Damn, Scrooge. I know greed is your thing and all, but could you maybe tone it down a little? We got people starving in the streets here.
The two-hour prime time premier of DuckTales was quite the event back in 1987. It represented The Walt Disney Company’s long-overdue embrace of syndicated animation, then the leading form of children’s television entertainment. Moreover, it promised to bring the prestige and production values associated with the Disney brand to a subset of animation usually synonymous with cheap glorified toy commercials. The finished product lived up to the hype, quickly becoming becoming one of the most beloved programs of the era.
The cartoon followed the globetrotting exploits of “richest duck in the world” Scrooge McDuck (uncle of Donald), his mischievous nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and their assorted friends and associates. The typical episode saw the gang either searching out an ancient treasure to add to Scrooge’s already bursting coffers or foiling a plot by some villain to pilfer said coffers. What I didn’t know at the time was that that the show was essentially a love letter to artist/writer Carl Barks’ award-winning Disney comics of the 1950s and 1960s. While Barks didn’t invent Donald Duck or Huey, Dewey, and Louie, he did introduce Scrooge, as well as the fictional city of Duckburg and most other elements of what fans have dubbed the Donald Duck universe.
A breakout hit like DuckTales coinciding with the peak of NES mania in the U.S. meant that a game adaptation was inevitable. A good one was not. Thankfully, the development duties went to Capcom, who assigned some of their top talent to the project. Producer Tokuro Fujiwara, lead designer Yoshinori Takenaka, character designer Keiji Inafune, and others drew on their combined years of experience working on other celebrated side-scrolling platformers (Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Mega Man) to deliver Capcom’s best-selling release for the system. Its overwhelming success also cemented an ongoing Disney-Capcom partnership that persisted for some years.
NES DuckTales’ rudimentary plot sees unrepentant plutocrat Scrooge hunting down five valuable treasures in a bid to further enrich himself. Each prize is hidden away in a different remote and dangerous location: The Amazon, Transylvania, an African mine, the Himalayas, and the moon. Pilfering ancient artifacts for profit? It never occurred to me before, but Indiana Jones would totally lay Uncle Scrooge out if he got the chance.
Anyway, money matters in DuckTales because your final bankroll determines which of three endings scenes you’re treated to at the end of your playthrough. If you want the best one, you’ll need at least $10,000,000 to your name. Oddly, the “worst” ending is tougher to achieve. It requires beating the final boss with a score of precisely $0. This is impossible unless you exploit an undocumented feature that allows you to heal Scrooge by pressing the Select button and paying the low, low cost of $3,000,000. Weird.
You’re free to tackle the game’s five stages in any order you wish. Their layouts are semi-open, with just enough branching to allow for a tiny bit of exploration and the occasional out-of-the-way secret. The end goal is always the same: To reach the boss’ room and defeat it in order to claim the primary treasure. That said, thorough exploration pays off. The more Scrooge pokes around a given area, the more helpful items he’ll scrounge up. There are gems good for variable amounts of cash, extra lives, invincibility coins, sweets to restore lost hit points, stars that permanently add an additional notch to Scrooge’s health bar, and the extremely rare lost treasures worth a cool millions bucks apiece.
Five levels isn’t a lot, even by NES standards. As if to compensate, the team at Capcom did their best to imbue each with a life and personality all its own. Background graphics, enemies, and environmental hazards are rarely shared between them. They’re also loaded with cameo appearances from series regulars like Launchpad McQuack, Magica De Spell, and the Beagle Boys, who offer Scrooge aid or resistance as appropriate. Perhaps best of all are the various stage tunes. Everybody loves to pay homage to DuckTales’ stirring moon theme, and rightfully so, yet the remainder of these tracks are almost as catchy.
Basking in the charm of these exotic locales as you plumb their every nook and cranny for extra cash sure is great. What puts DuckTales over the top, though, is the pure joy of controlling Scrooge. He’s awfully spry for an elderly duck who relies on a cane to get around. Scrooge’s unassisted platforming capabilities are actually pretty ho-hum. He can walk, jump, duck (of course), and shimmy along ropes and vines. Fortunately, his cane allows for two additional moves. The first is a golf swing that can push aside or demolish specific bits of the scenery in order to uncover the occasional bonus item. Whack the ore carts in the mine to reveal gems, for example.
Useful as that is, the swing mechanic pales in comparison to the almighty pogo jump. This one inspired addition single-handedly elevates DuckTales from a quality NES title to a truly unforgettable and influential one. As the name implies, holding down in conjunction with the B button while in mid-jump prompts Scrooge to begin using his cane as a pogo stick. The physics of it don’t pass muster, but the fun factor certainly does. Pogoing is Scrooge’s main means of attack and has the added benefit of doubling his jump height. More than doubling it, potentially, since he has the option to rebound off foes for even greater hang time. Finally, the pogo provides protection from ground-based hazards. Need to cross a bed of spikes? Just bounce your way there! In other words, 2014’s indie platformer smash Shovel Knight owes its very existence to DuckTales.
DuckTales boasts exhilarating platforming, superb level design, top flight presentation, and commendable fidelity to its source material. On top of all that, it’s relatively forgiving; a great choice for younger or less experienced players. One question lingers for me, however: Is it a “top ten” game on the system, as many other reviewers over the years have maintained? Sadly, I’m going to have to answer no. Brilliant as it undoubtedly is, it has one glaring flaw: It’s incomplete! Or at least it reads that way to me. After you’ve gathered all the treasures, you’re instructed to return to Transylvania and confront the last boss…who’s lurking in the exact same room you fought the stage’s original boss in! Did the development team run out of money? Memory? Time? Contractual obligation? In any case, they really phoned in this flimsy excuse for a climax. Going through all the effort to craft such a delightful game only to then not give it any sort of proper closure seems like such a shame to me. You were almost there, guys!
Oh, well. Despite the way it sputters out at the end, I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s one of Capcom’s 8-bit best and a real duck-blur. Whatever that is.