Friday, July 28, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 4

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.

Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers 2 - December 1993

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

If you recall last month, I thought highly of Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers - enough to give it the No. 1 spot on the game rankings list. So it was with some interest that I approached its sequel - both Chip 'N Dale 2 and the next game in this article, Duck Tales 2 were released very, very late in the life span of the NES and are super rare. Very few have ever played these games, allowing me to approach them with no apologies. Chip 'N Dale 2 starts off promisingly enough - a neat animated introduction picks out the silhouettes of our heroes against a brick wall, before loading the menu screen. Once off to the first level, everything seems okay - at first. The games look practically identical, and the first level strongly recalls Level D in the original game. There's longer dialogue scenes and more elaborate boss battles. It took me a few stages to start to realize something was up.

Don't let the similarities throw you - while they make look similar, each Rescue Rangers game is as different under the hood as can be. Rescue Rangers 2 is slightly larger, with more detailed sprites for Chip and Dale - not a bad thing, to be sure. The game is also slower - in the original, the chipmunks could really pick up and lob those crates, and zip and jump easily across the screen - really creating a sense that they were tiny. Rescue Rangers 2 is zoomed in, and instead of interacting with things like telephone poles and bar stools, everything they come across is a much more reasonable scale, such as pots and pans. Because they're a little bigger than in the first game, that illusion of expansiveness has been sacrificed.

But what really spoils Chip 'N Dale 2 is the combination of a less expansive world, slower gameplay, and amazingly sparse enemy placement. In the original game, enemies would appear in clusters of 2 or 3 and charge directly at you - you needed to move fast and really learn to pick up and chuck those crates because you were constantly under attack. The original Chip 'N Dale is a highly distinctive mix of twitchy, fast reflex based game play and memorization - so much of the fun of that game was learning each enemy's distinct attack pattern and where they would appear and learning how to approach and defeat them strategically.

In contrast, you can go entire screens in Chip 'N Dale 2 and only see one slowly moving enemy. In the first game, you had to defeat nearly every threat you came across and always has to have a box at the ready to throw, or you were going to die quickly. It's much easier in Chip 'N Dale 2 to just run past every enemy until you reach the boss.

Speaking of the bosses, there's really only two in the game that will give most players any trouble - the first boss, and the last one. The first boss is fought by jumping between plates beneath a cascade of water - its easy to get washed off the bottom of the screen and die. It's tricky, but the rest of the game is full of far less intriguing enemies. Usually you just have to stand far away and wait for one of the boss' projectiles to land on the ground, then you pick it up and chuck it at them. There's at least four of these battles in this short game, although one of them is an enraged ostrich riding a spoke gear, which is kind of cool. The final boss looks impressive, and repeats a memorable gag from Mega Man 2, where you're thrown in a room where the lights blow out and a huge enemy lowers from the ceiling. This guy drops time bombs, and you have to time it so that the bomb hits him at the exact moment it detonates.

Remember all of those environmental hazards in the first game? They're just plain gone. Remember having the juggle the light switches, or turn off the water taps to proceed? Gone entirely. Every level in Rescue Rangers 2 consists of some slightly themed platforms and every level has the same layout - go right, go up a little bit, then go right or left. Gone entirely is the visual and conceptual unity of the first game, where you climb up and end up on top of telephone poles, or keep climbing up a ventilation shaft or tree. Also gone are the unique enemies in each level - who can forget the tough chicken guys who punch boxes in their way, or the aliens who turn into you as you approach?

Between the redundant level designs and tiresome boss battles, I began to have really nasty flashbacks to Darkwing Duck - this game has that same sense of absolute exhaustion. Certain parts of the game seem to have just been abandoned in design - in certain areas the game would not let me scroll to the next screen until I threw the box I was holding, and in another spot I could not proceed until I cleared the entire screen of all of the boxes. For a major release Capcom game, that's totally unacceptable.

Chip 'N Dale 2 threatens to become interesting twice. At one point, Fat Cat traps you inside a refrigerator and you are given three minutes until you freeze to death. Being the good game player that I am, I rushed the level - easily bypassing the handful of ice skating enemies, assuming the level would be long enough that I'd run out of time if I didn't keep the pace up. I ended up finishing it in less than a minute - and it's then that I realized that Chip 'N Dale 2 didn't care at all.

Immediately after that, Fat Cat opens "The Urn of the Pharaoh", which he promises is full of ghosts and will allow him to conquer the world (apparently both Fat Cat and Adolph Hitler have weird ideas about what ghosts will actually do for you). What follows is a totally absurd and out of place haunted house level, as if the one in TaleSpin wasn't enough. It's probably the best thing in the game, and likely based on the Haunted Mansion at Tokyo Disneyland - portraits are revealed to be full of skulls when the lights are extinguished, and some floating dog ghosts dive bomb you throughout the level. After you beat the boss here, a mummy ghost who retreats back into his urn, the entire subplot is dropped entirely.

Perhaps I'm just being way too tough on this one, but this represents and even bigger quality drop than the one between Magical Quest and The Great Circus Mystery. The original Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers remains fun, tough, and delightful to this day, and after completing this dispiriting slog of a sequel, I had to go back to play it to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. Avoid this one and play the superior original instead.

DuckTales 2 - June 1993

Duck Tales 2 was actually released a few months before Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers 2, but after playing through both I decided to flip their order here to illustrate a point. Chip 'N Dale 2 takes almost everything about the original game and reproduces it in vastly inferior form. Duck Tales 2 takes a solid classic original NES game and tweaks and improves almost everything about it. It's a difference between a swan dive into a pile of gold and Launchpad crashing into a mountain.

Back in Part One 1 suggested that DuckTales was never finished quite to its developer's liking, and if more proof were needed, here's DuckTales 2 - which appears to be, for all intents and purposes, the game that DuckTales was intended to be.

What's different? To begin with, there's a pre-game map screen that sets up the backstory - it's the same kind of situation, where Scrooge must pogo around various locations attempting to uncover hidden treasures. The original DuckTales had two secret treasures, which acted as something of a bonus. Here, each level contains multiple rooms which disguise giant treasure boxes which must be found and unlocked - some of them in incredibly obtuse locations. These treasure boxes contain six pieces of a torn up map - buy the seventh one from the game shop and you can play a secret level for "The Lost Treasure of McDuck". If you can do this, you can head out to Flintheart Glomgold's sunken ship and fight him to unlock the best ending of the game.

And yes, you heard that right - this game has a shop, where you can buy lives, continues, and more. The most important item you can buy in the shop is a Safe, which allows you to keep the money you collect as you play each level. That's right, unlike in the original game, when you die here, you lose your money - this adds a lot of strategy to the game, and gives you an incentive to return to conquered levels to farm for money. This explains why the original game allowed you to return to levels as well as leave the levels with Launchpad - a feature which never made any sense in DuckTales.

You no longer have to jump and press down to pogo - this itself already puts the game ahead of its predecessor, simply hold the jump button and bounce away. Scrooge can do more in this game - taken directly from Darkwing Duck are various rings bolted to the walls of levels, and Scrooge can hang off them with his cane - as the game progresses, you must become increasingly confident with this skill, as retains areas can only be passed using the rings. Instead of simply knocking blocks across the floor, in DuckTales 2 you must clamp your cane onto blocks and drag them across the floor - this sounds like a nonevent, but there's a good number of puzzles that use this.

Gyro Gearloose appears in the first few levels, providing Scrooge with cane "adapters" - a term stolen directly from Mega Man 4, because Capcom - which allow players to swing and pogo to break certain kinds of blocks. The game allows you to play levels in any order, but if you go to, say, the Pyramid right off the bat, you won't be able to collect the treasures because your "cane adapter" is too weak. Besides the hanging rings, Capcom found a way to cleverly include a variant of the famous "vanishing blocks" from Mega Man - none quite so tough as the puzzles in those games, thankfully. but super cool.

On top of that, the levels in DuckTales 2 are just plain better. There's plenty of enemies, but none of them are placed cheaply as in Darkwing Duck or DuckTales. There's fewer secret areas, but the ones that are here are hidden more insidiously - at one point you have to pass through an invisible wall, jump across a huge chasm on flying enemies, then drop down a hole that looks exactly like it will kill you - you land on top of the hidden treasure chest. It's scary, and fun, and rewards the most confident and adventuresome.

Besides secret rooms, there's puzzles - you must drop rocks into certain holes to drain water from the lower half of a level, decode an ancient riddle inside a pyramid, and tug a mirror hidden away at the top of a pyramid so the sun bounces off it and destroys the floor. That pyramid level is a doozy - I bounced around in there for almost an hour trying to find all of the treasures. You enter the pyramid by crossing shifting sands taken directly from Mega Man 4's Pharaoh Man, then head down a narrow corridor with a huge treasure chest at the end - before you can get there, you fall through a false floor! It's awesome, and scary, and if you spend enough time snooping around, you can find your way back to that treasure chest.

The bosses here aren't too different from those in DuckTales, but for some reason the ones in DuckTales 2 strike me as significantly more interesting - there's a sorcerer who is basically a superior replay of the Magica de Spell fight in the first game, and a golem made of rocks who you must break apart before attacking his heart with your cane. The Flintheart battle in this one comes off as exceptionally goofy due to a twist I won't spoil - it's stolen, again, direct from the Mega Man playbook, but darn is it fun.

There I go comparing this one to Mega Man again - but it's warranted. From the open exploration style, to the idea of going back into a level you already beat and exploring a new area, to the rain in the Bermuda triangle shipwreck that comes straight out of Toad Man's level - unlike Darkwing Duck, this is a Mega Man game that still makes time to have some ideas of its own. The gameplay is even better than the first one, and the game really makes you think, and strategize. I had to play the game through three times until I figured out how to get the secret level and the best ending!

This game is the Mega Man 2 of Disney/Capcom games, and probably the best of their 8 bit games, period. It does everything the first one did better, smarter, and bigger. Unlike Mega Man 2, it never really had a chance of being recognized, released as it did a year and a half after the Super Nintendo. It was released as part of the new Disney Afternoon Collection on Playstation 4 and XBOX, which mean it's more wide available right now than it ever has been.

DuckTales 2 really does typify the kind of thing I, as a reviewer, hope to stumble across when embarking on a series like this. Play it however you can.

Game Rankings So Far
01) DuckTales 2
02) Chip ' Dale Rescue Rangers
03) The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse
04) DuckTales
05) Magical Quest 3 Starring Mickey & Donald
06) TaleSpin
07) The Great Circus Mystery
08) Darkwing Duck
09) The Little Mermaid
10) Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers 2
11) Mickey Mousecapade