When I was very young, my love for cable could best be described as unrequited. I would catch fleeting glimpses of Nickelodeon’s cartoons and SNICK programming when visiting friends and neighbors. Colorful and fascinating documentaries from the Discovery Channel would just pass me by during video time at school. Worst of all, the fantastic shows on the Disney Channel lived many towns over, only to be admired from afar at my grandparents’ homes. Gummi Bears, Dumbo’s Circus, Ducktales; all of these programs were out of my league. No one was interested in a kid without cable.
But one day, it was announced that Disney programming would start showing up on the local channels. So many of the shows that I had only watched once or twice in the past were fading into glorious syndication, and I could now build a steady romance with the cartoons I had longed to watch. Additionally, the Disney Afternoon (as it was called) would feature new cartoons, which would include the likes of Timon and Pumbaa, Aladdin, and Ariel. Of this pantheon of cartoons that would descend from on high for a two-hour block each day, my absolute favorite was Darkwing Duck.
Darkwing Duck’s story was a blatant satire of characters like The Shadow and Batman: a mild-mannered waterfowl named Drake Mallard would don a cape and cowl every night, and defend the streets of St. Canard as Darkwing Duck. The show was silly and lighthearted, with characters who regularly broke the fourth wall to make sure the viewers knew when to laugh at each joke. But unlike so many other derivative shows, Darkwing Duck did not rely exclusively on tread ground and cheap imitation. Many of the characters and plotlines featured in the series were interesting and (mostly) original. Every week, my brother and I would tune in to see what malicious plots and dastardly deeds the Duck Knight would thwart with his loyal sidekick, Launchpad McQuack.
Around the same time that Darkwing Duck was making his television debut, most of the Disney Afternoon stars were having adventures on the Nintendo Entertainment System. These days, when you hear of a licensed product making the rounds on the video game circuit, it is assumed that the outcome will be mediocre at best. But many of the Disney games in the early 1990s have the distinction of being well-made and rather fun. For some time now, I figured that my love of games like Ducktales or Tale Spin was built on the nostalgic spices of childhood, muddling my taste for good gaming. But now that I have polished these dusty gems once more, they are not the cut glass of so many licensed games, but the precious stones of classics worth preserving. What could it be that made these licensed games so good, while so many other titles fall short?
Let’s look at the evidence presented: all of these games were produced by Capcom, during the years from 1989 to 1994, and most of them were featured on the NES. The games were a strange mix of fan-service and solid gameplay, featuring many recognizable characters and items, but not afraid to toss in random people and places to make a cohesive flow of play. Each title provides the player with an experience similar to the respective show. Ducktales had players hopping from one exotic locale to the other, scooping up treasure along the way. Tale Spin was a side scrolling shooter where Baloo must defeat Sky Pirates and the forces of Sher Khan. You get the idea.
Upon further research, I have found one major reason why these titles are so rich in style. Each of these titles was developed by an already established team within Capcom. Instead of handing off these IPs to some random group of programmers in order to produce a quick cash-grab, Disney’s properties were given to developers who already made great success with previous titles. The producer on most of theses games was Tokuro Fujiwara, creator of Ghosts and Goblins, who also served as producer of the Mega Man series. The creator of Mega Man, Keiji Inafune, did the artwork for Ducktales, while the composer of many of the Disney titles was Yasuaki Fujita, who also composed the soundtracks for Mega Man 3, Breath of Fire, and many others. Even Shinji Mikami, who developed the Resident Evil series, got his start on Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the Game Boy and Aladdin for the Super Nintendo. With such a talented group at the helm, it is not a wonder that these licensed games turned out so well.
It is such a shame that most of the games are locked away in the Disney/Capcom vault, never to see the light of day. Without the original games and consoles, there is no easy (read: entirely legal) way to play the Disney licensed games of yesteryear. The respective owners of the games and intellectual properties just cannot seem to agree on who gets the lion’s share of profits from a re-release of these titles. That’s the catch with licensed games: while the moneymaker’s argue over who gets to win, the rest of us lose in the process.