Friday 2 February 2018

Mega Drive Review - The Lion King (Game 154)

'The Lion King' is often considered an inferior spiritual-successor to 'Aladdin'. However despite both being Virgin published Disney platformers, the two games have less in common than you may believe.

Developed by Westwood Studios
Published by Virgin
Released in 1994

The writers of the Polygon website are clearly fans of 16 bit Disney platform games, especially those that were released on the Mega Drive.   "Developed during the golden age of platformers, 'Aladdin', 'The Lion King' and 'The Jungle Book' established themselves as hallmarks of the genre, earning the praise of fans and critics alike for over two decade." All three of these titles were released between 1993 and 1995 and all were made possible by the involvement of Virgin Interactive. The company developed 'Aladdin' and 'The Jungle Book' however they only published The 'Lion King'.  Instead this game was developed by the now defunct Westwood Studios who are probably best known for the real-time strategy series 'Command & Conquer'.  The game was overseen by Louis Castle (the co-founder of Westwood Studios) and development started in January of 1994. Amazingly a  finished game shipped just 7 months later in July. More impressive than the quick turnaround is the fact that it was only made by a core team of 13 people, which Castle admits is a "pretty small team actually even back then". 

Delighted with the monumental success of 'Aladdin' on the Mega Drive it was Disney who approached Virgin to produce a game based on their upcoming film 'The Lion King'. Virgin agreed to a quick turn-around based on the assumption that Castle's team at Westwood (who at that time were owned by Virgin) would work directly with Dave Perry who had created 'Aladdin'. At the time, Perry's team were unable to take the project on in its entirety given they were working on 'The Jungle Book', but a lot of 'Aladdin's game mechanics and creation tools could be reused by Westwood Studios to speed up 'Lion King' production. Castle said at the time his team were "happy to be following in their footsteps, standing on the shoulders of giants".

However there was a flaw in the plan; Dave Perry was not happy. Frustrated that he was being forced to complete 'The Jungle Book' which he had torn apart to make 'Aladdin' quickly, Perry quit. As Castle recalls, “[Virgin Interactive] had a falling out with Dave Perry and so his entire team left Virgin. So the team that built 'Aladdin' actually did not work at all on the 'Lion King'." For Louis Castle the timing couldn't have been worse given the short development schedule. "About a week or two after signing the deal we find out that Dave and his whole team have left Virgin and now we're on our own. We got no assistance whatsoever so I literally had to build the team from scratch." Critics at the time wrongly assumed 'The Lion King' used a modified 'Aladdin' engine in the way 'The Jungle Book' does, but in reality it was all original. "We could look at the ['Aladdin'] code and stuff but really honestly it didn't inform very much" confirms Castle.

The game of course is based on the phenomenal Disney film. The movie follows the life of a lion called Simba. His father, The Lion King is murdered by Scar although this power hungry uncle convinces Simba that he was the cause of Daddy's death. Shamed Simba flees the Pride Lands, growing up in exile with a Warthog and a Meerkat for company. However after eventually realising his true place, Simba gives up a carefree life to return to the Pride, avenge his father's death by killing Scar and assuming the thrown. The game sticks to the plot of the film closely and because the movie shows two stages in Samba’s life the game also had to see a protagonist change half way through. "It’s in the second half of the game, that 'The Lion King' really shows its claws" claimed Entertainment Weekly. "Controlling Simba when he’s a playful bundle of fur is one thing; putting him through his paces as a full-maned adult is quite another. [...] The sense of power it gives you is exhilarating".
However the movie sees the transition from young Simba to Adult Simba quite late in the narrative. Directly translating this to the game would mean the more enjoyable character would only be playable for the final few stages. “Because we chose to tell the story in the same order as the movie we really couldn't bring adult Simba in sooner" recalls designer Louis Castle. To solve the problem the team at Westwood actually turned to deleted scenes from the film. According to Castle the extra levels featuring adult Simba were “actually inspired by [...] things from the movie that never got made “The Disney Corporation were initially reluctant to allow the inclusion of cut content in the game. However they were convinced after the promise that any game exclusive material would be sympathetic to the film on which it was based. "The videogame team did not create any of the characters, all the extra stuff came from Disney material" confirms Castle.

Critical acclaim and commercial success has meant the 'Lion King' movie is generally considered one of the finest Disney films ever made, but infamously the corporation had low expectations when it was being made.  Mockingly called "'Hamlet' with Lions" it was generally thought of as a film that would amuse audiences waiting for   the release of ‘Pocahontas’. "Pretty much everybody at the studio decided they’d rather work on 'Pocahontas',” film director Rob Minkoff said. "So 'The Lion King' team filled up with first-timers and animal enthusiasts." 'Oliver and Company' and 'The Rescuers Down Under' had  done badly at the box office so many assumed that audiences wanted to see princesses and adventure rather than animal based tragedy.  Anyone approaching the game for the first time could also have understandable reservations given that the main protagonist is a four legged animal. Platformers work best when the player can easily read a play space. This means the environments must be easily identifiable, with a clear distinction between what can be stood on and what's decoration. Similarly it must also be clear when a playable protagonist is at platform edge; something that's significantly easier when they have two legs rather than four. 'Rolo to the Rescue' shows just how bad it can be when a four legged character has to navigate complex levels.
Thankfully despite Simba strolling about on all fours. "Virgin has done a great job making a great game with a four-legged character, something I'm sure most developers wouldn't even want to attempt" Game Fan magazine observed in a review. Simba really behaves just like Aladdin and you quickly forget that you're playing with a wider sprite.

According to Castle the gameplay of past successes certainly informed the creation of 'Lion King'. Like 'Aladdin' levels consist of vertically and horizontally scrolling levels, populated by enemies that can either be avoided and killed. As per the traditions of the genre most stages feature puzzles or boss fights.
There's also a number of Mini games peppered through the game, where a player can gain lives and continues with the aid of Timone and Pumba. Though the route through the branching level paths is usually obvious, straying off the beaten path is encouraged as there is a lot to find off the beaten track. Greg Rice is the publishing manager at Double Fine Production but he is also self confessed 'Lion King' addict.  “I probably had to play you know dozens and dozens of times before I was able to finish it and every time. There’s always one new secret for you find". “As you progress through the game you increase the length of your health meter through secret stuff" reiterates Castle. “You can't obviously complete the game if you've never done anyone we tested that!" However for Greg Rice the challenge may have been too much. "I feel like a lot of people might have only seen the first couple levels of [this] game because it's so challenging ".  With no in-game save function 'Lion King' needs to be replayed from the beginning every time; a truly monumental challenge.

The incredible difficulty is always one of the things that most people mention when discussing the 'Lion King'. "It has game play that's too daunting for beginning players" Game Pro said at the time. Gameplayers wrote in their November 1994 issue that "even on the easy setting, the game is hard for an experienced player". The game presents a massive challenge for modern players too. "The Lion King game for Sega Genesis is unbelievably difficult" IGN said in a retrospective article. "The game is a little more difficult that the other Disney entries" noted Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine.

The challenge was always the design team's intention.  "'Lion King' is harder than 'Aladdin' because there was a distinct effort to make sure that the people buying the game were going to have a more challenging time on the newer game".  However, while the game designers wanted the game's difficulty to slowly increase as the player becomes accustomed to the controls, Disney had other ideas. "At the time Blockbuster had these rental programs" recalls Castle. "Disney had a rule that you couldn't get past a certain percentage of the game in a certain period of time". Disney's assumption was that if you could get too far into the game while renting it, you would lose interest both in the game and the property that the game was based on. As a result Disney demanded a large difficulty spike that a player would reach early on to prevent anyone seeing the entire game on a rental. "So the only level in the early levels where we had the ability to make it longer and more complicated was the monkey puzzle" Castle reluctantly admits.
In this section Simba must navigate across tress full of monkeys negotiating tricky jumps by timing leaps to and from Rhino tails. If Simba roars at a monkey it will change the direction it throws him in and there's is only one path through the trees. Mis-time a jump, Change the direction of the wrong monkeys and its instant death: You're returned to the start of the stage with the puzzle reset. Obviously on a first attempt there's no way of knowing the correct route, so there's a great deal of trial and error. Disney may have wanted to stop rental players progressing too quickly, but they end result is an early stage that's so difficult it may have been too demanding for some players to ever finish.  “So that's why this levels so hard apologies to all the people who ever pulled out their hair" says Castle. "But the reason we had to do it was because the rental market. We really couldn't let you pass level two too fast."

Admittedly after this stage the game does get more manageable. There are certainly tricky sections, but at least these feel fair. It isn't a case of the game taking your lives simply because you were experimenting with the level. That is until the final level with the battle with Scar. I am of the impression not having a continue point before a hard boss battle is a sin, especially when he preceding level is filled with precision jumping and enemies that can Halve your energy in one attack. But even more annoying than this is the method you defeat Scar.
After reducing his energy down to a point where he is panting you must throw him from the top of a mountain beautifully mirroring the climatic ending of the film. It all sounds very poetic and with pixelated lighting crashing and loud music it's certainly dramatic. The problem is that this throwing move is never taught to the player within and this is the first time you have to do it. I spent literally an hour fighting Scar, without realising all I had to do with one rolling throw. Thankfully I had an artificial save state before the end or I can't imagine I would have the patience to stick with it. The throw isn't even something you'll accidentally do as it involves pressing three buttons in sequence while standing within range. Of course on the Super Nintendo version you have a desiccate throw button so this should be fairly obvious, and this is just one of the reasons why the game is superior on Nintendo hardware. "Though the two games are structurally identical, the Super NES 'Lion King’ is far superior to its Genesis counterpart — better graphics, music, and sound effects" noted Entertainment Weekly. Even the design team admit the Snes version of 'Lion King' is the one you should spend your money on. "It was the same codebase, Westwood were a multi-platform developer" recalls Castle. "But I have to say on the Genesis ['The Lion King'] is not nearly as good visually as it is on the Super Nintendo". Of course that's not to say the game looks bad on the Mega Drive. Mean Machines magazine said it was "incredible to look at". Electronic Gaming Monthly thought it had "knock-out" graphics and GoodOldGames recently said the "animation brought the characters to life with a level of vibrancy that was unparalleled at the time and remains impressive today.” As with other Virgin games, 'The Lion King' was made in association with Disney using the DigiCel technology that was developed for 'Aladdin'. "Part of our deal with Disney was we had to use the Disney animation studios" Castle confirms. "Disney would animate it as if it was a linear short and then the artists on the art team would scan them. They'd go through pixel by pixel and hand fine-tunes the character to try to capture the nuance of the curves and stuff that were in the characters". 
While working so closely with Disney meant access to some of the greatest artists in the world, it was a relationship that posed problems for Westwood. "They were so passionate about the animation but we constantly had to educate them [about] what made good gameplay. We had to have many many debates about the fact that it just wouldn't be playable if you didn't let us do certain things." One of these things was reducing the number of frames of animation. While more frames means smother cinematic movement, they slow down gameplay and make a playable character harder to control. According to Castle, cartridge Space also had to be carefully managed. "Disney really don't want to approve animation that doesn't have a lot of frames. So we're constantly compromising saying 'well we simply have to cut some of the frames from the enemies because we need some more for this'". Disney also demanded that the film be suitably reflected in the game. "There were certain signature items we had to have in the game and I remember going 'alright well we got to figure out how to use Pride Rock'".

The visual style of the game was evidently a bone of contention between Westwood and Disney.  "Westwood was very much into 3D at the time so the lions and all the characters look more 3D than the 'Aladdin' characters" claims Castle. The company had ambitions to create 3D models of the characters and use them to make sprites in a style that would later be used in 'Donkey Kong Country'. It's surprising this was opposed by Disney as the technique was later used for the 'Toy Story' video game. Regardless Louis Castle remains proud of the graphics; although he is adamant modern gamers should only play it in a traditional TV. "We had this parallaxing in the background and stuff like that to give you a sense of depth. It doesn't do it justice when you see it all pixelated because on a television of the day this was all very smooth. The televisions of the day would have blurred them together creating very nice gradients".

Despite the pressure that came with such high expectations the team at Westwood enjoyed the time spent making 'The Lion King'. "I would still regard them as some of the best times I've ever had making games ". Critical praise leads to huge sales. "Assuming this game sold 4 or 5 million copies (and that’s not an immoderate estimate, considering the huge installed base of Super NES and Genesis consoles), it should gross something on the order of $300 million in stores" wrote Entertainment Weekly. "More than the movie grossed in its initial American theatrical run." With this eye watering figures it's clear why Disney were (and continue to be) so protective of their brand, but according to Westwood it wasn't just about commercial success. Disney saw tie in games as a form of promotion, knowing it would encourage home sales of the film, keeping the license alive to promote other tie in merchandise. For designer Louis Castle, a self confessed Disney fan it was simply an honour to contribute to the legacy of a film that had bought him to tears. "This game taught me [to] make sure that any kind of licensed property adds to the value of the franchise and doesn't borrow from it. The most important thing you can do with any franchises; be its biggest fan". This is clearly why 'The Lion King' has aged so elegantly; it was a game truly made with love.

Where did I get this game from?
Like most of my Mega Drive game this came in a bundle bought from a FaceBook group. However, initially it was sold loose and I have to thank a YouTuber for providing me with a mint condition box and manual.

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