‘Aladdin’ And ‘The Lion King’ Represent The Best And Worst Of 1990s Platformers
Just released for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King is a double-header that packs in not only the original Mega Drive/Genesis versions of the '90s movie tie-ins in question, but also alternative versions, including the SNES Lion King and Game Boy ports of both, alongside a wealth of bonus material.
A special 'Final Cut' version of Aladdin sees the game updated with a suite of refinements and fixes; filters, borders and screen sizes are adjustable (you needn't have it display as it's shown in these screenshots); and interviews and soundtracks round out what is, genuinely, quite the comprehensive love letter to these 16-bit 'classics'.
And here's where we come to those inverted commas. Nostalgia is both a beautiful and deceptive thing, where the memory of something is often preferable to recreating the experience itself. Italia 90 was my first big football World Cup, but I wouldn't want that tournament to play out in the here and now, given the shockingly low quality of play so consistently on display and the lowest goals-per-game average of any World Cup.
And many, many retro-gaming 'classics' absolutely don't hold up today - not due to their dated looks or sounds, but frustrations and inconsistencies with their gameplay, level design and clarity of communication.
Step forward, these 'classics'. Virgin's Aladdin, released in 1993 for SEGA's 16-bit console (with a seperate version, made by Capcom, coming out for the SNES and not featured in this compilation), was a favourite of mine at the time, and I still have my Mega Drive copy at home. Played today, its smooth animation - both of these games benefit from assistance from Disney's own animators - and delightfully bright colours lend it a strong sense of a cartoon come to life, albeit one from the pre-Pixar era of these things. It's still fun - but with caveats. Hit detection remains as ropey as it ever was; Aladdin can simply fall through platforms, most notably in the dungeon-set fourth level; and the original music made for the game never touches the magic of those movie melodies.
I can still finish Aladdin fairly easily today - a feat made all the breezier by this collection's Watch mode, which will play the game for you (with fast-forwarding an option) until you want to jump in. It's a terrific way to skip straight to the parts of this game you loved the most, and the mode's available for The Lion King, too. Thank goodness.
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Developed by Westwood Studios in collaboration with Disney, and published by Virgin, The Lion King has something of a reputation to say the least. What appears from the outside to be a cute platformer where you control a young Simba as he bops bugs, 'roars' like a squeaky dog toy and swings from rhino tails very, very quickly becomes a battle of attrition against unwieldy controls and instant deaths. This game defined toughness in 1994, with the most unlikely of exteriors. How far you get in The Lion King has little to do with your skill, or experience of games in this genre; it's all down to the level of patience you have to put up with its incessant BS.
As well as the Watch mode, both games benefit from a rewind feature, so in theory you can go right through The Lion King without losing a life, just reversing the action to the point before Simba got squished, splatted, drowned or murdered by a hyena. But even leaning on that breaks up the rhythm and flow of this game awfully, if it even had any to begin with, and leaves you unsatisfied. Suffice to say that it's a good thing that this negative, punitive approach to game design has all but vanished from the medium in the 21st century, outside of titles that actively make it their USP.
The high-pressure, time-sensitive nature of producing Disney tie-ins no doubt had an impact on the quality control of these titles. Virgin's Aladdin was created, start to finish, in about 10 months, with a team of around 30 people in total. Well done them, frankly. The Lion King, meanwhile, was deliberately made harder for a very 1990s reason: it'd increase revenue from rentals. The game's second level, Can't Wait To Be King, is drawn out, hideously repetitive and frequently unfair - purely so that kids would struggle, and ask their parents to rent the game for another two nights, and another two nights, until they got it right. (And then came the nightmare of the Stampede level, and even more money was spent on this thing.)
As charming as these games can be, as gorgeous as they still look for the most part, and the room they still occupy in the hearts of many, there's no doubt that they both represent some of the worst design characteristics (or, some would argue, necessities) of their era. Shameless padding and intentionally unfair difficulty spikes; haphazard navigation brought about by a paucity of testing time; and elements that are just broken by modern standards add up to grind you down to a fine dust of despair. Simba's game over screen becomes as common a sight as the declaration that "you died" in a first playthrough of Dark Souls, but rarely with the feeling that you deserved it.
In other words: if you couldn't beat the Elephant Graveyard level back when, you can bet your most impressive KD ratio on the toughest shooter out there right now that you're going to struggle again today. And, seriously, The Lion King: getting mean on the second level? You rotter. You stinker. You absolute monster.
These are 'classics', then, wholly deserving of the inverted commas. Games that might've brightened up a Christmas morning back in the 1990s, a cherished birthday, or become favourites of emulator users in the years since. But undeniably games that cannot, categorically, claim to be indisputable essentials, however much your misty memories might argue otherwise.
We played Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King on Nintendo Switch, using code provided by the publisher. We're still recovering from the experience of the latter game, TBH.
Featured Image Credit: Disney / Nighthawk Interactive