Most 1990s console games based on branded properties were trash, cash grabs purchased by parents who recognized their kids’ favorite characters on the packaging and rightly assumed console-addicted children would get at least a few hours of playtime regardless of quality. These titles typically came out at the height of a movie or TV show’s peak in popularity, and their quality varied wildly. Some, like the many Disney games developed by Capcom, were well-received, while those based smaller properties and designed by less prestigious studios suffered from clunky mechanics and flimsy storytelling.
Like other Disney games, The Lion King’s 16-bit adaptation was loved by many, but it didn’t exactly earn the same accolades as the Magical Quest series or the Aladdin adaptation. I was seven years old when it was released, a Lion King superfan living in the suburbs of west Michigan with my parents and my gaming-adept older brothers. Whenever I had the privilege of playing the SNES, The Lion King was one of my go-tos, and despite its objective terribleness, it taught me more about media — and myself — than I ever could’ve imagined. Here’s why it’s stuck with me, decades later.
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1. Sloppy Platforming
Donkey Kong Country came out within weeks of The Lion King. The former holds up as an excellent side-scrolling platformer nearly 25 years after its release, while the latter? Not so much. Both were part of my family’s video game collection. Being seven, I wasn’t the savvy media consumer I am today and thus couldn’t really understand the disparity in quality between the two. I did know this, though: Donkey Kong Country was as smooth to play as The Lion King was clunky. In The Lion King, taking Simba from one rocky surface to the next felt a bit like maneuvering pieces in Tetris. His movements were jerky, and his roar and paw-swipe attacks were imprecise. This made each level feel like a chore, a far cry from Donkey and Diddy Kong’s fast, fluid animations.
2. I Just Can’t Wait to Be Done With These Monkeys
The second full-length level in The Lion King is loosely themed around the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” musical number, and drastically ratchets up the difficulty from the first stage. To complete it, the player has to maneuver young Simba to ride ostriches, get tossed around by monkeys, and jump on hippos’ heads and asses. Most kids who played this game probably didn’t make it past this stage.
If the Battletoads turbo tunnel-esque autorunning ostrich rides didn’t do you in, memorizing the pattern of how to get through the monkey-tossing sections would. These involved roaring at pink monkeys to frighten them and turn them around, setting up a configuration that would have them toss Simba on to the next area rather than to his death. (The developers included the cryptic text “ROAR AT MONKEYS” at the beginning of the level to push the player in the right direction.) I can’t recall exactly how long it took for me to memorize the pattern that took you to the end of the level. Probably hours. Possibly days.
3. Be Prepared (To Encounter a Game-Breaking Bug)
I will never know if this bug was universal, though I’ve had it confirmed by a fellow player, who shook her fist and said “The glitch!” when I recently found a way to shoehorn the game into conversation. It’s possible playtesting led to the bug’s elimination in later runs of the cartridge, as a YouTube playthrough I found shows how to beat the level without too much trouble.
At any rate, in my copy of The Lion King, “Be Prepared” required a jump that adult Simba simply could not complete. No matter how skilled the player, it was impossible to get high enough to clear one particular peak, thus making the level impassable. Also, “Be Prepared” is near the end of the game, despite the song’s appearance in the film’s first act. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this level was faulty on its very premise. Maybe they all were.
Via Game Genie cheat cartridge, unauthorized strategy guide, or some means unknown to me, my brothers eventually discovered that entering the code B-A-R-R-Y on the level selection section of the Options menu automatically advanced a player to the final level. One of my brothers, who once won a Donkey Kong Country tournament hosted by our local Blockbuster and was still stymied by The Lion King, floated a theory that one of the game’s designers was named Barry and knew his genius would go unrecognized if it didn’t appear in the game. Because I never earned my way to that final fight against Scar, the victory rang hollow. I defeated him, but I didn’t feel good about it. I still don’t.
5. It Taught Us More Than The Movie
The Lion King is one of Disney’s greatest triumphs. It became a defining film of my childhood, and I loved it fervently. I still do. It taught me that foods can be both slimy and satisfying, and it introduced me to words and phrases I’d never heard before, like “jugular” and “quid pro quo.” But however improbably, I still learned more from the game.
When you’re a kid, before you’ve really developed critical faculties, everything basically looks the same to you. A cartoon is a cartoon, a game a game. The Lion King video game was the first piece of media I encountered that showed me that some things were objectively worse than others. I realized that just because something was associated with a story I loved, that didn’t mean it was going to be good. And I learned that media was made by people, who could — for various reasons — produce frustrating, flawed, and broken products that could sit on shelves alongside far superior titles.