Developer: Westwood Studios
Publisher: Virgin Interactive
Platform(s): SNES, Genesis, Amiga, PC, NES, Gameboy, GameGear, Master System
Lion King is one of the most beloved games from my childhood. I played more times than I can even remember over the lifespan of the Sega Genesis console I had back then. It was a sad day when that little black box of a machine breathed its last. No more Lion King (or Sonic, for that matter) for me. And then I got a brand new Nintendo 64 and I moved on to more complex games with 3D graphics and more involved gameplay.
Over the next twenty years, and several generations of consoles, my thoughts would return to all those happy days and hours I spent just playing this game and how I wasn’t ever going to get to experience that again. I was content to just hold on to the memory of what Lion King once meant to me . . .until about two months ago. That was when I at last figured out how to run emulation software.
Lion King is beautiful callback to the glory days of 16-bit gaming. The colors are bright and vivid and seem to almost pop off the screen. And all the animation is so smooth. I once heard that actual animators from Disney itself were responsible
And that music . . .Oh my! The Genesis-style renditions of the hit songs from the film have been beautifully reinterpreted. Even the stuff is a pleasant listen. There were many times during my playthrough when I would catch myself humming or singing along with it. Is there anyone out there that can hear “Can’t Wait to be King” or “Hakuna Matata” without singing the words? Even after over twenty years?
Anyway, everything looks and sounds really clean and has aged extremely well. This game would easily fit in with this modern resurgence of retro gaming and I’d happily recommend it to anyone who’s into the independently developed (or Indie) scene. Or anyone who has finally been able to figure out just how emulators work. Like me.
Lion King, first and foremost, is a platform game which means there’s going to be a lot of jumping, climbing and general acrobatics. It’s a good thing that Simba is so nimble because he’s gonna need that in order to avoid all the enemies, obstacles, and bottomless pits. So you begin the game as young Simba who defeates said enemies by pouncing on them. He can also use his ability to roar (possibly lifted straight from the movie) to solve puzzles and weaken foes.
When you first boot up the game, you’ll see your number of lives on the bottom left of the screen and two bars occupying the top left and right corners. The one on the top left is what I shall refer to as the “roar meter.” It indicates how powerfully Simba can roar at any given moment. The more filled in the bar, the more effect a roar has on nearby enemies. It refills automatically but is totally depleted when used or when Simba takes damage.
The bar in the upper right corner of the screen is where Simba’s health is displayed. It’s just like every life bar in every video game ever. You lose a life if it gets totally depleted.
Both bars can be replenished by collecting certain beetles scattered around the levels. There are even special beetles you can find that will permanently extend either one or the other. These beetles are exceptionally rare so you must do whatever you can to grab them if you should happen to see them. And speaking of special beetles there are other special ones that will grant you access to the 2 bonus stages this game has.
- Bug Toss. You take control of Pumbaa while Timon runs back and forth dropping bugs that you need to catch.
- Bug Hunt. This time, you take control of Timon and grab as many bugs as you can while avoiding all the spiders and flies. Those will cut your game short.
Collecting lots of bugs in either bonus stage will net you extra lives and continues to make your journey through the game a little more comfortable.
Lion King has three difficulty settings you should be aware of. The first is ‘easy’ mode where you get nine lives per continue and just about every enemy goes down like a lead rake. I always play on this difficulty because #noshameinmygame. The second is the default ‘normal’ mode. You’ll have e lives per continue and the enemies all put up a reasonable fight. #Neveragain, by the way. And then there’s the ‘difficult’ mode. You only get ONE life per continue so you’re gonna need to bring you’re A+ game and the enemies might as well be invincible. Why would anyone do this to themselves?! I should mention that you will always get the same number of continues no matter what difficulty setting you choose. I guess that’s one way to somewhat keep everything on even ground.
Now that I’ve covered both ‘presentation’ and ‘gameplay’ it’s time to tackle those 10 gorgeous levels I briefly mentioned earlier.
1. The Pridelands
A short level that serves as a sort of tutorial. This is where you’ll learn about the mechanics of Lion King as well as the tight controls and just how wonderful they feel. You will also learn how to defeat the various enemies and what all the different kinds of beetles and bugs do. Savor “The Pridelands” and its non-threatening atmosphere because things will only get harder from here . . .
2. Can’t Wait to be King
In case anyone out there was wondering: yes, the whole song plays on loop for the entirety of this level. Anyway, this is where the real platforming challenges begin. You’ll be hopping across towers of hippos and giraffes, riding ostriches across the savannah, and getting tossed from branch to branch by some oddly helpful monkeys. Using Simba’s roar will be integral to getting through this craziness in one piece. There are these pink monkeys that change the direction they’ll throw you when you roar at them. Arrange them in such a way that one of them actually throws you all the way into the next level
3. Elephant Graveyard
The famous villain theme song “Be Prepared” accompanies your trek through this dark and macabre place. You must maneuver and platform your way through piles and piles of elephant bones, taking down hyenas and vultures all while Uncle Scar watches in dismay. Yeah, you actually see him once you make it to the end. He still manages to look really pissed off even though he’s completely covered in shadow. Oh, and look out for those steam jets that are green for some reason. They cause the insta-death if you touch them.
4. The Stampede
This stage is wildly different from every other stage in the game. You automatically run forward as you dodge the rocks that appear in your path and the wildebeests that come up from behind. Survive the onslaught long enough and it’s on to the next stage.
5. Simba’s Exile
Avoid the falling rocks, giant boulder, patches of thorns and bottomless pits to escape Scar’s hyenas. If you ever come back, they’ll kill ya!
6. Hakuna Matata
I sure hope you’ve mastered young Simba’s controls because you’re gonna need every skill you’ve hopefully been honing up to this point. There are a lot of nasty spiders and jumping frogs in the most inopportune locations and a treacherous climb up a waterfall. It all ends with a face-off against a huge, coconut-throwing gorilla. I spent FOREVER stuck on this level until I figured out that I could knock those coconuts back at him by rolling.
The gameplay shifts quite noticeably after this level mostly because Simba goes from a cub to an adult lion that can use his claws. This introduces combat into the mix. Your main enemies for the remainder of the game are the same hyenas you’ve already been dealing with (only smaller) and these . . .um . . .cheetah-looking things.
7. Simba’s Destiny
I suppose this is the game’s representation the scene in the film where Mufasa pops out of the clouds and tells Simba that “he must take [his] place in the Circle of Life” after following Rafiki through some dense jungle. This is where the ‘cheetah’ things make their appearance and rock-throwing monkeys are a constant nuisance.
This level is relatively tame compared to Adult Simba’s other levels. It’s reminiscent of the first level in the game because its purpose is to acclimate you to playing as a fully grown lion with deadly claws. I remember all of this being long.
8. Be Prepared
Lion King sure knows how to up the ante. From what I can tell, this stage is all about Simba making his way back to Pride Rock to face his uncle. But seriously, where did all this lava come from?! What, does Simba have to pass through the center of the earth to get back home?
“Be Prepared” can really chew you up and spit you out if you don’t take your time and plan your moves accordingly. Lava is just all over the place: there is the molten lake of insta-death, lava jets, and it also drips from the ceiling for some reason. Those smaller hyenas I mentioned earlier decide to join the party and the ‘cheetahs’ make a comeback. Keep an eye out for the annoying-as-hell bats. They can knock you into places that you don’t need to be.
9. Simba’s Return
Like the movie, the level show that Pride Rock went to hell in a hamster ball during Scar’s reign. You will have to navigate a maze-like system of caves and deal with the serious hyena infestation plaguing the Pridelands. Getting through the maze and dealing with the hyenas is already hard enough, but here’s the little detail that makes it all so much worse: you will be unable to leave a room until all vermin occupying it are defeated. Hope your combat prowess is on point.
10. Pride Rock
This is the final level of the game. Hooray! You made it! This is the epic showdown with Scar that the previous few levels have been leading up to. “Pride Rock” is all about chasing Scar all the ay to the top with a few skirmishes along the way. All you have to do is beat up on him for a bit until he runs off. There’s some sort of lightening storm going on during the whole level, starting many fires and making your treacherous climb even more so.
The real fight with Scar doesn’t begin until you reach the very top of Pride Rock and your goal here is to weaken him enough so that he flies farther whenever you flip his scrawny ass. Once he’s weak, simply flip him so that he sails over the side to be presumably eaten by hyenas AND burned alive (just like in the movie!) And you’re done. You have successfully completed The Lion King.
I fully acknowledge that this game’s ending is rather underwhelming, but I honestly don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I don’t see it as a detriment to its legacy at all. The visuals, music, tight controls, and the engaging and often challenging gameplay more than make up for it. I would encourage my fellow 90’s kids who grew up with this game to show it to their children. Please, show them what gaming was like when you were young. You’ll either have a good laugh or a wonderful bonding experience. Or both. And while you’re at it, show them the movie. There’s a reason why it’s considered a classic.