The mane event

“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.

10 thoughts on “The mane event

  • April 28, 2019 at 4:13 am
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    Awesome game, it got some cons as You mentioned above, but I do not find them that much annoying to not enjoy game. I have never figured out what is a difference between two shops You can enter. What makes that sometimes You met nice bunny and other times grumpy one? Also I do not think that this is linear game, there are levels that sometimes got two ways to finish them and there are branching patches on map so You can finish game and do not see all of its levels. Few years ago I took some time and try to make maps with every level unlocked. CD32 version is awesome too, as You say there are three extra levels with unique tasks to do, with little plot and unique opponents on them. Treasure hunting is my favorite one, it is giant maze like level with puzzles to solve.
    I wonder how this game was designed, where there any cut content or stuff that was heavy altered?

  • April 29, 2019 at 7:01 am
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    Hmm, I’m not sure how the shop is selected either. It could be based on an algorithm of some sort or totally random. That would have to be a question for the developers. I didn’t check to see how contactable they are so that might make for an interesting follow-up. The same goes for any assets that ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a technically and visually ambitious game so maybe there were things that Reflections intended to implement that simply weren’t possible due to the limitations of the system.

    I’ve just checked on HOL to see if someone has taken care of mapping the levels and they are available now. I’m not sure if they were when I wrote this (it must have been about 9 months ago) and I don’t make a habit of checking them out unless I have a specific query to solve. Great point though re: the linearity of the levels. I can clearly see the multiple paths for each now so it looks like I was doing the game a disservice. It has hidden depths I completely missed.

    • May 1, 2019 at 6:25 am
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      It would be well worth filling in the missing gaps then if you’re able to map the rest of the levels. How would you go about it? Rip the graphics or capture them while playing? I believe WinUAE has a built-in tool for this (?), but I’ve never looked into it personally so don’t know how viable it would be.

  • May 1, 2019 at 8:58 am
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    Nah, I am not good at that kind of work and I have not that much free time. I have spotted early title screen in Amiga Joker magazine review
    http://amr.abime.net/review_19424
    I have also little chat with Philip Baxter and learn some cool trivia. Many people who work at Reflections are still active. Psygnosis was actually very close to cancel that game just like they do with Hardcore.

    • May 2, 2019 at 5:17 am
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      Interesting. I wonder why the title screen was changed. Great that you managed to make contact with Philip anyway. I hope you’re able to get a Q&A online and link to it from here.

      I can imagine why Psygnosis would have considered cancelling BTL this late into the Amiga’s life cycle, but it would have been a real shame if we’d never have got to play it. It would have been perfect fare for the SNES or Mega Drive if an Amiga release hadn’t happened, though maybe Psygnosis thought they’d missed the boat there too and traditional platformers had already had their day.

      The last I heard Hardcore is now actually happening at last, or perhaps it’s already available now. A home page was created for it a while back.

  • May 2, 2019 at 5:49 pm
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    I believe it was easier to show all that special bending effects on simple ‘Brian’
    title screen rather than on old one with extra ‘the Lion’ graphics with different colors.
    I didn’t ask Philip for permission to publish messenger chat so I won’t do that. Usually I first play game, then check all previews / demos if I can find anything interesting that would be worth asking. I do not want to waste someone time on questions that was already answered in old magazines / interviews. Sadly BTL was previewed when game was almost complete.
    I am bit surprised that often people actually answers my questions and I manage to find them on social media. I wonder why no one else decide to dig into old games and get those extra trivia on them.

    • May 3, 2019 at 6:02 am
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      That would make sense. It’s a clever, unusual title screen as it is. Adding extra words wouldn’t have improved it. On the contrary, shrinking it to fit everything in would make it less impressive. I made a video with a view to showcasing game title screens/intros that exploit similar demo style effects. In the end I only found three or four so it was a bit of a pointless exercise, but it does go to show how special the BTL one is.

      Previews are tricky for both sides of the equation I think. Devs/publishers don’t want to show their games in a rough, early state in case it puts people off who then don’t even consider the final version. The critics can only judge based on superficial detail and wouldn’t want to alienate the devs by being overly harsh. In effect we often got previews of games right before the retail release when all there was left to do is the marketing and distribution. Also, if previews are to be playable that takes time and drags devs away from the core task of producing the final edition. That would explain why we don’t see spin-off games anymore like Sensible used to do in conjunction with the mags.

      I’ve often spoken to devs and then asked afterwards if they’d mind me including their comments in an article. If they’d rather certain parts stayed private we can pick and mix what goes in/is cut. I think usually they assume that you’re asking questions for a specific reason rather than just out of personal curiosity so aren’t surprised if I then say I’m writing an article or producing a video on the subject. Always better though if it’s stated from the outset if you have a plan. Sometimes it starts off as casual chat and becomes an article later once you realise there’s more to discuss than you first imagined.

      Of course, whatever you/he wants to do is fine. Every case is different and you’ve got to respect their privacy. 😊

      Yes, many of the creatives of yesteryear are still in the business and are happy to talk about the old days. I find that despite some of the uphill battles they faced in a tough market they often have fond memories to share. LinkedIn has done me plenty of favours here – people need to stay connected for work purposes so assuming they haven’t retired there’s a good chance they’ll be on there.

      I think most people are only interested in asking questions if there’s a scandal to uncover and sensationalise. Some of the big YouTubers for instance wouldn’t touch a general trivia story if they couldn’t get thousands/millions of hits out of it and cash in on the ad revenue. It helps if a game is a complete disaster and there’s someone to blame. BTL was a modest success story (albeit probably not financially) so it’s not so attractive. They cast the rest of the community in a bad light and make devs guarded/less likely to share their knowledge, which is annoying.

  • May 6, 2019 at 12:56 pm
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    I can not remember any other game that would have similar bending effects on title screen.
    Yes, You are right with previews. Sometimes some games were previewed and look totally different from final project. It is hard to balance what to show and when, previews are like advertising, people read them and start waiting for release. Do it too early and people will forgot about it, do it too late and there is no anticipation.
    I find it very interesting when games got demo versions with content different from final verion. Not just single first, second level from game, but totally new stuff. Alien Breed Tower Assault got two demos, each one with different map, Traps and Treasures also got demo with levels in setting absent from final version.
    I dream to contact somehow somebody from Graftgold, they made so many great games and they also made interesting developer diaries about them. I would love to get their comments on early stuff I find from Uridium2, Virocop and Fire and Ice also they have at least one late canceled project that was not mentioned in magazines.
    I do not know what most people are interested about. In most cases I try to get answers because I am interested, I ask questions for myself. I belive I could write a book one day, full of little stories about amiga games development, about how games changed and how they were canceled 🙂 I like to get information from first hand, there is no better way that just ask someone who was working on making it 🙂 I wish there were something like Digital Foundry or Did You Known Gaming channels but decided to Amiga games. I always find Digital Foundry interesting and entertaining on how their do their in-depth materials, as for Did You Known I start to lose my interest as I find myself already known trivia they are trying to share. Also I like NoClip videos, sometimes they have very interesting subjects.

    • May 7, 2019 at 6:07 am
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      Unreal does something similarly demo-y. Then there’s Paradise Lost. I think I gave up after that, though there must be more that I’m not aware of. I’m always being surprised by these things.

      Exclusive demo content is definitely an interesting topic. It would have been a great marketing tool if it was advertised as such, though I can’t recall any examples where that happened. I don’t suppose the devs would know at that stage if the same assets would make it into the final cut. Possibly it was a bad idea to recycle content from demos because gamers would be paying for something new and expect it all to feel fresh. Adventure game demos could be tricky since those were always integral to the plot. Saying that, looking at any differences in this genre could be the most intriguing.

      I’ve tried contacting former Graftgold staff a few times myself and not had any luck either. They’re still around and care about their retro gaming history, just apparently quite selective about who they talk to. Steve Turner was the starring guest on an episode of The Retro Hour for instance.

      You should definitely make the book happen, that would be fascinating. It’s a new angle that’s never specifically been focused on in that much depth, only ever touched on as a side note I believe. Write it for your own amusement as a blog aimed at a handful of people, then if others get a kick out of it, it’s a bonus. If not, you’ve not invested heavily in it so won’t be too disappointed. Maybe you’d have a niche what with it being written in Polish where most of these publications are English? You’ll have a good idea of the level of interest from posting your preview/retail comparisons anyway so can judge from that.

      A lot of it comes down to who is presenting the information. If one of the established YouTubers made a video using the same material I’m sure it would be a hit. It’s a fickle world… people are easily swayed by personality.

      I’m not familiar with those channels/shows, sorry. I don’t watch much on YouTube made by registered companies (assuming that’s what they are). I’m more into the amateur stuff produced by individuals since I like the ‘alternative to TV’ ethos YouTube started with.

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