My First Time: DuckTales

In the My First Time series, we tearfully confess the shameful gaps in our personal gaming heritage. No one’s perfect, and there are only so many hours in the day — we can’t play everything. Here, we try to fill in the holes by spending time with the ones that got away.

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DuckTales (NES, Capcom)

I’m not really sure how I’ve missed out onĀ DuckTales all these years. Widely regarded as an NES classic, with visual design by Keiji “Mega Man” Inafune and one of the most beloved tunes ever to see the light of day in the 8-bit era, DuckTales seems like one of those games everyone has played and everyone loves… except me. I guess I was just a little too old to care about the Disney Afternoon by the time this one rolled around — not to mention that I had been left deeply unimpressed with its apparent (but not really) predecessor, Mickey Mousecapade. So, today marked my very first session with this soon-to-be-remade adventure.

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I went into DuckTales knowing, basically, three things:

  1. Pogo stick
  2. Cane golf
  3. OMG the moon theme

And, as such, my first few minutes with the game proved to be shockingly frustrating. Despite his much-vaunted skills, Scrooge lacks direct, easily accessible offensive capabilities. You can’t simply jump on an enemy’s head the way Mario does, as you’ll take damage when you land. And simply tapping the action button doesn’t cause him to swing his cane, either. It’s a surprising design choice, but I assume it has something to do with the limitations of the license. Scrooge isn’t a combat-oriented kind of character, and Disney imposes massive restrictions on the use and presentation of its characters. Most likely the entire game was built around what Scrooge wasn’t allowed to do.

With a little experimentation, though, I started to figure things out. I realize that in the olden days, I would have spent 15 minutes poring over the manual during the car ride home and therefore would have gone into the game fully equipped with the knowledge to properly wield the power of McDuck, so I don’t hold the slightly unintuitive offensive mechanics against the game. It was crafted with the expectation that players would have been able to read the instructions first, not fumble around with a vaporous digital file divorced of its proper context (shh, don’t tell). Fair enough.

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Scrooge’s primary mode of attack is to leap with his cane leading. Not unlike like Link’s downward stab in Zelda II, but it’s slightly more complicated in this case. You can’t simply press down as you jump to pull this off as you do in Zelda II; you have to hold down and the attack button as you jump. It’s a curiously complex control scheme for an NES game, especially given how limited Scrooge’s available actions are.

Yet after playing around with the game, I think Capcom made the correct choice in adding such complexity to Scrooge’s basic skill. Because the pogo-jump is so powerful, being able to whip it out effortlessly would make the game too easy. Not only does the pogo attack defeat all but a handful of foes with a single attack, it also allows Scrooge to leap about twice as high as his standard jump does, covering far more ground in the process. On top of that, it cracks open treasure chests and certain kinds of rock as well. If you could do all of that without a second thought, DuckTales would become almost laughable in its easiness.

Instead, the pogo leap requires some consideration. You can’t simply go bounding around without a care, because hazards lurk all around: Spikes ceilings, respawning aerial foes, loose-packed snow that’ll trap you briefly, and more. By creating these pogo-oriented hazards and requiring players to press a slightly complex combination of buttons in order to go on the offensive, DuckTales becomes a game of skill and finesse that belies its seemingly simple cartoon-based nature. This is good stuff.

But really, the game didn’t click for me until I started roaming through the interconnected and somewhat nonlinear caverns of the Amazon and backtracked to a space I had previously bypassed. There, I encountered a tall grey statue that begged me to leap on top of it but was too high for Scrooge to reach even with his pogo bounce. So I pushed against a nearby barrel that looked for all the world like a Mega Man E-tank (except orange) and noticed Scrooge changed his posture. A tap of the attack button and he whacked the barrel, which went sliding toward the statue. Not only did this allow me to reach the statue’s upper edge (thereby giving me a path to a hidden treasure chamber by bouncing into the scoreboard and traveling “over” the playable space), it also revealed the intricate nature of the alternate McDuck attack.

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Again, Disney probably didn’t want Capcom to turn Scrooge’s cane into a weapon in and of itself, so you can’t simply wander around smacking things with his walking stick. Instead, you can only shift into attack position by pressing against a static object. This causes Scrooge to rear up into a striking position, and pressing the button once he changes posture causes him to whack the object (jarring him silly if it’s non-interactive scenery, but more often than not launching a brick or revealing hidden treasure). Flying bricks and rocks make very handy and very deadly projectiles, but as with the pogo jump, the added complexity of the action forces you to think about how you use it. You can’t just whip it out. There’s a certain time investment required for each of these actions that sets it apart from simple arcade twitch action.

But then, DuckTales isn’t really an arcade game. It seems like it at first glance, but the play mechanics require a more methodical touch. On top of that, the seemingly straightforward levels contain myriad secrets that you can only uncover through experimentation and exploration. If I were to peg DuckTales as belonging to any one particular genre or school of game design, I’d put it in the same family as early 8-bit PC and console games that revolve around blind luck and trial-and-error to discover essential items hidden invisibly in obscure locations…but DuckTales is far friendlier and more playable.

What sets DuckTales apart from NES predecessors like Milon’s Secret Castle or even The Goonies (not to mention countless MSX- and C64-based antecedents) is the solidity of its design. Crafted by classic Capcom at the peak of their 8-bit glory, it controls perfectly despite its intricate interface, and the hidden elements feel neither arbitrary nor unfair. You can finish the game by blundering through without grace… but take the time to master the controls and figure out where the secrets lie, and you start to reveal a game that’s far better and far deeper than anyone had any right to expect from an NES game based on an afternoon cartoon.

In summary: A really nicely made game featuring some sophisticated design choices. I’m looking forward to seeing what WayForward does with their remake.

Screenshots courtesy of HG101

9 thoughts on “My First Time: DuckTales

  1. Great piece. I hope you keep doing them. It kind of makes me want to go back to experience things I might have missed, maybe Blaster Master in my case.
    I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and when I was really young there was only one place that rented NES games, a small video rental store. Giant Eagle didn’t start renting games unit the SNES era. Anyway, this store must have really thought Disney games would sell or liked Capcom because I remember them having Mickey Mousecapade, Ducktales, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, Chip n’ Dale, Tailspin and Little Mermaid. Plus, it had Little Nemo and Megaman 2, 3 and 4. Still, some of my earliest gaming memories are playing these Capcom platformers on two-day rentals. I made long of my longest friends by trading Little Nemo tips on the bus ride home from school.
    I never actually beat Ducktales until after I graduated college, but I remember renting it a lot and enjoying it. The game just feels right, especially when playing with a real controller.
    Sorry that this went on so long, but I wanted to share some of my memories of this game and my time gaming around it.

  2. I finally dove into this game too. I bought it outright from ebay after seeing the Remastered announcement. That Amazon level really breaks you in. Scrooge is wider than one tile so falling spiders can smack you on the face a lot easier. Pestering bees always seem fly right above or in front of a small platform that you’re jumping to over a pit. You have to pogo them with your cane just right or you’ll lose one of your precious 3 hit-points. Oh those bees. They’re not Ninja Gaiden birds annoying, but they’re almost bats from everything annoying. This game taught me not to underestimate it and to adjust my playing for funny shaped 8-bit characters wider than a tile. Such a strange hitbox-you have Mega Man, Simon, Luigi, and then you have Scrooge. He feels different from the other heroes. What can I say, he’s a duck. His head and tail stick out, I’m ashamed that it threw me off.

  3. First game I ever beat, honestly. There’s probably still a dusty photo buried in a junk heap of me in a homemade Minnesota Northstars jersey, hoisting the rigid NES pad in disheveled triumph during the credits. Yeah, I remember when gamers were truly losers who manifested their virtual feats by immortalizing themselves in blurry Polaroids. Miss those days…

  4. We all seem to have that one game everyone seems to have played but you. For me, that game until recently was Megaman.

    Good ol’ Ducktales is my favorite NES game, as well as being one of the first games I truly completed as a child. Many good hours were spent scouring every nook and cranny for hidden treasures. It got to the point where I would pogo bounce more than walk through the levels.

    I can’t wait for the new remastered version to come out.

  5. This was one of my favorites as a kid growing up… Can’t wait for the re-release and also Shovel Knight!!!!

  6. I was always a Chip & Dale man myself, but Duck Tales is definitely now on my list o games to play…

    In other news, it has BEGUN!

    Go, Retronauts! Go!

  7. I’ve heard nothing put great things about this game. I have to find a way to play this!

    I remember loving the version that was on the PC back in the day. From what I remember it had a wide variety of gameplay that kept you interested. Anyone play that one before?

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