Graveyard: Darkwing Duck

Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.

Those who grew up in the early ’90s have had “Let’s Get Dangerous!” echo through their ears more than once. The then-popular Darkwing Duck show was, much like Tale Spin and Duck Tales, a Disney Channel hit show that established that Disney could create excellent TV animation in addition to revolutionizing film animation. The early ’90s weren’t just a renaissance period for Disney, but for Capcom as well. They were riding high in the late ’80s and early ’90s with a ton of great NES games, and arcade hits like Street Fighter II turned them from a highly-respected company into one that also happened to be a juggernaut in the arcade industry.

Capcom had a tremendous run on the NES with games like DuckTales 1 and 2 alongside the Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers games. Darkwing Duck came along fairly late in the NES’s lifespan, but served as a perfect gateway for licensed gaming if you were a kid then. Capcom decided to use this license alongside the Mega Man game engine, and it’s a near-perfect mix. With so many licensed games, you had no idea what you were going to get — but with Darkwing Duck being “Mega Man with a license,” you know a quality game was there underneath the familiar dressings.

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The core gameplay is just like Mega Man, but with some big changes. Darkwing can duck under attacks, which is something Mega Man could never do. Sliding was as close as you got, and that was generally limited to sections where you could only progress by sliding or had to have pinpoint accuracy to avoid attacks. Darkwing Duck pre-dates the latter-day Mega Man formula of having four bosses lead to a second set of four bosses and it’s interesting to see that concept make its debut here. There are no Wily’s Castle sections or boss rushes, which makes this feel like a streamlined Mega Man experience — and that’s not a bad thing.

Bloating the games with boss rushes and few support items in the castle sections hurt the Mega Man games as a whole. Darkwing is essentially filler-free and mixes things up quite a bit. Mega Man never had sections where you had to carefully move over spikes — but this game does, and gives you a tire to do so. Boss battles are also very different and far more fun than Mega Man’s “avoid enemy pattern and attack” ones. Each boss stage has its own unique layout with things you need to keep track of. Multi-tiered boss levels are common and force you to time things a move or two in advance while avoiding either enemy fire or stage hazards.

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Darkwing stands out further from Mega Man thanks to a greater reliance on precision platforming. While Mega Man may have more actual perils, Darkwing throws you into pixel-perfect jumping situations fairly quickly. Jumping from platform to platform, or rather hand grip to hand grip becomes commonplace. It’s a tricky situation to be put in too, and you’ll frequently run into areas where you need to do that while also avoiding enemies. You’ll be tested across every screen, and the challenges shift from screen to screen too. One screen will have you avoiding a spike strip, while another could send a barrage of enemies at you. Platforming challenges put you right in the middle of the sky without a net and only handholds to grab onto.

Darkwing is a tough, but fair game. Enemy swarms might get you at first, but then you learn to take them out one by one and make use of the duck feature. Putting some space between yourself and enemies helps too, and using a turbo controller can be a godsend. It can, like with Metroid, cause some slowdown – but it’s effective. Visually, Darkwing is very much like Mega Man, but with a more realistic setting. You’ll see cityscapes and other real-world areas. While Mega Man excels with more fantastical areas, this one features impressive details on things like brick walls and awnings. Darkwing Duck’s chiptune soundtrack, much like Mega Man’s, is quite catchy. It’s aided by using music from the show and just putting it in chiptune form as it had one of the more addictive theme songs of its era.

 

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Darkwing Duck’s use of a license has sadly cursed it to being stuck in relative obscurity. The show was a mild success in its day and its NES incarnation wasn’t viewed as a top-tier game in its day like DuckTales. Hopefully, with Capcom making a deal for DuckTales, we wind up seeing Darkwing Duck being revived too. Mega Man’s getting a collection once again, and thanks to Mighty No. 9 showing that there is still plenty of life in that gameplay style, this could be a way to make even more money with it. Darkwing Duck keeps most of what makes the classic Mega Man games great, but makes it a bit more fair with a duck ability that allows you to not be a sitting duck waiting to be attacked.

Anyone who enjoys classic Mega Man games, but hasn’t had a chance to enjoy this, should grab it while they can. It’s currently going for around $40 on ebay, and was around $50 only a month or so ago. It’s an outstanding game and one of the finest platformers on the NES. Much like how the classic Mega Man games have stood the test of time, as has this. While the cartoon it’s based on may be too corny to really enjoy, the game holds up as a fine example of action-platforming excellence. A re-release would be fantastic, and like with DuckTales, the licensing costs could be recouped fairly easily thanks to having so many more available platforms to sell it on. Hopefully that happens and the game can be more than a footnote in history and get a second lease on life on modern technology.