This article was originally published at Kombo.com on August 3, 2010.
Disney characters have popped up in video games for years, particularly in popular franchises such as Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts and Junction Point Studios's Epic Mickey. While these titles have benefited from featuring a hodgepodge of Disney properties, not every worthy character has made the cut for new adventures. It's been a while since we've seen or heard anything from the world of Darkwing Duck, which readers in their late twenties and early thirties may fondly remember from three seasons of animated adventures as part of The Disney Afternoon animated programming block back in 1991. Consider that the star of the property — the eponymous Darkwing Duck himself — is making a bit of a comeback in the form of new comic book stories, it seems only right to take a look back at Darkwing's gaming exploits and speculate on where the masked mallard goes from here when it comes to digital entertainment.
Introducing The Terror That Flaps In The Night
Constructed as a genre parody smash-up of popular superhero and spy properties such as Batman, James Bond, and The Shadow, Darkwing Duck follows the adventures of the purple-and-black clad masked hero as he protects the city of St. Canard from evildoers (while providing his own narration, natch). Assisted by his sidekick (and biggest fan) Launchpad McQuack (imported from The Disney Afternoon's other animated duck series, DuckTales) and his adopted tweenage daughter Gosalyn, Darkwing uses a combination of gadgets and overinflated ego to save the day. His adventures tend to alternate between his freelance activities hunting down the villain of the week and taking on the Fiendish Organization for World Larceny (FOWL) on behalf of the MI6-like SHUSH (an organization so secret that even it does not know what the acronym means).
Unfortunately, the city considers him to be a pest at best and ignores him at worst, yet his efforts are indispensable. Without him, the city would surely fall to a Rogues Gallery that calls to mind parodies of such popular comic book and film villains such as Electro, the Fluoronic Man, the Joker, and Jaws. Consider some of Darkwing's catalog of nemeses which include colorful characters such as the electric rat Megavolt, the half-plant/half-duck scientist Dr. Reginald Bushroot, insane toymaker Quackerjack, and the metal-mouthed FOWL rooster Steelbeak. Other villains who took a nod at pop culture include twisted underground scientist Professor Moliarty, watery salesman Liquidator, and thieving walrus mastermind Tuskerninni. The whole series is greater than the sum of its parts, although as in most superhero and spy fiction, the villains tend to overshadow the hero with their colorful characterizations and charismatic capers. Indeed, the various Darkwing Duck video games all star the self-proclaimed "terror that flaps in the night," but each adventure tends to center around Darkwing's Rogues Gallery. However, near the end of the episode, Darkwing says his catchphrase - "Let's get dangerous!" - right before swinging into action and vanquishing the villain. It seems only natural that the character would lend himself well to video games. Two publishers acquired the rights to the property, giving rise to three games based on Darkwing Duck.
The Winged Scourge Goes 8-Bit
Nintendo Entertainment System owners have fond memories of Capcom's series of games based on Disney properties of the day such as DuckTales and Chip 'n' Dale's Rescue Rangers, and the tradition of top-notch platformers continued in 1992 when the company released its take on Darkwing Duck. Running on a tweaked version of the Mega Man 5 engine, the game dispatched Darkwing on a mission for SHUSH to apprehend Steelbeak, who has assembled several of the protagonist's worst foes in a bid to conquer St. Canard with patrolling FOWL eggmen (generic SPECTRE-like grunts). Apart from using the Darkwing and Launchpad characters in addition to villains Quackerjack, Liquidator, Megavolt, Bushroot, Professor Moliarty, and Steelbeak, very little of the game's seven levels are based on the animated series. SHUSH and FOWL are primarily expositional elements, and most of the lesser enemies are original creations such as turtles suffering from feather allergies, mice armed with flamethrowers, kangaroo basketball stars, and bulldogs that are reluctant to leave their little doghouses. Oddly enough, a new member of the Rogues Gallery makes his only appearance in this adventure: Wolfduck, a duck werewolf who transforms into an invincible powerhouse when the moon is full.
Darkwing himself moves much like Mega Man in this side-scrolling platformer: he walks, he jumps, and he shoots pellets from his custom-made gas gun. Acquiring special gas canisters allows him to shoot different kinds of projectiles such as diagonally aimed lightning bolts, arrows that become platforms when they strike a solid surface, and a cloud of heavy smoke that fires shots along the ground. Most useful is Darkwing's ability to raise his cape up over his face as a shield, although when in use he is unable to return fire or move. Many of the stylish elements from the animated series are surprisingly present in this 8-bit adaptation including Darkwing's theme song, egotistical entrance, and overall detailed character design. Many of the characters make for very nice, detailed sprites as seen here:
A Game Boy version of Darkwing Duck was released in 1993 in the tradition of handheld versions of Capcom's DuckTales and DuckTales 2. Much of the original game remained intact, although with the usual monochromatic downgrade.
While Capcom was hard at work on its creation, Interactive Designs and Radiance Software teamed with Turbo Technologies to develop and release its own 1992 adaptation of Darkwing Duck for the TurboGrafx-16. This 2D platformer adventure sends Darkwing into the field on behalf of SHUSH to foil an alliance of St. Canard's most dangerous villains and their plan to construct the ultimate weapon. A picture of the villains in question - Megavolt, Moliarty, Tuskerninni, and Steelbeak - offers clues on the alliance's endgame; Darkwing must collect pieces of this picture and assemble them in addition to traversing each of the game's four levels. Our hero is armed with his trusty gas gun, although here it is hamstrung by limited ammunition. Unlike Capcom's gas gun, the TTI take on the weapon allows Darkwing to stun or knock-out enemies depending on the gas canister in use, but the effects never quite last long enough to be useful. Darkwing is expected to jump on enemies' heads to defeat them, yet he doesn't jump quite high enough to do the job. While it has fewer levels than Capcom's creation, the limited weaponry, basic level structure, and picture puzzle elements make this title comparatively more challenging. Most notably, it features some very detailed sprites of the villains in action, but poor Darkwing doesn't look quite right at all. Observe:
The Duck Knight Returns
While Darkwing Duck's glory days are behind him, the property isn't exactly forgotten. Disney has released two of three volumes of the animated series on DVD, while BOOM! Studios has recently resurrected the character for a new comic book series that takes place after the conclusion of the cartoon with new stories and artwork. It seems that the terror that flaps in the night is primed for a revival, so why not bring him back into the video gaming fold? Virtual Console re-releases of the NES and TG-16 games are a natural if the licensing can be arranged, but more ambitiously are appearances in future Kingdom Hearts titles or as part of the forgotten characters lurking in Epic Mickey. Despite his origins in a cartoon aimed at children, Darkwing need not appear in exclusively juvenile fare. Even the animated show featured references and scenarios pitched at older audiences with references to Twin Peaks, Gary Larson's The Far Side, and what has to be the most obscure and adult reference of all with Russian-accented criminal bull mastermind Taurus Bulba named for the 1962 film Taras Bulba, a Romeo & Juliet story set in sixteenth century Ukraine. Darkwing Duck is primed for a proper return. His video gaming past demands a video gaming future.