Years ago, life was like a hurricane, here in the town of Duckburg. There were race cars, lasers, and even airplanes. Many times, its residents referred to life as “a duck blur.” But these are not those heady days, when one might have solved mysteries or dared to rewrite the books of history. And while danger make lurk behind you or a stranger may be out to find you, these days, what were once exciting tales of wealthy billed birds, are now nothing but sedate remembrances, which despite the shiny clothes and polished spats, remind us that with few exceptions, what was the past, should stay the past.
If you managed to make it through those first few sentences without immediately recalling the theme song to Ducktales, the rest of this probably won’t speak to you as strongly as it does to those that are just now finishing the song with “woo hoo.” For you, this game probably seems a bit weird and out of place, as it’s purpose (to draw on the nostalgia of those who played the original) doesn’t have that same siren’s call, telling us that we can relive those memories, that we can, as it were, take to that pogo stick one more time.
For what it’s worth, Ducktales Remastered plays the part of the siren exceedingly well. Beginning with a midi version of the cartoon’s theme song, DR pulls you right into a heist perpetrated by the Beagle Boys on Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. As the personal vault of the richest duck in the world, Scrooge’s bin is not without security, but feeling affronted that these hooligans, or really anyone else, would set a finger on his vast wealth, Scrooge sees to its defense personally.
Armed with his trusty cane, this duck billed sexagenarian’s attack is a two button affair. Pushing up against anything sets Scrooge into a golfer’s stance, at which point the attack button serves as a cane swing, while jumping and then attacking drops his cane down in a pogo position, at which point he proceeds to bounce on everything. The older game had a slightly different way of activating the pogo jump, by first jumping and then pressing down and the jump button simultaneously, and it leaves you the option of turning that “hard pogo” back on, but the new way works fine and is only slightly simpler.
The rest of the game is just different combinations of jumping, pogo-ing, and swatting. It sounds kind of horrible breaking it down that way, but there is just not that much to it. The 5 main areas are all small and contained, with one main path that leads to a boss fight, and a secondary looping path you often have to explore to collect some trinket or component to open the path to said boss fight.
I remember there being a want to explore in the original game, and that might be my kinder, childhood hindsight reflecting back on days when I needed to squeeze every experience out of a game because new ones were few and far between. I spent hours searching the nooks and crannies, looking for the illusive GIANT diamonds that were worth a million bucks. I especially remember a side path in the Underground “Journey to the Center of the Earth” area, where you had to pogo off into nothingness, only to find that there were jumping enemies that would spring up to meet the business side of your cane so they could ferry you across this huge empty expanse right into the loving embrace of one of those huge diamonds.
My heart strings were immediately pulled when I saw that expanse in Remastered, when I leapt out over the now watered expanse, pogo-ing over four frog dudes to the other side, wherein I found… two chests, one with an ice cream cone (the game’s version of a health pick up) and a red diamond, worth about 20K in duck dollars. Why did I just go into all that detail? Because that whole scene is a metaphor describing Ducktales Remastered as a whole. The nostalgia is there in the beginning, and just like that siren’s call, it’s enough to pull you in and get you invested again. But, like the siren, once you are inside, there is nothing left but an ugly, giant monster waiting to eat you, if you, of course, replace ugly with “very well redone” and giant monster with “bland game offering style, but no substance.”
As this is an HD remake of sorts, all new sprites were designed for all the characters, and they are as bright and full of life as those of the cartoon. Little details, like Scrooge’s spats, or the buttons on Gizmo Duck’s chest panel add depth and authenticity, further adding to the allure of the siren’s call. The levels were redesigned as well, keeping the major motifs that were seen in the original game. There is a bit of a disconnect between the beautifully animated backgrounds and the 3D foregrounds where the sprites do their business, as the two don’t mesh as well as they would have using a more traditional style, but it’s nothing that will be a bother outside of that first money bin level.
The music was redone as well, managing to modernize the old tunes while paying the perfect amount of both homage and reverence to the original. Nothing stands out as being completely egregious, and some, like the song that plays on the Moon, feel especially fresh and upbeat. Everything ends up working, both audibly and visually.
Where things fall apart is in the substance of the game. Remember when I described each level as simply combinations of jumping, pogo-ing, and swatting before going off track a bit with a drawn-out metaphor? That’s because that’s really all there is to say about it. Outside of the final level, which goes out of it’s way to add environmental obstacles that serve as one hit kills, everything is just kind of “meh.” It’s not overly hard, but it is unforgiving in a way that modern games simply aren’t. Levels come down, not to skill, though there is some involved, but more to rote memorization, of knowing where the threats are, because they are always in the same place, and reacting accordingly. If you are playing on anything other than easy, when you lose all your lives, you have to start the level over, and while annoying, it simply plays into the same “learn/rinse/repeat” pattern that the games of our past were built on.
The difference is that there is just no heart behind this. It feels like it was made this way to show how closely the developers could mimic the original. It’s not lazy, not by any stretch, but it shows what a trap nostalgia can be, when you are trying so hard to emulate the semantics that you forget to bring in the heart. I can’t speak to how this would have turned out better because I honestly don’t know if it could have, but there is a point, just past the first level you complete, that it simply feels like going through the motions.
The convention feels especially dated though when approaching the boss encounters. Built on the same system of pattern recognition, losing all you lives while fighting one ends in the same result: being sent back to the beginning of the level. For those who have trouble holding on to patterns outside of those fights, this can serve as a deal breaker. For me, it was just annoying, serving no other purpose then to pad the length by making me go through all the motions of the main level again. In the end, I came out better for it, because I could go through the level faster and with less mistakes, but in this new, fast paced gaming future, this kind of design could easily cause someone to quit and never come back.
Brand new to this version of Ducktales is voice acting. ALL of the original voice actors from the cartoon return to their roles for the game, and it was excellent hearing them again, especially in the context of what plays out like an elongated episode. This too ends up feeling hollow though, as it slows down the pace of the game, which pauses for dialog every chance it gets. It sounds off too, like everything is too slow. Shockingly, my memories of what Ducktales the cartoon sounded like are completely off, as the game emulates the speed of their conversations perfectly. That left me at a bit of a loss, as obviously it was my thoughts that were in the wrong, but at the same time, their level of authenticity leaves every bit of dialog felling… old.
That’s the gist of it really. Ducktales Remastered looks great and sounds great, but at the end of the day, it’s tired and repetitive. Does it color my perception of the older classic? Not in the least. But it will make me wary in the future, when a developer trudges out an old memory in new clothing, whispering the sweet siren’s call in my ear, telling me it will all feel the same. It might, sure, but it rarely ever does.