That might be a bit of a hot take, but everything surrounding Darkwing Duck is grossly underrated and it’s high time we had a seriously talk about the terror that flaps in the night.
Everything about Darkwing Duck was short-lived. Too short-lived, in my opinion, from which sprang the headline that perhaps brought you here to yell at me about Sunsoft’s Batman. Hang on a sec, you’ll get your chance.
Chip, Dale, and Uncle Scrooge are among my favorite animated characters of all-time. If I may be thorough in my blanket praising of The Disney Afternoon Collection, TaleSpin has one of the most beautiful settings in TV animation. But those characters and franchises remain beloved because of how many mediums and generations they transcended. Chip and Dale debuted in a WWII theatrical short and have been teaching preschoolers on TV for the last decade. Uncle Scrooge premiered in comics, has been there ever since, and has a new show coming Summer 2017. Darkwing Duck, TDA’s sole original star (pre-Bonkers), had pretty much one shot. Which is ironic… considering of all the TV shows airing in Disney’s daily syndicated animated block, his holds up the best!
In a culture so obsessed with superheroes, it’s bizarre we don’t talk more about Darkwing Duck. Back when we were all deprived of anything but the occasional Tim Burton DC adaptation, Darkwing was self-aware enough to air daily send-ups of superhero tropes before it became the basis for most of YouTube’s original content (nd half of Adult Swim). Many of our favorite childhood cartoons don’t hold up past their intros, and while I’d argue that much of the Disney Afternoon does, Darkwing Duck does it best of all.
By its nature, Darkwing was a little more action-oriented than most of its contemporaries. It has slapstick violence, to be sure, but also a lot more damage than your average Disney cartoon. Even more than a solidly executed concept, the visual look of DD makes it even more worthy of revisiting. Dare I say, even tattoo worthy?! Obviously (if you know the Disney Afternoon) it’s animated far better than a lot of the other throwaway action figure pitch programs of the 80s and 90s (although Darkwing had what might be the greatest line of Disney action figures ever made). His neon menagerie of villains warmly reminded us of Batman’s colorful rogues gallery, and everything involved with Darkwing and his gadgets contained enough purple to make Prince puke. It still looks glorious today.
And the game! I keep saying this to anyone who will listen, but if Darkwing had come out any year before 1992 when the Super Nintendo was in full force, we’d still be talking about it as one of the best NES games of all-time. Yes, it borrows a lot from Mega Man, but so did DuckTales, and Darkwing builds upon that formula more than it takes from it. Unlike a lot of 8-bit heroes, Darkwing could block, and even hang and repel from surfaces, you know, like a superhero. Even back then, the superhero genre was one of the most atrociously treated genres, and Darkwing rose above it.
Calling Darkwing Duck the greatest superhero game of that era is a pretty easy declaration. Superman, Spider-man, Wolverine, Captain America, Punisher, the X-Men, Avengers. They all had 8-bit NES games and they’re all among the worst things available on the platform. Just about the only beacon of light you had in the super heroic regard was Sunsoft’s Batman. It even has its own action figure. However, every bullet point of praise you could bring up for that game, I could argue Darkwing does better.
It’s more fair, it’s more authentic, it has better music, and most importantly, it features Batman characters. As my buddy Chris Baker points out in his book Wrong: Retro Games, You Messed Up Our Comic Book Heroes, it looks as if Sunsoft flipped through a decade old DC Encyclopedia, cherry picking obscure villains to cast as generic characters they’d already designed. Part of the reason we love Batman are the people who aren’t Batman. The Sunsoft game has none of those.
Even Mega Man didn’t have the luxury of any expectation towards what baddies you’d fight. They were supposed to be new. But Darkwing Duck did, and unlike Batman, Darkwing Duck delivered. And outside of the criminal lack of Negaduck, Darkwing got to face off against the villains you most wanted to encounter. Megavolt, Liquidator, Bushroot, and yes, the final confrontation with Steelbeak. (If I had to guess, it looks as if the game’s development started with the show’s original design doc, rather than basing it off what the show became).
In a weird way, Darkwing Duck was the game I was most looking forward to owning via The Disney Afternoon Collection. It has the best ending, but more importantly, Darkwing Duck hasn’t received near enough celebration across the board. Outside of an excellent comic book resurrection, Disney hasn’t done much of anything with the character. While Uncle Mickey owns plenty of superheroes nowadays, I think one could make the argument that, in a time when characters from the 1960s and earlier leap from the page to screen en masse, doesn’t a smart mark superhero from the 1990s deserve a bit of a comeback too?