Rather than settling for a competent but forgettable design, the studio perfectly translated the cartoon’s charm to pixels while sprinkling it with refreshing gameplay ideas; consequently, Duck Tales is a great example of how to transport popular television characters into a game
With major and historical gaming franchises such as Mega Man, Monster Hunter, Resident Evil, Ace Attorney, and Street Fighter under its belt, it is no wonder Capcom is among the industry’s most beloved developers. In the minds of players who were active during the late 80s and early 90s, though, it is likely the company’s already rich legacy includes yet another group of titles: those centered on popular Disney properties. Because in a partnership that lasted for a little more than a decade, the Japanese studio repeatedly proved that games based on licensed characters could be more than clumsily assembled products that were quickly put together in order for both the developer and the property’s owner to make some easy extra cash.
Truthfully, not everything that the partnership yielded was great, particularly the last few tridimensional titles, but during the 2-D days, Capcom hit a design sweet spot that allowed them to produce some of the finest platformers of the era, including Aladdin, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, as well as Mickey’s very own The Magical Quest and The Great Circus Mystery. Arguably, that sequence of classics was only possible because of the very first result of the joint venture: Duck Tales, which showed from the start that the bond between Disney and Capcom could be successful, as the title rode both solid gameplay and the fame of the cartoon which inspired it into becoming one of the best selling games of the NES.
Like the television show of the same name, the game’s quest centers around Scrooge McDuck, who takes a lot of pride in being the wealthiest duck in the world. However, his cunning rival, Flintheart Glomgold, craves to rob him of that status, which is why Scrooge – often accompanied by his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie – spends a large portion of his time either defending his fortune from theft or engaging in globetrotting treasure hunts. Capcom, naturally, takes advantage of the second type of adventure to send the characters in a platforming journey around the world looking to make the rich starring character even richer.
In total, the game has five levels taking place in areas that are very thematically distinct: The Amazon is a jungle that carries the grassland vibe of the stages that open many platformers; the African Mines are underground tunnels; The Himalayas mix up a few caves with a snowy areas; Transylvania has the duck exploring a sinister manor; and The Moon has portions on the satellite’s surface as well as inside a spaceship. In all of the stages, the goal is the same: getting to the local boss, defeating it, and grabbing the special treasure it is protecting. Once the five valuable artifacts are gathered, players will open the way to a final confrontation with Scrooge’s greatest rival.
From the start, that list of stages reveals what is pretty much the sole problem the game has: its length. Sadly, it is a rather big issue, because on a system where some platformers – namely, those starring Mario – came packed with twenty courses or more, Duck Tales inevitably feels very thin. It is worth noting, however, that the game implements some measures to circumvent that problem, and even if they are not exactly special or even palatable by modern standards, they are at least good at achieving their purpose.
The first one is that Duck Tales has three difficulty settings, which is a rarely found option in platformers of the time; with these, not only does the game gain some replayability in the eyes of those who want to make many progressively challenging runs through the quest, but it also manages to embrace various audiences, from the cartoon’s young fans to more experienced players. The second one, meanwhile, which also happens to be the most significant one, is that Duck Tales has neither a save feature nor a password system; because of that, if one is looking to finish the adventure, they will have to clear it all in one go, as losing all lives or turning the game off will result in complete loss of progress.
Given Duck Tales was made by Capcom, it is easy to relate that strategy to what the company successfully did in the Mega Man franchise, a platforming series that also tends to be a bit short on courses. In those games, be it due to the brutal difficulty of each stage or to players’ experimentation to discover which weapon was effective against which boss, any level had to traversed over and over again until a winning run was mounted. In a way, Duck Tales tries to replicate that formula, but since, unlike Mega Man, it does not record progress and it lacks a very high degree of challenge, it dares gamers to go through the entire quest rather than individual stages.
It sure is a grind, but it works for multiple reasons. For starters, the game is not too hard, which makes the ultimate goal seem possible from the start. Moreover, once they are learned, stages do not take very long to beat, which makes repeated journeys through them be a fast endeavor. Finally, on what is Duck Tales’ smartest implementation in this regard, levels can be cleared in any order: they are freely picked from a menu. Consequently, instead of having to overcome one, two, three, or four courses to start learning the quirks of a new one, which is a recipe for frustration, players can focus on mastering every stage individually in various gameplay sessions before gathering their experience and making a definitive run at the finish line.
From a platforming standpoint, the uniqueness of Duck Tales emerges from a a couple of central aspects: the moveset of its protagonist and the intricacy of its stages. As a very fancy gentleman, Scrooge McDuck’s main form of attacking is via his umbrella, which can be used in two ways: as a pogo stick or as something akin to a golf club. The first type of move is activated by simultaneously pressing down and B as the character is coming down from a jump; if after executing that move the B button is held, Scrooge will continuously pogo all over the screen. The second action, meanwhile, can be triggered when the hero is beside a rock; when that happens, pushing against the object with the directional pad and pressing B will cause the protagonist to shoot it diagonally through the air.
Needless to say, Duck Tales takes advantage of these singular abilities to build interesting challenges. Since, differently from Mario, Scrooge cannot simply bounce on the head of his enemies, the pogo stick becomes his main form of attack; likewise, given the move is able to vastly increase his jump’s height, especially after hitting a foe, levels are filled with moments – be them mandatory jumps or high-to-reach treasures – that demand the precise use of the technique. The same applies to the golf shot, which may sadly not come into play as often, but that is nevertheless used to create a few clever situations.
As for the stage design itself, Duck Tales is rightfully praised due to the nonlinear format of its courses. Although that style of level configuration would sooner be taken to new heights by the Wario Land franchise, what Capcom pulls off here is not to be dismissed. From the very start, levels in Duck Tales are true mazes filled with secrets, including health expansions, as well as alternative paths. And a few of them can only be finished by finding specific items or rescuing characters and getting valuable tips from them, which are tasks that often entail some backtracking. The benefit of this design approach is twofold: it turns the reaching of high scores, which is done by gathering a lot of treasure, into a fun challenging activity since it requires a lot of exploration; and it makes the stages’ critical path to the bosses be hard to figure out but short to replicate, which is an ideal characteristic given the multiple playthroughs that are necessary for one to finish the game.
The final highlight of Duck Tales is simply how well it uses the property on which it is based. Released in 1989, its arrival late into the NES’ life cycle and its handling by experienced developers meant that it was able to squeeze a lot out of the hardware, and that unlocked power is used to support colorful scenarios and great character models that are faithful to the cartoon. The same goes for the soundtrack, one of the strongest in the system, which begins with the iconic opening song of the show but goes on to create many memorable tunes of its own that capture the spirit of the property. Finally, although Scrooge is the star, unforgettable characters pop up throughout the stages to serve various functions, be it helping, getting into trouble, or standing in the protagonist’s ways; therefore, players will come across many familiar faces, like Launchpad McQuack, Magica De Spell, and The Beagle Boys.
Overall, there are points in which Duck Tales could have been better. As it happens in many NES games, it holds a few obstacles – which are rarer than the norm, truth be told – that come off as unfair traps rather than fun challenges. Additionally, the fact it only contains five stages contributes negatively not just to its length, but also to the usage of its mechanics, as it is nearly impossible not to feel that with a few more levels its nonlinearity could have been stretched a bit further to enticing results, its good bosses could have reached real greatness by exploring other gameplay twists, and some of its tools – especially the golfing move – could have been the base for some puzzles. Still, its quality remains evident.
As the first fruit of a collaboration that would go on to yield bright platformers and adventure games, Duck Tales was a very positive sign of what was to come. With it, Capcom used the wisdom of its talented development team to turn a famous Disney property into a very engaging gaming experience, and it is not hard to understand why the title not only succeeded in its time, but also remained beloved long after that era. After all, rather than settling for a competent but forgettable design, the studio perfectly translated the cartoon’s charm to pixels while sprinkling it with refreshing gameplay ideas. The result is one of the NES’ finest hours and a project that would go on to serve as an example for anyone trying to use popular television and movie characters as the inspiration for a game.