Saturday 25 March 2017

Deep Duck Trouble for the Sega Master System

Or Deep Duck Trouble Starring Donald Duck to give this platformer its full title. This 1993 (relative) rarity was one of a clutch of Disney games Sega, or rather the developers the jobs were sub-contracted to, produced in the company's eight and 16-bit glory days. And (nearly) all of them are thought of quite fondly, retrospectively. Castle of Illusion with Mickey Mouse and Aladdin across the MegaDrive and Master System, World of Illusion and Quackshot on the former, and Donald Duck's Lucky Dime Caper on the latter. We definitely won't talk about Fantasia or Ariel the Little Mermaid. For the most part, Sega's Disney games were well-crafted, in part because Disney insisted on having input. After all, if you are licensing your cash cows the game they're pasted into better be alright.

Deep Duck Trouble was a late period entry onto the Master System, and as you might expect it's well programmed and avoids many of the issues that plagued the console. Namely flickering sprites and hideous tinny music. The adventure sees you assume Donald's mantle as you try and restore a necklace to its rightful resting place, all in order to lift a curse cast on Uncle Scrooge when his treasure hunting ways got the better of him. This involves platforming over five areas of a tropical island before facing off against the end boss and saving the day. It's all competently done. The standard zones common to platformers are here - jungles, water, caves, mountains, ice, temples (all that was missing was the desert). It wasn't the first time these themes turned up in a game, and were far from being the last too. Also, as a Disney game, violence had to be muted. Jumping on enemy heads Mario-stylee is okay, as is kicking blocks onto the bonces of baddies too. And, as per a Disney game, Donald cannot "die". Standard video game talk of "lives" is banished and replaced by "tries".

By this time, platformers were ten a penny with very little distinguishing one from the other apart from mascots/franchises. Deep Duck Trouble does at least make an effort in this regard. Rather than fight an end of level baddy, you're posed with a challenge. At the close of the first level you must keep sprinting to avoid coconuts thrown at you from a miniature King Kong who swings among the trees. Don't forget the spikes and the pitfalls too! Reach the end of the stage and he smacks into a tree. Likewise, the water level demands you do something similar, though this time you're frantically swimming up the screen to avoid the jaws of a very snappy shark. Definitely a nice switch from the usual fare.

As well crafted as the game is, there are very annoying cheap deaths from time to time, unnecessarily (and unfairly) tricky bits that see your life, sorry, try tally drop down. This is definitely the case on level five where a drop, which is something usually to be avoided, is actually the way through the level. Considering this was a kids' game on a kids' system, which is how Sega marketed the Master System once the MegaDrive came along, lazy misdirection like this is unnecessary. It's one thing to try and stretch the game experience out, quite another to effectively troll the player.

Going back to Goffman and the sociology of video games, point four of a digital reworking of his own scholarship on games notes how, for solo gamers, it is an outlet for presenting their (gaming) self to them selves - among a number of other things, of course. It's an act of reflexivity, a practice of being explicitly invited to monitor your own action as you respond to pre-programmed moves and, depending on the game, its artificial intelligence will likewise try and counter appropriately. There is none of the latter in Deep Duck Trouble. As an 8-bit title, the platforming action and attack patterns of the baddies are strictly scripted. It's as inflexible as the formations advancing down the screen in a game of Space Invaders. The fact it is quite easy once you get the hang of it is suddenly jarred when that unexpectedly tricky jump appears, ill-placed enemy, or hard-to-dodge obstacle. Getting beyond them means investing either a lot of time to familiarise yourself further with the game, which could add up to many more hours of repetitious gameplay (at least modern titles have much stronger narratives that simulate progression). Or, you could cheat.

Cheating in games has always been something of an ethical grey area, and what constitutes cheating has changed as games have changed. The sorts of things vintage gamers like me would have thought cheating, such as instant respawns and infinite lives, come as standard now. Which, I suppose, befits games' evolution toward interactive cinematic experiences. It goes without saying that cheating in multiplayer matches over the internet is very much frowned upon, but what about in the privacy of your own home? Naturally, no one gives a monkey's if you can unlock all the best weapons from the off. Indeed, for some players, cheating helps them get full value out of the game and therefore enhance the experience. But for simple 8-bit platformers? During my playthrough using the trusty Retron5 I am ashamed to say that save states came in very handy. Stupid mistakes or surprise deaths were and are much easier to avoid as time can be rewound to the point just prior to one's demise. The application of saving to a game that was never designed to have progress saved fundamentally reshapes the experience. Game over no longer implies a tedious trudge back through the game to the sticking point, only for it to happen again - a cheap death is a momentary inconvenience. The advantage it has is time, especially as the number of tries it takes you to make that perfectly timed platform jump or avoid the tumbling rock from nowhere can be quite a few. Taking out the trudge saves time. If you only get past level four's swooping eagle on the 15th try, that's quite a bit of tedium cut out of the experience.

Does this matter when it comes to gaming reflexivity? It can. Cheating through saving is only an option and one the purists can easily avoid by sticking exclusively to the original hardware or exercising iron will power. For others, for me, because time is short (why play when blogging is the best game ever?) liberal use of cheating allows me to get through games I wouldn't otherwise have time to play. What does that mean when it comes to matters of skill, of the feeling of accomplishment, of meeting a challenge for its own sake? Something to ponder in a future post.

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