Author: John Legendoffzelda
Donald Duck received about the worst treatment of the three main Disney characters in the 1980s and 1990s. Consider his peers; Mickey Mouse was able to introduce himself to an entire new generation with three new short features between 1983 and 1995, plus a startling cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that gave him a real conversation with Bugs Bunny. That would have been unthinkable in both characters’ golden age. Goofy found success with his TV show Goof Troop, which gave him a fresh comedic partner in his hip, young son Max and updated his iconic slapstick by framing it in modern-day suburbia. Even his uncle Scrooge McDuck became a household name by starring in the runaway hit series DuckTales.
Where was Donald? Playing second banana to Mickey and starring in the ill-fated show Quack Pack, a series that only proved hip modernization suited neither Donald nor his nephews. But in 1996, he was somewhere else, too – a new video game from the newly formed Disney Interactive that may be one of the strangest concepts Disney ever had: Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow.
Cold Shadow is literally unlike any other Disney property in that it has never had a follow-up of any kind. It’s some sort of pulpy hybrid of Magnum P.I. and Kung-Fu, populated by Disney ducks and drenched in bouncy music by Michael Giacchino. Donald here is given a blue baseball cap and red Hawaiian shirt and renamed Maui Mallard, a detective who visits a tropical island and takes on a case to retrieve a native idol called Shabuhm Shabuhm. On his journey, he encounters bugs, evil spirits, island natives, and ninjas. Before too long, Maui turns into his own ninja alter-ego, Cold Shadow, equipped with a bo staff and a bandana worn over his eyes like a blindfold. Maui must escort a spirit to his resting place, find Shabuhm Shabuhm and eventually save the island from exploding.
Maui runs around his levels collecting treasure and firing at his enemies with a bug-gun. It is as its name says: a gun that fires bugs. Ammo replenishes itself, although fireflies can be collected for secondary projectiles. Controlling Maui is a little slippery; he always goes immediately into a headlong sprint, and he has a fickle jump box that makes it hard to stick certain landings. His aim can sometimes be off as well, at least with enemies that are above him. But still, the running is the more fun part about Maui, and because the introductory gameplay gives him freedom to run often, the player can get the hang of him pretty easily (Climbing up ropes and chains also feels a little jerky, but that complaint is minor).
Maui also collects tokens with the yin-yang symbol on them, which allow him to turn into Cold Shadow. He controls about the same, only he now takes out enemies by swiping at them with his staff. Staff combat is usually reserved for enemy ninja ducks, and in that respect it gets a little aggravating since the enemy ninjas can be quicker than Cold Shadow and land more hits on him (Such a steep learning curve is likely why one boss fight pits Cold Shadow against a dozen other ninjas). Aside from that, the staff is used to swing from certain hooks and climb narrow corridors by wedging it between walls, and those are more enjoyable. The swinging and climbing require a lot of timing and precision, though.
The graphics in this game are gorgeous, as was the usual case with late-period Super Nintendo games. The scenery is full of vibrant colors and details, and the character animations are lively as well; befitting, considering Disney’s reputation with animation and art. The sound in this game is wonderful; there’s Giacchino’s music and there’s also the neat, cartoony sound effects like the pew-pew noise from Maui’s bug-gun or the agitated burble he makes when he’s hit.
Sometimes, though, the details work too well; paths can be obstructed by foliage or statues or other kinds of foreground objects, and some platforms blend in with the background to the point that they don’t look much like platforms. The platforming is at its worst, though, in the special stages. If Maui finishes a level with enough treasure, he goes to a big theater stage with a lot of stars, clouds, moons and suns hanging as backdrops. Maui completes the special stage only if he activates six fireworks scattered throughout the stage within two minutes. These stages use the hard-to-control gimmick of being propelled through the air, as that is the only way to activate all six fireworks. Again, Maui has a bad jump box, and landing on gusts of wind is harder than it seems. What makes this especially bad is that completing a special stage is the only way to get passwords for the game. What ridiculousness.
Even with its flaws, Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow is a decent action-platformer game. I would even call it a little underrated. The concept to this game is stuffed with so many neat ideas, that I’m sad it didn’t become much of a success. Perhaps it was due to the November 1996 release date, when the Nintendo 64 was gaining popularity? Or the fact that Donald Duck was hard to recognize at first and people confused him for a bizarre new Disney IP? (That one might not work in the UK, where the game was called Donald in Maui Mallard).
I really do like the concept for this game – the nutty combination of Disney, Magnum P.I. and Kung-Fu – and I would say its problems are overlookable enough for it to be a cult classic. I cannot get past its problems, though, so instead I will leave Cold Shadow to its more devoted fans to hold it up to cult classic status, and also as Donald Duck’s much deserved re-invention. He really did deserve one, after all.
Three out of five stars.
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