Review: DuckTales (NES)

Woooo-ooh!

As part of our celebration week for the 30th Anniversary of the Famicom system, we'll highlight some key retro reviews to highlight the best of what the 8-bit system had to offer. Today we have DuckTales, and don't forget to click the Famicom banner on the homepage to see our content for this special occasion.

Isn't it great when a licensed game turns out to be awesome? We are too often fooled into wasting money on sloppy attempts to bring our favourite characters into the video game world. After being burned countless times, usually during childhood when you don't know any better, you may begin to avoid licensed games altogether. Anyone that played DuckTales back in the NES days, however, knows that the risk can be worth taking. In fact, this game might be responsible for so many of us giving licensed games a chance, even after being let down by unworthy cash-ins so many times. DuckTales reminds us that it’s possible to do it the right way.

Everyone knows that platformers were very popular back in 1989, thanks largely to Super Mario Bros. DuckTales jumped on the bandwagon with several features that were common in the era, such as an invincibility power up and a generous timer for each level. It also has several unique aspects to it, such as Uncle Scrooge's ability to bounce on his cane like a pogo stick. You can spend most of a level just bouncing away, landing on enemy heads to defeat them, or reaching high places that are untouchable with your normal jump. The jumping mechanics in this game really help to flesh out Uncle Scrooge as we know him – a wily old duck. No, he can't leap from rope to rope with ease or even run to jump farther. He's too old for that! What he can do is bounce on his cane and rain total destruction on anyone standing between him and his money. And who can't admire that?

Each level has a unique theme and feel to it. The amount of detail and thought the designers put into the stages is excellent. This is how it always should be. If you're going to feature the typical variety of video game environments, you should make it fun and interesting. DuckTales didn't take the lazy way out, instead making sure that each level had its own set of unique challenges. For instance, in the Himalayas stage, Scrooge will sink if you pogo into the snow. This forces you to spend most of the level walking normally, only resorting to bouncing on the cane when you have to. To contrast that, there's the Amazon stage, where you'll almost constantly be bouncing around, dodging enemies that are running at you and reaching higher vines to climb. Transylvania features mirrors that teleport you to different parts of the stage, and a tricky "illusion wall" that may have you feeling lost until you figure out where it is. This leads to Metroid-style exploration and retracing of steps. Fitting your playing style to the environment keeps the game fresh, and without a save feature, it's nice to stay interested while you're trying to beat the game in one sitting.

DuckTales is fairly short, but non-linear gameplay adds replay value into the mix. You can choose to tackle the stages in any order, and there are a couple different paths to take in almost every level. You can even unlock an alternate ending by discovering hidden treasures and collecting enough money by the end of the game. With three difficulty settings to choose from, it’s plenty of fun to visit Duckberg more than once. The easiest setting is by no means a walk in the park, and still offers a nice challenge while giving the player a break from some of the trickier aspects. The most challenging setting sets the bar high, with more frequent enemies and a faster pace; no matter the difficulty, though, the boss battles are very easy. It’s always just a matter of dodging an attack and bouncing on your enemy's head. You would think that Magica De Spell could whip up something more threatening than tossing a few lightning bolts at you, or that Flintheart Glomgold would have more tricks up his sleeve to prevent his worst enemy from becoming the richest duck in the world.

The references to the DuckTales universe are everywhere, and the game features cameos from all the stars of the show. For instance, Launchpad will appear at the checkpoint of each level to offer you a ride back to Duckberg. Other notable characters that make appearances are Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Webby Vanderquack, Mrs. Beakley, Magica De Spell, Gizmo Duck, and a slew of others. The greatest part about encountering them is that each retains what made them a unique part of the show; you can almost hear Webby's worried voice when she tells you Huey has been captured, or Magica's evil laugh that leaves her trembling with evil delight just before she disappears. Uncle Scrooge himself is the greatest example of this, and he maintains his distinct attitude and humour for all of the dialogue.

The graphics in DuckTales are excellent, bright and colourful, similar to other Capcom titles of the time. A true testament to this is that the game still looks good enough to be entirely playable hiccup-free over twenty years since its release. These aren't the most advanced graphics the NES is capable of, but they don't have to be; if the goal was to evoke the feeling of watching an episode of the TV show, Capcom succeeded. It's in 8-bit form, but it's the Duckberg we all know and love.

The music is wonderful, and each stage has its own track that subtly adds to the experience. The score of the Moon level is futuristic, the Amazon is upbeat and adventurous, and Transylvania is creepy and haunting. That of the Mines stage is fairly uninspired, but it's the exception in an excellent track list. All of this is beside the trademark theme song from the show that's played at the title screen – it's just as fun to hear in an NES game as it is from your TV.

Conclusion

If you need to scratch your NES nostalgia itch or you also loved DuckTales as a kid, this game is for you. The gameplay is unique and extremely fun, the presentation is excellent, and the characters you know and love are intact; non-linear exploration and an alternate ending will have you coming back for more. Uncle Scrooge is just as cranky and loveable now as he was twenty years ago, and this would be an instant buy should it ever come to the Virtual Console. The game is kept from a perfect score by its easy boss battles and relatively short length, but it’s still one of the best examples of an excellent licensed game around.

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