Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Video Game Review: DuckTales Remastered

I could start off this review with a brief history of DuckTales for the NES.  But I don't have to.  You already know this game.  You already know its soundtrack.  You already know the cartoon it's based on.  You know the theme song to the cartoon.  Heck, you might even know about the comics that the cartoon was based on.  Scrooge McDuck's NES adventure is the stuff of legends these days.  You'd have to have been living under a rock for over twenty years now to not be at least slightly familiar with DuckTales for the NES.

So let's just get on with it, then.  Thanks to a triple collaboration between Disney, Capcom, and the 2D platforming experts at WayForward, DuckTales Remastered gives the NES classic a shiny new coat of paint, a handful of new features, and gobs of voice acting.  Many a nostalgic tear was shed when this remake was revealed.  So, does it live up to the high expectations of reviving what many hail as one of the finest platformers ever made?

Well...sort of.

At it's core, DuckTales Remastered is almost a direct port of the original NES game.  The same five levels that you know and love are back and, just as before, they can still be played in any order you choose.  The original game was created using the Mega Man engine after all, and the Blue Bomber's DNA is still felt in Remastered.  Certain sections of levels have been adjusted or expanded now and two new levels bookend the original five, but for the most part, everything is exactly as it was, from platform placement to enemy behavior to the locations of secret goodies to grab.  If you loved the NES original, you'll no doubt feel right at home in DuckTales Remastered.

The main mechanic of the game is the ability to bounce around the screen using Scrooge McDuck's cane like a pogo stick.  And, honestly, Scrooge's bouncing attack is probably the reason this game was and still is considered to be so fun.  It's just stupidly amusing to bounce around all over the place.  It was fun on the NES and it's still fun now.  Scrooge also has a golf-swing attack he can use whenever he's pressed up against an object, but otherwise it's all about the pogo bouncing.  You'll want to bounce off everything in this game.  It's how you defeat enemies.  It's how you break open treasure chests.  It's how you discover secrets.  And, I can assure you, you'll soon stop walking around the levels in favor of just bouncing around like an idiot all the time simply because it's so much fun.

That is...when it works.  Ninety percent of the time DuckTales Remastered has rock solid controls that work perfectly.  But then, sometimes, they just don't for some reason.  You'll be gleefully bouncing along and then, suddenly, you won't be anymore and you'll fall onto something hazardous.  Sometimes you'll hit the button to start bouncing and Scrooge will just decide he doesn't feel like it this time, which can be especially aggravating when you're trying to bounce on something that harms you otherwise, like an enemy or a bed of spikes, and you end up taking a hit instead.  I don't know what the deal is with the controls.  When they work, they're super solid and precise, but they just fail sometimes, seemingly at random, which can be incredibly frustrating.

Adding to the troubles is the high level of difficulty that DuckTales Remastered throws at you.  Of course, fans of the original game will already be well aware of this.  Like most NES platformers of the day, DuckTales was a punishing game, and it still is in Remastered.  It's quite easy to take damage and when you run out of lives, that's it.  You're done.  It's back to the menu to start over.  It's not as hard as, say, a Mega Man game, but again, the Blue Bomber's influence is quite evident in DuckTales challenging nature.

And, on the NES, that was no big deal, since the levels were easy to zip through.  Sure, there were tons of nooks and crannies to explore, but if you died a few too many times and decided you just wanted to make a bee-line for the boss that was very possible on the NES.  Not so anymore.  Each level of DuckTales Remastered now has a handful of collectables sprinkled throughout that are mandatory to track down before you can complete the level.

It seems like the developers wanted to make sure that you saw every part of each level, as you now have to explore every single passage you come across looking for whatever item you happen to need to collect at the moment.  That's all fine and dandy the first time through a level, when you actually want to explore.  But if you happen to get a game over, and are forced to begin the fetch quest again, suddenly checking out every nook and cranny seems a lot less fun since you've seen them already.

The "Easy" difficulty option removes this frustration, as it dispenses with lives entirely, so you'll never have to restart a level no matter how many times you die.  But, if you decided to have a go on a higher difficulty setting, you can bet your number one dime on the fact that you're going to end up having to go back and collect those same items over and over just to get back to the part of the level you died in again.  It's baffling to me that WayForward didn't include a "classic" mode of sorts that lets you skip the fetch quests and breeze through the levels just like the old days.  It seems like a no-brainer to me.

Adding to the padded out length and, therefore, the frustration factor of replaying levels, is the inclusion of fully voiced cut-scenes.  A LOT of fully voiced cut scenes.  At least a half dozen or so in each level, as every level has essentially been transformed into a self-contained episode of the cartoon show.  These cut-scenes prove to be a double-edged sword for DuckTales Remastered.  On the one hand, they're incredibly clever and well written.  The dialogue feels like it was lifted directly out of the original cartoon, and can be quite funny at times.  All the original voice actors return to lend their voices to the characters, and it's a real treat to listen to this cast again.  The storyline of DuckTales Remastered is fantastic to experience the first time you see it.

But, on the other fun as it is to hear Scrooge belittle Launchpad McQuack some more or trade barbs with Flinthart Glomgold there comes a point where you just want the characters to stop talking and let you play the game.  Having to stop for dialogue so frequently absolutely kills the pacing of the levels.  Add in the fact that these cut-scenes play every single time you play a level, even if you've already seen them before, and you'll soon find yourself longing for the olden days of the largely plot-free NES original.  You can skip the story sequences, but to do so you actually have to enter the pause menu and select a skip option, which isn't a particularly elegant process.  The developers had the right idea with these story cut-scenes, as they are quite entertaining at first, but they quickly overstay their welcome and really should have been used more sparingly.

Though the story sequences may have missed the mark somewhat, not a negative word can be said about the other ways in which DuckTales Remastered has been spruced up for the modern era.  Visually, it looks just like you're playing an episode of the cartoon show.  Courtesy of some actual Disney animators and folks who worked on the original artwork for the show, the graphics of this game are absolutely top notch.  All the character animations are fun to watch and extremely expressive and the backgrounds, while relatively basic, perfectly capture the look of DuckTales.  This game is a feast for the eyes.

It's also a feast for the ears.  DuckTale's famous NES soundtrack is brilliantly remastered courtesy of favorite WayForward audio guy, Jake Kaufman.  Each track has been carefully updated so that they all sound completely familiar, but also refreshingly new at the same time.  Lots of brand new music is included too, and it's all delightfully reminiscent of the score used on the original television show, further connecting the game to its source material.  I honestly can't imagine how the music of DuckTales Remastered could have been handled any better.  It's pretty much perfect.

There are also lots of little easter eggs and goodies sprinkled in for longtime fans.  Subtle references to other Disney cartoons are appropriately incorporated at clever moments.  A vast selection of unlockable artwork, music and other items originating from both the game and the television show await those who collect lots of treasure in-game.  You can even go for a swim in Scrooge's famous money bin this time around, an absolutely pointless but incredibly satisfying new inclusion.  DuckTales Remastered was clearly a labor of love, as the passion for the source material oozes from every inch of the game.

That makes it all the more disappointing then, to discover that the underlying game has so many flaws that keep it from being the ultimate tribute it tries to be.  The sporadic control hiccups frustrate at the most inopportune moments.  The fully-voiced cut-scenes, while a great inclusion for fans of the cartoon, get in the way for fans of the original NES title who just want to play the game.  On the opposite side of the coin, the punishing difficulty and relentless devotion to old school game design get in the way of those who may not be familiar with the game but are fans of the cartoon.  In trying to be the ultimate tribute to all aspects of the DuckTales fandom,  DuckTales Remastered isn't quite able to fully deliver to any of them.

Is it still worth your time and money?  Absolutely.  There's still plenty to like here for fans of both the original game and the cartoon show, and the soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.  But DuckTales Remastered just has a few too many lingering flaws lurking around to truly be the end-all-be-all nostalgic experience it wants to be.

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