Shovel Knight, DuckTales Remastered, and the Art of Recapturing Retro

Shovel Knight, DuckTales Remastered, and the Art of Recapturing Retro

Translating the classic gaming experience to our modern age requires a careful mix of old and new elements -- so why did DuckTales Remastered falter where Shovel Knight exceeded expectations?

E3 2014's announcement of a Grim Fandango remake stands as one of the least likely things to happen in the world of video games. But perhaps this news would have come as a bigger shock had our senses not been dulled by the similarly unexpected and fairly recent dredging up of Capcom's DuckTales, one of the developer's finest 8-bit games. We'd all assumed it was forever lost in the limbo of expired licenses, until WayForward helped piece together a remake to bring Scrooge McDuck's 1989 adventure up to speed with modern games. The results, unfortunately, weren't all that great.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to love about DuckTales Remastered: The game is adorned with WayForward's gorgeous 2D art and animation, and the catchy original soundtrack—which includes what may be the best video game song of all time—has been fully remixed by Jake Kaufman, the artist who previously composed tunes for games like Mighty Switch Force and Retro City Rampage. And bringing back the entire cast of the cartoon 25 years later—even Alan Young, who's knee-deep into his ninth decade on this planet—carries a heartwarming sense of nostalgia, not to mention an air of authenticity. But with all of these costly additions, WayForward completely ignored what made the original so great: its thoughtful and compact design, which had no right being as good as it was—especially for a game sold on its license alone.

Page after page of crackling dialogue—eat your heart out, David Mamet.

I sensed some confusion when WayForward's remake received its share of middling reviews, as people jumped to the understandable conclusion that, hey, maybe the Capcom original wasn't so hot after all. That, of course, is a damned lie. Outside of a few minor disappointments, like its short length and complete lack of a true final level, DuckTales for the NES still holds up marvelously, and is just as easy to jump into now as it was a quarter-century ago. As standards change, though, the prospect of selling a game as brief as DuckTales doesn't make for the most palatable pitch, so WayForward decided to beef up its remake with some added content which would stay true to the spirit of the original. If you're trying to hone in on an element of an 8-bit game to expand upon for your remake, though, its story isn't the first place you should start.

In no just world should you have to skip three cutscenes before you can immediately start playing a level of DuckTales, yet these unwanted story segments of Remastered interrupt the game constantly, as if the player needs to be filled in on why Scrooge McDuck would be chasing down priceless treasures—even if you aren't familiar with Duckburg lore, you'd think the name "Scrooge" alone would ring a few bells. To their credit, WayForward managed to replicate the memorable and well-designed levels of the original, but they're ultimately suffocated under unnecessary narrative. A few quick lines of clumsily translated dialogue served their purpose in the original, but with Ducktales Remastered, each level grinds to a halt whenever it's time to skip yet another cutscene, which happens roughly 8-10 times per area. And, since this remake retains the same lives system as the NES version, getting booted from a stage means you'll have to suffer through those same interruptions again and again until you beat the area's boss.

By communicating in 140 characters or less, ancient video game characters were actually way ahead of their time.

Now, the similarities between Shovel Knight and DuckTales Remastered might seem superficial at best—after seeing the pogo-jumping and treasure grabbing of Yacht Club's protagonist, the Capcom classic can't help but spring immediately to mind. Shovel Knight doesn't just borrow from DuckTales, though: At its core, the game manages to translate the best ideas of NES games from the late '80s and early '90s into a thoroughly modern format. Sure, some of these ideas are timeless, but Shovel Knight manages to add some thoughtful modernizations resulting from the 20 years of game design following the 8-bit era.

Lives, for instance, have been removed completely, and though frequent checkpoints are common in Shovel Knight, you still have the option of playing it like a punishing NES-era platformer. Instead of using them to mark your progress, checkpoints can also be destroyed for extra loot, though this renders their sole purpose ineffective. While Shovel Knight accurately captures that authentic 8-bit feeling, its design evokes that of a more idealized version of the era. I'd imagine NES games would be far more reluctant to waste your time if they were competing with the endless supply of cheap (and often free) distractions that surround us in the 21st century.

A creepy, looming castle in the background serves as a great way to tell they player they're headed to a creepy, looming castle—and without a single word!

Admittedly, Yacht Club had a much fresher slate to work with, and weren't burdened with 25 years' worth of expectations, but honestly, I would've rather WayForward made an entirely new DuckTales game (while providing the original as a "bonus" or something) instead of giving us a redo compromised by superfluous additions. I know they're capable of much better, which is why it came as such a disappointment to see Remastered show up in such a misguided state.

Yacht Club's founder is a former WayForward employee, so it shouldn't be so surprising that this new developer carries the same torch for classic 2D gaming. But, with only a single game to their credit, Yacht Club has been able to recapture the essence of pure NES, all while smoothing over the issues that always nagged at us, even in some of our favorites. Shovel Knight's graphics might intentionally be dated, but the game as a whole stands as much more than a novel throwback: If anything, its dusting off and refurbishing of timeless ideas makes it feel incredibly fresh—as contradictory as that sounds. My only hope is that all games designers—not just indies with an 8-bit flair—sit up and take note of what Shovel Knight does best. If there's a future to this weird little hobby of ours, it can be found in what we've left behind.

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