(Xbox 360 Review) DuckTales: Remastered

Developer: WayForward
Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Platformer
Players: 1
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 7 = Good

The recent trend of pulling old games from their virtual graves and dressing them up in a new set of high-def clothes proves that, try as you might, some things will always have a certain vintage smell. This is certainly true of DuckTales: Remastered, which as per its inescapable title is yet another revival being trotted out to appeal to the hearty nostalgia born of the 8- and 16-bit eras. By amping up the presentation beyond that of the wildest dreams of anyone who braved the merciless NES original, the team at WayForward has provided a version of that classic that can be enjoyed by modern-day gamers. However, whether those gamers will find their rosy memories vindicated will depend entirely on their tolerance for truly punishing, old-school platforming gameplay.

First, the good news: if ever you were even a passing fan, DuckTales: Remastered is pretty spectacular to behold. WayForward has pulled out all the stops to make the original game seem more like the cartoon, and that includes stuffing every corner of your screen with carefully crafted visuals and animations. Scrooge McDuck’s quest for legendary treasures has never looked so good: whether he’s taking a golf swing with his cane or beating on a carnivorous plant that’s latched onto his torso, Scrooge moves with stunning fluidity, as do all other on-screen characters.

Backgrounds offer sidelong glimpses at long-forgotten tombs or haunted hallways, and even the foreground is given nice touches such as ambient dust, snow, and embers. It’s a slick look pulled straight from the Saturday mornings of old, and it makes quite an impression. Even the voices of the TV show have come along for the ride, providing their instantly recognizable talents to the game’s newly fleshed-out storyline of Scrooge’s quest for unique loot. Indeed, Scrooge now has a range of audio clips that he fires off as he explores—”Children and billionaires first!” is a personal favorite—and it’s all the more impressive given that they stem from the 93-year-old actor Alan Young, who voiced the famous skinflint in the cartoon. It’s all a rather impressive package, and within moments of firing up the game, you’re left feeling as though your nostalgia will sweep you through what will surely be a good time.

Depending on your point of view, this is where the bad news kicks in: aside from some superficial changes, WayForward left much of the level design, enemies, and core gameplay as it was Back in the Day: brutally unforgiving. From the get-go, you’re able to explore any of the game’s five primary levels in any order you choose, and each one essentially boils down to pogo-jumping your way through a mix of injury-inducing level design and enemy placement until you reach a boss. Defeat the boss, and you walk away with the level’s signature treasure.

This sounds simple enough until you realize that each area is designed to chip away at your extremely minimal health and scant two lives in incredibly punishing ways. Even if you manage to drag your battered Scrooge to the boss, good luck punching your way through without losing whatever life you might have left—which would be fine if there were any checkpoints or continue system. However, as a faithful reproduction of the original DuckTales, Remastered contains neither of these things, meaning that losing your two lives forces you back to the selection screen to start all over again. Levels might be relatively short in comparison to most modern offerings, but realizing that those 10-15 minutes you spent hopping around spiders and apes in the Amazon has been for nothing is still a real kick in the teeth.

To be fair, being forced to play and re-play each level will often push you into hidden areas containing permanent hit-point upgrades. Eventually, these will allow you to boost your health by quite a bit more than the initial three hearts, making exploration of these areas considerably simpler as the game goes on.  As well, you can stumble onto an extra life in each level, thanks to the ever-helpful Ms. Beakley. Still, even these won’t help if you make the wrong move and end up in a ravine, chasm, or fail to make precisely the right jump at precisely the right time; mine cart segments are especially guilty of not letting you know you’re headed for certain death, and failing to do any of these will instantly and mercilessly strip you of one of your oh-so-precious lives. This is of course not made any easier by the mercurial controls, which—much as it did in the original—often result in your pogo-jump failing at just the wrong time, leaving you wide open for injury or death.

This makes DuckTales: Remastered a tricky item to criticize, as it delivers more or less the original game, for all its design flaws and insane difficulty. This was, for better or worse, the DuckTales as it was on the NES, and for better or worse, it’s the DuckTales you’ll see here. This has sparked no shortage of philosophical debate among the gaming cognoscenti, and it’s not an unfair question: should a classic game be retooled to not only reflect our expectations about visuals, but about mechanics as well? The most obvious answer is to somewhat begrudgingly say that DuckTales: Remastered delivers very precisely what it advertises: a generous update to the presentation of the original while leaving its core mechanics intact. It seems unfair to penalize it for offering the same challenge as the very game it’s based upon, though it seems equally unfair to argue that this somehow leaves the original—and therefore this version—above reproach.

It is fundamentally a very tough game, and it’s difficult to argue that it isn’t sometimes extremely unpleasant, particularly in the final level. Here, you’re forced through the controller-breaking meat-grinder of not only a killer march to the final boss, but the boss fight itself followed by not one but two timed platforming sections where any imprecise jump results in instant death. It’s such an incredible grind that it’s easy to imagine most players will spend as much time playing and replaying the final level as they did the rest of the levels combined.

Still, this is all a very direct appeal to nostalgia. While the tooth-gnashing challenge may seem rather incongruous with the tone set by the rest of the game, it’s all leveled at the eight-year-old in each of us, with its awkward puns as well as its extended and silly conversations between Scrooge and whoever he’s lugged along with him. Combined with its slick look and sound, playing the game is sometimes akin to watching an episode of the TV show, which is perhaps the point, as it tries to remind older players of what it was like to enjoy either one. This point is hammered home rather neatly through the unlock system, where cash collected in successfully completed levels can be exchanged for what’s one of the most extensive collections of art you’ll find in a game. There’s not only some rather snappy comparisons between the NES game’s pixelated characters and the new HD types, but the most dedicated players will eventually be able to unlock songs and even material from the TV show. The trick, of course, lies in having the patience to get that far.

Despite the silliness of its source material and its rather astounding new cartoon look, DuckTales: Remastered is an unexpectedly forceful reminder of what gaming once was: brutal and unflinching. What you get out of this game will depend almost entirely on how fondly you look back on a time before endless continues, when developers had no qualms about tossing you in the deep end and not caring about whether you could swim. On that front, nobody can accuse DuckTales: Remastered of false advertising, as it revives everything that was both fun and painful about the original. For all its borderline ridiculous challenge, however, it still manages to charm despite itself thanks in no small part to the TV-style visuals and the revival of the original voice cast. It’s an impressive thing when it’s not enraging you, and for that reason alone, it might be worth a look for anyone with fond memories of Saturday mornings split between cartoons and issues of Nintendo Power.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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