The Disney Afternoon
If you were a child growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, two things were almost certainly true about you: You loved playing NES, and you regularly tuned into one or more of the Disney Afternoon cartoon programs. Create a Venn diagram of the overlapping interest between those two things, and what one might find is two circles that overlap almost completely.
It comes as no surprise then that Disney would waste no time exploiting this highly intertwined demographic to its fullest, releasing a series of licensed games based on their cartoons to the Nintendo Entertainment System. In a twist that seems bizarre by today’s standards, these tie-in games were almost all incredibly well-received. Not satisfied with simply releasing shovelware that could potentially damage their media brands, Disney employed the help of renowned developer Capcom to create games that would not only cash in on the cartoons, but actually strengthen their popularity.
Chip ’n Dale Rescue Rangers, the first game in the lineup, appeared in the summer of 1990. Chip ’n Dale featured large, colorful graphics, co-operative gameplay and tight platforming controls that instantly made it stand out against the crowd. Items in the environment could be hoisted by the player’s Ranger of choice and used to attack enemies or hide from them. It was an impressive opening salvo for Disney’s Afternoon onslaught.
Just months later, DuckTales, starring the money-hungry Uncle Scrooge, found its way into stores and consoles around the nation. If Chip ’n Dale made kids and critics sit up and notice, DuckTales would dazzle them. Featuring gameplay highly reminiscent of Capcom’s Mega Man franchise, DuckTales managed to expand and change that formula to becomes its own unique gaming experience. Scrooge’s quest started much the same way Mega Man’s would, with the player selecting one of several themed levels to tackle.
Scrooge runs and jumps like Mega Man, but he also enjoys a unique moveset. Scrooge’s cane allows him to use a continual pogo-jump move which can be used to attack enemies, interact with the environment, or bounce to areas a regular jump wouldn’t reach. He can also swing his cane like a golf club to push blocks, open treasures or activate many unique set-pieces in the game.
Also as in Mega Man, each level featured a boss fight at the end for a specific treasure. However, to distance itself from its spiritual predecessor, DuckTales levels featured a good amount of non-linear exploration. With nothing on the line but points, players could relax and see where each path took them, not worrying about missing power-ups or items.
Following those two successes, Disney and Capcom released TaleSpin the following year to somewhat less fanfare. Talespin followed the adventures of Baloo, first seen in The Jungle Book, as he worked as a pilot and courier in the port town of Cape Suzette flying his yellow plane, the Seaduck.
The game itself was a horizontal shooter, featuring Baloo undertaking missions presented by his boss, struggling against air pirates and other enemies. It’s something of an oddity in the Disney lineup.
Besides not featuring standard run-and-jump platform mechanics, TaleSpin also faced another key difference between the other Disney Afternoon licensed games: fidelity. While scaled down in both size and detail, the other Disney games showcased sprites and graphics that were easily recognizable and faithful to their cartoon counterparts. With TaleSpin, Capcom faced an interesting problem in translating the work. If the game had to feature Baloo flying his plane, the bear would never be seen—he would be in the pilot’s seat.
Capcom chose to solve this problem by modifying the appearance of Baloo’s iconic sea plane to better reflect the nature of the game, authenticity be damned. The Seaduck was shrunk down from a bulky cargo ship to a tiny, maneuverable one-man fighter. Baloo’s head stuck out of its open cockpit, allowing the player to see the bear. Don Karnage and his air pirates, notable enemies from the show, also appeared in a similar graphical style.
Overall, the gameplay was fairly tepid and uninspired for such a late NES-era release. The player can choose to upgrade the Seaduck between levels with money collected during gameplay, but other than that, very little about this game stands out.
In summer of 1992, almost a year after the release of the Super NES, Disney released Darkwing Duck for the NES, once again refining lessons learned from Chip ’n Dale and DuckTales. Returning to the Mega Man-like platforming style of gameplay, Darkwing Duck actually played it very safe compared to its brethren. The game returned to cartoon-faithful graphics and tight platforming controls, but where DuckTales pushed the boundaries of the Mega Man formula, Darkwing was more than content to stay true to the formula.
Darkwing would choose his level of choice from several available and take to the streets to fight crime. Levels were more linear than in DuckTales, and Darkwing’s gun could switch between several different elemental shots, much like the Mega Buster. The game was well-hyped at the time, but the NES was beginning to grow long in the tooth.
Disney released two more games in their Afternoon lineup in 1993, sequels to DuckTales and Chip ’n Dale. Both refined and improved on their predecessors, but failed to capture the imagination of an audience that was moving en masse to the NES’s 16-bit heir.
For three years in the late NES era, Disney Afternoon licensed games stood for quality and innovation, a feat notable in the world of tie-in video games. But three years is a long time -- a kid becomes a teen, a gaming system goes from a place of prominence below the TV to the back of the closet, and technology (as well as taste) march on.