When I was but a child of three, I received the first video game console I’d ever owned. A drab gray box gifted to me by my grandmother, herself completely clueless as to what a video game even entailed. I had two games at hand, included in the bundle, to amuse myself with. Both were contained in one cartridge, the venerable Duck Hunt/Super Mario Bros. two-for-one. I can vividly remember that Christmas morning, plugging the box into the TV in a way I didn’t properly understand, and the image flickering to life when I pressed the power button.
That was, without a doubt, the first time I played a video game of any kind. The memory informed my ongoing fondness to be sure, as I can’t deny I’m mildly nostalgic on the matter. But the actual ins and outs of playing those games don’t jut out in my memory, save one detail — when my aforementioned grandmother briefly picked up the controller, she inadvertently discovered the first warp zone.
As far as my memory goes, the forerunner of my life as a game player was DuckTales. I fully realize how this may sound discrediting to an uninformed observer. I can’t even remember my first experience with Mario (who as I’ve mentioned before is Nintendo’s Jesus) and yet I feel a cherished warmth in the memory of a cartoon-licensed duck platformer?
You should dissuade yourself from thinking of this game in the context of its franchise, I think. It’s clearly true in my experience that the whole lot mattered — the amalgamation of wily old Scrooge McDuck’s presence in both TV and gaming doubtlessly built mental associations in me that kept the game lurking in my head for all these years. But honestly, I think there’s an enduring vibe of creepy cheapness that people, often deservedly, anticipate from old franchise-licensed games, star they Disney ducks or rage-addled skin-smiths.
But DuckTales, released in 1989, could not be further from that disastrous legacy. Produced by Capcom, who’d already released the first two iterations of Mega Man in the preceding two years, this game is one of the most sparkling, lovable platformers of the NES era, marred only by its objective brevity.
It consists of five levels, the Amazon, the Himalayas, an African mine, Transylvania, and the surface of the Moon, with a spaceship thereon. Each hides a treasure vital to Scrooge McDuck’s ongoing quest — to sate his imperious, rapacious thirst for personal wealth. The manner in which the levels are played echoes that distinctive Mega Man style, as the player is allowed to pick and choose what order to tackle them in, or even to back out of a level in progress and return later. This feels less structured in DuckTales, unguided by the unfolding progression of boss weaknesses that informed players what order the Blue Bomber might want to consider. Certain obstacles are thrown in your way — the need to pay a steep fee to complete one level, for example — but all in all, the gameplay experience in DuckTales feels more kinetic, responsive and vivid than Capcom’s earlier efforts.
This is not to say it’s necessarily a better game than either Mega Man 1 or 2. That’d be a very difficult call. Maybe whipping up a year’s end ranking list of these old flames would force me to finally hash all that out.
But the playability, visual style, and (especially) the music of DuckTales is truly exemplary. Across those five levels, Scrooge must dodge and melee with countless foes, armed only with a cane — a symbol of his own inexorable aging and mortality providing his lone physical defense. By pressing down + A + B while in mid-air, he dives downwards with the cane pointing straight beneath him, and uses it to pogo off the ground. This mechanic essentially gives the game a Mario feel with an additional step of complexity, as simply landing a jump on a foe’s head isn’t enough. You have to stick that landing cane-side-down to do any damage.
The visual design of the levels is, even though I probably use this word too often, evocative, and effective for its time. This is separate and distinct from having technically impressive graphics, because by NES standards it’s probably middle-of-the-road. But sometimes a weakness can, under a trained eye, be made a strength. The Moon in particular is the most attractive of the levels, breaking from the game’s bright colors to a black outer space, flecked with deep blue stars, backing the (apparently oxygen-free) Scrooge. The subsequent siege of a space ship, and the dispatching of the aliens inside, gives the level a certain dual thematic personality, buoyed by one of the most memorable level themes in NES history.
After all five treasures are secured (the one from the Moon is called the “green cheese of longevity,” by the by), they are immediately stolen, forcing Scrooge to return to Transylvania and face his notorious arch-rival, scottsduck Flintheart Glomgold. In what way Glomgold is the villain of this particular story is unclear, beyond the fact that he, like Scrooge, wants wealth upon wealth at any cost. The final battle with Glomgold is, in fact, not a physical clash at all (that dirty work is saved for Dracula Duck), but rather a race to the top. Scrooge must quickly climb a rope to a chest atop a nearby pillar, before Glomgold can reach it, thus reclaiming his priceless five treasures of the world. Thus vanquishing old Flintheart, it would seem, for the very same sin that animates him.
Ultimately, there are some things to quibble with, as there always are. The game plays tragically short in comparison to what Capcom had recently done at the time. While Mega Man 2 boasted eight levels, and a grueling final lair gauntlet to boot, DuckTales is more the sort you could plan to beat over an alert and competent hour and a half or so. Shorter, I’m sure, if you’re a return customer like myself. But every second spent with DuckTales is done so well, provided you’re not too big to ask Gizmoduck for a hand every now and then.