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 – June 1990
In Capcom’s take on the Rescue Rangers, Chip and Dale spend all of their time running, lifting boxes, hiding inside boxes, and throwing boxes. Again, anybody’s who’s sat through an episode of Disney’s big animated follow-up to DuckTales could be forgiven for wondering if anybody working on the game had seen even one hot minute of the source material.
If you’ve played ahead in this series – I have, have you??? – then you know that as far as clever, inventive platformers go, DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale are about as unique as the Disney / Capcom games got. Both of these titles stash a truly clever play mechanic inside a Disney-wrapped box. It would have been easy to make yet another Mario clone, but Capcom gave Scrooge that pogo jump, a nest of tricky levels, and a lot of secrets. They could have delivered a two-player chase game with Chip ‘n Dale, but they delivered one of most accessible and fun games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. If you want to see what a Disney game made by a company that truly doesn’t care looks like, check out Hi-Tech Expressions’ The Chase on Tom Sawyer Island for MS-DOS. DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale are remembered because they’re uncommonly good and carefully planned.
The basic play mechanics in both games are so clever, that I would not be surprised if they used an engine intended for a use other than Disney game purgatory. Perhaps the pogo-jumping game and the box-throwing game were prototypes created inside Capcom that never went anywhere, much how Nintendo dusted off a vertical scrolling game that became Yume Kojo Doki Doki Panic / Super Mario Brothers 2. Or perhaps Capcom bought some unfinished games outright and totally reworked them into DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale.
I’ve always thought that DuckTales in particular played like it was developed by a team that was working from at best a packet of information and character designs – why the Himilayas? Why is Gizmoduck on the Moon? – that strongly hinted that whatever form the game previously took has still left traces of itself in the final product. Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers feels much more in tune with its source material – many enemy characters in the game appear in the television show, and the charming oversize settings evoke the series without being slavishly faithful. Chip ‘n Dale’s cuteness has always endeared them to audiences in Japan, so perhaps Rescue Rangers was more widely available over there than DuckTales was.
To this reviewer, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers is the true treasure in the Disney / Capcom catalgue. The gameplay can be addictive, especially with two playing simultaneously. Most of the 2 player co-op games on the NES are shooters or frenetic beat-em-ups like Double Dragon and TMNT: The Arcade Game – Rescue Rangers is one of the few titles in the system library to be approachable to those who don’t like button mashing and can work together. The control scheme is, honestly, brilliant. Boxes can be picked up and thrown at enemies, or dropped down and hidden under. Both methods will do damage, allowing players to take the offense or defense. Some enemies will simply be stunned, and if you’re quick, you can pick them up and throw them. You can also stun your Player 2’s chipmunk, pick them up, and throw them too. Crates will be destroyed immediately upon taking out an enemy, while tin cans can be re-used and also stacked into platforms. Defeated enemies fly backwards off the screen instead of simply vanishing or falling away, which never stops being funny for the duration of Rescue Rangers’ fairly short gameplay.
Both DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale have a reputation for being easy, but this is only true in the context of all NES games; they’re not as tough as Castlevania III or Bionic Commando. I think, depending on how quick and twitchy an action game player you are, Rescue Rangers puts up a fight that isn’t too tough to overcome. By the end of the game, enemies swarm our heroes constantly and there’s some tricky jumps to make. What doesn’t really ever change are the boss battles, which are either disappointingly simple or a relaxing diversion after surviving another gauntlet of crate throwing – depending on your point of view. The levels are selected from a map screen, allowing players to either conquer every level or bypass trickier ones. Once the first map is cleared, the Rescue Ranger blimp moves to a second screen of tougher levels.
This game is terrific and, with the correct Player 2 in tow, it can be one of the best experiences on the system. It may lack the treasure-hunting depth of DuckTales, but for straightforward pleasure, very little else on the NES is nearly as fun. Bring a friend.
The Little Mermaid – July 1991
If there’s a video game genre that’s more maligned than the licensed game, it’s probably the “girl” game. There aren’t too many of these on the NES – the genre really began to take off in the 16 bit era, leading to piles of disposable, poorly designed Barbie games. Even modern games targeting a feminine audience are rarely shown any respect: Nintendogs and Cooking Mama are lucky if they get off with “bemused tolerance” while the internet is awash in regret for the lost era when Sonic was in games that were halfway fun.
The good news is that The Little Mermaid is both appropriate for everyone and well made. The game is actually a sequel to the film, where Ursula is somehow not dead from being impaled by a boat and now resides in a castle and has mind-controlled all of the fish in the ocean into being evil. This provides enough justification for Ariel to explain to Eric that she is a mermaid (which I guess he forgot), then turn back into a mermaid at will and set off to destroy Ursula again. See, this is already better than that direct-to-video sequel!
The gameplay is honestly like something between a platform game and a shooter. Ariel floats in the ocean and can use her tail to trap aggressive fish in bubbles and throw them at enemies. Those of us who unconsciously default to Mario-style controls in any underwater setting can relax: Ariel controls like a spaceship in a shooter game, and can easily be guided through the level using only the direction pad. She picks up seashells and trapped enemies automatically, and can plow directly into oncoming foes with those items without taking damage. I kept dying in the first level until I realized for no reason I was treating the game like Super Mario World and was holding down the action button to pick up and hold onto the weapons. There’s no need for this; The Little Mermaid is generously uncluttered and pleasingly sharp in its controls.
There’s only six levels here, and they aren’t long at all. Ariel must open sunken treasure chests which contain pearls that will boost the strength and distance of her attack. This must be done by throwing seashells at them, or knocking barrels over that will roll through the level and collide, opening the chest. As her attack increases in strength, Ariel can stun and bubble larger and larger enemies. As I said, once I started thinking of this game as a shooter with an exploration element, I did much better.
The boss battles here are quite good, and unlike when you face Fat Cat in Rescue Rangers, Ursula has two forms and unleashes enough enemies onto the screen to make the fight against her feel like the real end-of-the-game battle. Befitting a mermaid, Ariel only controls poorly when she’s on dry land, where she flops around like a seal. One of the boss battles forces you to deal with this handicap to do damage to a walrus, and it’s a very welcome change of pace.
Capcom’s creativity and sense of fun occasionally pokes through the simple levels: fish wear sheets in the Sunken Ship to pretend to be ghosts of drowned sailors, and Ursula’s castle, with its doors that lead to multiple places, compares favorably to the more complex 16-bit games they would soon be making.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of younger sisters ended up getting this game as a consolation prize for then their brothers weren’t hogging the NES with Contra. And I’m going to guess that when nobody was looking, those brothers took this game off the shelf and played it too. Like the film it’s based on, The Little Mermaid is good enough to have a wider appeal than its title suggests.
TaleSpin – December 1991
(It’s fun to see all of these purple box Capcom games together, isn’t it? Back in the NES days that purple and red was nearly a guarantee of a quality product inside)
I was fully prepared to start my review of this one with something like “here’s where the wheels begin to come off in the classic Capcom games”. I even had the start of a review written up with something to that effect in it. TaleSpin is one of those NES games that you can still find sitting around, ready to buy for a few bucks. I’ve owned it for a few years, and never done much of anything with it. The controls struck me as clunky and the game as kind of uninspired. I’d never even bothered to get past the first level, when the necessity of writing this review caused me to sit down for once and actually try. I’m glad I did, because I was wrong. This game is fun, and awesomely weird.
It starts off innocently enough. After an objectively wonderful 8-bit rendition of the TaleSpin title theme, you’re looking at pleasingly earth toned bricks and well-drawn character sprites to set up the story of the game. Then, it’s off to the first level presumably set in the sheltered bay of Cape Suzette – about as routine a side-scrolling shooting level as I can think of. There’s sky, and rocks. Baloo can flip his ship upside down and fly backwards through the stage, and TaleSpin is one of the few shooters that can do this. You pick up cargo along the way, and if you run into the scenery, you don’t take any damage. At first this struck me as baffling, but after a while I began to turn off my Gradius-shooter instincts and began to use it to my advantage. It’s nice to know you can go all the way up to the roof of the level to avoid enemy fire without destroying your ship.
So far none of this is interesting. But keep playing – it gets better.
Between levels, a shop run by Wildcat appears where you can buy upgrades to your plane. Immediately, my engagement with the levels increased as I realized my performance in picking up cargo and shooting down enemies could improve the speed and rapid fire of my ship. I don’t like shooter games very much, but ones that allow you to buy things always give me better incentive to play. But then the game launched into Level 2 and began to win me over.
Rebecca Cunningham appears and says “Your next destination is the baseball stadium!”. Before I could fully process this, there was Baloo – improbably flying his plane through the middle of a baseball stadium. What look like clones on Don Karnage lob baseballs at you from behind automatic pitcher machines. A giant baseball appears and blows a hole in the earth. I even found a bonus round where Kit Cloudkicker collects balloons on his airwing – I’ve never heard anybody mention this and previously I thought the only benefit to the Sega Genesis version of TaleSpin was the ability to play as Kit (I know I’m not the only TaleSpin fan enthused about this bear).
|WHAT IS HAPPENING?!??
By level 3 I was really enjoying TaleSpin but still didn’t like the control scheme – I didn’t like that Button B fired bullets and Button A flips Baloo’s plane. It then occurred to me that really I ought to be playing this with a joystick, like a real shooter – and five minutes later I had plugged in my NES Advantage and found the controls much better, almost natural.
In the end, TaleSpin won me over with its colorful graphics and endearing sense of wackiness. Like the other Capcom games, it can be completed in less than an hour and isn’t too severe of a challenge, especially with an NES Advantage. Give this one a try – for an NES cart with nearly no built in demand, and a lousy first level, it’s a lot more fun than it should be.
Oh, and why is Baloo’s character sprite directly based on the Happy Meal toy???
Darkwing Duck – June 1992
By Summer 1992, the Nintendo Entertainment System was functionally obsolete. Although the Sega Genesis had been on the market since 1989, it had not been able to capture a significant market share until Summer 1991, when Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog and finally put its competitior, the TurboGraphix-16, in third place. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was available in North America for Christmas 1991. Nintendo would continue to officially support the NES until early 1994, but the writing was on the wall and the fabled 16-bit console wars of the 90s had begun.
Many of the most aesthetically impressive NES titles were released between 1991 and 1994 – although the abilities of the system were limited, tactful developers like Nintendo, Capcom, Konami and Sunsoft could squeeze beautiful things out of that tiny grey box. Darkwing Duck is a gorgeous game – the handsomest of Capcom’s 8-bit Disney run, to be sure. There’s even an impressive introduction sequence which works as something of a title sequence. Gone are the blocky, blurry sprites of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers – by this time Capcom were masters of gigantic, detailed, screen-filling sprites (see: Street Fighter II). In every area of presentation, Darkwing Duck is a terrific game.
But I’m simply not very enthusiastic about it. The game is built on the back of the Mega Man game engine Capcom had been using since 1987. This isn’t a bad thing, because the Mega Man games are rightly hailed as classics of their era – or at least the first three are. Darkwing Duck came out roughly simultaneously with Mega Man 5, easily the weakest of the original 8 games, and it shares that game’s same sense of exhaustion. Even with that low bar to clear, it’s awfully hard to play Darkwing Duck and not constantly be reminded that you’re playing a less inventive Mega Man 4.
So maybe it’s most fair to judge DW by what else it brings to the table. Unlike Mega Man, Darkwing can crouch, which will please those who always hated that in Mega Man games. Also, he can jump up and latch onto the underside of platforms, then climb up onto them. The best areas of the game force you to master this, dropping down and hanging off the underside of moving platforms to avoid obstacles. DW can also jump and attach himself to hanging hooks, streetlights, portholes, and other features of the background. Playing through these areas is the only time when the game truly seems engaging.
It seems obvious that the Capcom staff was using these Disney games to blow off steam between A-list assignments – this game is nearly as wacky as TaleSpin. If you’re one of those who enjoyed the rabbits in Rescue Rangers who attack by wriggling runner carpets, then Darkwing Duck is for you. The enemies in this game are hilariously goofy, including boxing kangaroos, turtles who sneeze their shells off, and Arnold clones who burn away to reveal robotic skeletons. Every so often, DW has to jump to avoid banana peels which can knock him out for a few seconds. It doesn’t exactly capture the tone of the show, but this silliness is appreciated.
Did I mention it’s hard? This game is hard. Those who pine for a halcyon days of “Nintendo Hard” will appreciate this one. The platforming is not unreasonable, but the boss battles are remarkably difficult, requiring players to very, very quickly drop between platforms – which isn’t easy in this game – while chasing a quick moving enemy and dodging multiple projectiles. The final boss fight is done while avoiding two relentless drones and is especially infuriating.
At the end of the game, the city is saved, and Darkwing rides his motorcycle away while contemplative music plays. Many NES fans will recognize this immediately as the hallmark ending of Mega Man games, where Mega Man solemly heads home after defeating the nefarious Mr. Wily. “Will the world ever be safe??“, Mega Man wonders.
If there were any doubt that Capcom programmers were expressing frustration over their obligation to pump out game after game in either the Disney or Mega Man series, the ending of Darkwing Duck is it. As he moodily rides of into the night, DW hits a pothole.
Darkwing Duck is a respectable game with a number of charming touches, and strictly as a game, it’s the nearest to Capcom’s come to making a fully fleshed out game for the Disney series since Rescue Rangers. It’s fun, it’s tough, it’s full of whimsical touches, but it just didn’t do it for this girl. It’s a better Mega Man-alike than The Krion Conquest, but just as in theme parks, the details make the difference.
Game Rankings So Far
Next Time: We make the jump to 16-bits for a magical quest