Reminisce for a minute. It’s the early 90’s again, and it’s 3 PM on a weekday. It’s time to turn on ABC and watch The Disney Afternoon.
The Disney Afternoon a was two-hour, animated block of Disney goodness, and it was the keeper of some cherished, childhood memories. Kids today don’t know what they’re missing – for five days a week, every week, The Disney Afternoon was our glorious ritual. When I was nine years old, I would race home from school, drop my backpack by the door, and watch them all: Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, followed by Talespin, followed by Darkwing Duck, followed by Goof Troop. Nothing could sway my attention.
Ducktales was perhaps the most immoral children’s cartoon ever committed to celluloid. It told the story of Scrooge McDuck, a greedy, 1-percenter prick who, rather than enjoying his good fortune, risked his loved ones’ lives to become even richer. The highlight every episode was when Scrooge swam in his Money Bin – lucky bastard. I remember staring slack-jawed at the screen, wishing that it could be me. Hey, it was the 80’s – our priorities were a little misplaced back then.
Capcom released the eponymous NES game in 1989. It was created during a better, simpler time – a time when Capcom spent their energies making great games instead of botching Resident Evil. Today, we remember Ducktales, not only as an amazing NES game, but also as one of the greatest platformers of all time. From its gameplay, to its visuals, to its incredible soundtrack, there are numerous aspects to praise and appreciate.
First, any discussion of Ducktales mandates an explanation of its eccentric, unique combat system. The first time I played Ducktales as a kid, I was extremely confused. When I pressed the A Button, Scrooge jumped. When I pressed the B Button, however, Scrooge just stood there. I expected him to do something – to punch, or swing his cane, or shoot, but no. Nothing.
How was I supposed to attack? I tried jumping on enemy’s heads, and I quickly learned that wasn’t the answer. It was at this point that I consulted Nintendo Power, and I learned about the all-important Pogo Jump.
The Pogo Jump was accomplished by jumping with the A Button, and then holding the B Button and Down on the Control Pad at the same time. Scrooge would bounce on the end of his cane, and if a player continued holding the B Button, Scrooge would continue to pogo up and down. The Pogo Jump was quite difficult to master, but once you did, the game opened up in the most wonderful way. The Pogo Jump became your go-to answer for any problem – you used it kill enemies, break barriers, open treasure chests, and even bounce across spiked floors. A Pogo Jumping guru could chain successive bounces together, and access secret, bonus-filled areas.
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The result of these contextual, exploratory mechanics was that combat took a back seat to archaeology. This game was less about the destination, and more about the journey – every Pogo Jump and Golf Swing allowed Scrooge to explore alternate, blocked routes. The game rewarded the intrepid explorer with additional treasure, additional lives, and hidden, valuable artifacts. It was the beginning of the action/adventure genre, and modern series, such as Uncharted and Tomb Raider, owe a debt to the groundwork that Ducktales laid down.
Ducktales emphasized player choice, even at the macro level – there were five main levels (and one secret, final level), and they could be tackled in any order. The Amazon, Transylvania, the African Mines, the Himalayas, and the Moon – each had its own distinct flavor, and the beautiful graphics created clear distinctions between each exotic locale. Take the Amazon, for instance – there were monolithic statues and lush foliage everywhere. Also, all of the statues had beaks – a humorous, duck-centric wink at the audience.
Or, take the Himalayas. The game did an excellent job of depicting snow as a blinding, monotonous blanket. Halfway through the level, however, you fell down a pit into a cavern, and the mood completely shifted. You were surrounded by blue, slippery ice, and the combat slowed down to match the scenery. It was such wonderful attention to detail, this ambitious, fledgling attempt to match environment to action.
The music deserves its own praise for one song in particular – the glorious “Moon Theme.” The song started small, with robotic bloops and bleeps. Then, you hear a synth violin, soaring above it all, before the full orchestration kicked in. Oh. My. God. The tears. The feels. It was the melody of deep space exploration, of sending astronauts to Mars, of beating the Russians to the Moon. It was a bold, 8-bit cry for freedom, against insurmountable odds. It was the human spirit, condensed into a 60-second loop. If NASA made the “Moon Theme” their theme song, they wouldn’t have had to cut their budget last year.
If you’re too young to have played the NES version when it first dropped, or you missed the game on its first go-around, do yourself a favor and buy Remastered right now. Seriously, drop everything. It’s on the Playstation Network, Xbox Live, Nintendo eShop, and Steam, so there’s no excuse. Get back at us, and let us know what you think. Ducktales! Woo-Ooo!