Intimately familiar to many children of the late 80s, Disney’s DuckTales brought the classic Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck adventure tales to life as an after-school cartoon. Combining cartoon hijinks with Barks’ well-researched tales of mythology and high adventure, the series was a smash hit for Disney, producing 100 episodes over four seasons, a feature film (1990’s Treasure of the Lost Lamp) and, of course, a video game adaptation. As with most popular children’s properties at the time, DuckTales received a video game adaptation for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Released by Capcom in late 1989 and produced by many staff members from the contemporaneous Mega Man series of platformers, DuckTales the game was every bit the success DuckTales the series was, winning praise for its tight controls, high difficulty, and evocative 8-bit soundtrack. The game was so popular, in fact, that in 2013 it was remade for modern consoles with the addition of animated cutscenes and voiceovers by the original cartoon cast as DuckTales: Remastered.
Musically, DuckTales has always been defined by its catchy 80s theme song, written by Mark Mueller and belted out with gusto by Jeff Pescetto. It’s the only piece of music present across all iterations of the franchise, from TV to film to game, and it was adapted by Capcom veteran composer Hiroshige Tonomura into DuckTales the game. Tonomura also composed original music for the game, relying more heavily on Capcom’s defining 8-bit sound of the time than Ron Jones’ music for the TV episodes, and his compositions proved to be enduringly popular among video game music fans–frequently remixed and arranged by enthusiasts (particularly that of the “Moon” level, often cited by fans as a highlight of 8-bit music in general). When DuckTales: Remastered was in production, the developers turned to Jake Kaufman, one of their most frequent collaborators, to remaster Tonomura’s music and compose new tunes as needed. Known by his handle “virt” to many in the game music community, Kaufman was an experienced composer and remixer with a strong record of working on 8-bit hardware (Shantae) and remixing or adapting classic 8-bit music for updated remakes (Contra 4, Double Dragon Neon).
Kaufman’s approach was similar to that of many of his other projects: using the original 8-bit song as a template, he beefed up the arrangement considerably with more modern synths and, often, layers of faux orchestra and choir. The remixed versions of Tonomura’s compositions, as well as Kaufman’s own original creations, nevertheless retain a strong 8-bit influence, and retro electronic tones (albeit rarely as harsh as the original NES sine waves) are often given the lead melody line or a strong supporting role. Many arrangements in the past have taken too many liberties with the tempo and structure of the original music but Kaufman is generally very loyal to Tomamura’s melodies, enhancing them with dovetailing ideas like chants in “Himalayas” or mariachi guitar in “Amazon.” The rearrangement of “Moon” seems to have been done with particular care, keeping the driving tempo of the original while adding an array of shimmering synths to the mix. In fact, Kaufman uses fragments of Tonomura’s “Moon” theme throughout most of the score both in his original compositions and the originals–giving it, rather than the Mueller/Pescetto theme song, pride of place.
The original compositions prepared by Kaufman mostly revolve around cutscenes and the final levels which are exclusive to the Remastered version. Sharp-eared listeners will hear many nods in this material to the original songs; “Money Bin,” for example, provides a lively and bright synth melody alongside driving snare hits, accordian, and jazz piano (complete with hints of “Moon”). “Mount Vesuvius” pits synth leads against a mock orchestra and deep male chorus, perfectly balancing the carefree attitude of earlier levels with snarling synthy menace. And unlike the original NES game, which simply reused the normal boss battle theme for its final confrontation, Remastered gets a final confrontation in “Dracula Duck” that serves up fragments of the “Transylvania” theme alongside even more frenzied synths and faux orchestra for a thrilling conclusion the original game lacked. Not everything is overtly harsh synths; the arrangement of “Scrooge’s Office” provides gentle synth pads while fleshing out the original melody with fragments of “Moon” and the DuckTales theme, while a lovely solo piano arrangement of “Moon” is included as a bonus track.
Purists will also be delighted to see that Hiroshige Tonomura’s original 8-bit tracks (along with 8-bit versions of Kaufman’s original songs) are included on the Remastered album release; despite being composed in 1989, this is the 8-bit soundtrack’s first official release in any form. The sounds are very harsh for modern ears, and listeners without experience or affinity for harsh sine wave tones may very well end the album after Kaufman’s arrangements end. But the original DuckTales tracks are a welcome inclusion, both for nostalgia purposes and as a study in how Tonomura cannily uses the NES’s limited sound capabilities alongside strong, driving melodies to maximize the palatability of the game’s sound while minimizing its drawbacks. Kaufman also includes the Mueller/Pescetto theme song on the album, giving the beloved tune a lengthy and joyous synth stinger that meshes surprisingly well with the 80s original.
The digital album, available from iTunes and Amazon, has a generous 90 minutes of score. There are some oddities, like some of the longer tracks looping one-and-a-half times instead of the industry standard two times (and cutting off at odd places within the loop). Listeners with no patience for 8-bit sounds or Kaufman’s modern electronics may bemoan the absence of Ron Jones’ fully orchestral approach. But fans of the cartoon and of the original NES game will be delighted at what Kaufman has accomplished with Ducktales: Remastered, and the inclusion of full looped versions of Tonomura’s original songs means that even purists will get something from the experience. Recommended.