Monday, June 1, 2009

Jungle Book-SNES-Virgin Interactive

As I mentioned in the Ranger X review, my childhood was full of Saturday morning trips to Adventure Video for new games to play. I also said that there were no set guidelines that I adhered to at the time. And while true, there were certain things that caught my eye more than others. One of those was a simple name: Disney. If a game had any connection to that company, chances were high that I was going to rent it. I mean why wouldn't I? I grew up with Chip n' Dale's Rescue Rangers and Ducktales being constants in my NES. Disney games were so entrenched as quality titles that even when I came across one I didn't like, such as Beauty and the Beast, I assumed that the game had been made for my sister rather than me. So, it doesn't surprise me that I have fond memories of Virgin Interactive's 1993, Jungle Book. But were my fond memories just bits of Disney drivel or was the Jungle Book actually a swinging good time?

The game's plot is the same as the movie it was based on. There are no deviations and little to no references within actual gameplay. When the game first boots up, the player is greeted with a quick overview of the plot. Mowgli was found by Bagheera, and raised by wolves, living an idyllic life with his jungle family until the return of the tiger, Shere Khan. Shere Khan cannot tolerate a man cub in his jungle and vows to hunt Mowgli. Now, Mowgli must escape the jungle to a human village or be killed by the tiger.

Graphically, the game is a bit of a mixed bag. Sprites are blurry and not pleasing to look at. As a result, even Mowgli can be a bit hard to focus on at times. The backgrounds in the game are busy, and the canopy is nicely detailed, which does a good job of creating the impression that one is actually in the deep jungle. However, this creates clutter. So much so that it can occasionally be difficult to tell what is foreground and what is background. Hanging vines, which are usually just shadowy outlines are especially bad about this. On the other hand, despite being rather unappealing to look at, sprites are actually animated rather beautifully, bringing to them the same feeling of life that exists in the levels.

Like the graphics, gameplay is also very hit or miss. Jungle Book is a platformer much like Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure. And while the game rarely varies from the "Right leads to the goal" mentality, getting there can have you exploring all over the level.

Mowgli's main method of attack is the banana. By tapping Y, Mowgli will toss said fruit rapidly, which flies straight across the screen or straight up. Mowgli can also attack with other fruit that he collects throughout the level, such as apples or coconuts. Or he can, and usually should, jump on the enemy.

The extra fruits are very limited, and players will rarely find more than six of a specific type in a level. And while they aren't more powerful than the banana, they do attack in different ways. The apple is thrown in an arc, allowing Mowgli to hit enemies that are in front of him and slightly above. The coconut on the other hand is rolled like a bowling ball straight out in front of Mowgli, unless, he is standing on a ledge, at which point the coconut will drop straight down. These attacks, when combined with Mowgli's standard banana, grant the player a wide option of how to approach enemies and bosses.

Or rather, it should give you a wide option of how to approach enemies and bosses. The problem is the game rarely gives you time to react. Enemies attack as soon as they come on screen, and usually to exactly the spot the player just entered. Not only that, enemies also take several hits with the banana before they actually fall. A better solution is to simply jump on them before they have time to hit you, but doing that requires prior knowledge of the stage.

In fact, that's the biggest flaw in the game. It feels, in almost all instances, that the game was designed to be played over and over again. That mastery and knowledge of a level were stressed in the creation of the game above fun and skill. This only becomes more obvious as you proceed through the game. An enemy in the waterfall level spits water back at you, which all but invisible against the background. Monkeys toss fruit the second they see you. And Mowgli falls so quickly, that the player is left with no time to react if their is a danger under his feet.

Even the vines that Mowgli has to use to cross the level feel like they were tailored for this. The hanging ones look like bits of the scenery, and it is really easy to lose sight of the swinging vines in the background, which can, and usually does, lead to a lot of tiresome and unnecessary deaths. This is only exacerbated by the finicky way Mowgli grabs the vines. Mowgli doesn't just latch on when he jumps toward them. No, he will only grab it if up is pressed and if he is at the appropriate spot. Which isn't too annoying, but when combined with the fact that the player must not be pressing up to jump off a vine, it becomes slightly more so.

The problems with actually playing Jungle Book are disheartening because there is good in the game. The level design is very well laid out, and once the player actually know where to go, a lot of fun can be had just moving through the levels.

Another thing the game has a lot of is charm. From the voice clip of the monkeys to the general feel of the game, one can tell the creators put a lot of thought and love into it. So much so that I can almost forgive them the difficulties of actually playing the game.

The boss battles are the reason I can't. Though Few and far between, they are needlessly difficult, especially the first, The battle with Kaa. It is extremely frustrating. Mostly because by that point, Players will have probably not earned any continues, so defeat here means redoing the first couple levels. And that is highly likely. Mainly because Kaa's primary attack is a homing wave that zips across the screen quickly, and even if the player dodges it, it will simply perform a U-turn turn and be back again. The only way to avoid the it is to force it to fly off the side of the level. Forcing it to go below the level doesn't work. It will still come back and smack Mowgli.

Another problem is that Kaa attacks from various points on the screen. That wouldn't normally be a problem except that it exposes two more of the games weaknesses. The first being that Kaa can hit you before he's even appeared on screen. If Mowgli is standing in the wrong spot, he will take damage before the player even knows to react. The big issue though, is that there is very little temporary invulnerability after getting hit. If Mowgli ends up on the wrong side of Kaa, he may lose two or three hearts before he can get away.

The music is the game is superb. Tommy Tallarico does an awesome job of turning the songs from the movie into catchy midi renditions and of creating new songs that mesh well with both the feel and setting of the game. Sound effects are also nice. The bananas have a sort of fun squishy sound when thrown, and the simple jungle ambiance mixes well with the music.

The Jungle Book is a difficult game. It's a game that feels like a labor of love, but I'd be lying if I said I had a great time with it. It's frustrating, it's confusing, and the boss battles are needlessly difficult. Unless you're a fan of the Jungle Book or an avid platformer fan in need of something, anything, new, I cannot recommend it. It's a decent game, but time has not been kind to it.