Review: DuckTales (NES, 1989)

Oh, the licensed videogame. They have a notoriously bad reputation — especially those aimed at the younger crowd — and even though I won’t deny there are a lot of terrible ones out there, I think there are just as many great ones. Really, the same can be said for non-licensed games and how many stinkers have been produced. It’s very easy to get caught up in the negativity, but I’d rather focus on the positives: those games that elevate the very things they’re based on.


One such game is Disney’s DuckTales, developed by Capcom, and released on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1989. It’s considered one of the best NES games by many players, and 2013’s DuckTales: Remastered from WayForward Technologies is proof of its lasting popularity. It’s also — if the internet is correct — one of the earliest examples of a licensed Disney console title, at least from the NES forward.

It sets the bar pretty high from the get-go. The colorful title screen featuring Scrooge McDuck is attractive and is accompanied by the series’ iconic theme song. I just love that 8-bit sound! Capcom was at the top of their game that year, with the wildly popular Mega Man 2 having been released a few months prior, as well as the criminally underrated Willow. DuckTales shares more than a few similarities to the Mega Man series, particularly with its open structure and some would say, its difficulty.


This isn’t Ghosts’n Goblins or Battletoads hard, but don’t let the Disney license fool you: DuckTales can be a challenging game. It requires good coordination and practice, especially to master its signature move: Uncle Scrooge’s Pogo-jump. To do it, you jump in the air, press down + attack, and continue to hold them after the first successful bounce. After that, you can just hold down the attack button and pogo around. It’s fun and powerful — it’s the only way to reach many of the game’s ledges — but you can’t control the height of your bounce, certain enemies are immune to it, and getting too close to ledges will cancel it out. This adds a new layer of complexity and strategy to navigating levels, and it’s one of DuckTales‘ defining features. It’s also the primary way to uncover hidden treasures throughout, of which there are many.

Speaking of Scrooge’s cane, it’s not just for bouncing around. It’s a rather cool and context-sensitive weapon that you can use to hit environmental items to more easily take care of enemies. Swinging at canisters and rocks will send them flying across the screen, keeping you out of harm’s way. You can face those enemies head-on, but you’ll quickly learn of more creative ways to get around them. This encourages the player to experiment with their surroundings. You can also swing at bigger objects to uncover even more goodies; if they contain nothing, Scrooge’s head will humorously shake from the impact.


When you begin, three hits will end you, and you will get hit. Enemy placement is very thoughtful though, and those looking to quickly run through to get to the end won’t make it far. Level checkpoints are sparse, lives are limited, recovery time is short, and there is a timer working against you. I don’t like that timer, even though it’s a generous one. Stages can (and should!) be thoroughly searched, but I think time limits can really discourage exploration in games. To be fair, once you learn your way around, completing stages can be done quickly and you do get a money bonus at the end. However, I was still happy to hear that this was taken out of the Remastered version.

The bosses themselves are a bit of a disappointment. They’re small, and most players will only have trouble with one or two of them. The rest display simple patterns that only take a few seconds to figure out and overcome. In fact, I found several of the game’s standard enemies to be more troublesome than the bosses.


Graphically, DuckTales looks great. Scrooge is animated well, and small details, like how his top hat briefly pops off of his head when he… ducks, are wonderful touches. At times, he’ll walk behind foreground elements, which is always a cool detail that creates a convincing sense of depth. You’ll also briefly run into various characters from the cartoon, including Huey, Dewey, Louie, Webby, and Launchpad McQuack.

The music is an often-cited high point of DuckTales, and it has good reason to be. “The Moon”, easily one of the most recognizable songs from the NES era, is up there with “Dr. Wily’s Castle” from Capcom’s own Mega Man 2 in the “How many times has it been covered on YouTube?” department. It’s an inspired song, and always ranks high on videogame music lists. Another standout track is “The Himalayas”, which perfectly matches the tone of the game.


DuckTales is short, but Capcom packed in a lot of content within its 5 stages. There’s some cheap recycling going on — you’ll revisit one area not just once, but twice — but overall, the game provides a good amount of variety within its branching levels. There are lots of hidden areas, and it even has three different endings, depending on how good or bad you do.

It’ll definitely take you several playthroughs to extract everything there is out of DuckTales, and even after that, you’ll likely come back for more. This is a unique, fun platformer that proudly does its license justice.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B
    Sprites are drawn well, the backgrounds have good detail, and enemies are decently animated. Character cameos included for series fans.
  • Music & Sound Effects: A
    DuckTales‘ soundtrack is great, with lots of similarities to Mega Man‘s style. Sound effects are typical of the 8-bit era, and get the job done.
  • Gameplay & Controls: B+
    Tight, precise controls make this a very enjoyable experience, and the nonlinear level design is very good. The Pogo-jump has an initially steep learning curve, which could frustrate some players, but it’s fun and unique.
  • Value: B
    There are only 5 stages, which is short even by 8-bit standards. However, there are lots of things to find, and only diligent players will get the game’s best ending.

Overall: B+