Friday 17 August 2018

Mega Drive Review - Pocahontas (Game 168)

Action intensive film adaptations were always money makers for publishers. But at a time when the medium was believed to promote violent behaviour, how do you turn an “anti-conflict” animated movie into a video game? 

Developed by Disney Interactive
Published by Disney Interactive
Released in 1995

In the mid Nineties video games were getting a bit of a bad reputation. More realistic graphics had lead to more realistic depictions of violence, ultimately leading to game certification. Of course, despite the opinions of the mainstream press at the time, not all games were violent. However, in even the most cutesy platformers it was implied that you should kill anyone standing in your way. For games aimed at children the player wasn’t murdering everyone in sight of course, designers would mask all the death. In these games your playable avatar would liberate possessed foes, knock them out, put them to sleep or embarrass them until they ran away. Typically Aggression was justified in a games’ plot; the prince would have no choice but to flatten everyone in sight it was the only way to save the princess. If the brave hero didn’t massacre every invading monster the world would fall to an evil oppressor. The end justified the means and violent acts, though undesirable, were necessary to achieve the best outcome. What happens then if you’re tasked with making an action platformer where any form of aggression can’t be justified by your playable protagonist? It was an issue faced by Disney Interactive when adapting the film ‘Pocahontas’.

This 1995  Disney animated classic follows  the romance between a young American Indian woman named Pocahontas and English Captain John Smith, who has journeyed to the New World with other settlers to begin a fresh life. Her powerful father, Chief Powhatan, disapproves of their relationship and wants her to marry a native warrior. Meanwhile, Smith's fellow Englishmen hope to rob the Native Americans of their gold, caring not for the inhabitants or their way of life. Of course despite brutal almost fatal opposition, Pocahontas' love for Smith prevails and conflict is avoided. The native way of life is preserved, but at the cost of Smith and Pocahontas being together.

Disney based Action Platformers had proved incredibly popular throughout the late eighties and nineties. Indeed ‘Aladdin’ was the most successful non-‘Sonic’ game on the Mega Drive. It was the goto genre when it came to film adaptations and while critics had become bored of them by 1995 consumers hadn’t. While ‘Pocahontas’ is viewed from a familiar Side-on perspective, the Native American’s stance on conflict meant a shift in gameplay was required.  “We don’t have to fight” Pocahontas cries in the film, “there has to be a better way”. In the game this “better way” is puzzle solving, completing stages by manipulating the environments to get both Pocahontas and her Racoon pal Meeko from the left of the stage to the right.

The player plays as both characters swapping between the two when the needed arises. Meeko is fast, can leap and climb trees. Meanwhile Pocahontas can initially do little more than walk and climb to low ledges. As you progress through the stages she encounters animals in need of help. As a lover of the nature the Native American will obviously not be able to resist the opportunity to return a baby bird to its nest, help otters play or guide a bear cub down a tree. 
Providing aid means you earn a new skill and as the game explains, Pocahontas must “use animal powers to find a path through the forest”. The acquired abilities are varied but by the end of the game our heroine will be able to dive from great heights, swim, climb trees, swing on branches, sprint and even scare enemies using a furious bear growl. The skills are automatic so it’s not a case of selecting the right ability, Instead, ‘Pocahontas’ echoes a ‘Metroid’ game. You’ll reach a point you can’t pass and have to explore the level to find an animal to learn a skill from. Most Level Puzzles involve using the double act to move various items; a boulder can be shoved to allow access to a higher place. Logs can be placed by Pocahontas to help Meeko cross a fast flowing stream. It’s not revolutionary game play but it is well implemented and enjoyable. Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine was certainly impressed. “One of the best features is the team work you have to use between the characters in order to solve the puzzles. Without this strategy element, the game would have had little to offer.”

The levels themselves are huge, which in itself is a technical achievement. “The producer suggested that we'd build larger levels” recalls programmer Carl-Henrik Skårstedt. “To make that work we did a lot of technology to swap out background graphics as you traversed the level (usually you would keep all the background tiles in VRAM but we had to make a system to page the tiles from ROM)”. However you can’t really get lost in the vast levels as unsubtle arrows appear whenever you stay still for longer than a few seconds.

Pocahontas won’t meet any actual enemies until the third level and even then you don’t really attack them. You either use her bear skill to scare them from a distance or work out how the environment can hurt them. Typically this involves dropping bee hives on the Savage English settlers.

Peppering the levels are lots of nice incidental touches that echo the film.  Pocahontas does her iconic swan dive, confuses the sails of a British navy ship with clouds and she of course shows John the beauty of nature as they stroll through a swirling rainbow of leaves . Meanwhile clumsy Meeko breaks pots and gets chased by a familiar white dog. They are small unobtrusive details that feel integrated into the gameplay while prompting a smile of recognition from dedicated fans of the movie.

But despite the tranquillity it is possible to kill Pocahontas. Leaping from too great a height, confronting the invading British force or drowning in a waterfall will cost you energy. Doing something silly five times will lead to our heroine getting absorbed by a spirit wind. This death is temporarily though and infinite use continue-points are scattered fairly liberally throughout the game.

While it’s nice to learn new animal skills as you progress through the game’s three main levels it doesn’t really disguise the fact that you’re doing largely the same thing throughout. The fourth and final stage does offer a change of pace le though as Pocahontas “must use all her animal powers to beat the sunrise and stop a war destroying the land”. It’s the first and only linear stage where failure to beat the strict time limit leads to John meeting a very un-Disney death. It’s all terribly frustrating and stressful, destroying the calm tranquillity created by the rest of the game.

That’s not the only weak part of the game of course; there are certainly some needlessly fiddly parts. An example sees Meeko jumping across Lilly pads that annoyingly disappear off screen as soon as you press the jump button. Throughout the game getting Pocahontas to perform a specific action or jump will also demand she stands on a very precise point. “At times Pocahontas won't want to run or she doesn't always jump when you hit the button” observed AllGameGuide. “If the game were an intense platformer, this would be very serious, but the game moves at a leisurely pace [...] so the control is just a minor nuisance”. It’s usually obvious what needed to be done but occasionally a bit of fine tuning is required to achieve the desired goal. I certainly felt more baffled and confused in ‘Flashback’ which this games has certainly been influenced by. Slightly more annoying is the autonomy of your dormant character. While they are safe when you don’t have control over them, Meeko and Pocahontas do have an annoying habit of wondering around when no one is watching. Another influence, ‘The Lost Vikings’, sees your team mate’s stay put when you’re not directly guiding them. In ‘Pocahontas’ though, when you flip between the two players you’ll find they aren’t always in the same place you left them and usually they have strolled back in the  direction they have come from. Again, it’s marginally annoying but not in any way game breaking. Re-treading steps at least makes the game slightly longer, which is perhaps a blessing in disguise. It’s hard to imagine anyone will take longer than three hours to finish the game on a first attempt. Obviously once you know the solution to the stage puzzles subsequent play throughs will halve in length and speedruners on YouTube have finished the game in close to half an hour.
“The reason ‘Pocahontas’ is so short is that Disney decided that they wanted to match the movie acts with levels in the game” claims Carl-Henrik Skårstedt. If this is true, Disney Interactive clearly didn’t have to adhere to the same game making rules that licensees did.   Louis Castle claimed that Disney demanded the ‘Lion King’ game was made longer and harder; with a difficulty spike that prevented casual players getting further than two hours into the game. “Disney had a rule that you couldn't get past a certain percentage of the game in a certain period of time". Clearly anyone renting ‘Pocahontas’ for the weekend would almost certainly finish the game. Perhaps Disney was right and this contributed to the weak sales.  ‘Pocahontas’ sold far less than ‘Aladdin’ or ‘The Lion King’ games, but it’s also based on a film that performed worse at the box office.

Licensing films out to other companies had been the standard practice for Disney when it came to consoles games. However by 1995 they were keen to go it alone and decided to start making their own games based on their biggest summer blockbusters. According to former Disney Interactive senior VP Alex Seropian "[Disney said] ‘we're gonna do it ourselves and not let other people do it. And the profit margins that come from that are gonna be even bigger. So let's do it!'”.  Mean Machines Sega magazine clarified the situation for their readers. "Basically Disney want to keep the rights to the 'super' films for themselves as they ramp up production of video games".  However, it was a short lived venture ending on April 15 1997, when Disney Interactive reduced its staff by 20% and terminated in-house video game production. Of course during this brief time, ‘Pocahontas’ was released in the cinema.

The Disney Corporation had high hopes for the film, convinced it would gain an Oscar nomination as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ had. ‘The Lion King’ film was also in production at the same time, and many animators opted to work on the higher profile 'Pocahontas'. Studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg certainly saw it as the more prestigious project of the two. For video games this meant that the ‘Lion King’ was passed on to Virgin Interactive while Disney themselves would work on a game based on ‘Pocahontas’. 

“Disney interactive designers are bringing you an exciting new way to live ‘Pocahontas’s story” explained adverts for the game. “In the ‘Pocahontas’ videogame you are Pocahontas, in this breakthrough adventure on Sega and Nintendo game systems” claimed a promotion included on Disney’s 1995 VHS releases. “Classic story telling and innovative technology all from Disney Interactive”.

The problem was Disney Interactive didn’t initially have a team able to make the game it promised.   “The video game business that existed [before] I showed up was really built on the back of the licensing” former VP Alex Seropian told TechInsider. “[Disney Interactive] were a group that didn't have a lot of institutional knowledge making games." To fill in the knowledge gaps, and actually craft the games, an “internal” team was contracted, primarily using staff from Funcom. “In the early years of Funcom, we were mostly guns for hire making games for other major entertainment corporations” notes the company’s own website. “Disney approached us after seeing ‘A Dinosaur's Tale’ which they thought was cool” recalls programmer Carl-Henrik Skårstedt. Details of the exact relationship between the two companies are hard to source but it’s known that Disney producer Patrick Gilmore steered the project. Gilmore was considered a safe pair of hands, producing games based on many Disney IP. He had worked on ‘World of Illusion’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Good Troop’, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Mickey Mania, ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Disney’s The LittleMermaid’. It seems Gilmore liaised between Disney executives and Funcom. The Oslo based team then handled the actual game creation although they had little say on its direction. That’s not to say there weren’t perks to the job: According to Funcom sound designer Geir Tjelta the team “got a trip to Disneyland” and “got to see a rough version of the movie”.

The involvement of Disney Animation Studios suggests that the  ‘Pocahontas’ game benefited from technology similar to the DigiCel process used on ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’. Frames of animation were drawn by the 36 individually credited Disney animators which were then scanned and turned into sprites by a team, headed up by Oliver Wade. To fit all the art in, ‘Pocahontas’ was one of a handful of Mega Drive games to come on a huge 32meg cartridge.  Other developers have discussed the conflict between Disney Animators and Game developers, where the former want more frames and the latter wants less. Clearly the more frames there are, the more elegant the game looks but the slower it plays; a problem for an action game but less so in puzzle based adventure. While slow, even when running, every movement Pocahontas makes is graceful and fluid.  The game really looks spectacular even if the main sprite is smaller than I would ideally like. The characters all look like their cinematic equivalents with some pleasing visual tricks that bring the environments to life. In the film Pocahontas gets lost in the beauty of the world that surrounds her, the same thing could happen in the game. It offers “gorgeous pastoral settings” as Game Pro notes.

Sadly the game's audio pales in comparison to its visuals. The game’s rendition of “Just beyond the river-bend’ heard in level two is all rather lovely, but it lasts just 48 Seconds. As this level is probably the games’ longest, a player should expect to hear it close to fifty times in a first play of the game. Impressively though there is the inclusion of voices taken from the film, with the original actors acknowledged in the end credits. It’s testament to how close the developers have tried to stick to the source material, even if it was ultimately a film that simply doesn’t lend itself to video game adaptation.

“‘Pocahontas’ is a pretty unusual game concept at least, attempting to fit in with the film non-violent themes” wrote Angus Swan in a Mean Machines magazine review.  “This won’t satisfy your bloodlust” Marcus Hearn adds. “But if you’re looking for something more cerebral then ‘Pocahontas’ has more to offer’. 

Where did I get this game from?
Disney games always carry a higher price tag than other Mega Drive games, but for some reason this was an exception. It was purchased on eBay for less than £10, which considering its length is probably a fair price.   

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