How Disney prepared me for a life of pain and misery

Looking back, there’s one thing in particular I don’t understand about the 1990s. Well, there are plenty of things I find weird about that decade, weird being a very 90s word in its own right – the obsession with aliens, the ubiquitous curtained hair, the mysterious ‘zig-a-zig-ah’  – but most of those can, with the benefit of hindsight, be assigned some sort of cultural genesis now that they have retreated into history and are no longer caught up in giddy spontaneity. The UFOs have packed up and gone home. The curtains have been drawn. But what I can’t comprehend is how Disney were content to publish their films, where a boy loves a girl oh but there’s a bad guy and some trauma you’ve got to work through and sometimes you’ve got to learn what’s inside you really counts and everything turns up rosy when you defeat the cynical power grabbers like Hades and Scar and Gaston and Quallo, alongside the game adaptations of those films, which teach you that life is an unrelenting procession of pain and failure.

Alright, alright, I know that the games were produced in the model of arcade games, and were therefore completely unforgiving in their difficulty level and readiness to tell you GAME OVER. Moreover, the difficulty level was only reflected in the number of lives you were given, as opposed to actually making the game easier. The only difference was the number of occasions you were granted to subject yourself to more toil and pain, which is more of a curse than a blessing. The design of these games seemed deliberately calculated in order to make you fail, or at least make you suffer pain at every opportunity. Aladdin and Simba – protagonists of the two best adaptations – seemed incapable of even jumping without running into something that would chip away at their microscopic health meter. Even jumping on the lowest grunt enemy required some sort of sacrificial offering to appease the Disney gods. In the case of Aladdin, this was further complicated by trying to avoid fire and swords. In fact, Aladdin was great for the particular situation which seems much less common in platforming games now – missing the absolute precision needed for making a particular jump, and ending in a place – spikes or a bed of flaming coals usually – where the sole contribution you could make as a player was to accelerate your character’s death; trying all sorts of tactics, jumping up and down, running around, before staying in one spot and sobbing. In some games (the Sonic the Hedgehog series was a persistent offender) I’d let that slide, but in a *Disney* game?! At an impressionable age young players are introduced to one of life’s important lessons: sometimes you’re powerlessly trapped in a situation without any hope of escape. You’re going to die anyway, so why not speed up proceedings? That’s it, life’s terrible, and you may as well just kill yourself. But buy a Mickey Mouse novelty straw before you do so.

As a point of reference, I can say without any hesitation that the first level of Aladdin is harder than 95% of missions in Grand Theft Auto 4.

In the first level of Aladdin, you will get pots, swords and fire thrown at you - sometimes all at once.

In the first level of Aladdin, you will get pots, swords and fire thrown at you – sometimes all at once.

I’m sorry, did you say ‘tutorial level’? There’s no stabilisers on this bicycle. Or you can go back even further to the intro movie – in The Lion King, this takes the form of Timon, lit up against a black background, hands held up in despair like something out of Goya’s worst nightmares, portentously intoning: “It starts”.

Timon knew better. He tried to warn us.

Timon knew better. He tried to warn us.

This is despite the fact that the game was produced and marketed for children, whereas GTA 4 sold so many copies that each person on earth actually has three versions of the game, with one of them buried underground and fed with water and nutrients so it can be harvested come spring. Heck, even when the games would attempt to give you some kind of reward or bonus, events would take another sick twist. Between levels of The Lion King is the minigame ‘Bug Toss’.

Bug Toss. Don't think I ever cleared single digits on this.

Bug Toss. Don’t think I ever cleared single digits on this.

Seems generous enough – you get a respite from Simba’s interactive Bildungsroman to segue into the comic relief of Timon and Pumbaa, but what you get instead is a sadistic exercise. The game is randomised, so there is no pattern you can unlock to try and improve your skills at catching the bugs; if the second bug is going too quickly and you’re on the other side of the screen, you’ve had it. Which brings us to another lesson that these games can inspire to a young generation: the platform levels are difficult, but you know that with enough dedication you can be the best and overcome anything! Luckily at Disney we know better, so we give you these mini-games to show you that life is completely random and meaningless, and you end up being shat upon from a great height. Let’s take a look at one level in particular – the next one in The Lion King – to understand in greater detail just how our childhood idealism was crushed.

WARNING: the following YouTube video will cause post-traumatic recollections to anyone who owned The Lion King on the Mega Drive.

They say that leaving school at 14 to begin manual labour was ‘character forming’, and that kids these days live a pampered existence. They couldn’t be further from the truth. I repeatedly subjected myself to this torture as an extra-curricular exercise. The original scene from the film which inspired this level isn’t entirely innocent either. I don’t know about everyone else, but I was intimidated by the really polychromatic scenes in cartoons, overwhelming pscychedelia that they were. But the game took intimidation to a whole new level. The level doesn’t even start innocuously – it gives you the instruction ‘roar at monkeys’, without specifying that it is the pink monkeys you need to roar it. This simple oversight cost me about a week in poorly invested time. The jump sequence over the giraffes is complicated by the strange mechanisms of jumping in the game, where even thinking about the possibility of breathing on one of the arrow buttons means Simba will lurch uncontrollably in mid-air. The first monkey sequence is simple enough, once you realise the colour coding at work.  After that is a bizarre section with an ostrich. I have to say before I stick the knife in, that you should credit the developers for their originality in inserting so many different mechanisms into a film tie-in, but simultaneously curse them for coming up with the most varied instruments of torture. Prompted by a floating arrow, you soon realise you have to either jump or duck to avoid the incoming obstacle, although one of them (which I assume is a baby rhino) looks a lot like a pig. Its impassive obstinacy, causing Simba to die if he gets within a certain distance of it, is perhaps the best advertisement for vegetarianism Disney ever made. The sight of that lurid pink pig/rhino/elephant/whatever, striking down the precocious lion as if with laser vision, makes you look at old Ham in a new light. The mechanics are easy enough to pick up, though the exact rhythm needed for the ‘double jump’ over pig and branch combo requires syncopation barely possessed by the most skilled jazz musicians. Still, your reward for that is your first checkpoint of the level!

Your reward is a series of absurdly difficult jumps along the pendulums of rhino tails, a feat made more difficult by the aforementioned propensity for Simba to move around in mid-air like a toddler that has had their mashed potatoes spiked with Red Bull. The game does a good job at trying to mollify ‘death’ as the Pokemon series does most of the time, by suggesting it’s a faint, and that Simba just needs a good rest. The finality of ending up in the drink is hard to dismiss, though. If you manage to overcome the tails (and make quite a hard jump over the giraffe), you get a second round on the ostrich, but this time without the benevolence of the golden arrow, which has clearly fucked off in disappointment at your previous efforts. This makes the process so much harder than it seems. You start seeing imaginary branches and pigs everywhere, mixing your jumps and your ducks, and coming to view the double jump as a personal nemesis. Oh, and then they throw in a pig/rhino that comes much sooner than you anticipated, rushing towards you with all the anger felt by its precursors that were processed into bacon and sausages. Then, oh then, comes the real monkey test.

The painful doubling of monkey roaring and ostrich dodging in this level is truly cruel, allowing you to think you’ve mastered a dynamic, only to see it return in much more unforgiving form. It’s a handy fable of life that Disney are communicating to us – sure, you can work hard to get good at what you do, but sooner or later it’s going to come back in a form you can’t defeat, so you’d better walk off into the sea with stones in your pockets. It goes without saying that the second monkey tableaux is hard as nails, but I’d forgotten how difficult landing the jumps could be on those birds’ nests – Simba’s famous tetchiness meant that all too often you’d land the jump but because your fingers had the composure of a crack addict, you’d add an unnecessary poke to the side and you’d get to start all over again. The fact that you have to then go back over water to begin the process again – when for the most part you’re unsure if you’ve even done the right thing – is absolutely heinous. There seems to be many permutations of monkeys possible – and quite a few illusory dead-ends, one of them has to be roared at twice for god’s sake – that, once again, drowning seems like the natural termination, to watch the number of lives decrease and jack it all in.

The Mega Drive from which these cartridges held their reign of terror was the only true family I console I ever used. It belonged to my older sister, via a school friend of hers, and my other sister and I would join her for gaming sessions. But not for multiplayer; we’d gather round to repeatedly throw ourselves at a brick wall. My older sister’s friend was the only person who was good enough to make any progress on the games, and when she did crack through a level, we rejoiced like fanatics. There was one Saturday morning where she managed to go through about three levels consecutively that we’d never even seen before – an event so dramatic, I was sent down like the envoy of a successful raiding party to my parents. They failed to appreciate the significance of what we achieved, probably distracted some quaintly 90s activities: Mum throwing away an empty carton of Golden Grahams, Dad setting up some outdoor furniture.

Disney must have learnt something over time, though: I can’t close this without giving a shout out to what may be the most perfect mini-game ever made. The catchily titled The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride Gamebreak contained 4 beautifully designed nuggets of fun, but one of them had all that and a heap of originality to boot; ‘Paddle Bash’.

Paddle Bash: A hidden gem that may stay buried forever, as it really doesn't like running on 64-bit systems.

Paddle Bash: A hidden gem that may stay buried forever, as it really doesn’t like running on 64-bit systems.

A combination of Pong and Breakout, the power-ups and power-downs were impeccably balanced, the two dynamics at play always kept the game interesting, and the ‘easy’ difficulty setting (well, ‘kitten’) actually meant something. I’ve never been able to find a copy that can work on Windows 7 and beyond, so if anyone has the foggiest in how to direct me, please get in touch. If we can work out a method, then I would recommend it to young and old. It’s a real shame that video games can suffer so much from technological obsolescence, as one of the leading lights in its field can become unusable within 10 years. Even out-of-print books can at least be bought for a premium.

Are the early Disney games great though? Goodness me, yes. Or at least the first half of all them is, that’s as far as I’ve ever got. Someone will have to tell me if they stay good in the second.