- Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, XboxOne, Windows
- Release Date: October 2019
- Developer: Digital Eclipse
- Publisher: Nighthawk Interactive
- Price: $24 Au (Nintendo Game Store), physical copies are around $40
It could be easily argued that Aladdin (1993) and The Lion King (1994) are quintessential exemplars of 1990s console video games. Based on the eponymous heroes of the two animated Disney classics, both platformers were colourful, beautifully animated, have great audio tracks and effects, and had big marketing campaigns aimed toward children and teens. On the flipside, of course both games involve licensed properties, and were ridiculously difficult due to pixel-perfect platforming, floaty controls, and impossible to avoid enemies. Behind the polish and the pumped-up challenges, the relative brevity of both games and lack of innovation were somewhat concealed. Despite my obvious cynicism, during the zenith of the reign of 16-bit consoles both games were extremely successful in their own right; Aladdin was the third highest selling Sega Genesis game and sold over four million copies worldwide, whilst The Lion King sold in similar numbers. Surely this must be due to good underlying gameplay and not Disney marketing? More cynicism, right? But do the games hold up over twenty five years later, and is this particular retro package worth it?
Full disclosure: At the time these games were released, I wasn’t the target market for either of them. Already a year or two into university, my gaming attention was being taken up by the next generation of 32-bit and beyond consoles. I was looking over the horizon and the ‘next generation’ of wonder consoles; the 3DO, Atari Jaguar, and even the Amiga CD32. That worked out well didn’t it? Following that weird intergeneration of consoles, the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation weren’t far off, and the mystical Ultra 64 was supposedly only a year away (spoilers: the eventual Nintendo 64 took a while longer to arrive). Whilst I would happily play the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo when the chance arose, they were but a fleeting distraction from ‘the future of gaming’. I found 16-bit platforming games fine, but too often refined and tuned to the point of cheap one hit kills or impossible to reach platforms on the first or even tenth try. Aladdin and The Lion King fell squarely into those categories for me. Even more cynicism, right?
Still, one couldn’t help but admire the polish involved in this pair of games’ production, and the enduring fondness for both titles from gamers past. In a time where on-screen colours were measured in dozens not millions, game size was a couple of megabytes and RAM numbered in kilobytes not gigabytes, on-screen resolution was in the hundreds not thousands of pixels, and developers were counted in tens not thousands, Disney and the various developers pulled off some creative (albeit not necessarily technical) masterpieces. When this compilation was released just over a year and a half ago with long-time retro revivalists and master curators of retro gaming lore Digital Eclipse at the helm, I knew that it was finally the time to give these two games a fair go. At the time of release, I was neck-deep in completing my research degree into historical/retro educational gaming/computing in Australia (more on that another time), so it faded from memory for a while. This compilation remained on my wish-list, and I (finally) snagged it during a recent Nintendo Game Store for the low low price of $12. Was it worth the wait? Read on…
The first thing of note upon booting up the game is that it is immediate from the outset that Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King was created with obvious care and reverence for the source material, the package is polished throughout, and the bonus extras were curated with care and consideration for the source materials, both from a gaming and movie perspective. Numerous video clips (well beyond an hour, possibly two) including developer, musician, animator, and producer interviews are available right off the bat without the need for unlocking (take that Rare Replay!). This is a good thing given the difficulty of the included titles. In addition to the videos, concept art from the games and movies are also available to view, zoom, and examine closely. Clips range from thirty seconds long to half an hour and it can be a chore to select and play. A complete watch-through option would have been an easy and welcome inclusion, as would a boost to some of the audio which is of notably varying levels.
Some interesting facts about the development of both games are revealed; a highlight is a semi-technical explanation of how the animations were utilised and incorporated into the games using innovative technical processes and approaches for the time. Whilst some people may find these inclusions superfluous, they provide historical context to the creative and technical processes, just like DVD/Blu Ray/streaming ‘extras’. It’s easily argued that they are important inclusions for retro gaming compilations for at least two reasons beyond contextualising the challenges of game development during this era. Firstly, historical gaming materials like this need to be preserved, archived, and available lest they disappear due to not being catalogued anywhere (software and media companies are notorious for discarding archival works), or no longer being available due to digital obsolescence. The second reason harkens back to my cynical streak; if nothing extra is offered, why not just download a ROM and emulate?
Rounding out the extras are soundtracks from the home console versions of both games. These can be played sequentially or on random rotation. There are some truly amazing renditions of the music from both movies, as well as some original tunes composed. to augment the gaming experience. Sadly, the Game Boy titles’ soundtracks aren’t available which is an unfortunate omission. Additionally, the Sega Mega Drive tunes are noticeably quieter than the SNES counterparts; they’re essentially impossible to listen to in handheld mode without headphones or earbuds. In-game Sega audio is also at a lower level than the Nintendo versions of the game, which is a minor but notable annoyance.
So, the games? Here’s a full list of what’s included:
- Aladdin (Genesis version)
- Aladdin (Japanese Mega Drive version)
- Aladdin (CES Demo of Genesis version)
- Aladdin (Genesis Final Cut)
- Aladdin (Game Boy version)
- Aladdin (Super Game Boy version)
- The Lion King (Mega Drive/Genesis version)
- The Lion King (Japanese Super Famicom version)
- The Lion King (SNES version)
- The Lion King (Game Boy version)
- The Lion King (Super Game Boy version)
Of note is the Genesis Final Cut of Aladdin. This newly remixed version of the Genesis/Mega Drive original has a number of extra inclusions such as an improved camera, bug fixes, cleaned up animations, and some extra bonus areas. This is the definitive way to play the Virgin Interactive version of Aladdin . Despite the high difficulty, it remains a wonderfully animated and sounding platformer with just enough ‘one more go’ factor to draw the player in. It’s not entirely logical in terms of level design, nor is it fair, but there’s enough variety, humour, hidden areas, bonus levels (which can be maddening instead of chilled!), and the checkpoints are mostly fair in a 90s way to make it worth slogging your way through. The Game Boy port is sluggish and less of a draw; it’s a shame the more complete and playable Game Boy Advance version wasn’t included. Rounding out the Aladdin cohort are the Japanese and early CES Demo versions. The CES Demo is a great curio which shows incomplete and placeholder artwork and level design. It’s also fiendishly difficult; I don’t think I’ll be obtaining the achievement for finishing it anytime soon. The Capcom-developed Aladdin is nowhere to be seen here, which is a notable absentee from the roster of Aladdin games. Sans-sword and with different level design and play mechanics, it would have been great to see and play both side-by-side. Alas, actively comparing the pros and cons of both games can’t be done with this compilation (although you can read about it here).
The Lion King, for all all its cuteness, lush animation, iconic music, and an engaging narrative guiding Simba to evolve from a young cub to a powerful king of the jungle, has one huge caveat. It’s hard. Ridiculously challenging. Stupidly difficult. All because Disney thought it would be better for their bottom line to prevent players who hied the title from Blockbuster and the like to not make too much progression over a rental weekend. Check out the video below where Westwood co-founder Louis Castle explains (and apologises) for the design decisions and read more about it here. As an aside, the Elephant Graveyard level can go die a slow death over and over…just like I did. Beyond that, it’s a fantastically well-animated, reasonably easy to control, and lovely sounding game with some great music and voice overs cribbed from the movie. With the occasionally frustratingly designed platforming puzzles, sudden incomprehensible spikes in difficulty, and slightly less well-realised (albeit equally iconic) graphics than Aladdin, this is the lesser of the two titles, but a reasonable game that infuriates and belittles the player a little too much. I can just imagine the tears of the children that rented the game. Again, not all versions of the game are included; I would have loved to have seen the Amiga 1200 port of the game which was completed in two months (!!!), albeit with some levels missing. A great looking and obscure port omitted? Off to emulator land I go…sigh.
Where this release excels in terms of helping one to feel less inept are inclusions that tip the gameplay experience in the player’s favour. In addition to the original difficulty settings, which in my quite frankly only serve to make me feel marginally less inept, are infinite lives, level selection, anytime/anywhere game saves, in-game rewind, and (my favourite), the Interactive Game Viewer. Imagine a let’s play video, but one that allows you to jump in at any point. It’s a great innovation and feature for both games, but it definitely makes The Lion King a more enjoyable experience to watch an expert progress through the game (even with the occasional seemingly confused section of backtracking) and let you jump in at any moment. To die. Quickly, no doubt. Rounding out the package is 1080p upscaling, game frames, and a few different aspect ratio and filter options to suit your viewing preference. Rather standard these days.
Viewing this compilation as a whole, the value of the package as a whole is reasonably good. At $24 for the digital download version (or half that if you keep an eye toward any upcoming sales) there’s enough to dive into to keep you occupied for more than a few hours. If physical copies of games are your bag, keep an eye out for sales as the title is still available at retail in most physical stores (we’re looking right at you Nintendo!). The non-gaming inclusions are interesting and will provide insight for gaming history buffs. Beyond that, the numerous game variations provide a snapshot of the era and serve to highlight the best and worst of mid-90s console gaming. Frustrating and limited gameplay aside, there’s a decent amount of fun to be had for a few hours, albeit punctuated by times when you’ll be tempted to hurl your controllers across the room. Digital Eclipse came this close to putting together an absolutely stellar package, which is only slightly marred by some exclusions. To be fair, I’m taking the point of view of a completist, and most people won’t mind the lack of what could be considered redundancy. These exclusions highlight how mere retro gamers are forever at the mercy of gaming companies and licensing issues regarding official retro re-releases on modern platforms. Thankfully, there’s always a way to access and play almost any and every game ‘unofficially’. Surely gaming companies could and should embrace the community of preservationists (aka hackers/pirates/criminals in their eyes) even further moving forward, lest we lose more historical gaming content. But that’s going to be a story (or ten) to follow up another day…