Here’s a failed game concept that I really wish had managed to survive the gauntlet of development: Headcannon’s Darkwing Duck pitch. Earlier this week, the developers of Sonic Mania revealed that they’d previously approached Capcom about making a spiritual successor to the company’s 1992 NES game. Obviously, they were unsuccessful. The studio has since released the prototype online, and while it’s not polished or perfect, it’s got me thinking about what might have been.
The prototype, which you can download here (at least for now), consists only of a short side-scrolling sewer level. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh lord, not another sewer level!” It’s hardly a maze, though, and there aren’t any puzzles. Instead, you hop across some platforms while fighting rats and Eggmen, which are the duck foot soldiers employed by the terrorist organization F.O.W.L.
Naturally, you play as Darkwing Duck, who has two gadgets: a grappling hook and gas gun, the latter of which even quacks when it runs low on ammo. The grappling hook can attach to walls and platforms to pull Darkwing Duck toward them or allow him to swing from things. On mouse and keyboard, which is the only way the play the prototype, the platforming is far from smooth, which could be one of the reasons Capcom passed on the project. Still, it does work, it’s not hard to imagine the much more elaborate levels Headcannon could have created with this idea, especially given the studio’s magnificent work on Sonic Mania, another homage to early 90s, funk-infused, animal-themed platforming. The sewer level in the prototype even reminded me a little of the Chemical Plant stage from Sonic.
Most importantly, every element from the music and sound to the graphics exudes a love and passion for the NES source material on which it was based. Comic book writer Aaron Sparrow, who was tentatively attached to the project, tweeted that the idea was to have fully voiced motion comic interludes in between levels. Headcannon was going to make character sprites based on the pixelated art of James Silvani, who worked with Sparrow on the Boom! Studios 2010 The Duck Knight Returns four-issue comic book series.
Capcom and Disney both signed on to make DuckTales: Remastered happen back in 2013, so the idea of breathing new life into the NES Darkwing Duck game still isn’t a total long shot. Outside of a not-so-good game on the TurboGrafx-16 and the character’s limited appearances in the Disney Infinity games, Darkwing Duck has been mostly snubbed these last few decades, and for no good reason. The 80s and early 90s were filled with crappy cartoons incubated in marketing departments with the aim of selling toys and other merchandise, but Darkwing Duck was clever and entertaining. I say that as both someone who may or may not have donned a cape and ran around the backyard fighting duck crime while reading from a thesaurus and who has also revisited a number of my favorite cartoons from the era and found them wanting.
Darkwing Duck holds up. It has heart. It deserves a god damn sequel. All I want to do is get dangerous again.