Retrospective: DuckTales

Tales of derring-do.

DuckTales, oo-oo!
Tales of derring-do, bad and good luck tales, oo-oo!
D-d-d-danger, watch behind you!
There's a stranger out to find you!
What to do? Just grab onto some DuckTales, oo-oo!

This song has come up on my mental playlist often during the last 20 years - maybe yours, too, if you watched the DuckTales series in the late eighties. I have such a blinding fondness for Scrooge McDuck & Friends that I was well into adulthood before I realised the DuckTales theme doesn't make a terrible lot of sense. "Derring-do"? "Luck tales"? And I don't see how grabbing onto DuckTales - whatever that means - is going to help me with my pressing danger and/or stranger situation.

No matter. When you're dealing with talking ducks, cold rationality heads out for a smoke break. Capcom's DuckTales for the NES was no paragon of logic, either, and it's still a highlight of platformers' golden age. The game's premise (explained only in the instruction booklet, quaintly enough): Uncle Scrooge is in a race with archrival Flintheart Glomgold to capture the world's greatest treasures from five exotic locales. That's a solid concept, but the great race is forgotten almost immediately. You don't even see Glomgold until the closing seconds of the quest.

The real premise is simply that you're an old duck whose cane doubles as a high-powered pogo stick, so hey, let's go bounce on some stuff. Loyal fans of the TV show will recall all the occasions that Scrooge whipped out his pogo cane, such as never. This never happened. Yet this weird, springy non sequitur of locomotion is DuckTales' most distinctive feature, infusing the game with a peppiness that sets it apart from its contemporaries.

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The springy cane is a perfect way to access self-levitating treasure chests.

I understand, on an aesthetic level, why the pogo-stick dynamic never caught on, but in terms of kinetic feel, it's a blast. The five stages of DuckTales - The Amazon, Transylvania, African Mines, The Himalayas, and The Moon (!) - are typical early-nineties run-and-jump layouts, but if you're running, you're a chump. You might as well jog laps on a trampoline.

This game is all about catching air. The pogo cane bounces off land, enemies and even sharp spikes, typically the universal game symbol of insta-death. In portions of the Himalayas stage you can't bounce because Scrooge's cane will get stuck in the snow. It's awful. The developers take away their gift to remind you of what you have. "I'll never take it for granted again," you say, and the game's all, "OK, you rapscallion, you've learned your lesson." And you say, "I will now bounce around on the freaking moon."

The genius of the pogo cane is brilliant but obvious. After all, in the run-plus-jump formula, why not put all the emphasis on jump? Running is old hat for us mortals. Even those of us who don't run regularly do a more modest form of running, called walking. It's how we get from the couch to the ice-cream sandwiches in the freezer. But jumping! Game characters are outrageously better than humans at jumping. Scrooge can jump about five times his own height. I can barely jump five times.

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