Overall Rating: 4/5 Stars
On the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System home video game console, there were many categories into which you could divide the cartridges. You could put them into categories by release date, relative to the life cycle of the NES; you could separate them by genre; you could place them in levels of popularity and/or rarity; or, you could see the field of titles as either original concepts put onto a gaming unit or a coded attempt at capitalizing on a popular media license, such as a movie, cartoon television show, or other pop-culture phenomenon.
Both of these divisions were popular, as not only did Nintendo’s early efforts produce many remarkable original gameplay experiences, but also some memorable licensed carts as well. These, then, could further be segregated into the poor, cheaply made, quickly developed ones that were just a quick-as-you-can take to try and rip off easily lured consumers; and, alternately, the adventures that were actually high-quality in their own right, with top-notch development effort going into a recognizable name-factor product. Darkwing Duck, the 1992 version created by Capcom, belonged to this latter distinction.
Darkwing Duck is a game often compared to the Mega Man series, and for good reason: Not only were both titles made by Capcom, but the basic gameplay is nearly identical, featuring a run-and-gun challenge with precision-jumping elements, pattern-based enemies, a three-shots-on-screen blaster weapon, the signature Capcom trait of level-select from the start, and even similar play speed, jumping reach, character size, and overall production quality. Although they are not granted by beating bosses, Duck remarkable emulates selectable differing weapons in his arsenal too, even if only able to switch between primary and secondary choices at any given time; though, there are a few possible secondary weapons he may come across.
Further play does reveal some differences, for better and for worse. For example, although the Batman-parodying protagonist does have a health status in the form of a heart rather than a simple one-hit-kill equation, it only represents a four-hit capacity, rather than the much more dynamic health bar used in the Mega Man games. Darkwing Duck also has a cape he can raise when the player pressed the up button, which deflects certain (but not all) projectiles such as knives and basketballs; although Mega Man does not have a similar move, he does have a slide, which Duck does not.
More rigorous examination reveals why, though certainly a solid game on its own merits, Darkwing Duck is not generally regarded as the gaming masterpiece that the Mega Man games are. For instance, the animations are smooth and well-done but affect the game a bit much; Darkwing cannot run and fire at the same time, and the same generous hit detection that lets him stand completely off of an edge before falling also lends him to seemingly get hit by stray objects and enemies when they merely pass by close enough. These flaws can be forgiven, though, in light of the fun that is had at the benefit of many grabbable surfaces, and the inventiveness of the secondary weaponry, including the powerful arrow gun that can not only traverse areas previously impossible to reach but also kills most bosses in about six hits.
This game looks great, showing the usual hard-at-work efforts of the Capcom development house. Darkwing Duck truly emits a heroic aura, especially given the impressive opening cut scene, along with other interstitials and character head shots. The animation is smooth, the enemies have fun designs both original and inspired by the television cartoon series, the levels look great, the atmosphere is appropriate, and the only flaw may be the occasional flickering issue.
The title track mimics the classic theme well enough to be recognizable (“Let’s… get… dangerous! DARKWING DUCK!”), and the effects throughout the actual game are your usual appropriate assortment of blasts and bumps. There is little to complain about here, a reflection of the overall quality, much like Capcom’s tries at Disney’s Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers and Duck Tales as well.
Capcom was renowned for the quality of the games they produced, and every single release seemed to have their own little nuances and touches of subtle brilliance. In this game, the cape mechanic is great, and the hang-jumping provides fast-paced precision-jumping fun, but perhaps the greatest innovation at hand is the puzzles involving secondary weapon use. In the bridge level, for example, there is a portion where you are hanging from a hook and the next hook you can jump to has a bat hanging on it, motionless; from experience earlier in the level, you know that if you get close enough to the bat, it will fly, and likely knock you to your death below. It is possible to trickily maneuver by jumping forward and back and firing and dodging and luckily pulling off a creature kill while surviving; but, if you switch to the diagonally shooting weapon, you can fire from the hook you are on and hit the bat in order to traverse ahead safely. This is just a single example of the many instances where good level design shows, with the boss battles also featuring classic old-school action nearly perfected. Darkwing Duck, while challenging in its own way, is also a little short overall, and has a couple of annoying quirks (the hang-jumping pacing is faster than the run-and-gun portions, since you cannot literally both run and gun, which is counterintuitive for the genre), these minor flaws preventing it from becoming a sublime platforming masterpiece. Still, it garners a very respectable four stars out of five, and is easily among the best-ever licensed games on the NES.