Friday 24 November 2017

Mega Drive Review - The Jungle Book (Game 148)

Virgin released four very similar Disney based platform games but only 'Aladdin' gets celebrated. What is so bad about 'the Jungle Book'?

Developed by Virgin
Published by Sega
Released in 1994

For a Gaming Historian the story behind the creation of the 16bit 'Aladdin' games has as many twists as the film on which they were based. The Mega Drive version was started by Blue Sky before Sega lost faith in them and transferred development to Virgin Interactive. At the time Virgin were working on an adaptation of 'The Jungle Book', which they halted to quickly knock together an 'Aladdin' prototype. Sega's hope was that this could be presented at the 1993 Consumer Electronics show, gaining some press attention. But in the end it had a bigger impact. Virgin's early work intimidated Capcom who were midway through development of a competing 'Aladdin' game for the Super Nintendo. As a result Capcom went back to drawing board, placing even more pressure on Virgin to develop the superior game. The race was on. Both games have to be on the shelves when the film 'Aladdin' was released on video. To achieve this lead developer Dave Perry and his team at Virgin interactive had to plunder any resource available. This included the game they were originally working on. "Aladdin was suddenly dropped into our lap by Sega as an emergency project" recalls Dave Perry.  "I was working on 'Jungle Book', then kind of raided it to get 'Aladdin' done in time."

It's impossible to describe Virgin's take on 'Disney's Aladdin' as anything other than a success. It was the third best selling game on the Mega Drive shifting over 4 million copies. While Capcom's Super Nintendo adaptation found critical approval it enjoyed fewer sales.

Buoyed by the victory Virgin were keen to move onto a similar project immediately.  According to  former Vice President Dr. Clarke-Willson obtaining the rights to make a game based on the 'Jungle Book' had proved expensive for Virgin and the studio had no intention of letting it lapse. "[Virgin Part-owner] Robert Devereux, God bless him, cut a big cheque to Disney for the 'Jungle Book' license, which got us in the door there". If Virgin wanted to quickly capitalise on the success their 'Aladdin' Game was enjoying the choice for a follow up was obvious.

"Virgin asked me to go back and finish up 'Jungle Book'" recalls Dave Perry. "There was some dispute as to what it should be, now that its heart had been removed, and Virgin just pushed to "get it done"". Perry, frustrated by this, decided it was instead time to leave. "At that same time, I got my Green card and so I could legally form a corporation in the USA. So that's what I did and Shiny got going almost immediately."
While Perry made a start on a game that would eventually become 'Earthworm Jim', Virgin were forced to contract Eurocom to finish 'The Jungle Book'. "We were approached by Virgin Interactive who had a 'Jungle Book' game in development on Genesis/Megadrive but things weren't going well and they were looking for an external team to take over the project and get it finished" confirms Neil Baldwin audio director at Eurocom.  "Not having much to lose and because we saw it as a good opportunity to springboard onto the then new 16-bit platforms (Genesis/Megadrive and SNES - although we didn't actually do the SNES version of this game) we jumped in with both feet [...] It was a turning point for Eurocom - a real make-or-break moment." Their work was overseen by Virgin's new Vice President of Game design, Julian Rignall. After decades of game reviews, this famed British journalist had joined Virgin Interactive in California, responsible for product design and licensing acquisitions.

Given its origins it's hardly a shock that 'The Jungle Book' is so similar to ‘Aladdin’, with familiar echoes of Perry's earlier work too. Like 'Global Gladiators' and 'Cool Spot' the game requires the player to collect a set amount of items in order to clear a stage. As Mowgli the man cub you explore ten diverse levels, and the player has a set amount of time to complete each level. Depending on difficulty, the number of gems the player must collect to progress is either eight (easy), ten (medium), or twelve (hard), of a total of fifteen gems spread throughout the level. Finding the specified amount of gems means you can finish a stage, but finding them all opens a bonus level; useful for building up lives. Levels are large, but they're also square rather than linear. Unlike games like 'Sonic The Hedgehog’,  in which you’re constantly moving right, success in 'The Jungle Book' depends on you scouring all parts of a stage, both horizontally and vertically. However this amount of freedom does cause frustrations. More than a couple of times, branching paths mean you'll miss some areas which forces the player to have to backtrack. It breaks the flow of the game and makes extended play feel slightly repetitive. It was a fault noticed by Electronic Gaming Monthly. "It's tough at times to know quite where you are going and I often get lost in the huge levels" the magazine noted.

With re-spawning enemies returning back through as stage is also hazardous and Mowgli will have to avoid a huge array of foes on his journey through the game. Naturally He's not defenceless and can throw bananas to kill the animals, including bizarrely monkeys. This design choice feels a lot like throwing apples in 'Aladdin', however without an Arabian sword this is Mowgli's primary attack.  Of course, you always have the classic option of hopping on an enemy head but this is a little unreliable with surprisingly imprecise collision detection and many enemies withstanding a single foot to the face. “It’s all standard and somewhat shallow platform fare" criticised Mean Machines magazine. “Although nice to control, it is much too much like 'Cool Spot' to offer any real excitement or incentive to splash out more dosh if you already have the other".

The game is based on the 1968 Disney animated film which was in turn based on Rudyard Kipling's book. Both the film and the game follow the adventure of Mowgli, an abandoned child raised by wolves. 
His peaceful existence has been threatened by the return of the man-eating tiger Shere Khan. Facing certain death, Mowgli must overcome his reluctance to leave his wolf family and return to the "man village." But he is not alone on his quest, since he is Aided by Bagheera the panther, and later by the carefree bear Balloo. By the story's end however Mowgli abandons his friends. He has learnt independence, he has found where he belongs and he's unable to resist the allure of an upsettingly sexualised young girl. Despite being a huge Disney fan I've never liked 'Jungle Book' all that much, in fact I've called it my least favourite Disney film. I dislike how the audience's focus is drawn to the songs themselves, rather than the story. While it may be nostalgically labelled "Walt Disney's coolest classic [...] a swinging song filled celebration" the film feels very disjointed in terms of narrative. While it may have a comparable number of songs to other Disney films, 'The Jungle Book' fails to integrate these musical interludes within the development of the story. While certainly entertaining in their own right, the songs appear to be independent attractions, sequences that are not connected to one and other. As such, 'The Jungle Book' movie feels more like a variety show comprising of separate numbers.
However such an episodic structure is actually not unusual in video games, where a player is used to being presented a story section before moving onto a level inspired by it. This is exactly the structure of the 'jungle Book' game where a short amount of story (told through still images and text) is followed by a level or a boss fight. In fact because the film's plot is so simple it carries over to the game quite faithfully, with the bosses almost predetermined by the oppositions Mowgli encounters throughout the film. Thankfully these boss battles are a little more varied than those seen in 'Aladdin'. Gone are small foes that sit in the middle of the screen and attack in obvious patterns. Instead the 'Jungle Book' has boss fights that are varied and inventive, breaking up the monotony of the game.

Considering the complicated development process it becomes slightly tricky to determine which parts of the 'Jungle Book' was made by Perry's team and what was done after he left. However the music has all the Hallmarks of Tommy Tallarico something Eurocom composer Neil Baldwin confirms. "I didn't get to do the audio for the Genesis/Megadrive version because it had already been done". Tallarico was Perry's favoured 16bit composer and he has an extensive CV having worked on 250 games with more than 25 industry awards. "Back then most games were so small you had ten levels, a menu screen and end credits, so you needed 12 songs, all in MIDI, and they couldn’t be very long because they took up a lot of cartridge space. So from a music writing standpoint it’s about 30 minutes of MIDI music. The hardest part back then was actually getting it to sound like something." As 'The Jungle Book' was based on a Disney movie known for its music, Tallarico had a pretty solid starting point for the game's soundtrack. "I would take the music Disney gave me, have it converted to Midi and put them onto the SNES and Genesis and get them to sound like what you heard in the game" he once said. "Then we wrote additional original music in the same vein." The soundtrack features tunes from the Disney film including the popular "Bare Necessities", "I Wanna Be like You", and "Colonel Hathi's March". However Tallarico has given each a ragtime calypso style remix. While it means the music is familiar it also sounds distinct and found much favour with reviewers at the time. Game Players magazine called the music "catchy". "'Jungle Book' has great music" agreed EGM magazine "The sounds fit this cart perfectly." I'm inclined to disagree though. Although the tracks from the film naturally fit, Tallarico's original compositions are somewhat eclectic and are similar to 'GlobalGladiators' at times. When listened to in isolation without prior knowledge no one would associate them with the 'Jungle Book' movie.

'Aladdin' on the Mega Drive was frequently described as having the best animation seen in a video game up until that point. This was often attributed to the fact that Disney animators were involved in the games production. As producer David Bishop recalls, it had proved to be a blessing for the games production team. "Well we worked very heavily with the [Disney] animators down in Florida that actually worked on the film. And it was actually the first time that anyone had done that". However for obvious reasons the original animators could not be called on for 'The Jungle Book' game. "Aladdin was still a live project, so we had access to the people that had worked on it" Bishop remembers. "Unfortunately when we worked on 'The Jungle Book', everyone who had worked on it was in their nineties or dead. So with 'Jungle Book' it was more access to the brand, though we may well have had access to the archives." The characters don't look like they have been directly lifted from the movie in the way 'Aladdin's did. Though they're recognisable they don't have Disney's charm. That being said the animation is fluid and Mowgli's idle dance animation is wonderful. GamePro magazine claimed the "animation will draw you in” something Mean Machine magazine agreed with claiming the game was "beautiful to look at". However the same magazine also said the 'Jungle Book' was "empty" implying that while it may be comparable to other Disney licensed games it lacks the heart, their warmth.

David Bishop Strongly believes a good game can only be great if it is born out of Love.  "If you play a game, you can tell whether or not people were passionate about it depending on the amount of TLC they’ve given the game. If that makes any sense. And that’s no different for a branded game; you can tell when someone has taken the trouble to get under the skin of the brand." This is perhaps why 'Aladdin' is a great game but 'The Jungle Book' is simply a good one. It's the result of being passed between too many studios without anyone taking real ownership of the project. Of course to criticise 'The Jungle Book' for being inferior to one of the Mega Drive greatest games is brutally unfair. Judged on its own merits it's a fun, if familiar game. But it's hard to imagine anyone would opt to play this game unless they had fallen in love with David Perry's superior games and wanted a little bit more of the same.

It’s interesting to play 'The Jungle Book' knowing its development history. At times it feels like a developer making an inferior imitation, an 'Aladdin' rip off which ironically is really what happened here. While it was, originally, a David Perry game, it was one finished without him involved. But was he even needed for Virgin to make successful games? Former Vice President of product development Dr. Clarke-Willson certainly felt Perry wasn't as pivotal to 'Aladdin's success as many claimed.”Dave Perry has done a terrific job over the years of promoting himself" Clarke-Wilson once said. “Contrary to what Dave likes to say, he didn’t make 'Aladdin' [alone] in four months. About fifty people made it over a period of about seven months, and a lot of R&D on how traditional animation could go into a console game had been done the year before that." While this may be true, 'The Jungle Book' shows that without Perry and his team you're ultimately left with an enjoyable but not fantastic game.

Where did I get this game from?
Like the majority of my Mega Drive games I got this in a bulk buy deal found on a Facebook local selling page. However it has sat on my shelf I played for years, concealed by the glow of 'Aladdin' which used to sit next to it.

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