8-Bit Disney: TaleSpin (1991)

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The games released under the Disney Afternoon brands up to this point had been quite good.  DuckTales and Rescue Rangers both are solid platformers for the NES that deserve their praise.  TaleSpin, however, was Capcom’s attempt to bring the Disney license into the realm of the scrolling shooter and it seems as if it were doomed from conception.  That said, Capcom isn’t really known for excellence in the SHMUP genre.  Eco Fighters, Forgotten Worlds and 1942 are solid games in their own right but compared to their contemporaries they are decidedly mediocre.  TaleSpin itself is a failed attempt to recreate the 80’s Sega classic Fantasy Zone and mix it with scrolling arcade action but we instead got a poorly-constructed game based on a bland animated series.

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The meat of TaleSpin is pretty straightforward;  You scroll to the end of the stage dodging enemies and bullets and pick up upgrades and points along the way.  Where everything goes wrong is the gameplay.  The problems are numerous but first, the fire rate is atrocious.  The shear weakness and slowness of your weapon makes defending yourself against nearby targets incredibly difficult and frustrating.  To make matters worse, any vertical movement forces you to aim diagonally in that direction, so dodging bullets and navigating the world force you to disengage your target and for players like myself who focus on taking targets down quickly, this is extremely counterintuitive.  The next (and certainly not the last) problem is the movement itself.  Flight is incredibly slowly and there are a lot of areas where it can be difficult to judge your movement to that of incoming threats.  Then there’s the hitbox.  In good shooters, the hitbox is small, usually about half or a quarter the size of your ship; this is to allow for more careful navigation of the world and its threats.  However, in TaleSpin your plane is a massive sprite compared to the size of the levels and your hitbox is far larger than your bullet radius, putting you at a huge disadvantage when taking on targets that tend to fire numerous bullets at a time or when attempting to navigate narrow gaps in the levels.

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The final major gameplay issue is, over everything else I’ve listed, the real killer for this game.  I mentioned it bears (no pun intended) similarities to Fantasy Zone in some respects.  This is because, even though there is really only one direction to go in each stage, pressing the A button flips you upside down and forces you in the opposite direction.  The screen also scrolls back to the left up to the point where the scrolling began at the beginning of the level or level segment.  All of the remaining firing and movement rules still apply facing the other direction and the only reason to use this is to reposition yourself by scrolling the screen back to set yourself up for an offensive.  This design choice is so baffling and so outside the purview of quality arcade shooters that I simply cannot imagine why Capcom and the team behind TaleSpin could have possibly considered this to be a good idea.

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Graphically TaleSpin looks okay.  However, Baloo’s seaplane is actually pretty well-designed in the animated series, having a sort of World World II era look to it, but in the game you see the tiny plane with a giant Baloo popping out of its top and makes you feel less like you’re piloting a plane in an arcade shooter and more like you are flying a Happy Meal toy from the 80’s, which isn’t too far from the truth (I’m pretty sure that toy existed).  This design also applies to many of the enemies but at least the biplanes they piloted in the series actually justified this stylistic idea.  The level design is a messy mishmash of different visual tones that looks fine in pieces but the whole is more or less nonsensical, with random floating objects and out-of-place background sprites.  Also, many of the background objects can often appear part of the world and it can be difficult to tell at times what is and isn’t collidable without advance knowledge of the levels and maybe a little trial and error.

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On to another thing TaleSpin does badly: The sound design.  Pings and beeps flood the soundtrack over music that sounds like bad covers of songs that would have been contemporarily performed by the Muppets.   There is no real theming to the flow or mood of any of the music outside of “this sounds kind of cartoony”.  At least when Rescue Rangers did this it was somewhat cohesive and the songs had an occasionally-memorable hook.  Here it’s just a jumbled mess of musical ideas lacking any cohesion or direction.  What’s shocking is the composer, Minae “Ojalin” Fujii is the composer for Mega Man 4!  Tragically she hasn’t really been responsible for a solid video game soundtrack since then.

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Overall this is a bland game that borders on bad due to some outrageous design decisions but if you are willing to put in the effort to get used to the awkward controls it may bring some enjoyment.  It’s certainly novel in a lot of ways unfortunately it doesn’t execute any of the things it is attempting to very well if at all.  TaleSpin is common-to-uncommon in the collector’s scene with it steadily trending upwards in price; probably due to lack of interest in its time.  It does have fans and thus there is a demand, usually going for around $10 online.  If you want an alternate way to play it is featured in the Disney Afternoon Collection alongside DuckTales, Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck, so that is a plus.  However, I cannot recommend TaleSpin.  There are a lot of great shooters on the NES so there is really no reason to seek this out unless you are an NES completionist or a masochistic Disney fan.