This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
Our reflex action is to think of movie licensed games as garbage. The reputation is well earned: from E.T. for the Atari 2600 up to whatever crap comes out for the next Michael Bay film, bargain bins are filled to the brim with subpar games rushed out for deadline that are selling to ignorant consumers on name alone. Occasionally, a game comes out that matches the movie it was made for, and rarely will the game actually exceed the movie, an example of the latter being the Chronicles of Riddick games. For a time, however, Disney had some very good movie-based games, and in fact had a lot of really good games, period. I’ve played Castle of Illusion on a past livestream, and other Disney games like Mickey Mania were very good. Aladdin had two separate yet equally good versions for both the Genesis and Super Nintendo.
The Lion King was an example of a really good game based off of a Disney movie that theoretically had no right to be a good game. The standard of the day was to pump out side-scrolling games that could easily be turned out off of the template of older, better games. However, developers Virgin Interactive (Cannon Fodder) and Westwood Studios, who went on to develop Command and Conquer before EA destroyed them, actually turned out a good game with good production values and some interesting ideas. The days of turning out awful GBA games based on That’s So Raven were far into the future.
Of course, the whole point of Then and Now is to see if a game that was good in prior eras stands up to 2012’s scrutiny. Can a game that’s almost two decades old and uses three-decade-old tropes survive a more jaded eye?
The Lion King
Original Systems: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (reviewed), Sega Genesis, MS-DOS, others
Developers: Virgin Interactive, Westwood Studios
Publisher: Walt Disney Computer Software
Original Release Date: December 8, 1994
HOW WAS IT THEN: The Lion King was a hell of a shock to the nervous system for its time. I’ve gone over the fact that back then, movie-based games weren’t supposed to be good as a rule. The Lion King was, utilizing standard platform tropes along with the scenes from the movie and combining them into a package that both played well and followed the movie’s progression. In addition to standard side-scrolling levels, there were breaks in the action: one came from the Stampede level, which has Simba running away from the oncoming herd and giving the impression that a herd of wildebeest are running towards the player, a great effect; another came from some fun but cheap bonus levels. The mechanics change about halfway through the game, with Simba growing into a full lion and gaining the ability to engage in hand-to-hand combat. It’s a hell of a shift and essentially makes The Lion King two different platform games in one.
Another way The Lion King was shocking was an area in which one wouldn’t expect a Disney game to be: this game was ridiculously hard. Players start with just three lives and one continue, and gaining extra lives required finding secret areas that were beyond the scope of the game’s target audience of young children. Even on easy, the game was tremendously challenging to experienced gamers, not to mention younger ones. Still, there was a lot of gameplay to be had and a level of precision necessary to clear certain stages that made the game tough no matter what difficulty setting it was played on.
The Lion King was surprisingly good when it was new and even won a few Game of the Year awards in an exceptionally strong year (1994 saw Phantasy Star IV and Final Fantasy III; 1995 saw Chrono Trigger and Earthbound). It wasn’t a trail blazer, but someone who spent $50 on it got their money’s worth.
HOW IS IT NOW: I didn’t expect The Lion King to stand up quite as well as other games in 2012 if only because platform games generally don’t age as well. However, I was personally very surprised at just how poorly The Lion King holds up.
I mentioned before that this is a hard game. Flat-out cheap might be a better descriptor. Often, hazards come up at the worst time and are hard to see because it’s possible to pan up and down, but not left and right.
The game’s graphics, a strong suit in 1994, are also a problem in this regard. The colours of most stages tend to wash out, and it’s hard to see some obstacles coming because they blend in. The second stage involves riding on an ostrich and either ducking , jumping, or double jumping to avoid obstacles. The floor obstacles are pink hippos, which blend in just fine with the setting sun in the background; and the higher obstacles are either tree branches or bird’s nests, which blend in even worse. Not only this, but these obstacles are a one-hit kills, so a lot of repeat, muscle memory is required to pass just the second stage, especially near the end when the hint arrows go away. Savestates are a virtual requirement for anyone not willing to spend days learning the game’s patterns—and remember, you’re given only three lives and one continue.
There isn’t a difficulty curve so much as a difficulty wall, which most players will comically splatter against like a Looney Tunes character. The first stage is easy enough, provided you reach the boss with full life, but even the extras are only for experienced players who know how to manipulate the stage. Exploration would be optimal, but missing during the exploration could lead to a cheap hit, or in later stages, prove fatal. The second stage is legitimately difficult by any game’s standard, and the rest of the game doesn’t get much better. The Stampede stage is one of the most frustrating I’ve ever played, even with savestates.
The controls are good for the most part, but one aspect that doesn’t do anyone any favours is how Simba goes straight to a full sprint. That means it’s hard at times to get a real good bead on how fast you’re running in a tight space, and it makes jumping and control difficult at times. The ability to sprint on command would’ve been nice (think Super Mario Bros.), but this would’ve been possible only on the six-button Super Nintendo; the two button NES and Game Gear versions would not have allowed this.
Playing back on it now, The Lion King reminds me of another platformer from 1994 that was popular in its day but doesn’t stand up now: Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure. Both have a similar structural and mechanical setup. Both were noticed on the strength of their names and stayed around because they were good games. Both have the same perks and the same flaws. Hell, even the design of their opening stages is similar in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, neither one stands the test of time; they’re both heavily flawed and have been easily surpassed by better designed titles.
The Lion King is available on the cheap for whatever system people choose to pick it up for, but really, the Super Nintendo version is the only one worth considering. The graphics and sound are much more advanced on that version, and the Genesis version also seems to be a touch harder to control, though that’s with just a little bit of playtime. All versions of the game really need savestates to keep from becoming a cartridge-sized hole in a wall. In the end, it ultimately doesn’t matter. When put to 2012’s standards, The Lion King shares Mufasa’s fate.