Duck Tales (NES) review
"Duck Tales works so well because it remains faithful to the adventurous spirit that made its source material such a resounding success. After selecting a stage, you're dropped into what at first feels like just another level from any cutesy platformer. As you head to the right, though, you'll quickly realize that something is different: you have options!"
For years, developers have been trying to produce the perfect license-based game, that special title that flawlessly combines the charm of its license with stellar gameplay that can stand proudly among the finest of its contemporaries. What some people don't realize is that one game already got everything right (and on 8-bit hardware, no less). As you might have guessed, I'm talking about Duck Tales.
In the mid to late 80s, there weren't many cartoons that could match the popularity of “Duck Tales.” Based on the exploits of the miserly Scrooge McDuck, his three nephews, Webby, Mrs. Beasley and Launchpad McQuack, the series dominated airwaves for years. You can still find a lot of people my age that will hum the theme song on occasion, before they even realize what they're doing. As licenses go, it was a no-brainer for video game adaptation. The real surprise isn't that someone attempted it, but that someone accomplished it so perfectly.
Capcom was that developer. Many associate them with the Mega Man titles, which were excellent entertainment, but there was a time when Disney adaptations were every bit as important a part of the company's heritage. An all-too-brief partnership with Disney spawned numerous games that remain some of the finest offerings in the NES library, and none was finer than Duck Tales.
Duck Tales works so well because it remains faithful to the adventurous spirit that made its source material such a resounding success. After selecting a stage, you're dropped into what at first feels like just another level from any cutesy platformer. As you head to the right, though, you'll quickly realize that something is different: you have options! Picture the Amazon level, where you come to a fork in the road that allows you to drop down into an underground cavern or proceed to the right over a bed of spikes. If you want, you can even explore both areas to their fullest, all on the way to the area above the treetops where a towering ruin calls your name.
Branching paths aren't the end, though. Duck Tales also features numerous hidden rooms. They're worth finding, since they always contain the stage's most priceless treasure. When you push a block against the base of a statue and climb up it to explore the crawlspace overhead, it almost feels like you've been sucked into the cartoon. When you pass through a mirror and find yourself riding a mine cart, well, that's the sort of scene you're bound to remember from television. There are so many memorable moments throughout the game, but the real thrill is finding them. Each hidden chamber is exciting because you had to work to get there. The game feels much smaller if you don't explore. You can pass all the way through in a few minutes, but then you'd be missing half the experience!
Another important detail is your method of attack. Scrooge McDuck is elderly, after all. It wouldn't make sense for him to bop gorillas on the head with his feathered rump. Instead, he strikes with a cane. What served as a simple prop in the cartoon suddenly takes on new significance here just because of its versatility. From the air, you can poke downward as you land on a foe to send him flying off the screen. If you have to pass over a strip of spikes, you can bounce along on the cane as if it's a pogo stick. Finally, you can swing it at chests and objects to break them or turn them airborne. Scrooge is suddenly an effective protagonist, all without stepping outside of the spirit of the cartoon.
If Duck Tales has a flaw, it's that it can at times be too simple. Even that issue is balanced out by selectable difficulty, though. If you choose the 'difficult' game (available from the title screen), you'll have to be very careful as you explore the game's deepest passages, lest an enemy catch you off-guard and send you prematurely to ducky heaven. Amateurs and children, meanwhile, can enjoy their exploration on the 'easy' level for a more forgiving life meter, or they can play on 'normal' for more significant but not impossible challenge. Whatever selection you make, you also are encouraged to do well because the game tallies your performance at the end. It's all about finding more loot for your money bin!
Thanks to a vibrant world that really plays up to the strengths of its license, Duck Tales is more than just another cartoon-based game. Instead, it's the ultimate example of everything that can go right when the right developers are attached to the proper license. Numerous teams have tried to top the success of this 8-bit gem (including Capcom itself, with a fun but not particularly inspired sequel), but none have done so. Years after its release, Duck Tales remains the gold standard.
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 15, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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