A mostly good, if a bit shaky, conversion of the beloved NES platformer.
Capcom seemed to operate at something of a glacial pace on Game Boy compared to more prolific publishers like Konami, Nintendo, or FCI, but in hindsight, that was probably for the best. This second Capcom portable outing demonstrates once again that quality, not quantity, was their play here.
DuckTales makes a great counterpoint to Capcom’s first Game Boy production, Gargoyle’s Quest. That game was a tour de force for first-generation portable software: A fully realized action RPG that followed in the footsteps of a popular arcade action game but reworked the entire premise to play better within the limitations of the handheld system. With DuckTales, we have a great tangent to that concept. It’s by far the best NES-to-Game Boy adaptation we’ve seen so far on Game Boy Works. There have been some admirable attempts, ranging from Nintendo’s Golf to Taxan’s Burai Fighter Deluxe, but DuckTales blows them all out of the water.
Capcom did basically everything right here, putting together a monochrome adaptation that holds its own with the beloved NES game in most respects and arguably exceeds it in a few areas. About the only thing that didn’t quite pan out was the soundtrack conversion — despite Game Boy having a highly capable audio chip, DuckTales’ iconic tunes have been given a shrill, warbling quality here. If you’ve ever wondered what a childhood dying sounds like, the answer is “the Game Boy adaptation of DuckTales’ Moon theme.” Aside from that one painful shortcoming, though, DuckTales should have served as the textbook for every publisher in the early ’90s who aspired to turn their console games into portable works. Capcom made a lot of really smart design choices with this adaptation.
Fundamentally, DuckTales is the same game here as on NES. Once again, you take control of the remarkably spry Scrooge McDuck, the octogenarian avian whose cane doubles as a deadly pogo stick. And, as on NES, your goal here is to scour five different locations around the world (and above it) in search of legendary treasures and as much wealth as you can amass.
Scrooge can’t directly attack foes head-on; while he has the ability to swing his cane, this doesn’t function like a weapon. For starters, you have to press against a stationary object in order to trigger the swing animation, which you obviously can’t do with a dangerous enemy. Instead, striking objects causes them to break, if they’re destructible, or else to release any secrets they might be hiding if not.
Your only means of offense is instead to pogo jump on a foe by pressing down + B while jumping. This will remind you somewhat of the down-thrust attack in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, but with one significant differences. Link’s downward strike would only cause him to bounce off foes, and only slightly; Scrooge bounces off any surface, to ridiculous heights. The maneuver is a little clumsy, requiring you to press two buttons at once to trigger it — something that would improved upon in the sequel — but it’s versatile and, above all, fun.
However, the designers realized you’d want to go bouncing around the screen at breakneck speed, so they threw in lots of little traps and hazards to punish players for not using at least a little caution. Monsters tend to appear at a height clearly designed to catch a high-bounding hero unawares, and certain enemies are invulnerable to Scrooge’s pogo attack. But once you learn the lay of the land, and where the bad guys spawn, you can cruise through most levels… unless, of course, you’re hunting in every corner for treasures.
Like a lot of platformers of this vintage, such as in NES compatriates The Goonies and Milon’s Secret Castle, DuckTales contains an enormous number of treasures hidden all over the place. Unlike in those other games, though, they’re so numerous and so easy to reveal that they never really slow down the pace of the game. You’re likely to come across enough hidden treasures to earn a decent ending just by thoroughly pogoing around and bouncing enemies into submission. It’s an invisible item hunt, but it never feels odious — in large part because requisite items used for advancement are never invisible, merely hidden in out-of-the-way passage.
Each of the five stages has its own unique personality. The Himalayas, for example, features lots of snow that will cause Scrooge to become stuck if he pogos into it. Transylvania is a complex maze full of teleportation devices. The Moon largely takes place in a UFO. Players can explore the world ostensibly in any order, kind of like a game in sibling Capcom franchise Mega Man. Unlike in Mega Man, however, you don’t necessarily have to complete a stage once you enter it. Launchpad McQuack shows up in various locations to offer a one-time ride back to Scrooge’s mansion, which serves as a place to tally up your treasure hoard and select an alternate stage. Also, certain events in one stage serve as a prerequisite to others.
For example, you need to find a key in Transylvania before you can enter the mines. In fact, you have to go back to Transylvania several times throughout the course of the adventure, even after you’ve beaten its boss. I could be mistaken, but return trips to Transylvania feel less tedious in this version of the game than on NES. When you head back to collect the mine key, for example, the first warp mirror you see takes you directly to the key, then once you have the key the next mirror warps you immediately back to the mansion.
The entire game is full of Disney fan service. While standard enemies are just weird generic monsters like bees, bunnies, and gorillas, the aliens have more of a Disney personality. Meanwhile, the bosses generally consist of characters that fans of the cartoons would instantly recognize. The Beagle Boys show up to capture one of Scrooge’s Nephews; Magica de Spell rules Transylvania; and you’ll even fight the King of the Terra Firmies. I never watched the cartoon myself, and I still instantly recognize these iconic Disney creations — many of them originated in the classic Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks and Don Rosa. And they’ve all been translated marvelously many different mediums: From comic to cartoon to NES game to monochrome portable work.
And in general, this is true for every element of the NES game that’s been ported over to Game Boy (besides the music, that is). The level-puzzle elements work the same on Game Boy as on NES, for example; you’ll need to collect a key from Transylvania in order to advance into the Himalayan mines, and you can’t complete the Moon stage until you’ve located a remote control to summon Gizmoduck and have it blast through a wall to reveal a passage to the boss. However, the particulars of many levels have been overhauled here. You can coast quite a ways on your familiarity with the original version of the game, but ultimately you’ll need to relearn the locations and layouts of these five stages. It’s a sort of a DuckTales remix, which gives it value even for people who have picked over every secret in the NES game.
Along with the revamped level arrangements, Capcom changed up how enemies appear and spawn. This might actually be the single biggest improvement for this entire port, and it frankly makes DuckTales for Game Boy a lot more enjoyable than its console sibling in places. As with most games of this era, defeated enemies quickly respawn in DuckTales. But on NES, they constantly respawn; you can never enjoy a moment’s respite, because as soon as you off a bad guy, it reappears, over and over again.
Here, however, respawning works more as it does in the Mega Man games: Take out a foe and it stays downed, only reappearing if you double-back and bring that creature’s spawn point back into the visible play area. It’s a fairly subtle difference in the handling of infinite foes, but it helps make the Game Boy version feel less grueling. I’m sure Capcom made this tweak to account for the more limited pixel area of the Game Boy: With enemies constantly crowding you, the action would become overwhelmingly congested in short order. With the revised approach, though, there’s never a shortage of challenge, but it feels less hectic.
This does serve to make DuckTales a much easier game to complete on Game Boy than on NES, but again, that’s not necessarily a negative factor. The portable remake is easier to complete because it throws out one of the more obnoxious 8-bit design quirks of the original. It’s a beneficial change, and it doesn’t really impact the replay value of the Game Boy version. After all, DuckTales at heart is a high-score challenge, and even if you manage to finish the game in short order you’ll still want to chase down a better score and a better ending.
The other area where Capcom really aced the design of this conversion was in the graphical proportions. At the risk of repeating a point I’ve made over and over again, the Game Boy’s 160×144 pixel resolution was much lower than the NES’s 256×224 effective play area. When developers brought over NES graphics at a 1-to-1 pixel ratio, games became cramped and clumsy. A proper 8-bit Nintendo console-to-handheld conversion demanded developers rethink and redraw their games’ graphics… and that’s precisely what Capcom did.
Every visual element in the Game Boy version of DuckTales has been reworked to account for the fact that Scrooge McDuck himself has lost a quarter of his pixel height. Where he stood four sprites (or 32 pixels) high on NES, here he’s three sprites tall — 24 pixels. You don’t really notice the change at a glance, because Capcom’s pixel artists managed to retain the look and personality of the characters despite the smaller size. Scrooge loses much of his height from having his top hat shortened; the rest comes from giving him a bit more of a hunched posture.
Still, even though Scrooge is only 3/4 as tall on Game Boy as on NES, the screen dimensions offer only 2/3 the effective play space. To account for this discrepancy, Capcom tweaked individual screen layouts along with the overall structure of each level. Background elements look largely the same as on NES; after all, everything is made up of 8×8 squares, and rather than compressing the visuals, Capcom simply used fewer blocks to draw the backgrounds. Accordingly, Scrooge’s abilities — such as how high he can pogo around on his cane — have changed slightly to match.
Perhaps the simple most important consideration in great platform game design is the need to design a world to fit around the skills and capabilities of its hero, and this Game Boy conversion alters the workings of the original game just enough to make this work. You’ll likely notice these subtle changes right away. For example, in Transylvania, many narrow passages blocked by destructible objects can no longer be cleared with a jump. Instead, the lower ceilings prevent you from bounding over them, and you’re forced to clear many paths forward with the use of Scrooge’s golf swing.
This has the pleasant side effect of making a largely underutilized skill from the NES game feel like more of a core component of Scrooge’s arsenal this time around. Which is to say that, in some ways, DuckTales on Game Boy is better at being DuckTales than the original DuckTales. This game is that rarest of treats: A console title that improved in certain respects in the process of making its way to a portable system rather than simply turning into trash. This portable conversion upgrade process would become more common beginning with Game Boy Advance — think the Final Fantasy Advance games, or Wii U-to-3DS conversions like Yoshi’s Woolly World — but in the 8-bit days it was practically unheard of.
Granted, this port does have a few critical issues bringing it down. Collision detection can be a bit too loose, resulting in Scrooge taking damage when he shouldn’t, and the controls for the Transylvanian minecart sequence feel punishingly sluggish; you can easily burn through your entire set of extra lives there in a matter of minutes. Even with these failings, Capcom managed an impressive of conversion feat here — and this wouldn’t be the last time Capcom they’d it pull off on Game Boy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
For the moment, it’s worth celebrating this DuckTales port as a rare victory in the challenging world of NES-to-Game Boy conversions. It’s not perfect, but it’s as good a portable adaptation of a beloved console game as we’ve yet seen on Game Boy Works, and unfortunately we won’t see its likes again too often. Until Capcom gets its act together and puts the Disney Afternoon Collection on Switch, though, I’m afraid this is still the best way to get your DuckTales fix on the go.