• Jeff Rona

Post Mortem: The Lion King (1994), Released on NES & Sega Genesis

This sure goes back a long ways.

I worked with Hans Zimmer on the score of the actual film of the Lion King, helping out on some of the African drumming parts, editing vocal performances, performing instruments, and assembling the final soundtrack album. Not long after the film came out and was such a huge hit, Hans asked me if I’d ever done any work on any video games. I had, in fact, not. He asked me to be the liaison with Disney Interactive, the company producing a video game version of the Lion King for NES, and the team from the film soundtrack.

I went out to the Disney Studios a few days later to meet with one of the game’s producers, none other than Michael Giacchino! He had not yet become a composer and was a game producer for them. So he and I worked together along with the very well-known Westwood Studios in Las Vegas to bring the score to the game as authentically as possible, which was no easy task!

My role was to oversee and help the in-house composers at Westwood Studios who had already begun developing the game score. Back then the amount of memory available for music was so tiny that only a few of the samples (scaled down to 8 bit) could fit into the NES memory at once. Everything was done with MIDI back then, there wasn’t streaming audio yet. So I organized some of the original African instrument samples from the film and gave them to the programmers working on the game. So far so good.

The way it worked back then was that you could, for example, load in a marimba sample and play it across a keyboard. You then would send a MIDI command to the cartridge to load in another sample, say a low drum, which would replace the marimba sample and you could have more sounds that way. The change was pretty much instantaneous and you could swap out several samples over and over again. Additionally, the console had a digital synthesizer capable of cheesy 8 bit chiptune sounds. This is one of those early game consoles that originated and popularized that sound.

The challenge for me was to provide as much authentic color through samples as the machine and game could handle, help make the arrangements sound as close to the film score as they could, and try to avoid as much obvious synthesis as possible. Not easy, and the end result is definitely a compromise between those.

Giacchino and I went to Las Vegas a few more times to see that each track of the game soundtrack sounded as good as possible. Each track was capable of looping, and little or no interactivity with gameplay other than changing to another track if you would win or lose a challenge.

Working with incredible limitations, as was needed back then, is a great creative challenge. Having to deal with such a limited system, but try to get some emotion out of it, is a great exercise for any artist. it certainly makes me appreciate the incredible power and flexibility of today’s interactive video game systems. The ability to work with live recordings, and a fully interactive soundtrack, makes a massive difference to the gameplay. Today’s video games reflect incredible advances in interactive audio technology. We try to take advantage of every technical innovation available to us at every level in order to get the most emotion out of every soundtrack. There is a wide range of capability in different systems, from high-end consoles down to simple mobile devices. Every platform has its advantages and limitations, and knowing how to work with those is key to creating a great user experience.