“Stand by for a new kind of hero. Faster than a charging hippopotamus. Smarter than a Phys Ed student. Smoother than Gary Glitter’s bonce. He is the king of the Jungle. The lord of all the Beasts. And his mum named him… Brian.”
Suspect comparisons exhausted, Mr B. Lion ‘Rajar Roared’ his way into Amigan’s collective consciousness in February 1994. You may well remember him from the A1200 Computer Combat bundle if that happened to be your route into the world of all things Commodore in spring that year.
Judging by the ironically prosaic name choice, I’d hazard a guess the Reflections team who developed him were fans of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. For the record, this one isn’t the Messiah either. He’s a very naughty b… lion.
Reflections, of course, were the Newcastle based outfit who also brought us the Shadow of the Beast series, Awesome and Ballistix – similarly published by Psygnosis – before switching their focus to other, more current platforms. They would later be acquired by Ubisoft and remain a going concern today.
While none of the Shadow of the Beast team – barring the producer and Reflections founder, Martin Edmondson – worked on Brian the Lion, it shares an analogous flamboyance in the presentation department. Albeit flipping the dark, foreboding locale on its head to deliver an experience more closely aligned with a Disney cartoon.
A novelty for this period of the Amiga’s life, Brian is a mascot without attitude, despite presumably living it up at the pinnacle of the food chain. As it happens he’s a tad too fluffy around the edges to pose much of a threat to the local flora and forna, and so would likely have appealed to the younger crowd.
Brian’s mission in life, aside from sussing out why everyone wants to wash his feet and convince him to cure their ailments, is to rescue his pal Chris the Crystal. Right off the bat you’ll notice that Reflections were big believers in the power of alliteration; it’s everywhere you look. Brian should really have been a Bavarian Baboon or a Bactrian Barnacle… or called Leo.
Anyway, ‘Geeza’ – a hideously deformed dragon with personal hygiene issues and “a voice that could curdle tarmac at 400 yards” – has kidnapped Chris to exploit his “most amazing restorative, regenerative and rejuvenative powers”.
Aren’t they all technically the same thing? Never-mind. His ultimate goal is to beatify himself to boost his social standing in the jungle, convince the ‘babes’ he’s a stud worthy of their affection and usurp Brian’s throne. Which would have played out very nicely, except now we’re here to throw a spanner in the works and re-establish the status quo.
Geeza should really have known things would return to its natural order sooner or later, it’s the Circle of Life. I believe there’s a cartoon all about it. Coincidentally it was released a couple of months after Reflection’s game.
To achieve this we have to traipse through the usual assemblage of themed levels – including a graveyard, slippy-slidey ice world, erupting volcano, and a steamy jungle – swiping at adversaries with our paws, or bouncing on their heads on route to the exit. In terms of weapons, that’s your lot. At least where the floppy disk releases are concerned, with one fire button available, it’s up for jump and fire to strike out with your claws.
Interspersed between levels are ‘cloud shops’ which according to an unnamed Reflections spokesperson feature a “unique sine curve scroll which gives the shop interior a gentle wave motion”. Within these exotic emporiums you have the option to converse with one of two shopkeepers, and exchange any crystals you’ve gathered along the way for extra ‘abilities’. ‘Dodgy Dave’ will mercilessly rip you off, while the other is an amiable rabbit who goes by the name, ‘Honest Buck’.
Up for grabs are Splendid Speed, a Really Raj Roar, an Excellent Extra Life, Heavenly Hit Points, and Jinormous Jumping. See, there we go with the alliteration again. Reflections were even prepared to drop the silly convention of spelling stuff correctly to eek out every last possible specimen.
Special moves are activated via the space bar, while holding down fire will prime your deadly-ish Rajar Roar to uplift its potency. This will take out the weaker enemies in one fell swoop, and soften up the hardier ones, making them ripe for a swipe. A savage sweeping swipe no less.
Despite appearances, gathering up boxing gloves has nothing to do with super-charging your claws. That would dampen down the impact wouldn’t it, surely? Truth be known, these actually serve to increase your available hit points so you can absorb more damage before perishing.
Between certain stages – those marked with a blue dot on the map – are bonus levels accessed by hurling yourself into the path of Tony the Twister, an anthropomorphic cyclone/tornado. Really though, it’s hardly worth mentioning the humanising features since anything and everything in Brian the Lion has been brought to life with eyes and a smile, or frown.
Complete the blue-dotted levels in the allotted time and you can enter Liquid Land, Crystal Kingdom, or Sky High World. Beat the clock to finish these bonus levels and you earn the maximum range of superpowers. Good luck with that! I’m not convinced it’s even possible. Those limits are tighter than Scrooge McDuck’s wallet pocket at a penny-pinching convention.
At the usual junctures you’ll be confronted by a variety of colossal bosses. While impressive for their stature alone, they don’t actually do much aside from looming over Brian looking menacing. They’re an apt metaphor for the game in general really; it’s technically impressive, yet some way short of being the most entertaining platformer for the Amiga.
In the manual you’ll find a selection of key facts concerning the technical specifications, so naturally, these were featured verbatim in almost every review and preview of the game published in the run-up to its release. Instant knowledge, zero research. They may crop up here too if you read on. 😉
There’s even a section dedicated to spotlighting the demo-esque sprite scaling/warping and rotation routines applied to the 3D title graphic. You won’t see that in too many Amiga game manuals. Then again, you won’t find many title graphics in Amiga games that were considered cutting-edge for the period.
Once within the game itself, the playfield is comprised of multi-layered, parallax scrolling backdrops running at 50fps. Such areas – 38 levels in fact – are navigated between via an overhead view map selection screen that transitions in and out of focus using the equivalent of the SNES’s Mode 7 de-res effect.
Embracing and exploiting the technical constraints of the era, “Although the game runs principally in 16 colour mode, it makes vast use of the Amiga’s copper colour splitting abilities and at some points in the game there are 182 colours on screen.”
As for Brian himself, his fluid, elegant motion can be attributed to the 218 individual frames of animation with which he is composed. He is also a solid contender for the most expressive protagonist the Amiga has to offer. Every action has an accompanying facial cue. He yawns when idle, shivers in ice world, pants for breath in the steamy jungle and lava world, and appears thoroughly petrified when tobogganing down snowy mountains on his backside.
His 80+ adversaries too were apportioned a similar degree of care and attention, making Brian the Lion a wonder to behold, aesthetically speaking if nothing else. It comes as no great surprise then that it took the team a year and a half to produce.
If you get the urge to play Gremlin’s Pegasus mid-session, don’t switch off just yet. If you wait for the next shoot ’em section to commence you can have the best of both worlds.
Clamouring aboard what looks like Orville the Duck (though answers to the name Mark the Lark) we swoop over a lustrous expanse of ocean, swerving rocky outcrops whilst mammoth sea snakes and mega crabs tacitly broach the surface of the waves from beneath to assess our location, before lunging in for the kill.
A formidable vulture with hatching babies in tow awaits our arrival at the level’s terminus.
Meanwhile, back in platform land, it’s the finer intricacies and charm of the opponents that make Brian stand out amidst the burgeoning throng of fierce competition.
There are beautifully drawn zombie dogs who rise from the grave entirely inanimate until fully above ground, at which point somewhere in the dark recesses of their decaying brains a light bulb flickers on and they spring into life. If there was ever the demand to create a canine interpretation of Thriller, these guys would be first in line at the auditions.
Rock monsters sporting Donald Trump combovers too deserve special mention. They crumble slightly more with each hit before desiccating into a pile of rubble. In a less refined platformer they’d take a pounding, simply recoil from each blow, then unspectacularly wink out in a puff of nothingness.
Elsewhere spiky crusher columns slam to the ground, retract back into the ceiling and repeat the process ad infinitum. So far, so cliche, except these ones are forged with independent, interlocking cylinders that compress and depress, animating separately as they concertina through their trajectory.
Graeme the Gorilla is no great shakes on his lonesome. Supported by a posse of goons mounted on space hoppers, heads draped in knotted hankies, he’s a memorable flair of British wit and creativity.
Psygnosis was (and still is) an esteemed brand, one with which Amiga owners were eager to align themselves.
So when you spot a sculpted homage to them in the guise of their owl mascot within the Ruins level it’s an immediately recognisable treat. Too prominent to be considered an Easter egg perhaps, though just as welcome.
Environment-sensitive weather effects are a further touch of class, establishing Brian’s world as a far richer plane of existence than offered by your average decorated scrolling backdrop. Honest Buck goes some way towards upholding this sense of immersion by alluding to these changes in weather. If you were in any doubt BTL was made by a British team, this observation should quell it.
Neat touches abound in fact. You’ll find a Jason Voorhees inspired character complete with hockey mask stalking the appropriately themed level. Alongside him there’s a mash-up of Bart Simpson and Frankenstein’s monster, naturally with the requisite elongated forehead that applies in each case.
Earlier on you’ll do a double-take when you see Disney’s Goofy masquerading as a goat.
Foreshadowing the decisive clash with your arch-nemesis you’ll also encounter a stone sculpture of Geeza. No matter how much you poke him, he doesn’t do anything other than remind you that he’s the new sheriff in town and revels in narcissism.
At the end of the first level, you’re catapulted to the next by Bertie the Bird. Some bridges flex under your weight, also serving as trampolines.
Underwater sections are vexing enough in platformers, so here this is ameliorated by the absence of a limited oxygen supply.
Brian the Lion despite being fairly linear is a very long game so you’ll be relieved to know there’s a password system in place to allow you to skip levels once reached for the first time. Alleviating predictability, simultaneously enhancing replayability, multiple exits exist.
Contrary to convention, the CD32 version is a genuine upgrade rather than the floppy version bunged on a disc, cushioned by 648mb of sawdust and used chewing gum. Precisely what’s new is broken down in the folded paper thingy with the staples in the middle, all except for the bits that aren’t…
“There are elements of the game-play that are totally unique to the CD32 version and are not referred to in the Amiga manual. These include three all-new mission levels, where Brian has to hunt for treasure, free caged animals and free a jammed bucket from the bottom of a well!
Also, there are completely new special challenge levels. Occasionally a top hat can be seen floating above one of the levels on the map screen. If Brian enters that level he will be offered one of two special challenges.
1) ‘Cup ‘N Ball’ – A ball is placed under one of three cups and you have to guess where it is after they have all been shuffled around.
2) ‘Cardorama’ – A card game where you have to match up the bonus cards.”
Music hasn’t been neglected either. A 40 title CD soundtrack accompanies the CD32 iteration. Along with the new graphics, puzzles, adversaries, objects, and the implementation of a three-button control system, Brian the (CD) Lion was a persuasive reason to consider investing in Commodore’s new baby. Considering that the floppy disk version doesn’t recognise external disk drives and suffers from excessive swapping, just having the game on a single CD was a deal-breaker in itself.
Gameplay-wise Brian the Lion isn’t as sophisticated as the presentation would suggest. For such a late release it’s surprising that Reflections failed to learn from the many platforming tropes that had hampered the genre’s enjoyability in the past.
There are a plethora of obligatory leaps of faith to endure due to the limited scope of the visible play-field. What you can and can’t jump on is inconsistent. As is the means of dispatching enemies; some are vulnerable to the traditional head bounce, yet others – with no additional noggin protection to speak of – cannot be tackled in the same way. For no discernible reason.
Come on! We kidults demand logic and consistency in our dragon-slaying, lion-fuelled, jumpy-whacky video game toys. We’ll not stand for this wishy-washy lack of adherence to the rigid laws of physics any longer! Now, where did I leave my placard-waving kit?
I’m not finished yet. Slippery, inertia-sabotaging ice worlds are a significant fixture. Controls are a bit floaty and imprecise at the best of times so this only exacerbated the problem.
Baddies can seemingly appear from nowhere and regenerate as soon as they are off-screen. And finally – truly finally this time – there are mid-game copy protection checks, thereby punishing players who bought the game legitimately.
Whether or not these unfortunate foot-shooting factors, taken together, equate to an unplayable game really hinges on which platforming pace camp you’d rather set up base in. If you’re comfortable with Brian’s trudging clip and clunky, old fashioned design, they’re easy enough to look beyond and workaround. Sonic chasers, on the contrary, are less forgiving since Brian’s flaws become all the more apparent when you try to put your foot down.
Nevertheless, overshadowing all other verdicts is that of Zazu, the red-billed hornbill, and ‘Roger Ebert of Pride Rock’. Taking time out to review the game back in 1994 in-between attending promo tour junkets he is known to have squawked…
“If this is where the monarchy is headed, Count me out! Out of service, out of Africa, I wouldn’t hang about… aagh! This child is getting wildly out of wing.”
Unphased, Brian attempted to deflect the negative press with diversion tactics…
“Everybody look left, Everybody look right, Everywhere you look I’m, Standing in the spotlight!”
…before corralling a defence from the local wildlife…
“Let every creature go for broke and sing, Let’s hear it in the herd and on the wing, It’s gonna be King Brian’s finest fling, Oh I just can’t wait to be king! Oh I just can’t wait to be king! Oh I just can’t waaaaaait … to be king!”
Nonchalantly Brian whistled along to “Hakuna Matata!” as he swaggered off back into the steamy jungle, one hand wedged indolently in his Bermuda shorts, the other clasping a nutrient-packed carton of Um Bongo (TM). After re-establishing his head honcho-ship at the forefront of the herd, Brian diversified into stock car racing. True story.