A few weeks ago, I spotted a Super Nintendo (SNES) cartridge of Disney's 1994 The Lion King game and grabbed it for $6.00 at my local used game store. I remember renting Aladdin in the 90s and loving it, but I never got a chance to play Simba's adventure and I've only ever heard good things about any the SNES/Genesis-era Disney games, so I had to give it a shot. Plus, it's hard to believe this game is now celebrating its 20-year anniversary!
Let me reiterate that: people love the old Disney games. Aladdin, in particular is still likely to cause a console war to flame up between the SNES and Genesis versions (but, really, the Genesis version was the clear winner on that front). Still, how rare for a whole set of movie tie-in games to hold such a revered place in fans' hearts. The only other example I can think of are the "Super" Star Wars series games, also on SNES.
These days, "movie tie-in" can be readily exchanged for "cash grab" when games are released alongside their silver screen counterparts. Worse, they're often mobile games. But we're going to spend time in a happier era, at least when it comes to games inspired by animated, musical films.
CRAFTED WITH CARE
When I first snapped the cartridge into my SNES and slid the power button to the ON position, I was treated to a great reminder of why these games struck such a chord:
In the 90s, CG animation had yet to take over the world, and we were getting regular doses of unbelievably beautiful hand-drawn animation from Disney. Thankfully, they leant some of their talent to create the sprite animation for these games. It shows, too: although the pixel resolution is decidedly 16-bit, they animate so smoothly and really manage to capture the personality on display in the films. Sprite animation is really an art form, and this is a master class in it.
Just look at that gorgeous vista, too! The color palette is so perfectly Lion King.
It might be hard to see in the screenshot above, but note that Simba is watching a butterfly. In one of the many "idle" animations, he will watch this flutter by, turn his head if it passes him, and maybe even try to catch it (unsuccessfully). There was no real need for animation and game development time to be devoted for something that only happens when you're not even playing the game. I think, though, that it's evidence the developers wanted you to occasionally stop and smell the roses.
Or chase the butterflies, as it were.
JUST CAN'T WAIT TO BE KING, BUT IT'S EASIER SAID THAN DONE
The game opens with a quick (and not terribly challenging) opening level spent exploring Pride Rock. Immediately, I was pleasantly surprised by how tight and fluid the controls felt. The jumps had great momentum and weight, Simba is smart enough to be able to grab ledges and pull himself up, and the the three enemy types required varied tactics to defeat.
I did enjoy some classic platforming staples like the 1 UP that you're not quite sure how to reach (yet), but none of these were quite as clever as something you'd find in a Mario title. Still, there were a few nicely placed collectibles that added a bit of interest to what was otherwise a breezy level.
JUST CAN'T WAIT TO BE KING, BUT IT'S EASIER SAID THAN DONE
However, the game quickly cranks up the challenge knob with level two, "Just Can't Wait to Be King," complete with a MIDI rendition of the jaunty tune. The first portion involves a bit of easy platforming along the heads of some giraffes, who will flip you into the water if you stand too long on any one of them.
It's all fun and games until a menagerie of ostriches, hippos and monkeys enters the fray, and everything changes. The monkey portions brought flashes of Donkey Kong Country's barrel system to mind. In a twist on that formula, you can use your roar ability on certain pink monkeys, effectively switching the direction in which they'll through you. This adds a little strategy that isn't just centered around timing your jumps correctly.
On the other hand, the ostrich riding portions involve jumping over or ducking under obstacles, but it's the level of precision required to do a double-jump and avoid a pig and some bird nests that will really test your patience. With some practice, though, this timing can be mastered--it's just unnecessarily painful and made me want to tear out my own mane of hair.
Why are there two meters at the top of the screen? It's never explained well, but one is for your life (HP) and one is for your roar ability, which can knock over certain enemies or flip pink monkeys around. Also, another game that won't give up on "lives." This isn't an arcade game, people. I know Nintendo, in particular, still enjoys forcing a "life" system on its platformers, but I'm sure it felt as outdated in 1994 as it does in 2014.
It was at this point that the lack of a save feature, combined with an infrequent and punitive checkpoint system, made me realize just how many evolutionary artifacts of 1980s gaming standards had spilled over into this 1990s title. Plenty of games on SNES had the ability to save your progress; couldn't Disney Interactive have afforded this luxury? Barring that, why are there a limited number of lives and continues that, if lost, kick you back to the beginning of the entire game?
These are questions for the ages.
Finally, though, I pushed through the madness of "Just Can't Wait to Be King" and made it to the Scar-themed set of levels, centered around "Be Prepared." That's right: the Elephant Graveyard.
Scar only made a brief, shadowy appearance (too quickly for me to capture it on film), but the hyenas are a common--and more powerful--enemy that populate this stage (you can see one in grinning from the elephant skull's eye above). You'll also tango with some vultures, which feature a swooping attack that always manages to mess with your timing.
This level, at least, featured more manageable platforming, on the whole, and didn't feel nearly as cheap or vindictive as "Just Can't Wait," ironically. Plus, the creepy-but-gorgeous level design make this a devilishly fun portion of the game, even if there are still some frustrating moments.
Click any of the images below for a larger view of the graveyard.
THEY'RE, UH...THEY'RE FLOCKING THIS WAY
In keeping with the film's chronology and providing a refreshing (and surprisingly not terribly difficult) change of pace, you'll get to relive the the antelope stampede.
Yes, this is a "run toward the camera" level, and it has many of the problems that these levels always invite. However, it side-steps one of the biggest frustration (tripping over obstacles) by cleverly indicating when obstacles might show up with flashing boulder icons. To avoid this becoming all too easy, the developers throw in the occasional "?" indicator letting you know that a boulder will be coming somewhere soon, but not where it will appear.
Even so, I found this to be an enjoyable level. It nicely shows off the SNES hardware and the perspective really captures the feel from the film in what is a crucial and memorable scene in young Simba's development.
It's also cool that this is the only level (that I played) that featured widescreen letter-boxing, just to give it that extra cinematic touch--a nice visual accent on an already spot-on level. Of course, as with all levels of this kind, the action is fast, furious, and short.
The next level, "Simba's Exile," felt a little bit like a retread of the opening level. Similar enemies, platforming through rocks...not a lot to say here. This really seemed like a level more about mood than challenge, which was okay after the high adrenaline of the last two scenarios.
However, some of the views evoked a melancholy appropriate to the emotional weight of Simba's fall from grace (even if his character animations still look chipper as ever).
This is the kind of view you'd expect today out of games like Rock Star's Red Dead Redemption. Leave it to the animation wizards at Disney to coax this out of the Super Nintendo. Beautiful.
WHAT A WONDERFUL PHRASE
What article on The Lion King would be complete with "Hakuna Matata"? Fear not, loyal reader, as I was able to scrape by all of the requisite trials to reach the Timon and Pumbaa level, "Hakuna Matata!"
The MIDI rendition of this signature Lion King tune does not disappoint. Don't believe me? Ask the dishes! Or just watch a YouTube playthrough.
There are some great moments in this level, including some fun water slides, featuring a fantastic and frightened Simba animation--everyone knows cats don't like water! I really, really wanted to like this level, hoping the game designers would translate the carefree tone of the story beats into a playful, relaxing jaunt.
However, It seems that whenever the tone of the story shifts to happier times, the difficulty meter cranks up to maddening in this game. Sadly, this was the last level I played before running out of patience (and lives) with The Lion King.
The scene of my demise? A waterfall. It's perhaps unsurprising that I was bested by one of nature's more treacherous inventions, but I would like to take a moment to describe the particulars, as The Lion King tossed aside the laws of physics and gravity in its quest to drive me insane. You see those logs falling down the waterfall? After you've bounded across the floating logs in the river, you have to climb up the waterfall by jumping on logs that are falling down.
This. Makes. No. Sense.
I know, I know--this is a 2D platformer from 20 years ago and this is just a clever way of building moving platforms into a jungle-themed level. Okay, fine. But why did they have to make them so gruelingly hard to navigate? And why do they have to be over an instant-kill water area? This game simply doesn't pull any punches, despite its cuddly exterior.
Rafiki eventually showed up to inform me that I was, yet again, out of lives and on my last continue.
Loathe to give up all of my hard-earned progress, I tried again and again until I finally saw the dreaded "GAME OVER" screen. Why couldn't I just keep playing? What do I gain from having to playing all the levels over again simply because I was stuck at this unnatural waterfall that bent the rules of the natural universe to thwart me? I just don't understand why game makers ever thought this was a fun or acceptable system.
A quick check of a walkthrough told me that I was at level six of ten total, with these remaining for me to best on another day:
Perhaps some day I will attempt to complete Simba's quest again, but it's hard to find the patience for these vintage games. Still, I mainly enjoyed my time revisiting the world of The Lion King. The charming and beautiful animations and solid (if frustrating) platforming make it a challenging and engaging game. It's aged well visually, but it shows its age (noticeably) in other, more nefarious ways.
As with all retro games, it carries the baggage of time; but, if this game shows us anything, it's that The Lion King resonates as much as ever, even in a different medium, 20 years later.