There’s no storyline quite so classic as that of a son avenging his father’s death, and no soundtrack to an animated film so timeless as what Tim Rice and Elton John collaborated for the 1994 film, The Lion King. Put them together and you have not only a film for the whole family but material for a great video game. Just as it did for other films, the SNES delivers with the real deal by turning a legendary Disney title into a video game classic.
As Prince of the Jungle, Simba looks forward to following in his father’s footsteps as king one day. These dreams are dashed when his father is killed, and he himself is banished by his evil uncle Scar, who wants to steal the throne. Simba goes to live among friendly forest beasts, growing into maturity while living a carefree existence. His spirited childhood friend, Nala, shows up to shake him from his hippie dream and to convince him to return to the Pridelands, knock off Scar and reclaim his birthright. Once he does, Simba and Nala are married and continue the “Circle of Life” together.
Simba has plenty of challenges along the way to face his uncle Scar, as The Lion King has a notorious difficulty. On “Difficult” setting, Simba is given no extra lives or continues, and some enemies take an extra hit to exterminate. On “Easy” , Simba is given plenty of lives and some enemies take only one hit to finish off. I recommend beginning on “Normal” to make sure one enjoys the conquest, since one can always try again on “Easy.” As you would expect, levels begin shorter and become longer and more involved. Virgin Interactive makes sure to leave some hidden items in each level—even the first level has a treasure cove Simba gets to roll into.
Some goodies along the way are just out of reach and take a risk/reward assessment whether to pursue. Small bugs which refill Simba’s health meter are easy to come by, and a 1-up can typically be found in the open on each level. Other bugs extend Simba’s roar meter, which he uses as a cub to flip hedgehogs. Continues are a bit more difficult to find. There are also large blue bugs that are typically hidden which give Simba a bonus stage following the completion of a level. In addition to being fun mini-games, these stages feature Simba’s pals, Timon and Pumba, and are a great opportunity to rack up some extra lives and continues.
The colors and sounds of the Lion King really bring Simba’s world to life. Each level has a vibrant palette that fits with the tone of the plot. The nostalgic Pridelands and Hakuna Matata (it means, ‘no worries’) levels are Edenic green and blue, while the background and foreground of the Elephant Graveyard are evil purples and gray. “Be Prepared” is hellish red and yellow, and the night of “Simba’s Destiny” is dark and cold. The ugly green lava rising in a graveyard is as gross as it is terrifying! The level enemies are vivid and interactive, especially the jaguars who test adult Simba’s mauling capabilities. And to make Simba’s journey a truly emotive experience, the timeless Lion King soundtrack plays throughout. The Stampede track really gets my blood pumping—as if wildebeests running into the foreground weren’t enough!
Young Simba controls seamlessly and is fun to run, hop and hang on cliffs with. In addition to stunning hedgehogs with his roar, Simba defeats most enemies by hopping on them. He can use his roll, performed by pressing “down” while running, to defeat some enemies and access some hidden treasure coves. Adult Simba controls much the same as young Simba but his roar is now much more fitting for a king of the jungle. He also has two mauling moves: one a quick jab to wear down enemies, and another to clear obstacles. Some enemies at rest can even be thrown off the screen! Completely lacking projectile weapons that are a staple of the platformer genre, Simba’s method is very primal. This has an overall effect in making Simba earn his progress and prove himself as his father’s true heir.
Those unfamiliar with the film or theater production of the Lion King may be a bit lost in the limited plot prompts. These prompts are given by movie characters providing soundbites between levels, as well as levels concluding in very effective animated sequences. If you’re not sure what Rafiki means by “The King has returned,” you may be surprised when your young cub has instantaneously grown up! The minimum storyline can be explained by just how huge the film was in pop culture, so the developers at Virgin Interactive felt an over-explanation of the story wasn’t necessary. Simba’s upgrade from cub to adult is a great way of providing tactical diversity, but is also highly emotive in the vein of Link’s growth in Ocarina of Time. It’s a fantastic reward mechanism for sticking with the game as long as you have.
With so many things to praise about The Lion King, there are some negative aspects that can be mentioned. I really would have enjoyed a higher variety of enemies. Both the young and old Simba face a fair amount of hyenas along the way, and the monkey motif is overdone. Not until level eight does Simba see more than two enemies in a frame, and at that point adult Simba can get trapped in some slowdown. Also, it would have been nice to face more bosses along the way. Since we face an apocryphal ape at the end of Hakuna Matata, why not more of those? Finally—and perhaps this is a positive more than a negative—The Lion King is such a good game that one wants more of it. Perhaps the developers merely ran out of story material, but considering a great SNES platformer can have upwards of 50 levels, I would have loved to see more of Simba’s world.
Overall, The Lion King is a wonderful game that stands the test of time nearly as well as the film from which it was inspired. Virgin Interactive could have cashed in on the success of the film by making a much poorer game, but instead they went the extra miles to make something that has, and will be, played for years. While it is regretfully short and lacks some diversity, it is a visceral experience and the soundtrack is superb. The Lion King is worth returning to again and again.
Five out of Five Stars
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