best argument for short games: It's such a joy to play that you're likely to run through it dozens of times over the years, creating a long-lasting relationship far more meaningful than whatever today's AAA game-of-the-week could provide.

Still, there's a lot of padding in DuckTales, the most obvious of which is the game forcing you to return to Transylvania in order to retrieve a key that opens the locked door to the African Mines. The key is hidden within a magic mirror placed only inches from the starting point, which always made me wonder why they even bothered; the whole excursion tacked on what--twenty seconds at best? Now, had they restructured Transylvania a bit between visits, like they did for the future robot-master stages in Mega Man 3, and craftily hidden the key in a newly designed, well-structured maze, it might have been worth the trouble.

Also, I would have liked a real final level in lieu of returning to Transylvania a third time, which at that point was a serious abuse of asset reuse (this actually bothered me less during my earliest experiences with the game, since I guess I really liked the castle setting that much). They could have least designated a different mirror as the transport to the boss room, which would have made things more interesting and a little less redundant.

Though, for a game so relatively small in scale, DuckTales' depth of content continues to surprise me 25 years later. Whenever I watch someone play it, they're always showing off secret areas I never knew about (like the Himalaya's rope-accessed room found above the ceiling in the stage's lowest level, which I always thought was just a tease) or game mechanics I didn't know existed (like entering a bonus stage by requesting Launchpad's assistance whenever there's a 7 in the ten-thousands place of your dollar-total). Maybe one day I'll even figure out how it is the "Difficult" mode is any harder than the "Normal" mode (the absence of invincibility tokens can't be all there is to it, surely).

I was such an admirer of DuckTales that I even grabbed a copy the Game Boy version of it. I mean, it was an impulse buy, and I didn't feel good about purchasing a game I already owned, but I had a rationale: The screenshots on the box's back cover revealed that it wasn't a mere copy-paste job, and it would be great to be able to play a portable companion of DuckTales on the road! It was the perfect justification.

Or so I told myself.

Oh, no--being burned by the Game Boy version of DuckTales is precisely the reason I forevermore shied away from rebuying games I already owned, even if they weren't direct ports. It is in fact a rearranged version of the console game, but it's much smaller in scale and by that token even shorter. I'd say that's fine for a portable game, but its stages are cramped, poorly structured, and lack any of the nuance as remembered from in its NES cousin, which makes it a chore to play even if the experience is fleeting.

It's nice that they were able to replicate the look and sound (well, more the look) of the NES game, but it doesn't appear that the Game Boy is capable of processing that level of detail; as a result, the stages are largely barren, and there's rarely an instance of more than one enemy onscreen. That's because the appearance of too many onscreen sprites of course leads to slowdown, which is most prevalent during the more-active boss battles; the ridiculous lag allows you to telegraph their attacks and basically overwhelm them. And it only takes four hits to take them down in this version! Also, the slower screen transitions completely spoil the locations of hidden areas, since you can clearly see the navigable openings in the ceilings. Everything about it makes me believe it was an outsourced project, its detached creators taking on the tact of "less is more." If that was indeed the case, then they had a fairly skewed understanding of the phrase.

To its credit, the Game Boy version does one thing right: You can now pogo by simply hitting the B button while airborne without also having to push down. At the least, this one simple change removed the fear of unresponsiveness and gave me more confidence in my ability to control the action near edges. However, that one luxury alone didn't make it worth the price of entry. I played through it maybe three or four times in total and maybe once on the road.

I wasn't particularly excited when Capcom announced that WayForward was working on a DuckTales remake titled Disney DuckTales Remastered (which I'll talk about more in depth in the future). I had the immediate suspicion that a 2013 adaptation might be made with "modern sensibilities" in mind, which would naturally mean that the action would be buried beneath mountains of dialogue and painfully long, superfluous cut-scenes. It lived down to my expectations but still turned out to be an OK game, and I had a good time in the week I spent with it; though, its legacy is that it only served to remind me of why I found quick-moving, cinematic-free NES games much more readily enjoyable. 

For those of you who grew up with DuckTales, ask yourself this: Twenty years from now, which version will you be more likely to return to? I'd bet that the responses overwhelmingly favor the original.

Don't get me wrong--I'm glad DuckTales Remastered exists. DuckTales deserved to become a long-enduring video-game series but instead sadly faded into irrelevance. Remastered not only put the original back in the spotlight for a time, perhaps exposing it to younger generations--it also opened the door for future DuckTales games to be made. That's good because there's so much more that can be done with the formula and particularly that beloved pogo-jumping mechanic that won our hearts all those years ago.

Even if it doesn't work out that way, we'll still have the original DuckTales, which is just as much fun to play today as it was 25 years ago. Despite any reservations I might have had back then, it turned out that Disney plus Capcom equaled gaming bliss, and their magical partnership produced a slew of prized classics across numerous platforms--renowned titles like Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck and Aladdin. But DuckTales, appropriately, might have been their shiniest gem.

If only the NES had more of Scrooge McDuck and friends.

Wait, what?

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