DuckTales Retrospective: Genre

Before diving into DuckTales Remastered, let's look at one of the more distinctive aspects of the original DuckTales: its use of genre.

In the mid 80s, European developers honed a tradition of item-centric platformers. Some featured large levels with huge item caches to plunder, such as the Turrican games. Others, like the Dizzy series, were sprawling worlds where players discovered and used key items to progress, similar to point-and-click adventure games. In both variants, success depended upon exploration and finding items. The resulting level design lent itself to rummaging around.

While it's not a strictly European subgenre, it's commonly associated with Europe because the most distinctive games of the subgenre—such as Turrican and Dizzy—are European. They're called Europlatformers or Eurostyle platformers.

This conflicted with the sense of level design popularized by games such as Super Mario Bros. There, levels focused on obstacle courses with carefully paced dangers. Players faced challenges directly one after the other instead of rooting around for collectibles.

Commonly, games include multiple genres by alternating between one and another. Or, a game might splice both genres together right from the start. DuckTales, on the other hand, gradually evolves from a typical obstacle course-centric platformer to one focused on item collection and exploration. Rather than juxtapose or combine two styles of gameplay, DuckTales makes a link between them.

Map obtained on and created by Blublu.

Map obtained on and created by Blublu.

DuckTales' first level, the Amazon, focuses the player on dangers by keeping a simple structure. Looking at the map, you can easily trace a path from the start of the level to its end. There is a passage underneath the start, and there is a hidden alternate path just left of the end (it's the only part that goes higher than the end itself), but aside from that, the level follows a simple path. The player starts at the bottom left, then moves right, up, and left. After moving upwards into the inside portion, the player again moves right, up, and left.

By reducing the number of twists and turns in the path, the player does not need to focus on navigation. The path forward is immediately obvious, and hazards such as enemies and harmful pits have the player's entire attention span.

Map obtained on and created by Will Mallia.

Map obtained on and created by Will Mallia.

The Moon is the fifth and final level of DuckTales, and it's the most complicated one. To get to the end, you have to pass through point A. But to pass through point A, you have to grab the item at point C, and in order to pass the locked door just to the right of point C, you have to collect the key at point B.

Not only does the Moon put a multi-step trading sequence between the player and the exit, but that trading sequence happens aboard a labyrinthine UFO. There are seven climbable poles in the UFO, and five of them lead to a three-way branching path: the player will have to choose whether to go right, left, or up. Sometimes the path forward is to the left, and sometimes it's upward. There's no coherent sense of direction to the UFO, meaning that the player will need to learn how to navigate the ship in order to make any progress.

(As for the two poles that don't lead to branching paths, the pole just above the start can only be climbed downward, and the pole at the top right leads to a path that only goes rightward.) 

The path of progression on the Moon isn't immediately apparent, and it's ruled by item collection, putting it within the realm of Europlatformers.

Plenty of platformers use mazes as punctuation, though. Games like Super Mario Bros. and Kid Icarus end worlds with mazes as a difficult-to-navigate juxtaposition to the heart of the game. DuckTales, on the other hand, gradually morphs from structurally simple to complex. You can see that process in motion during the game's third level, the African mines.

Map obtained on and created by Will Mallia.

Map obtained on and created by Will Mallia.

This level branches at point B, with the path to D being a shortcut to the end. The main path goes through point C to point E.

That path has a left, down, right structure similar to the Amazon's right, up, left structure. However, the horizontal segments are shorter than those in the Amazon, and the player switches his or her horizontal direction more times than in the Amazon. The player's bearing is changed more times and more frequently than in the Amazon, giving him or her less of a grasp on navigation. The large vertical portion near the end (just below point E) doesn't even fit into the right, down, left pattern of the rest of the path, going further to shake up that grasp.

However, there are few branching paths, and item collection is only required at point A.

You either have an obstacle course that pointlessly pulls itself in several directions, or you have a milquetoast Europlatformer level with little to explore. However, this structure fits perfectly in DuckTales, seated exactly halfway between a linear platformer and one based in exploration; it's the middle step in an evolution.