Friday, May 26, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 1


It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.

If there ever were two companies that were made for each other in the 80s, it was Capcom and Disney. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had been a genuine hit in 1988, and Disney was embarking on aggressive expansion into nearly every untapped market they could see. In order to pave the way for a future generation of kids who could get hooked on Disney and grow up to write blogs like these, they needed a whole lot of Disney content, and they needed it cheap.

One wildly popular but essentially untapped area was Saturday morning cartoons. Disney's initial two entries into the format - The Wuzzles and The Adventures of the Gummi Bears - were much higher quality than the typical fare that alighted the television at the time. These test balloons were intentionally low stakes - Wuzzles and the Gummi Bears were fictional worlds created just for their shows - but the next Disney cartoon would feature recognizable Disney characters. DuckTales was, in television cartoon terms, a blockbuster that would lead to the creation of The Disney Afternoon, a behemoth that would gobble up after school airtime across the country, opening up a timeslot previously reserved for game show reruns. DuckTales was such a success that other companies felt compelled to respond, leading to the creation of Tiny Toon Adventures for Warner Brothers. Inspired by the fluidity and beauty of animation from the 1940s, DuckTales and Tiny Toons jump started an entire era of animated television shows that remain beloved to this day.

And then there was Capcom. In 1988, Capcom was just starting to enter into its golden age. Originally a purveyor of arcade cabinets like 1942, Capcom's original releases on the new Nintendo Entertainment System were clunky conversions like Ghosts n' Goblins. 1988 saw their first true runaway success, Mega Man 2, and the Capcom programming staff were starting to get truly ambitious in their game design. In the years to come, Capcom would become notorious for creating absurd slews of sequels to their successful properties - Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil... the list goes on and on. But Capcom's signature would remain the whimsical streak, a perfect match for Disney's fantasy worlds. Between Capcom's love of sequels and Disney's world-devouring corporate sprawl, it was a match made in heaven. It only lasted a few years, but the Capcom-Disney games are known as standard bearers of what terrific licensed games can be.

Mickey Mousecapade - Mar. 1987 / Oct. 1988

A lot can change in just a year.

While the NES was released in the United States in 1985, rolling out nationwide by mid 1986, in this pre-internet world it didn't really have much heat behind it until 1987. This makes sense if you look at the release dates of games - in late 1986, besides Super Mario Brothers, just about the best things on the system were still Balloon Fight, Wrecking Crew, and maybe Ghosts n' Goblins. By late 1987 Mega Man, Kid Icarus, Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Metroid, and Punch-Out were available, with more top shelf titles coming out all the time.

Japan got a head-start of about two years on all of this, and Nintendo of Japan already had an installed user base when they unleashed Super Mario Brothers in October 1985. The avalanche of Mario-alikes that followed simply couldn't reach the United States in the order that they were programmed in Japan - when they had a chance of being appreciated as the stepping stones that they were. This means that certain games which were probably respectable efforts at their time looked like ludicrous antiques by the time they reached American shores just a year or so later. Mickey Mousecapade came out in the US after games like Contra and Life Force were already pushing what the NES was capable of.

That's the context for appreciating what Mickey Mousecapade was up against in Japan in early 1987 - but it still isn't the same as saying that it's actually worth playing. If you're one of the American kids sucked in by that colorful, fun cover art, then just keep looking at it - because Mickey Mousecapade is pretty darned bad.

The game actually isn't even called Mickey Mousecapade, and it wasn't made by Capcom - this is a 1987 Hudson Soft game which even the title screen simply calls "Mickey Mouse". The game received a spiffy box and a few graphical changes, but otherwise belongs firmly to that weird middle ground after the success of Super Mario Brothers but before developers had figured out exactly why everyone liked the game so much. Awkwardly still adherent to arcade-style gameplay, Mickey Mouse is short, dull, and frustrating.

Will the real Mickey Mousecapade please stand up?

The nearest reasonable comparison is another Hudson Soft game coded just a few months before Mickey Mouse - Milon's Secret Castle. If any longtime game players are reading this, they probably winced at the mention of Milon - then as now, it's the kind of game people make YouTube videos about. Both games are in a tradition of unreasonably frustrating, obtuse Japanese platform games like Tower of Druaga - for some reason these kind of games filled with hidden secrets, no clues, and sluggish controls were very popular with Famicom owners. There's a segment in Mickey Mouse where players must traverse a forest, avoiding very fast enemies and going through doors. The level appears to loop endlessly, until the correct door is found and the season of the background changes from Spring to Summer. This is your only clue that you found the correct path. After two seasons, only doors that send you back to the start are available - you must find the exit by shooting an unmarked tree in the background until a door appears. If this strikes you as unfair and obtuse, then Mickey Mouse is not for you.

The best thing about Milon is that his secret castle is an off-brand Sleeping Beauty Castle.

What begins as a strict but possible platforming challenge shortly becomes almost needlessly cruel. Enemies swarm in erratic patterns moving twice as quick as you do. Mickey must move both himself and Minnie - you can't play as Minnie, but she follows you, mirroring your movements. In most cases this is at worst a minor annoyance, but in the final level, jumping between platforms becomes controller-throwingly difficult. She can also be carried away, and you cannot progress until you fire stars at enough invisible blocks to find a randomly placed key and play a mini game were you have a chance of winning her back. Player 2 can't play as her - she's only there to make your life more difficult.

All of this goes on for five levels, including the Pirate Ship level pictured on the cover, which is a mere 2 screens wide and 2 screens tall, and filled with some of the cheapest enemies I've ever seen in a video game. After just 30 minutes of gameplay, I was relieved when Mickey Mousecapade was over. Don't play this game.

Good luck.

DuckTales - Sept. 1989

It would be nearly a year until Capcom would be allowed to take a real crack at a Disney game, and this one is a dilly. It's one of the all-time greats according to many - amongst those who reverse Nintendo's 8-bit system, I've found nary a dissenting voice as to its excellence.

Why would a liscenced game like this be such a cult favorite on a system overstuffed with them? I suspect it's exactly the right blend of a recognizable title and a not-too-difficult gameplay experience. I doubt I'm the only player for whom a game based on a cartoon was the second game I ever completed, after a Mario game. DuckTales... was not mine, and so I can't speak for this game from any sort of nostalgia point of view, but you know what? This is a pretty good game.

Perhaps the true mettle of a licensed game is whether or not anybody would want to buy it were it released without its IP tie-in. DuckTales is arguably one of the all-time great examples - absolutely nowhere but in this game is there any suggestion that Scrooge McDuck would bounce around on his cane like a pogo stick... but once you spend enough time with this, it's just about the only thing you'll ever think of Scrooge McDuck doing. The mechanic is so infectious that you'll end up pogo-ing around on dangerous platforms where it would really be easier for you to stand. Like Super Mario's B-Dash, it's so much fun that you forget that you don't need to use it.

But the pogo mechanic comes with a set of limitations, and it's here where my problems with DuckTales begin to come out. It is frustratingly difficult to activate the pogo jump, requiring players to jump and press down on the D-pad. But it's also finicky enough to cause problems - land in the wrong spot, like on the edge of a platform, and Scrooge will immediately stop pogoing. This makes the process of bouncing around more stressful than it needs to be. Later entries in the DuckTales series removed the need to press down to pogo, strongly suggesting that developers recognized that this was needlessly difficult for such a central part of the game.

Which brings me to the second gripe. Capcom was really good at making games that were tough, but fair. There's enough in this game and in the beta version available online that leads me to believe that at some point in development, somebody decided that the game was too easy. The beta build includes a Continue option on the main screen, which was removed from the final version. And the enemy placement, especially in the Amazon and Moon levels, can be amazingly cheap. Enemies will immediately respawn if they are off the screen for more than a moment, leading to an endless barrage of spacemen and bees which are the main obstacle in these areas. Once you fight through, the bosses are simple and repetitive, which may be another sign of a rushed release. There's even a mechanic in the game which gives you a "bad ending" if you manage to lose all of your money fighting Dracula Duck - something which is nearly impossible to do in the final game. All of these small touches, as well as the somewhat wonky controls, suggest to me that the game was never fully polished to its developer's liking.

It's harder to get this ending than it is to beat the game!

What really is the strength of the game is the exploration. Anybody can run direct through, avoid enemies, and reach the end in less than a hour. Throughout, the game simply keeps adding up your treasure - never once making a big deal out of it, never once pointing out that this is something you should pay attention to until the very end, where you receive a total. Then, the next time you play, you start to notice all of the hidden jewels and treasure chests. Eventually, you discover a hidden treasure in a level. The fairly modest challenge represented by completing the game gives way to a personal challenge - to collect as much as possible. This really is where DuckTales gets you, why it's so lasting. I'm not a huge fan of the game and as I sit here typing these words I'm thinking about how I should play it again and try to get a higher score.

Another small touch that really helps the game stand out from its peers is an unusually tight script, with characters speaking as they do in the show - this was very unusual in 1989, where even terrific games were full of bizarre and questionable English. This was overseen by a producer working for Disney in Los Angeles - Darlene Lacey - who was more or less hired to protect Disney's interests.

She rewrote all of the original English text to more closely adhere to the animated property - only leaving Huey's famous "This house has an illusion wall" probably because, like untold numbers after her, she found it funny. It's especially fortunate that Disney thought to hire somebody to do this, because Capcom's game text is hilariously inappropriate:


That version of the text stands unchanged in the Japanese release of the game, marvelously titled Naughty Duck Dream Adventure.

Is DuckTales an unassailable masterpiece for the NES? No. Is it a lovable platform game with terrific music and a gloriously unexplained action mechanic? Yes. Not every game needs to be an austere masterpiece like Ninja Gaiden to earn a place in the canon.



DuckTales Remastered - August 2013

Long after the halcyon days of Capcom, Disney chose the best possible developer to helm their high-profile game reboot: Wayforward Technologies, who has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to retain the values of old school games in series like Shantae and Contra. In DuckTales Remastered, Wayforward successfully split the difference between faithfully updating the game and providing a new experience. In many areas, the level layout are identical - in others, expanded sequences not possible on the NES were introduced. Scrooge's pogo cane controls easily and smoothly compared to the original Capcom game, and boss battles have been very effectively expanded into some very exciting, tricky segments.

The most noteworthy addition are cleverly written and voice acted cut scenes which pop up before and during levels. These range from new scene transitions - Scrooge flies a plane between the Amazon and into ancient ruins - to entirely new stories created to add interest to existing levels. These add a lot of class and value to the experience, really making you feel like you're watching an extended episode of DuckTales.

But, you know, there's a doubled edged sword to that, as any nostalgic fan who's tried to watch DuckTales as an adult can find out. It feels exactly like watching an episode of DuckTales - Bubba Duck, Gizmoduck, Webbigail and all. If these characters annoyed you in the show, they will annoy you here, too. At least the game is faithful.


I think new audiences can come directly to DuckTales Remastered and not need to feel like they missed anything - the gorgeous animation and improved controls alone make it easy to recommend. The 2.5-D applied to the game is often gorgeous, but levels sometimes end up feeling less immersive than they did in 8 bits - more a series of boxes floating in front of a background than a real place to explore.

Many players report that they feel the cutscenes interrupted the flow of the game, which is absolutely true - and it's at these times that the value of the limited medium of the NES can really be felt. There's something to be said for letting players fill in the details of the story in their minds - to decide for themselves why Scrooge fights a giant rat inside the moon. This in no way takes away from Wayforward's take on the material, which is often exciting and funny. But those of us who miss when Super Mario was mysterious and silent may walk away from DuckTales Remastered with a new appreciation for how Capcom did so much with so little.


Next Time: Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers and The Little Mermaid

7 comments:

Chris said...

Oh man, I'm so excited you're doing this series. I love a lot of the Disney/Capcom games, and you hit the nail on the head in your discussions so far. Mickey Mousecapade = cruelty to children lol. One of my favorite Disney console games is Quackshot for the Genesis - doesn't look like it's a Capcom game, so it may not get into your roster, but I have an unnatural love for it. It's not exactly the best platformer mechanically, but the music and art and feeling of exploration are so charming that I keep going back to it, and used it as an inspiration for my own indie game (adventuresofchris DOT com). That and Castle of Illusion.

Andrew Raymond Stuck said...

As somebody who never played the original, I can affirm that the remastered version does indeed stand on its own merits. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn't think the cut scenes interrupted the flow that much, but of course I didn't grow up used to the pace of the original.

Griffin Calhoun said...

Ducktales! A woo woo!

stu29573 said...

Actually, one of the only games I ever completed was a Disney one...althougb not Capcom. I loved Mickey Mania (Travelers Tales) and although I wasn't a big gamer, I finished it! Good times!

tamajinn said...

Excellent review! I never played either of these, but I'm looking forward to the Chip n Dale game review. I can still hear that catchy, beepy music, and recall hours of me and my sister making Chip and Dale pick each other up and chucking them off a ledge. I hope you have another person to play with or you won't have the full experience!

nathansmart said...

I always hear the complaints about Mickey Mousecapade (and other horribly designed games) and I feel like I just wasn't discerning enough back then. I loved the game and would beat it often. I think as a games-starved kid (I didn't get new games all the time) I accepted any game as a treasure.

But, what do I know? I used to play and beat the Atari E.T. game regularly.

Reesie said...

I'm really looking forward to this series. I love what you have to say about the parks, so this is a totally new subject to explore. Can't wait for future installments.