*QotM is some kind of warming stew that’s sitting in a slow cooker waiting for you on a cold day brewed up by Later Levels.
It’s time for July’s round of ‘Question of the Month’ which has pitched some of the greatest blogging minds against each other in cerebral combat to answer the question “Which video game has the best idle animation?”.
I know that idle animations are present in modern gaming, but I can’t help but associate them with the 16-bit era. Something about wringing every last bit of enjoyment from a game at that time meant that quirks like idle animations & easter eggs held more wonder in games where deviation from the ‘game’s formula’ had a more significant resource cost. I guess it was also the era when idle animations first appeared. Whatever the reason, the question immediately made me think of my days with the Sega MegaDrive, so it is after careful consideration that I have come up with my nomination for the best video game idle animation, and in accordance with the normal rules, here it is in under 100 words:
Young Simba catching butterflies, ‘The Lion King’ (Sega Mega Drive)
“The Lion King was one of the best Disney game tie-ins of the time; its colorful settings, smooth animation, faithfulness to source material, and distinctive levels also made it a memorable title capturing all the best aspects of the system. Simba catching butterflies is charming and endearing (just look at it!), particularly that excited spin as it flies away. This idle animation is made extra special because it only happens after Simba had watched the butterflies pass him by a few times first and then decided to pounce for one”
… Of course having come up with this answer I began to reminisce about the title, so thought I’d take this opportunity to ramble on a little about it:
‘The Lion King’ was released by 90’s powerhouse studio ‘Westwood’ in 1994 which was probably not too far off the peak of the Mega Drive’s popularity. If you remember it, you should watch the devs play video with Louis Castle which gives some real insight into the game’s development as well as some excellent fun facts.
I think the combination of being at the right age for the Lion King when it hit cinemas, and just being super into console gaming at the time, left me with some fond memories of this title. There are so many aspects to this game that jump out; from the opening credits the player is hit with one of the best Disney soundtracks to date (forget Frozen, the pridelands theme is my jam) worthily recreated with midi instruments, and sound effects that include some lines of dialogue from the film, epic roars, and … erm.. monkeys? On the gameplay side of things it’s fluid platforming; my only real niggle is that the background art can make it tricky to work out where the edge of a ledge is at times, but other than that Simba runs, rolls, grabs, swings… pretty much the full platforming repertoire from the era. I’ve already commented on how well animated the graphics are, which isn’t surprising as it was a Disney team involved for that aspect, but at the time I was amazed at how smoothly Simba moved through a wide range of motions fairly seamlessly. I love the way his claws are out after he pounces on an enemy, just like a kitten. I also like how Simba jumps out of Rafiki’s drawing when resuming from a checkpoint, it’s a small thing, but they could have just had him restart next to the drawing and I feel like this extra effort makes it a special game.
The levels are all themed from different parts of the story…. even the ones that aren’t in the film… as the aforementioned dev’s-play informed me; some of the levels are themed around sections of the film that were story-boarded but ultimately cut which I guess answers questions I had as a child as to why a gorilla was trying to slap Simba. Most people who were even vaguely aware of the game would remember the sudden neon onslaught that was the ‘Can’t Wait to be King’ level with ostrich riding and roaring at monkeys to solve puzzles. Another of those early stages that stood out was the game-shifting stampede level which rotated the camera perspective to watching a terrified Simba barrel headlong toward the screen being guided by the player to avoid charging wilder beast; the game slips into a letterbox style for this, and I remember thinking as a child that it was the most cinematic I’d ever seen a game attempt to be (although for full disclosure, my thoughts may not have included the word ‘cinematic’, it’s not the kind of word I would have used as a ten-year-old). The stages are all tied together neatly with short cut scenes and bonus rounds featuring the antics of Timon & Pumbaa; sure it wasn’t earth shattering, or revolutionary, but a lack of filler levels and attention to detail just formed a well-rounded experience.
Just as the game is on the cusp of being repetitive it changes gear when, in the later levels, the player is put in control of an adult Simba complete with claw swipe attack, the ability to maul, and … of course… that all important grab and throw move. The throw (from what I remember) was mentioned in the manual, and is essential for the final confrontation with Scar in which the player must throw him from the top of Pride Rock. Once again the inclusion of this final moment is a nice touch from the developers who obviously wanted to produce something that players would recognise as being in line with the plot of the film. It would have been easy for Simba to just work Scar’s health bar down to nothing and then cut in with the final cut-scene, but you must lure him to the edge and then perform this tricky little move to actually succeed and finish the game.
In the interests of an even handed discussion it is worth saying that there are some cheap moments; the elephant graveyard in particular features an excessive number of tricky jumps (and those annoying vulture enemies) which can set the player back in the level. It wasn’t perfect, but having revisited it, I think it stands (in my biased opinion) as a good platforming example from the system and one that I had some good fun with at the time.
Check out the post on later levels (Going live on Friday 7th July) to see the other nominations for best idle animation and to vote on your favorite!