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The Lion King is still devastatingly hard, even as an adult

I thought I may have just been an incompetent kid, but I was wrong

The title screen from The Lion King Digital Eclipse/Disney, Nighthawk Interactive
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

I’ve played the first three levels of The Lion King on Super Nintendo hundreds of times. And that’s not an exaggeration.

My mom bought me the game shortly after it was released in 1994. It was months after The Lion King’s debut in theaters. I had just turned six, and I was still alternating between delight and devastation — The animals sing! But Simba’s dad dies — each time I thought about the movie.

The 16-bit platformer largely followed the progression of the movie, beginning with Simba as a cub, and following his path into adulthood through exile. Simba becomes a more capable lion — acquiring new abilities, like a booming roar over his baby lion growl— as the game continues.

Unfortunately for me, The Lion King was a devastatingly hard video game. I’d never, not once, reached a level where I could play as adult Simba. I always gave up in frustration.

For a long time, I thought the problem might have been that I was simply an incompetent child. I was thrilled when publisher Nighthawk Interactive announced in August it was re-releasing The Lion King in a bundle with Aladdin. I was finally ready to beat a video game that’s over two decades old.

“The king has returned”

Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and the Lion King is out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. It features some upgrades for modern platforms, including “upscaled graphics” and save states, as well as an “interactive game viewer,” that lets you watch a playthrough of the game and jump in whenever you’d like to start playing yourself.

It’s a good thing, too. The Lion King is still ridiculously difficult.

It’s actually cruel how hard this game is. The Lion King’s detailed 16-bit pixel art, which, by the way, looks fantastic on a big screen TV, were drawn by Disney animators. It’s designed to be a warm hug of nostalgia — the music, Simba’s incessant “cool!” — but the game itself feels more like a slap in the face.

I purchased the game on the Nintendo Switch last night, and was immediately re-familiarized with the infamous “You died” screen. I was curious: do other people think this game is hard? Or have I grown from an incompetent child into an incompetent adult?

As it turns out, The Lion King’s difficulty was added by design. Disney instructed developer Westwood Studio to increase its difficulty so that people couldn’t beat the game within Blockbuster’s rental period.

Westwood co-founder Louis Castle even apologized to fans during a “Devs Play” video with Double Fine Productions: “The reason we had to do it was because the rental market was that if people got a certain distance in the game, metrics from Disney said they wouldn’t buy the game.”

And yet, I still love this game. I’ve fiddled around with the game viewer mode, but haven’t opted to skip any sections yet. Instead, I’ve started memorizing the levels again, and I’m already hearing The Lion King’s devastating game over song repeating in my head as I write this. I can’t stop thinking about how hard it is to swing from hippo tail to hippo tail in the “Can’t wait to be king” section. The precision necessary is unreal; my husband was worried I might actually break our Switch in frustration.

I’ve never been haunted by a game like The Lion King, and I’m determined to beat it in earnest. But there’s something comforting about thinking you had failed as a child, only to find out that no, the game really is that hard, and everyone else knew it, too.

Check back with me in a few weeks to hear if I’ve changed my mind about not skipping the Elephant Graveyard.