Updated: Jan 22, 2019
The year is 1989. The Goliath we know as Disney has dipped a toe or two in the water of video games, releasing roughly a dozen titles by this time on various platforms. After assisting in publishing Mickey’s Mousecapade in North America, Capcom are handed the license to develop a title for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The license for a beloved animated series known as Ducktales.
Ducktales, in both television and video games, follows the antics of Scrooge McDuck, the world’s richest duck and uncle to Donald Duck, darling Disney character. Mr. McDuck has one goal: become even wealthier. After discovering that five lost treasures are scattered throughout the world, he chooses to venture out and take them for himself. Accompanied by his grand-nephews Huey, Dewy, Louie and their friend Webb, this Mallard-esque millionaire aims to expand his bloated piggy-bank even further.
The game opens up with a basic menu, accompanied by a jaunty, charming tune and the choice of three difficulties: Easy, Normal and Difficult. Once this is selected, the player encounters a detailed view of what can be assumed is Scrooge’s control console, listing five possible destinations, each with their own treasure to be found. What’s interesting about this game’s layout is that all five levels are available to play immediately at any time, meaning there’s no difficulty curve to speak of on a level-by-level basis. This makes little difference in the grand scheme of things, since Ducktales is hard as nails from the get go. Enemies endlessly respawn, getting hit three times will win Scrooge a lost life and a free trip back to the start of the level and three lost lives mean the game is over and progress from all levels is gone. The player is also against the clock, since each level has a timer of 500 seconds and if the timer runs out, the player loses a life. When a level is selected, a side view of McDuck is shown, with the player being able to move him left and right, make him jump, swing his cane to hit enemies and use his cane mid-air as a pogo stick, which can boost his jump height or bounce on top of foes. Scrooge will also find different items in a level that have different advantages. Diamonds will give the player extra money, food items will give Scrooge extra hit points and keys can be found to unlock different areas, meaning that depending on which level the player chooses to tackle first, backtracking may be necessary to complete the game. While this adds replay value to the title, it can prove to frustrating, since certain can’t be accessed without attaining these keys beforehand.
Controlling the Ducktales’ protagonist isn’t without its downfalls. A noticeable input delay while jumping and activating the pogo stick ability to attack enemies will force players to have pixel perfect movement, making some tight spots frustrating to navigate, to say the least. Scrooge also has an issue how weighty he feels. He will dart from side to side at the press of a button, with no visible momentum to his movements. This leaves the player desperately trying to determine where Scrooge will land while in mid-air and causing movement to feel unrealistic. Adding a small shadow on the floor or slowing down Scrooge down before changing direction would make this task a great deal easier for the player.
The level design for the game, while seeming to be a copycat of games that preceded it like Super Mario Bros and Mega Man (one of Capcom’s previous NES titles), includes some solid examples of purposeful design. Having a limited scope of five levels for the player to traverse through, Capcom opted to utilise horizontal and vertical plains, using vines and pits to allow players access to hidden areas both above and below. This permitted the development team to create more intricate levels without burning out the hardware of the NES. The vines can be used to move vertically around a level Each level has its own boss fight as its finale, adding an extra challenge. However, Most of the boss fights found are extremely similar in design, taking place in nearly identical arenas and not adding any new dimensions to the gameplay found earlier in each stage. This adds nothing to the experience and ultimately leaves these parts of each level feeling stale after a couple have been completed. Once every level is completed, a bizarre event occurs. Scrooge is informed that all of the treasure he’s collected has been stolen and to get it back, he must re-enter a place he has already visited. This forces the player to traverse a level they will have already completed, which feels like needless padding. What’s more, once another boss is defeated in the stage, the player is asked to perform the simple task of racing the same defeated boss up a rope, where the treasure is waiting. This offers no challenge and certainly has no pace as the final action in a platformer game.
While the hardware of Nintendo’s first flagship console outside of Japan was limited, the Ducktales developers were determined to squeeze as much as they can out of it. The game’s soundtrack features full use of the NES’s various channels to really give the player their money’s worth. An orchestral soundtrack can be heard, complete with definable instruments and in-game sound effects simultaneously.
Considering Ducktales was released towards the end of the NES’s life cycle in 1989, the game still holds up remarkably well visually. Characters are easily recognisable to fans of the show and there is little confusion as to what objects and environments are, even after almost thirty years. The shadows added to stationary object add a real sense of depth to the environments Scrooge finds himself in.
Overall, the game deserves a 6/10 for its ability to tell a story and provide a competent gameplay experience. It falls short of a higher rating due to its iffy controls and unwillingness to change things up during its boss fights and its finale.