How The Hell Did We Ever Beat The Lion King As Kids? (We Didn’t)

Having access to a lot of classic games these days means a lot of impromptu trips down memory lane. The games I loved as a kid—and the games I’d forgotten I loved as a kid—are all at my fingertips, begging to be replayed for that jolt of nostalgia-flavored serotonin to the brain.

So I’ve been playing 1994’s The Lion King again. I originally owned it on the Sega Game Gear, and I loved that game. (I also owned the inscrutable Ecco the Dolphin: Tides of Time, Sonic Triple Trouble—the best handheld Sonic title ever made—and the awful Sonic 2 port.)

I didn’t love The Lion King because of its merits, but because the pickings for me when I was a kid were incredibly slim. Still, I wanted to see how the game held up after 26 years.

Playing this game now makes me wonder how any of us were able to beat it. This game is a sneaky, impossible bastard. The first level lures you into a false sense of security as it teaches you how to run, jump, and fight as child Simba. From the second level on, the game lets you go, like a parent stepping back from their child’s first bike ride. But instead of pedalling on into self-sufficiency, you find yourself launched into oncoming traffic.

Sometimes I would press a button to jump to a ledge, but it would eat the inputs and send me falling into a pit. Whenever you need to swing from one platform to the next, the game refuses to register Simba latching onto a rhino tail or a bone. Mistakes, like missing an ostrich jump in the second level, often punish you with instant death. The level design makes it extremely difficult to figure out where the hell you’re even supposed to go. Add to that a sparse checkpoint system and the lack of save states for the old consoles, and the game stops being fun and gets exhausting.

I struggled with this damn game. That ostrich section in the second level? The colour palette is so bright that it’s impossible to see the obstacles in time to avoid them. In the next level, Be Prepared, you get one (1!) health bug at the beginning and you never see one again. A Stampede level fakes you out into making mistakes, running into rocks and wildebeests, because it’s not quite clear at what point Simba’s hitbox will collide with the obstacles in front of or behind him.

Even the bonus level is impossible. It involves Timon dropping bugs for Pumbaa to eat and ends when a bug hits the ground. The speed at which the bugs fall—and the timing required to catch a bug on one side and hustle over to the other—requires reflexes mere mortals lack.

Am I just bad at the game? Possibly. But I did pass off the controller to my boyfriend, who gave up after losing all eight of my lives while trying to jump from a rhino tail to a hippo nose.

Is he bad at the game too? Also possible.

But the truth is Disney had developer Westwood Studios artificially increase the difficulty, according to an interview with Louis Castle, creative director and producer of the game, which came to light last year over at Polygon. The developers determined that players who rented the game would be more likely to buy it if they couldn’t finish it within the rental period. That monkey puzzle in the second level? Added to pad the game’s run time and up the difficulty. You can hear about the whole nefarious plot here.

There’s a tendency to look back on old games with fondness, because they’re perceived as harder than modern games. I don’t necessarily believe games were harder than they are now, just that, prior to the ubiquity of the internet, we lacked the resources or connections to figure out what to do.

With The Lion King, however, I have the resources. I know exactly what to do, but the game is so damned hateful in its construction that it prevents me from doing it.

I gave up trying to beat the game at the Stampede level. I just couldn’t go on, and when I put down the controller I suddenly remembered that kid-me gave up there, too.

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