Review by Tom Clark
"You can't take this lion down."
Back in the day, things were different. Children respected their elders. Chicken, apparently, tasted like chicken. And licensed games from uber-cute, kiddie-brainwashing, mouse loving sentimentalists Disney were welcomed with open arms, as opposed to being avoided like a sugar-coated plague. Before Walt started whoring his characters out to the developers of crappy skateboarding games (not Walt himself, obviously, his corpse is currently living in a freezer, eagerly awaiting the day that boffins discover a cure for... well... being dead), before the games buying public became jaded by an endless tirade of soulless, turgid 3D platformers that lacked any real innovation, and before Take That split up, Disney's platform games were among the best around. The Lion King for Sega's Mega Drive is one such title.
The Lion King was one of the last truly great movies that Disney managed to make without the aid of the computer wizards at Pixar. It was a classic tale about an African animal community based in 'The Pridelands'. This area was ruled by a wise lion named Mufasa from his throne on the imposing Pride Rock. The king had a young son, Simba, who was of course next in line to the throne. This leaves the King's shady brother, Scar (superbly voiced by Jeremy Irons in the movie), a little upset - he had his cat's eyes on the throne himself. And so, as all good villains should, he kills Mufasa, and makes Simba believe that it is his own fault it happened. Naturally, Simba flees The Pridelands in shame. Years go by, Simba grows up, and Scar rules The Pridelands with an iron paw, turning it's lush plains into a barren wasteland. But a change is coming.... A chance meeting with a childhood friend causes the exiled former prince to realise the truth about the events that led to his father's death. But is it too late for The Pridelands? Or can Simba find the courage to face his demons, return to Pride Rock, and defeat Scar in order to become the King that he was born to be....?
Of course, this being a children's story, you can doubtless guess the answer to that straight away, but that doesn't detract from what is a solid plot. It's an old story, really, and one seen many times before through the years, but the African Plains setting is rather different, and as such it is afforded a rather fresh feel. What's more, there are several very memorable set pieces in the film, and many great locations are explored (such as a rather creepy elephant graveyard), and naturally these are recreated in the video game version of the tale.
As you would no doubt expect, The Lion King is a platform game. Everything that you would expect from the genre is present - you run, you jump from platform to platform, you plant yourself on top of bad guys with a well timed pounce to do away with them..... all this is of course a given. But it is carried off with such style in this game that you cannot help but fall in love with it, and what's more, it's obvious that real care has gone in to making this game feel like The Lion King. Power-ups (such as energy refills, or items that increase the amount of energy Simba has) come in the form of various bugs to be eaten. You don't collect extra continues, but rather you collect 'circles of life'. And at the risk of sounding odd, it actually feels like you are controlling a lion - starting off as a young version of Simba all you can really do is jump around and roll into bad guys (okay, so a Disney version of a lion, but still....), or muster a feeble roar that wouldn't intimidate Dale Winton. As the game progresses, though, and Simba becomes a fully grown predator, you find yourself able to slash and claw at your foes, and your roar becomes a mighty battle-cry that can intimidate some of your enemies into a moment of immobility. The Lion King feel stretches as far as the level design, too.
After an initial level that amounts to little more than a chance to acclimatise yourself to the controls as you jump around in the trees of The Pridelands, you are sent on a level that really brings the light-hearted feel of the first scenes of the film to life. You swing from rhino's tails; you slide down giraffe's necks; you get thrown around the trees by monkeys (roaring at them to change the direction in which they hurl you), all culminating in a ride on an ostrich's back, during which you must duck low branches and leap over obstacles such as bird nests and diminutive pink rhinoceroses (that part baffled me, too...). Admittedly not every level that follows this one features such variety (most generally adhere to the classic platform formula of bad-guy bashing, tight jumps and perilous pitfalls), but each one manages to retain the feel of the movie quite admirably. Different stages call on different skills, too. One level may see your precision jumping tested as you leap from log to log over cascading waterfalls, while another tests your speed as a constant barrage of rocks means that you must remain on the go as you traverse the level.
It's not quite all straightforward platforming action, though - one of the genuine highlights of the game is the section in which Simba must escape a stampede. As the galloping hordes pass around him at deadly speed, Simba runs toward the screen (in a manner not too far removed from that attempted by a certain Bandicoot a few years down the line), avoiding the rocks that pop up in his path. It really amounts to little more than a test of reflexes and concentration, but it stands up as a fantastically tense, even quite tricky, moment, and the sense of chaos and panic as you have crazed animals overtaking you on your left and your right, and rocks right in front of you (since you can't see them coming due to the 'face-to-face with Simba' camera view an on-screen display points out where a rock is due to appear) is very memorable. More so than with most stages, there is a real sense of triumph and relief upon beating this stage.
What really shines through in every stage in the game, though, is how much attention has been paid to the level design - secret rooms and hidden paths are scattered around if you can find them; there are plenty of enemies and obstacles to tackle, and although ultimately the path through the game is usually a logical one (later levels, though, make use of the classic platform trait of having a maze made up of many different doors leading to many different part of the level), it is often quite a winding path - many of the levels will see you travelling in all four of the general platforming directions (up, down, left and, of course, right). It's a small detail, but it really adds to the sense of exploration in the levels - you feel like you are taking a good look around The Elephant Graveyard, for example, as opposed to just wandering from one side of it to the other. For the most part the level design in this game is spot on - there are one or two dull sections, admittedly, as some levels begin to feel just a little too long - they seem to carry on going beyond the point where it would seem natural to bring them to a close, but these are far outweighed by the genuinely great moments - and as such the game is a genuine pleasure to play through.
There are also two bonus games that crop up in The Lion King, both starring that loveable due Timon and Pumbaa (arguably the real stars of the movie). One of these is a rather unsatisfactory effort that sees you guiding Timon (a meerkat-like little fellow) around a platform-filled stage collecting bugs and power-ups, whilst avoiding collecting any harmful bugs. This is an adequate bonus game, although there is nothing truly inspiring about it whatsoever. The other game plays out in a similar way to many of the classic Game-&-Watch titles, with you controlling Pumbaa the warthog, trying to catch all the bugs and power-ups that Timon drops from the top of the screen (again avoiding the bad bugs). Once again keeping true to the feel of the feature film that the game is based upon, Pumbaa has one belch per stage, that can be used to clear the screen if things get a little too overwhelming. This bonus game is much more enjoyable, recalling the frantic pace and feel of those ancient handheld classics. As your score racks up, and the bugs fall at a faster and faster rate, things get marvellously fraught, and this section alone was responsible for pretty much all the foul language that I uttered in enjoyable frustration during my time with the game.
The Lion King is a reasonably long game, clocking in with a total of ten levels. Although it can comfortably be completed in one sitting once you know what you're doing (especially since it doesn't start to get all that tricky until about the halfway stage), every event or location from the movie that you would hope would reappear in the game is represented here - in that respect the game is as long as it really needs to be - and the fact that it truly is great fun to play through means that you'll likely replay it several times after you complete it anyway.
Graphically this game is a real gem. The colours are bright and vibrant; the characters well drawn; the backgrounds full and looking very lovely; the animating smooth and free of slow-down. Everything is well represented here - from great character touches such as the vulnerable and frightened look on Simba's face as he tries to outrun the stampede, or the dazed look of the hyenas' ugly mugs as Simba knocks them out for the count, to the lush level of detail afforded to every level of the game, such as the spooky twilight-style look of the graveyard stage, to the barren and alien look of the later levels when you return to the Pridelands. The sprites are mostly of a decent size, too, although some of the creepy-crawlies that you face in the first level are a tad too small, and have an annoying tendency of blending in with the foliage in the background. It really is just a fantastic looking game.
The real high point of the presentation, though, is the music. The film had Elton John warbling his way through the soundtrack, and all the songs that he - and other members of the cast - sing are recreated astonishingly well in 16-bit glory here (along with the main orchestral score to the movie). Every tune is prefect for the situation in which it is used. Some songs are joyful, happy-go-lucky little numbers (such as the one played in the second level, where you basically just frolic with the animals), while others have a genuinely emotional feel to them - there is an undeniable sense of sadness that permeates through many of the songs here. Although admittedly it was the movie staff that wrote the music, as opposed to the games developers, it is still a top notch soundtrack, and one of the best sounding games on the system.
The Lion King is a fantastic platform game: it's not without faults (one of the bonus games is rather average, and some of the levels feel like they have been stretched out a little too far), but the pros far outweigh the cons. This is a reminder that way back when there was a genuine amount of effort put into Disney's licensed games. And while our opinion of Disney games has taken a battering from the likes of the poor skateboarding games, or the half-assed attempts at 3D platformers, The Lion King stands up tall as not only a decent licensed game, but a genuinely decent game in it's own right. And that can't be bad.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/20/04
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