Before I discuss The Lucky Dime Caper Starring Donald Duck, I wish to revisit some points I originally made when talking about Snoopy Concert. There I asserted that mainstream video game discourse misunderstands licensed games through their expectations of correspondence, both to the brand the game claims to embody and to the generic idea of what a game is. By conceptualizing licensed games like this, we preclude ideas like individual expression or interpretation; ideas that not only frequently appear within those games, but are in fact necessary components of them. There’s room to expand on these thoughts, but what we have suits our current purposes.
Disney games (or at least Disney games throughout the late 80s and 90s) are unique for how the Disney brand itself interacts with these expectations. The brand’s might ensures that they’re among the most proliferous games of that era, but the perception of Disney as fiercely protective of its intellectual properties has led to this reputation that the company very tightly controlled what those games could actually do. How characters are animated, what they can do within a game, the themes that game is allowed to pursue – all needed approval from Disney.
The thinking here is straightforward: it demonstrates the extent of a major corporation’s power that it can exert such tight control over its iconography, even in cases that would threaten that control. One apocryphal story even claims that Fantasia’s quality was so poor it led to the creation of Disney Interactive in the hopes that Disney could avert similar incident later. Never mind that the company was founded four years after the alleged incident, and never mind the wide array of companies who applied the Disney brand to video games both before and after Fantasia’s release.
What makes the reputation odd, then, isn’t the reputation itself, but that despite perceiving itself (sometimes correctly so) as being rooted in historical fact, that reputation runs counter to the very games it applies itself to. Its straightforward nature glosses over important nuances and may even miss some fundamental facts. Each Disney game, being the product of different groups of people working under different constraints (creative or otherwise), amounts to a unique interpretation of the massive cultural phenomenon that is Disney. Granted, those constraints include the legal, financial, and cultural relations between developer and Disney, but the fact of these games being interpretations remains nonetheless. Approached this way, the variety in Disney games reveals the flexibility within the idea of Disney; how many meanings that idea can be made to have without self-contradiction, and how difficult it is for any one interpretation to challenge that idea if Disney can actively profit from any of them.
Needless to say the Disney video game oeuvre is quick to demonstrate that variety. Some games openly embrace the act of interpretation. Epic Mickey critiques Disney for abandoning its early history in the name of success, and the 1989 DuckTales serves more as a stage upon which Capcom can perform their own design sensibilities than as a representation of the cartoon it names itself after. Other games shy away from interpretation and model themselves more closely to the Disney ethos, only for their personal circumstances to reveal another means by which we might understand them. Castle of Illusion and Donald: Goin’ Quackers both belong to this latter category. Regardless of which category a given game belongs to, there remains a consistency between both. In each of these cases the game’s particularity leads it to a single interpretation of the Disney ethos, making the act of analyzing those games an easy one.
This is what makes Lucky Dime Caper’s highly exteriorized nature so intriguing. Like Flying Hero after it, the choices the game makes speak more to the expectations it makes relevant to itself than to anything that game does with those expectations. It is Lucky Dime Caper’s goal to access the Disney spirit in a pure form, completely unmediated by personal reading or situation, and it is nothing if not aggressive in pursuing that goal. From the moment one starts the game and watches Magica de Spell capture Donald Duck’s nephews, and Scrooge’s lucky dimes with them – a typical Disney premise presented in typical Disney fashion – one realizes how much the game demands from its players a basic understanding of the Disney ethos. This makes interpreting Lucky Dime Caper as a game difficult. We will consider this issue in more depth later. For now, we need only say there’s little to be had in reading the game against its intentions.
By contrast, approaching the game on its own terms affords a wealth of perspectives from which to understand the game; so many that the game underestimates them. Let us begin our own understanding by returning to the categories we established for Disney games earlier. Given the relationship between game and brand, we can say Lucky Dime Caper belongs to the second group of games (Castle of Illusion and Goin’ Quackers) rather than the first. The only difference is Lucky Dime Caper’s zeal eliminates the developers and the wider world of video games as potential lenses through which we might understand it, leaving us only the historical moment of the Disney brand itself.
The irony is that the game’s desire to connect with a pure Disney ethos puts it in contact with a historical moment that is itself unstable. At the time, Disney was in a period of several transitions: out of the Dark Age and into the Disney Renaissance, and toward a new set of aesthetic and narrative styles via the Saturday morning cartoon. More established Disney properties were not exempt from these changes. With theatrical shorts, their old home, being produced in much smaller quantities (Mickey Mouse being the exception), characters like Goofy and Donald Duck found new homes where Disney was directing its attention.
All of this is to say that despite whatever wishes it may have, Lucky Dime Caper must necessarily speak to multiple aspects of the Disney ethos. This isn’t to say that desire affects the game’s quality for the worse; it can pursue any of those aspects reasonably well. However, its polysemy discussing Lucky Dime Caper difficult. Where should we focus our attention? What, if anything, can the game say about the cultural phenomenon it purports to represent? Do these aspects meaningfully overlap, and if so, what is the nature of that overlap?
On the one hand, we can read the game as an extension of DuckTales, and therefore Disney’s foray into the world of Saturday morning cartoons. The narrative premise – Donald Duck traveling the world to rescue his nephews and Scrooge’s lucky dimes from Magica de Spell – both expects a familiarity with the show and frames itself as another episode of it. Furthermore, the play premises are particularly well suited toward elaborating that narrative; a point the game insists upon. Lucky Dime Caper is a platformer; somewhat like its contemporary Castle of Illusion but even more pared back mechanically. While the game could theoretically function on these terms alone, it has little interest in doing so. One chooses a level. There may be a few deviations here and there, but usually one proceeds in a straight line to the end, jumping over or eliminating whatever obstacles obstruct your path. It’s always a very straightforward process, and one that generates little interest in its own right.
Like its contemporary Castle of Illusion, Lucky Dime Caper approaches play not as something worthy of interest in its own right but as a set of tools to communicate the aesthetics and moods it associates with the Disney ethos. The only difference is what those moods are: where the former employs a quietist approach for its fairy tale narrative, the humor and sense of adventure players would associate with DuckTales means Lucky Dime Caper requires a more involved method. Putting aside the narrative conceit of traveling the globe, what stands out about the game is how heavily set pieces figure into its design. They afford the game a great deal of flexibility in imbuing play with either adventure or humor, depending on what the present situation demands: a slapstick fight with low level lackeys, an escape from some impending hazard (a rolling boulder, a collapsing bridge, an approaching lava flow, etc.). In addition, focusing the design around moments like these allows Lucky Dime Caper to draw attention to them through contrast while also allowing them enough room to breathe – explaining why those moments are as distinctive as they are.
However, we could just as easily invert our model, focus on the space in between set pieces, and argue that the calm vignettes we see here are more reminiscent of Disney theatrical shorts of the 40s and 50s than they are of contemporary cartoons. Indeed, the innocent brand of humor the game invokes fits those shorts just as well as it does the cartoons. This isn’t to say that Lucky Dime Caper fails in its earlier goal of mirroring DuckTales, or that this possible discrepancy is itself some kind of fault. Far from it; between the Master System’s rich color palette and the predictably Disney-esque animations, Lucky Dime Caper is more than capable of capturing the appeal of early Disney shorts.
What this does mean is that in trying to capture that appeal at all, the game speaks to a very different, general, perhaps more basic part of the Disney ethos. It’s a part that doesn’t properly belong to any one era of Disney but affects all in one way or another; a part that exists outside both audience and creator despite being mutually constructed by both. If Castle of Illusion, by basing itself on shorts from the 20s and 30s, harkens back to a romanticized innocence that was constructed for Disney after the fact and if Epic Mickey directly challenges that presumed innocence, then Lucky Dime Caper’s dualist approach speaks directly to the act of construction itself.
Clearly, that approach affords us valuable insight into how Disney functions; maybe even greater insight than Disney has of itself. And that is precisely why Lucky Dime Caper is such a valuable tool for critiquing the Disney brand. Because of the way the game is designed, any problems we see in its aren’t solely problems with the game, but with the logic underlying its construction.
Consider the game’s relationship with lands it recognizes as foreign. So much of the game’s appeal lies in its ability to take us to far off locales and on exciting adventures – an appeal rife with assumptions. To abbreviate, Lucky Dime Caper reproduces the same tourist-esque feeling one finds in its peers (QuackShot, DuckTales (both the show and the games), Maui Mallard, etc.), where any rich inner complexity these locales might have is reduced to how an outsider would understand them. In other words those cultures are reduced in such a way as to be sellable. Unfortunately, this view problematizes any non-outsiders’ existence. At best, they have no motivation to participate in this scheme as either customer or seller; and at worst, their very existence negates any attempt to simplify and thus sell the culture they are a part of.
For this reason, Lucky Dime Caper depicts them as somebody profiting off tourism might: as an obstacle to one’s own goals. Their perspective, their motivations are never elaborated upon. In fact, it’s hard to think of what they stand to gain by cooperating with Magica de Spell. The native people of Peru or Egypt exist only as a force of violence to resist Donald’s actions. As far as the game is concerned, they are no better than animals – not just because they invoke the stereotype of the violent savage, but because most of the other enemies Donald Duck encounters are animals.
Particularly revealing is Lucky Dime Caper’s use of the crows from Dumbo. Where today and certainly at the time of the game’s release they would have been recognized as racist caricatures of African Americans, Lucky Dime Caper can only see them as symbols whose history it can strip away to suit whatever needs it currently has. So it is that they are made villains, abducting Scrooge’s dimes and children under Magica de Spell’s orders and guarding them against possible rescue attempts.
We’ve already made it clear that Lucky Dime Caper expects its players to approach the game with some understanding of the Disney ethos. Yet in each of these cases, that demand backfires. It creates a disconnect between how we understand what the game does and how it wants to be understood. More than that; the knowledge the game expects of us allows us to go further than the game thinks possible. We recognize that Lucky Dime Caper has stripped the crows of their last defense by changing them from helpful side characters to Magica’s lackeys and we see they have been stripped of their agency, as though they exist only as extensions of Magica’s villainy. This is to say nothing of the discomfort dissecting characters like these reveals. And what of the characters who the game doesn’t code as foreign? What of Donald, Scrooge, and the nephews? To them the world is given, and through nothing more than their own efforts. “The only luck is that which you make for yourself”, the game (through Scrooge) teaches us, “so work hard and you, too, can enjoy a fortune as vast as mine.”
For as much inspiration as Lucky Dime Caper finds in that message, it’s oddly quick to contradict it. Its story begins with Scrooge handing his nephews lucky dimes of their own – a symbolic and literal act of passing his wealth on to those close to him. Even if the act doesn’t negate the moral given with it, Scrooge has still give them something many might not have: a base upon which their hard work will mean anything. Then there’s the matter of the inciting incident. By Lucky Dime Caper’s logic, Magica is making her own luck by robbing Scrooge of his wealth (as opposed to having success handed to her). The game may acknowledge the similarities between their cases, but only as much as it needs to. Scrooge and Donald’s greed warrants a hearty laugh, being rooted in what they already have (and the matter of how they attained it never being explained). Magica’s greed is something to be villified, being unable to establish itself other than by changing the way things are.
In short, the creative choices Lucky Dime Caper makes say more about the entities responsible for its creation than about the subject matter they discuss. Even if we accept the game’s generalities (the fairy tale-esque format, the celebration of family) at face value, the fact remains that the story it wants to tell, by its very nature, favors the way things are over the way they could be. For us as players to agree with sentiment presupposes a lot: that we have reason to value the status quo the game depicts; that we identify not with Magica, not with the Peruvians, Egyptians, Hawaiians etc. that Donald Duck accosts, but with the affluent Duck family. The point is this vision of the world we’re meant to admire is one made to justify the middle class white America from which Disney rose to success and upon which much of its continued success is founded. Lucky Dime Caper may envision itself as a love letter to Disney, but the love it espouses reveals more than it would care to acknowledge.