In a new weekly column, writer Bob Mackey will alternate between two of his passions: the Japanese RPG genre and classic games. This week Mackey discusses the recently revealed DuckTales revival.
Game designer Warren Spector's preoccupation with Mickey Mouse ranks up there with some of the more notable wastes of time in recent memory. You can't say Spector didn't have his heart in the right place, though; while much of his love for Disney's mascot seems to be informed largely by his generation's exposure to the character as more than just a soulless corporate brand, both of Junction Point's Epic Mickey games carried forth the noble mission of teaching a new generation about Disney's often-overlooked catalog of animated shorts.
I found myself on board after hearing the premise of Spector's original Epic Mickey, mostly because Disney held nearly all of their shorts hostage on a premium cable channel during my childhood. If I wanted to soak up knowledge about the studio's earlier works, why not do it in Spector-engineered video game form?
According to critics and consumers, the experiment didn't turn out so well. Epic Mickey didn't aspire to greater heights than "competent N64 platformer," and gamers regarded the series as such. Tragically enough, Spector had been sitting on a much better – though not necessarily more popular – property while developing Epic Mickey: Disney's Uncle Scrooge comics, best known to children of the '80s as the animated adaptation DuckTales.
Spector had written for the newly launched DuckTales comic between Epic Mickey installments, and during a PAX Prime 2012 interview, I managed to sneak in a few questions that confirmed his interest in making a game that starred Disney's crankiest curmudgeon. His vague, non-committal statements didn't exactly set the Internet on fire, but they at least gave us all a moment to pause and fantasize about what a modern DuckTales game would look like.
The recent announcement of WayForward's DuckTales Remastered couldn't help but cause simultaneous cries of "hooray" and "about damned time." Outside of their original cartridge releases, Capcom's series of Disney-licensed games have been nigh inaccessible; not even the Wii's Virtual Console could tiptoe around the licensing issues necessary to re-release them in downloadable form. Which means those of us with the strongest memories of the Capcom/Disney collaborations likely grew up with them – enter our good friend nostalgia to tell us how awesome everything seemed while we were still too young to know better.
Yes, nostalgia has a little to do with this; like Spector, seeing the return of cartoon characters from our past fills us with warm memories we're not sure if we should be ashamed of. But there's a reason why WayForward is giving the remake treatment to DuckTales instead of any other Capcom/Disney game of the period. While the developer would produce many quality licensed games following DuckTales, Uncle Scrooge's 8-bit debut stands out as a wholly unique platformer, and one that remains an essential fixture in the NES library.
Let's not forget that DuckTales didn't have too high of a bar to leap; in what's remained a standard since the beginning of the medium, licensed games didn't have the best reputations – and the Capcom-published Mickey Mousecapade (developed by Hudson) did little to reassure gamers. Starting with DuckTales, though, Capcom had the brilliant idea of treating the development of their Disney titles exactly the same as games that involved original IP. While LJN and the like farted out pure trash they sold based on name alone, Capcom threw its most talented developers onto projects full of colorful characters with rich stories, and knew that the results would be worthwhile.
Perhaps these Disney games didn't receive exactly as much attention as Capcom's originals; DuckTales weighs in at a brief five stages, and has the audacity to make you replay an old stage for the finale – even the original Mega Man offered more than that! But at the heart of this short game lies the superb craftsmanship seen in 8-bit Capcom greats like Mega Man 2. It shouldn't surprise you that the creator of Capcom's currently M.I.A. robot boy had a hand in the sprite art of DuckTales; the game's characters have an amazing amount of life to them, despite the technical limitations they existed under. Even though Scrooge's sprite is just as squat and simplified as your average NES character, no pixel goes to waste in representing every element of his complex design.
The sense of energy beaming from DuckTales' art also helped serve its mechanics; where a lesser developer would have put the player in control of one of Scrooge's nephews, Capcom's designers based the action around a very uncommon video game item: a cane. Instead of simply using it for the obvious tactic of smacking enemies around, Scrooge instead pogos across heads and treacherous territory in a hilarious visual joke that has little to do with the Uncle Scrooge on TV. He'll even do a little golf stance (complete with steadying his shoulders) if you're looking to use Scrooge's cane to whack projectiles around the screen. Like Bionic Commando's grappling arm, the DuckTales pogo-cane provides a unique and iconic method of travel and attack that makes the experience unforgettable.
You only need to go back to Mickey Mousecapade to see just how much DuckTales goes above and beyond like titles of the era. While Mickey and Minnie traipsed through environments that could have been found in just about any generic platformer, each of DuckTales' five levels adhere to the globetrotting theme of the TV show by dropping Scrooge into very distinct and detailed backdrops. Capcom really had a knack for making the most of a theme, and DuckTales shows how they were able to take a seemingly generic idea like "jungle level" or "ice level" and make it their own. Maybe it's because the game is so short, but at no point does it ever feel like Capcom is wasting an opportunity; sure, I would have loved a final showdown in Flintheart Glomgold's Terror Drome (or wherever he lives), but not at the cost of adulterating the personality of DuckTales' five levels.
I do have a few qualms with WayForward's treatment of their remake, but they're mostly related to things that can be safely ignored – such as the developer's desire to explain away the video game logic of the original like they're a bunch of little Hideo Kojimas or something. If anything, though, we should just be happy that Capcom is willing to preserve and celebrate the parts of their history in ways that take some genuine effort. Maybe this whole DuckTales remake business will bring forth HD versions of other Capcom/Disney adaptations, like Rescue Rangers, Talespin, or Darkwing Duck? Note to WayForward: you can stop at Bonkers.
We should've all stopped at Bonkers.
Bob Mackey is a freelance writer based out of Berkeley, California. Since 2006, he's written a semimonthly column for the comedy website Something Awful, and his work has been featured on outlets such as 1UP, Gamasutra, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Cracked. You can follow him on Twitter at @bobservo.