Games | NES | Duck Tales & Little Nemo: NES Platforming Mechanics Evolved

Article by Ben Elgin | October 9, 2010

Duck Tales

Developer: Capcom
U.S. Release: Sept. 1989
Format: NES

Little Nemo

Developer: Capcom
U.S. Release: Sept. 1990
Format: NES

When Super Mario Bros. exploded out of the gates on the NES, it practically codified the new scrolling platformer genre overnight. You walk (mostly from left to right), you jump over obstacles and onto platforms. You face wandering enemies, most of which can be quickly dispatched with a stomp to the head or a projectile weapon.

You occasionally fight bosses, which can be defeated with multiple hits or my some ad-hoc special method. You collect treasures which restore your health, increase your abilities, or just run up your score. Over the ensuing years, scores of games ranging from aggressively mediocre shovel-ware to well-honed masterpieces stuck to this basic formula.

Several years later, though, many of the more ambitious developers decided it was high time to add some spice to that recipe; prominent among them was a company destined to become one of the masters of the 8-bit platformer: Capcom. Building on the success of Bionic Commando?, which replaced the usual jumping mechanic with a unique grappling technique, and the early games of the Mega Man franchise, which decked out the player in all manner of unique weaponry, Capcom sought to apply ingenuity in platforming to an array of licensed properties throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. Not coincidentally, many of these games shared staff members, notably producer Tokuro Fujiwara.

The first big license to receive the deluxe Capcom platforming treatment, and still one of the best remembered, was Disney Afternoon’s Duck Tales. The premise was simple: Avaricious yet lovable patriarch Scrooge McDuck goes on a world tour of exotic locations snatching up valuable treasure while being opposed by everything from local wildlife to legendary monsters to rival penny-pincher Flintheart Glomgold. It could have been a very straightforward game, set apart only by its (admittedly excellent) graphics and tunes and a gaggle of character cameos from the cartoon. A single flash of inspiration helped make it much more than that. Capcom took Scrooge’s cane, an accessory he’s seldom seen without, and made it into one of the most versatile tools yet seen in a video game. Used for offense, defense, and navigation, the cane is Scrooge’s best friend by far.

Now, perhaps the most obvious use for a cane in a video game type situation is as a melee weapon, and here Scrooge excels with pro-golfer élan. His sturdy swing can strike enemies, open treasures, and send rocks flying -- the latter being a useful way to off hovering foes with a well-aimed boulder. Certain barrels can also be smacked to send them sliding across the ground, hopefully into a position where they can serve as a useful platform. Even objects you might initially think are only decorative can be smacked around to good effect, such as the ball-and-chains attached to mummies in Transylvania, which can be launched into their owners to re-deadly effect.

In the end, though, most players don’t spend a lot of time with the golf swing, because the cane’s other main mode of use is even more fun. While in the air, Scrooge can extend his cane beneath him and use it like a pogo stick, bouncing as if it were made from Tigger’s tail. Not only does this extend the old duck’s jumping abilities greatly, it can also defeat most enemies Mario-style and protect his delicate feet from damaging surfaces. What’s more, bouncing off treasures or enemies can be used effectively as a double-jump, allowing Scrooge to reach high platforms or cross wide gaps. The game puts this technique to great use in hiding extra treasure rooms, sometimes even letting you jump up into the status bar like Mario walking on the ceiling of World 1-2.

The pogo bounce is so addictive that you’ll probably be tempted to bounce your way through the entire game—so of course the designers throw in a few curve balls to keep you on your toes, or at least back on your web-footed spats. In addition to certain enemies that can’t be successfully attacked from above and several spiked ceilings that will bring any too-high bouncers down to earth like Icarus, there’s an entire level filled with snow. The fluffy stuff is an anathema to the pogoing lifestyle; trying to bounce on it will only get you stuck and leave you vulnerable to oncoming enemies. Still, for most of the game you’ll bounce away and have fun doing it.

Alternate modes of platforming movement featured even more heavily in a completely different licensed game created by Capcom just a short time later: Little Nemo the Dream Master. In another straightforward plot, titular boy-hero Nemo must traverse a variety of dreamscapes in his pajamas and rescue the dream king Morpheus from the evil Nightmare King. Nemo explores large, varied levels searching for keys to open the final door, chucking candy to stun enemies ranging from the cute to the creepy. Once again, this could be a fairly standard platformer with the usual Capcom polish in graphics and sound, until you get to the twist: Certain dream creatures, when fed three candies, will fall asleep and then let Nemo ride on them or even wear them as a suit, offering up their unique abilities.

Nemo himself has a short jump and limited capabilities befitting a small boy, but once he teams up with his pals, the world’s his oyster. As a frog, he can jump high and bounce on enemies (not unlike our previous hero’s pogo) as well as swimming faster, but at the expense of pokey speed on land. Moles can dig in the ground but can’t jump or attack, hermit crabs can dig in sand, swim, and pinch with their claws, while flounders are the best swimmers of all. The lizard, gorilla, and mouse can all climb up vertical surfaces, but have different trade-offs in attack options, speed, and jumping ability. And finally there’s the hornet, which gives Nemo the power of limited flight and a projectile stinger attack, opening up whole new areas.

Capcom puts this diverse array of play-styles to good use in just as wide an array of level designs. While the first two levels serve as introductions, with a variety of terrain and a lot of animal buddies, after that each level mixes things up dramatically. Level three is an auto-scrolling train ride gauntlet with no animal helpers in sight, while level four is a water world introducing new pals. Five is a huge, non-linear area of Nemo’s own house, every corner of which must be explored using a variety of animals to find all the keys. Six, conversely, is a straight shot featuring a lot of platforming challenges including auto-scrolling vertical sections, with all the keys lying right next to the exit door. Seven is a mix of the previous two, still fairly linear but featuring much more open areas.

The final level, ironically, almost reverts to a more traditional platforming challenge, as the “morning star” rod Nemo has been carrying around this whole time finally gets powered up, letting him attack on his own with a smack or a charged energy shot. Keys are no longer necessary, and enemy bosses appear for the first time (including a rather disturbing evil king penguin). Still, animal pals are on hand to help out in this final wasteland, and several are required to reach the Nightmare King for a final showdown.

It all adds up to one of the most diverse platforming experiences on the system. Of course, Nintendo wasn’t resting on its laurels during this period either, having recently released Super Mario Bros. 3, which featured its own much-expanded variety of player powers. In any event, it’s innovations like these which helped the humble platformer remain a mainstay video-game genre for years to come.

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