“I am the terror that flaps in the night, I am the fingernail that scrapes the blackboard of your soul.”
Sorry. After the Rage Mage’s recent review of the NES game Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six, I just have to get the… fowl taste out of my mouth. So we decided to revisit one of the defining forces of animated justice in the 90’s after-school-cartoons category: Darkwing Duck.
Disney’s Darkwing Duck ran from 1991 to 1992 and was based on the crime-fighting adventures of the anthropomorphic avian hero. It was a spin-off of DuckTales, which, if you’ve never heard of that show then I need to ask you what you think of our planet.
Darkwing Duck was a spoof of sorts of the Golden Age superhero/comic book scene, most notably he’s a parody of Batman, the Sandman, and the Shadow with his rogues gallery and gas gun. DW fights crime in the city of St. Canard (Gotham); his alter ego, Drake Mallard, is a parody of Kent Allard, the alter ego of the Shadow; he has a sidekick named Launchpad McQuack (who also appeared in DuckTales) similar to other superheroes with sidekicks; DW works with the Justice Ducks (DC’s “Justice League”) and intelligence agency S.H.U.S.H. (parody of Marvel’s “S.H.I.E.L.D.”), which is run by head director J. Gander Hooter (a play on J. Edgar Hoover, first director of the FBI); he battles terrorist organization F.O.W.L. (likely a nod to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. of James Bond lore).
Darkwing’s rogues gallery was one of the best parts of the show. There was the Fearsome Five (also the name of a DC villains’ group, and reminiscent of Marvel’s Sinister Six): DW’s evil clone Negaduck, Bushroot (Batman’s “Poison Ivy”), the Liquidator (Spidey’s “Hydro-Man”), Megavolt (“Electro”), and Quacker Jack (a spoof of both “the Joker” and “Toyman”). Other villains included: Taurus Bulba (voiced by Tim Curry!), Steelbeak (Bond villain “Jaws”), and Professor Moliarty (Sherlock’s “Moriarty”).
Darkwing himself is an egotistical klutz who tries to be a good father and often needs his family and friends to bail him out of trouble. Plus, he was voiced by the great Jim Cummings. It was 90’s cartoonism at its best. But as this is not about the tv show and about the video game (I just wanted you to have some background/nostalgia), here we go:
A “mysterious crime wave” has struck the fair citizens of St. Canard. S.H.U.S.H. intelligence surmises that it is the work of criminal organization F.O.W.L. There’s only one hero who rules the night and strikes terror into the hearts of the superstitious and cowardly, and recover the stolen gold bricks and diamonds: Darkwing Duck!
The game is a platformer in the vein of classic Mega Man developed by Capcom and released in ’92 for the NES. It was later ported to the Game Boy in ’93. Stages are divided up into two sets of six. Three are available at the beginning of the game and players can choose to complete them in any order, followed by another three stages afterward. The first three stages involve facing down Quacker Jack on the bridge, Wolfduck in the city center, and Liquidator in the sewers. The second requires the vigilante to fight off Bushroot in the woodland, Megavolt in the warehouse, and Moliarty in the tower. The final stage involves storming F.O.W.L.’s Floating Fortress and confronting Steelbeak.
There are plenty of great innovations and additions to the platforming formula to keep the action interesting in Darkwing Duck. Basically, his normal attacks, jumps and abilities feel like Mega Man’s (this is Capcom, after all), but he also has the capability to block bullets with his cape by pressing “up” and he can grab onto the bottoms of certain platforms or ropes and wires and flip up on top of them. Also, he can pick up special weapon upgrades for his gas gun: Heavy shot, Thunder shot and Arrow shot. Only one weapon upgrade can be equipped at once and if DW picks up a different one it will cancel out the previous. All of these elements allow for some baffling vertical as well as horizontal level designs and wild boss fights.
Darkwing Duck is one of the best examples of what Capcom was capable of with crafting excellent platformers, as well as an example of what the NES could really do. The game is fast paced and DW’s arsenal of weapons and abilities makes for enough of an assortment to force you to use some wit in order to succeed. The cartoon Darkwing Duck was an instant Disney cult classic and its game adaptation follows suit. While nowhere near as popular as DuckTales, Darkwing Duck stands as a testament to early platforming tenacity and one of the best entries in the genre on the NES.
The 8-Bit Review
This right here is easily one of the best looking games on the original Nintendo. Don’t believe me? Check out the backrgound on the woods stage. It’s the best 8-bit forest I’ve ever seen, and you know there were plenty of those.
Further, in honor of the characteristically bouncy animation produced by Disney studios, Darkwing Duck’s sprite has a variety of poses and expressions. Finishing a stage, he even bats his eyebrows. Sprite animations were much more subtle in the 8-bit era but the game feels a lot less stiff for it. And ultimately, the cutscenes are gloriously rendered with character faces that look like their ripped straight from the animation cells of the cartoon.
The Darkwing Duck theme song is nearly as catchy as the DuckTales one, just as catchy as any of the other Disney toon themes of the 80’s and 90’s. It got you pumped for the show. Darkwing Duck adapted that phenomenal theme song into a bit crunched jangle for the title screen, instantly identifiable for 80’s kids. The rest of the OST matches the hip-stank of the intro song and much of it sounds like swanky, honky-tonk, high-hat beats. It’s finger snapping and slightly jazzy. The nostalgia feels!
Platforming was one of the genres that simply flooded the NES from its infancy to its latest years, from Super Mario Bros. to Kirby’s Adventure. Given that there were so many titles in that niche on the system, there were certainly many crappy platformers, whether that’s because they were flat out boring jumping and nothing else, or they were overly complicated with too many power-ups. Darkwing Duck is not one of those.
Choosing how you tackle the stages in two sets of three is vaguely Mega Man-ish but it still helps to divvy up the action however you see fit. The weapon upgrades are significant enough to change the direction and scope of DW’s attacks to be useful. The Arrow shot can even be used as a makeshift, portable platform-maker to reach extra heights (I was delighted to stumble upon that). His fighting skills with hanging and deflecting attacks likewise give the gameplay more elbow room. My favorite part of the gameplay was how much it forced me to think quickly. I screamed once when running a gamut of spikes, unable to stop.
It’s pretty basic: stop the bad guys and save the day. It’d be boring if it wasn’t an adaptation of the popular and hilarious cartoon with its range of funny characters. Since it’s a spoof of superheroism and since Darkwing himself is so endearing in his movements and expressions while combating his silly opponents. He wants to be as smooth as jazz but he’s just a duck. This is one of the great Disney games and it deserves a slightly above average score for drawing from the goldmine of the 90’s cartoon to fuel its 8-bit aesthetics.
When I first played Darkwing Duck, I didn’t have a manual. I had to figure out the inputs on my own. It’s easy enough to figure out how to deflect bullets with DW’s cape, and I stumbled upon hanging from platforms by accident, but picking up the weapon upgrades was largely confusing to me. I kept trying to select them from the start menu, like Mega Man does, and it took me forever to learn to use the select button to switch between DW’s regular attacks and his special upgrade. The game doesn’t do the best job of teaching you how to do that and that’s a blow to its accessibility. But it really did come from an era where in-game tutorials were a rare sight.
Much harder than DuckTales, and maybe less enjoyable and bright for that reason, Darkwing Duck has got some mad, crazy platforming moments: running across tires that are rolling over spikes, watching out for enemies with tricky attack patterns, flipping between standing on top and hanging underneath moving platforms through a labyrinth of spikes. That last one particularly ground my progress through the game to a halt for a long time. You can only be hit four times before expiring and the levels are packed with bad guys. The bosses can take several hits themselves and they’re especially are fast paced, forcing DW to stay on his toes and be a moving target. The first boss I faced was Quacker Jack, who runs horizontally across a three-tiered arena while above DW a puppet drops banana peels, which descend a little too quickly. There’s nothing for it but to master pattern-reading, dropping to hang under platforms and shooting as quickly as you can. There’s very little room for error.
There are only a handful of Darkwing video games and this is by far the best one. It draws from a little bit of everything good in the world (Disney, platforming, Mega Man, the NES library, comic books, Capcom history, DuckTales) to produce something wonderful and different. Batman would be proud. Now if we could just get a series reboot.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
One downside to Darkwing Duck is that with only seven stages it is a pretty short game, shorter than your standard NES Mega Man outing. Sort of like the cartoon series, which had a pretty short run. But as the game presents a real challenge for your timing and platforming skills, that may just be a blessing in disguise. It’ll make you feel like a klutz yourself, sometimes. Darkwing Duck was one of my favorite afternoon cartoons and I didn’t get to play the game until later in life. It’s a walk down an old memory lane. But the great thing about Darkwing Duck is that it offers much more than just nostalgia in a solid platformer from the latter days of the NES.
Aggregated Score: 7.8
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