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April 18 will be an aging gamer’s smorgasbord of delight

It really sucks about tax day being April 17th this year, but apparently the games industry is determined to heal those IRS-inflicted sorrows by giving all of us old video game types a lot to look forward to the following day. April 18th is now confirmed to include no less than three excellent-looking reworkings of classic games. It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches, if we’re being completely honest here.

Here’s what we aging nerds can look forward to:

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

We’ve known about this one for a while, to the point that we produced an entire episode about the series last year. I finally had a chance to go hands-on with The Dragon’s Trap at Game Developers Conference a couple of weeks ago, and the only word I can really think to use to describe it is “legit.” You hear the term “labor of love” tossed around a lot; this game truly embodies the concept. It came into being because programmer Omar Cornut invested years into deconstructing the code for the original SEGA Master System game as a hobbyist, and eventually that evolved into a proper top-to-bottom remake.

The truly remarkable thing about The Dragon’s Trap is that it plays exactly like the original version. Everything from the physics to the semi-open world layout are completely identical to the Master System version, to the point that you can toggle between the new graphics and old at the press of a button… not unlike with the Halo anniversary remakes. Make no mistake, though, it’s not simply the old version running under emulation, because toggling to original 8-bit graphics still allows you to play with widescreen visuals rather than constraining the action to 4:3 proportions. Cornut has rebuilt the original game code for modern platforms (including Switch, which you’d better believe will be my platform of choice for this one), transplanting an 8-bit classic into a new format with absolute fidelity.

I’m equally impressed by the new visuals, which have a fluid European art style and really bring the world and characters to life. If you’re like me, you tend to be wary when the terms “European art style” and “challenging platformer” collide, because the former element tends to wreak havoc on the integrity of the latter. Think games like Rayman which, while lovely, prioritize animation cycles over responsiveness. That’s fine in a meticulous Prince of Persia-style game, but Wonder Boy is vintage SEGA: Fast, unforgiving, and already tremendously challenging by default. Happily, The Dragon’s Trap manages to balance its lovely visuals and its unrelenting-but-fair difficulty level by causing animation to act as a secondary consideration to controls. Actions cancel character movements here, whereas many platformers featuring lush animation force you to sit through a movement cycle before responding to player inputs. And hit boxes are tuned to be forgiving where the new illustrations don’t perfectly line up with the original sprites; for example, Wonder Boy’s lion-man transformation now drags his massive claymore behind him rather than holding it upright ahead of him, but the greatly expanded character sprite is no more vulnerable than the original bitmap version, and he swings the blade with the same effective speed and arc as before.

On top of all that, Cornut made use of some unused dummy data in the original code to add in a few new challenges. You can generate a password for your progress in the remake, input it into the Master System version, advance the game, then bring an updated code from the Master System game back into the remake. And since the reward item for discovering the new secrets is tied to data that was tracked by but unused in the original game, you won’t lose the remake’s bonus item even if you play for a while in the 8-bit game. It’s a minor detail, sure, but it really speaks to the lengths that Cornut and LizardCube have explored in order to preserve the integrity of the original game while making it more palatable to contemporary audiences.

Full Throttle Remastered

I admit I don’t know this one as well as Wonder Boy; Full Throttle was one of the last hand-animated LucasArts point-and-click adventure games, and I picked it up back in the day. Alas, I never made much progress; the burly biker theme didn’t do much for me, despite the quality of the writing. I definitely will give the game a second chance now that it’s been prettified (and moved to consoles), though. Full Throttle Remastered foregoes the obvious remake approach by not converting the original game’s lovely, low-rez, Disney-esque drawings into clunky 3D but rather recreating them in high-resolution 2D. The use of bold, varied line weights keeps the newly reworked animation from looking like Flash animation — think Archer versus Homestar Runner. Pretty classy! As much as a game about a heavy metal biker dude can be classy, anyway.

The Disney Afternoon Collection

And finally, one that’s not a remake at all but rather a compilation. Bringing together six Capcom NES games — DuckTales 1 & 2, Rescue Rangers 1 & 2, Darkwing Duck, and TaleSpin — the Disney Afternoon Collection comes from Digital Eclipse and occasional Retronauts guest Frank Cifaldi. This is the same combination that brought us the excellent Mega Man Legacy Collection a couple of years ago, and one would assume it runs on the same NES interpreter engine as the previous compilation. I think it’s safe to expect the minor hiccups that affected the Legacy Collection to have been sorted out for this new release.

I know this compilation was something everyone involved in the Legacy Collection had hinted at wanting to create, but given the precious attitude Disney has towards its properties I really didn’t expect it to happen. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see a whopping six Disney classics contained in a single package. This, of course, is not the full catalog of Capcom/Disney games for NES, but as the title indicates, these six come from television properties rather than films or Disney real estate concepts. (And, let’s be realistic: These were the good Capcom/Disney games.) In any case, it very helpfully contains the two most ridiculously overpriced Capcom/Disney collector’s pieces, DuckTales 2 and Rescue Rangers 2, both of which command eBay prices that will make your toes curl and wallet shrivel… even as bare cartridges.

As with the Legacy Collection, the Afternoon Collection will contain a huge array of supplemental materials, such as promotional art and development sketches. It’ll also include some custom-made challenges for the more obsessive fans to tackle. About the only downside to the collection I see is the widely lamented lack of a Switch version, which isn’t terribly surprising. I can’t imagine the Disney license came cheap or easy, and Nintendo systems are very much in a transitional state right now; Capcom probably didn’t want to risk committing to a new console. Now that Switch has seemingly proved its appeal (having already moved 1.5 million units worldwide, which has prompted Nintendo to double its production numbers for the coming year; there’ll be more Switches produced in the next year than Wii U systems that were ever made), I would be pretty shocked if Capcom didn’t announce a belated version for that system as well. I mean, it just makes sense… which I realize isn’t always quite how business works, but I suppose we’ll see.

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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 on 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

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