The first level of a game is usually where the game will set its tone and introduce the player to fundamental mechanics that will be important throughout. This pivotal first impression isn’t always difficult or memorable, but some like Super Mario Bros.’s 1-1 and Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone Act 1 are done so well that they are among the most famous video game levels of all time. Whether you’re going for utility, a gentle ease-in, or an unforgettable hook, this crucial opener defines how many people will treat your game and help them determine if they wish to keep playing. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for Super Nintendo seems to completely go against the common sense approach to game design, instead putting forward what might be its worst levels first to the point that if the game had continued on from the choices made in these early stages, it could have easily become known as one of the worst games the SNES had to offer.
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To understand the flaws in these early Castle stages though, we’ll need a bit of groundwork on how the game is structured. Beginning already somewhat into the animated film’s story where Belle is now held captive in the Beast’s castle, the game does establish the Beast’s curse fairly well but doesn’t really explain much about Belle or her importance to the story despite following the rest of the plot up to the confrontation with the blusterous huntsman Gaston. Playing as the Beast, you work your way through the plot by navigating whatever platforming levels they could squeeze out of the film’s settings, but while the Beast is an intimidating and powerful creature in the film, his platforming counterpart seems far more restricted and bumbling. His claw swipe is his only attack, a close range blow that the game designs almost every enemy to have an advantage against. The bats, rats, spiders, wolves, and stained glass knights you face usually have a leg up on you. Some are found on a higher platform that requires specific jump timing to hit them properly, others rely on projectile attacks that will hit you before you have a chance to approach, a few use aerial movement that makes them hard to peg, and others feature incredible speed so you have to react quickly with a move whose window to repel them is already pretty small.
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The Beast also packs a roar that needs to be charged up briefly to serve any purpose. However, the purposes for it are either contrived or flawed in concept. Sometimes to make platforms behave as you wish, you’ll need to realize with no true hint that their activation trigger is to roar while on them or near them. This activates moving platforms, gets disappearing platforms to solidify, and is pretty much just a substitute for having any real puzzles as you instead need to realize you’ve reached a dead end unless you roar. Jumping is perhaps the worst off of his skillset though. On the surface it seems an acceptable jump, momentum based but easy enough to control and with an acceptable distance and height. However, The Beast has a ridiculous relationship with ledges and walls. Whether or not you walk to the ledge or happen to land on it when leaping towards the sometimes small platforms you need to navigate, if the game detects you are near to a ledge, even potentially facing away from it, it plays an overblown teeter animation. If you don’t act quickly, The Beast will throw himself off the ledge and most likely into spikes or down a long drop to force some repetition out of the more vertical levels of the game. Even if you are quick to react to this nuisance, this instant teeter can sabotage one of the uses for the roar. At some points you need to roar at the exact right time so flying bats will freeze in place, allowing their use as platforms to cross gaps that are sometimes only able to be overcome if the bats are positioned perfectly. The bats will drop shortly after supporting your weight, meaning that if the teeter animation plays and you break out of it, by the time you can move freely again, the bat you were using as a platform has had time to fall, meaning you’ll have to go back and try again after whatever setback awaits you for this nuisance’s intrusion. Not helping with jumping is the odd detection on wall-climbing. Walls seem to have differing opinions on if they can be clung to, some easy enough to scale even if you just walk up to them, others not triggering it but instead having you hang from the ledge, and others refusing to allow you to climb them since you’re meant to roar at a platform or put a box next to it to leap up onto the ledge above instead.
The first four levels of the game are all in the Castle, which features every flaw with the game in spades. Small platforms with dangerous leaps prone to the teetering issues, walls that show no indication of whether you can climb them or need to solve some unnecessary puzzle first, and enemies who will tax the weak protagonist to his limits. The game gives you some health so you can suffer through the levels with quite a few errors, some not your fault, but there is also a timer. Depicted as the rose that, when it loses its last petal, will lead to the Beast’s death, the timer here is oddly short but refilled by picking up petals in the stage. With jumps that require precision to avoid detection issues and enemies who can blindside you, the rose’s slow death is definitely felt in the Castle stages. All of these flaws almost seem to be relied upon for the difficulty of these early stages besides the one that is just a quick vertical race to the top, but thankfully, once you head into the levels after it, the new design directions at least salvage this game from being one of the worst on the Super Nintendo. The snowy forest levels do feature some blind drops with potential instant death as you navigate the branches, but the multiple paths mean you can often scout ahead or be somewhat sure there will be something to catch you. The library stages are much more simple and focused on things like spotting which books will try to ambush you or getting the pattern of disappearing platforms right with hardly any punishment for getting the timing wrong. The exterior castle level near the end has minor issues such as wind pushing against you as you try to navigate around platforms that sometimes blend in with the scenery, but just having to deal with the awful innate controls and mechanics instead of doing that on top of facing equally bad stage design makes these less flawed stages easier to swallow. Their short length also means the rose timer is less of a factor, and without the need to be so careful in the more forgiving level designs, you can at least face them on their merits more often than the Castle stages.
One level that isn’t really flawed at all though is a midgame snowball fight with Belle. Completely ditching the mechanics featured elsewhere, you just need to catch the snowballs she throws at you, earning extra lives if you’re successful. It’s simple and the balls are slow enough to reposition yourself to catch after their arc completes, but they do have a funny quirk to them, that being if you fail to catch three of them… you die. It is actually possible to get a Game Over just by sucking at the snowball fight, a humorous situation dampened somewhat by the fact you’d have to push through the awful Castle levels again. There are four boss levels as well in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and while these don’t really rub up against the flaws in control and design, they do have their own problems. The gargoyle boss that caps off the Castle stages spends most of its time flying out of range and diving down to attack for a brief window where you can hit it. Besides wasting the rose timer, if you aren’t positioned properly on the few available standing spots or don’t attack perfectly, you’ll either miss your chance to hit it or hit it at a point where it’s brief intangibility from taking damage doesn’t line up well with your position, meaning you’ll get hit as well. This issue also crops up in the library gargoyle fight where it flies around horizontally instead spitting fire. You need to have the timing and positioning right again, but need to swipe at a time it isn’t spitting a fireball and where it will be intangible long enough for you to pass through it safely. The wolf boss in the woods mostly just has issues with teleporting around and sometimes appearing on top of you, but the final boss, Gaston, is actually decent comparatively. After dodging shots from his assistant Lefou, you face Gaston in a fight where you need to properly avoid his long range or close range strikes, the balance of working around them making it a fair enough fight that is more about figuring out the timing and positioning than hoping randomness is on your side or you get extremely tight vulnerability windows right. Again, like the snowball fight, it’s merely decent, but at least these moments of tolerable play keep Disney’s Beauty and the Beast from being an absolute slog of a platformer.
THE VERDICT: Guilty of an absolutely awful first impression with its gauntlet of terrible castle levels that play poorly with annoying mechanics like the overly touchy teetering animation, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for Super Nintendo seems like it’s going to be a complete disaster until you finally escape those rough opening levels. Annoying features like the roar as a lazy puzzle solution, bosses who often feel cheap or slow, and some quirks to the more tolerable levels still ensure that the game would be bad even without its poor start. This short game doesn’t do enough to salvage an abysmal beginning, even its tamer moments having the implicit threat of a Game Over throwing you back to the start to suffer through the awful early stages all over again.
And so, I give Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for Super Nintendo…
A TERRIBLE rating. When I think of the incredibly rough start the game gets off to, I sometimes forget why I didn’t rate this game lower. On their own they would be a fumbling mess of flawed mechanics that seem designed specifically to disagree with the enemy placements, level layouts, and core fundamentals of navigation. The bats as platforms idea is done in such an awful manner that it alone would be enough to harm these early stages, but the sensitive teetering animation complicates what should be straightforward platforming, enemies are positioned just to mess it up even further, and the roar is such a dull form of interactivity that it never finds a good use before it’s almost made entirely unnecessary in the future levels. At times, it feels like two different design ethos were in play, one that constructed the Castle stages and one that focused on the later levels. They of course carry over the fundamental design issues and have their own sloppy moments when it comes to bosses and blind jumps, but nothing so egregious that it deserves the same level of scorn as the Castle levels. Even with pick-ups like a red book for invincibility or the green book that lays down a checkpoint, these early stages don’t let up in their difficulty and awkwardness, meaning that unless the back half was packed with something stellar, there was little hope for this game to be redeemed, those later stages only able to keep it from being absolute dreck.
If I had to guess why the early levels went in so hard with their difficulty, it might just be a sign of the times. The video game rental market was emerging and Disney in particular is noted to have mandated some games like The Lion King to include deliberate parts meant to force a buy instead of a quick rent. However, the Castle is not merely hard, it is a showcase of almost everything wrong with the core systems in play, and while later levels can accommodate them better or outright ignore them, many still feel their sting and some design decisions like the boss fights remain on rocky ground even once the shift in quality occurs. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast starts off a beastly game, but unlike its protagonist, it never has that moment where it turns into something beautiful.
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