SHARING AMERICA'S TECH NEWS FROM THE VALLEY TO THE ALLEY
I want to love DuckTales Remastered. Even now. Even after it broke me. I keep thinking maybe I should go back and play it some more. Give it another chance. I have to keep reminding myself why I left in the first place.
DuckTales, based on the classic Disney after-school cartoon, is one of the most fondly remembered games from the Nintendo Entertainment System era. Besides charming graphics and amazing chiptunes, it had a great gameplay gimmick: Scrooge McDuck could use his cane as a pogo stick to bounce around the screen. NES fans’ desire to see a new DuckTales wasn’t purely founded on nostalgia — we also just wanted that great gameplay mechanic back.
Today, Capcom launches DuckTales Remastered, a remake of that game for PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC (an Xbox 360 version will follow on September 11). And yes, that pogo-stick-cane fun is back — but along with it are a bunch of other aspects of 8-bit game design that I wish had stayed in the past.
Let me set the scene. It is last week. I’m just getting started with DuckTales Remastered on Xbox 360. I pick the “Medium” difficulty level. The standard Xbox 360 controller to me seems a little impractical for playing a 2-D platformer, since neither the stick nor the D-pad on the controller feel as precise as the good old NES pad. But I can get over that, I think, as long as the game as designed doesn’t ask me to be more exactingly precise than the controller is capable of.
I play through the introductory stage, which is not difficult, and get to the point where the game asks me to which of its five areas I would like to travel. I pick the Amazon, the first on the list. Now the game becomes very similar to the NES original. The music is a kicked-up version of the original tune, which I’m loving listening to. The enemies all act just like they did in the original — bees fly in serpentine motions at me, apes jump on top of bricks to chase me, Venus flytraps lie in wait to snap at me. It’s all as I remember, just with a modern presentation.
Then I notice something different: I open up a giant chest by pogoing on its lid, and a coin pops out. This is new. A little dialogue sequence begins: Scrooge (amazingly, still voiced by the now 93-year-old Alan Young) talks about the coin with sidekick Launchpad McQuack via walkie-talkie. I look at the map of the level, and there seem to be seven more of these coins scattered about. I collect all of them and proceed with the level. Then I find a new wrinkle: There’s a statue in my way that will only activate if I collect all eight of these coins. Okay, I think, I’m glad I went and got them all!
I get to the second part of the level, and lose the last of my three lives. Okay, I think — I’m better at the game now, I can get through without losing those lives. Even if I feel like I was cheated out of some of them. Some of those spikes on the floor had pretty gigantic hit boxes, I thought. And you know, there were a lot of moments where I definitely pressed the pogo button but Scrooge decided to not pogo, causing me to take a hit. But oh well, let’s see how much progress I lost.
I find myself back in Scrooge McDuck’s mansion, in front of the level-select mechanism. I go back to the Amazon.
Oh, I think. I’ve lost everything. All those coins I collected, activating the machine — it’s all been wiped, as if I’ve never been into the level at all.
Sure, that’s exactly what happens in the NES version of DuckTales, not to mention most older games. Designers made their games really hard because their games were really short, and they had to encourage you to play them over and over. But game design moved away from that, and I think the change has been for the better. You can create a fulfilling experience without making a player do the same thing over and over.
But okay. I’ll bite. Let’s try a game with NES-era difficulty. So I go back into the Amazon. This time I’m a lot better. I get to the boss with an extra life in reserve. And the boss, the giant, angry head of an Amazon deity statue, stomps around the screen and utterly destroys me once, then twice. Game over.
I yell at the TV. I tell the game to go to hell. I decide to try again.
This time, the whole level is completely boring. You have to understand at this point that the Amazon level takes me, I don’t know, about 15-20 minutes. It’s long. There’s a lot of things you have to do. And now I am bored to tears. It’s not fun to play it again. It’s not fun to keep taking hits not because I screwed up but because the Xbox controller is (I have now decided) piss-poor for this type of game. All of those dialogue sequences between Scrooge and Launchpad happen again, and you have to pause the game and select the “Skip Cinematic” option to stop them. And the sense of discovery, of finding cool hidden secrets, is totally over. There are no more cool secrets, just seven coins that I have to go pick up one by one, trudging back through the same level for what is now the third time. I am zoning out and thinking about other things.
The punishing difficulty of early NES games was a necessary evil, not a feature to be desired.
I get back to the boss, and he kills me again. I scream. I drop the controller. I scream some more. I flip out on Twitter. I scare the crap out of the dog, who bails from the room thinking he did something bad. It takes five minutes for him to realize everything is actually fine and I’m just mad at a videogame.
“I’m done,” I say to the dog. “Done. Screw this.” I am never playing this game again, I think.
I leave the house and do something else. That night I come back. I play the Amazon level again.
This time, I rethink the boss fight and try something different. I finally win! It does not feel good. It is more a sense of relief.
I begin the Transylvania level. This is even longer and more complicated than the Amazon one. I am losing too many lives, and by the time I enter the mine cart sequence, I realize I have little hope of finishing this level on this run through. But, I think, there’s still a lot of room for improvement here, so I’ll try again. Plus I still have four hit points remaining on this life.
The mine cart tracks lead off the side of the screen, and I ride them. The screen fades out. A new screen fades in. Everything is rendered in dark colors that don’t contrast very well. I’m looking at the new screen as it fades in, trying to figure out what I’m looking at. As my eyes are adjusting, Scrooge rides in on the mine cart, which promptly falls into a bottomless pit immediately after the screen finishes fading in but before my eyes can even relay this information up to my freaking brain. Game over.
At this point I had no ability to get upset with DuckTales Remastered anymore because I knew that this time, for sure, I was not going to play it again. I can deal with high difficulty, I can deal with big punishments for running out of lives, but I can’t deal with a game design that dumps you into a pit and kills you before you have a chance to even see what’s going on. Difficult is one thing, unfair is another. I had to just stop for my own sanity, and it didn’t matter how good the music was. (Really, really good.)
I think Capcom and developer WayForward had good intentions with DuckTales Remastered. By now you’ve probably seen that Capcom mailed out an NES cartridge containing the original version of DuckTales, painted gold and issued with a Certificate of Authenticity, like a piece of art to be displayed in a museum.
It’s an undeniably cool promo item (especially if you love old game cartridges like me). But I look at the gold-plated NES game and I wonder if Capcom and Wayforward might not have the wrong idea about classic games. There’s a lot to love about games like the original DuckTales and, yes, things they did better than modern games. But mentally enshrining them in gold, considering them to be sacrosanct and untouchable, is going too far. The punishing difficulty of early NES games was a necessary evil, not a feature to be desired.
At least, that’s how I always felt. If you want to throw yourself against jagged rocks of games like DuckTales that promise you the beatdown of your life, go ahead. But I can’t do it anymore.