On The Level: The Unforgettable Music Of Ducktales’ Moon Stage

Though it’s been more than 30 years since DuckTales first launched on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), The Moon and its notable Moon Stage Theme continue to enjoy cult status within broader video game culture.

Capcom released the Disney-licensed DuckTales video game in 1989 to positive reviews and overall commercial success. Throughout the years, journalists have included it on various round-ups and lists of the all-time top NES games. In the game, players assume the role of Scrooge McDuck as he embarks on an adventure to become the richest duck in the world, armed only with the power of his trusty cane-cum-pogo stick.

The platfomer, based on the 1987 animated TV series of the same name, features bright levels, engaging gameplay and reportedly has multiple endings, which are based on how much money the player collected throughout the game.

While players can travel to exotic locations such as Transylvania or The Himalayas, The Moon is the only off-world level. Once there, Scrooge faces unusual-looking aliens, boards a UFO and finds his way to the treasure by backtracking parts of the level and navigating through a secret passage.

In the stage’s final boss battle, the player takes on a giant rat. Defeat it, and they earn a piece of green cheese, an apparent reference to a phrase that describes the human nature of gullibility. (Interestingly, the phrase, the first documented instance of which appears in a book titled The Proverbs of John Heywood, jokes that the “the moon is made of greene cheese,” referencing, contextually referencing the moon’s age, not the color.) 

But what’s so captivating about this level is the music that allows the player to immerse themselves in The Moon’s strange environment.

Hiroshige Tonomura composed the uptempo, space-age song during a relatively brief stint at Capcom. It’s significantly more complex and original than the other songs in the game, all of which Tonomura also composed. The catchy tune allows the player to suspend their own reality, allowing them to fully enjoy the mysteries of this unique level.

While few will ever endeavor to play the original DuckTales game, the 8-bit song lives on. The song may not have enjoyed such longevity if the game’s developers hadn’t made a crucial decision to speed up its tempo. Sometime around 2001, a game preservationist documented the differences between the game itself and an earlier prototype he’d obtained from a collector. In doing so, he notes that the original version of the song as it exists in the prototype is slower. It still sounds good, but something about the faster-tempo version included in the DuckTales game is significantly more exciting. At this point, it’s mere speculation as to why the Capcom team opted to speed up the tune. Perhaps the team took a cue from the quick-tempo music of another Capcom release, Mega Man, which debuted just a couple of years before in 1987.

It’s no secret that certain classic video game sounds can spark nostalgic feelings in those who played these games in their original forms. Think of the sound of picking up a heart in The Legend of Zelda or catching a mushroom in Super Mario Bros., for example. However, it’s frequently the music itself that lingers in one’s mind long after they’ve largely forgotten the details of the game itself.

There’s something especially memorable about the DuckTales’ Moon Stage Theme. Perhaps it’s the fact that it starts with a series of quick, upbeat, individual notes that build into something that, if played on wind and string instruments, would sound more like a classical masterpiece than a chiptune-inspired song from a video game. In fact, later renditions would indeed reimagine it as the work of an orchestral ensemble.

While the song may sound basic by today’s standards, it was actually quite an impressive feat for the time. In 1989, technological constraints hampered video game audio engineering. Limited to the capabilities of the 8-bit programming of the era, a composer faced numerous challenges in producing a compelling background song. The NES had five channels, each locked to a specific tone. Each tone might be best thought of as a unique instrument, with its own possibilities for individual notes but never able to deviate from the tone. 

Perhaps this is why this song stands out as a particularly notable achievement. DuckTales was a good game, but it certainly hasn’t carried the cultural significance in the gaming world like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda. This is an important distinction. It means the song stands on its own merit, as those others would invoke nostalgia for games that players would revere for decades to come.

The Moon Stage Theme’s cultural significance means there’s no shortage of fan renditions, including metal and acapella versions, and remixes. Those who played DuckTales Remastered upon its debut in 2013 had the opportunity to hear composer Jake Kaufman’s updated version of the Moon Stage Theme song that used the enhancements made possible by audio engineering enhancements, as well as an ending credits piano version.

However, reverence for the song goes much deeper, with renewed interest in the past few years due to its resurgence in the mainstream media. In the modern DuckTales TV series, which debuted in 2017, viewers can catch the Moon Stage Theme several times. One is a brief interlude in the show’s first season, while in the second, Della Duck (mother to Huey, Dewey and Louie) surprised fans when she sang a lyrical version of the song to calm a baby alien.

It appears again in a later episode when she sings it along with her son, Louie.

But still, there’s nothing quite like the original, in all its 8-bit glory.

The song lives on. While video game music has notably progressed, even to the extent that it can present mind-bending virtual reality experiences that merge music and gameplay, the Moon Stage Theme will go down in gaming history as a classic retro tune that left an impact on millions of players.

READ NEXT: Woo-Oo! 20 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About DuckTales

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Whitney Meers is a lifelong gamer and professional writer whose credits include Newsweek, Comedy Central, HuffPost, NBCUniversal, Samsung, The Discovery Channel and truTV. She regularly contributes to Frederator Digital’s YouTube gaming channel The Leaderboard, which recently surpassed a million subscribers.

As a former Top Writer on Medium, she wrote several of the site’s most widely circulated satirical pieces throughout 2017 and 2018. Her personal essays have appeared on xoJane and Everyday Feminism. Additionally, she served as the consulting lead on Newsweek’s Fortnite Special Edition, securing interviews with numerous gaming personalities including Ninja, DrLupo, TimTheTatman and Pokimane.

Whitney has a comedy background and has written and performed in various live shows including 8 Bits: A Sketch Show About Video Games at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. She was a house team member on the sketch comedy team Slap Fight at The People’s Improv Theater, also in NYC.

A versatile content creator, Whitney also produces gaming videos, makes gaming-related fan art and writes genre-bending scripts for film and television. Her pilot script Recession Proof was nominated for the TVWriter.com People’s Pilot award in 2011 and was later optioned and produced by an independent production company.

Occasionally, Whitney streams on Twitch, where you can watch her battle royale her way through code:leaf errors in Apex Legends. Twitter / Instagram: @whitneymeers YouTube: youtube.com/wmeers

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