I cannot deny that there are controversial aspects to this movie due to its depiction of historical events, but that is a topic I do not feel I can properly tackle at all. For me, Disney’s Pocahontas contains a story that is easy to decipher the entire plot to from its beginning, with no real strengths to the characters’ personalities or its storytelling. Although, there are some positives to this project. It is visually beautiful, its thematic is simple yet important, the animal comedy included is cute, and it has a wonderful soundtrack. Sadly, watching it again as an adult with a fondness for Disney animated films, it was a difficult movie to get through just because of how dull it is.
As for the Mega Drive game, I simply happened to stumble upon it when I was at a flea market two years ago. It was a bizarre find, to the point that I almost thought it was a bootleg. To give you an idea of how rare it is to find old cartridges before the N64 days in Norway, it is more likely to find a copy of Vampire Killer for the MSX at a yard sale in America. Which might sound even more strange considering this one was made by the Norwegian company Funcom, not Sega or Virgin. I could not pass upon this adventure, and had to see if it was worth taking before the studio’s longest journey.
A serviceable retelling of the movie
I would not blame you if you have not seen the Disney adaptation of this story, but just to clarify in this summary: it is not exactly historically accurate. This tale is about a Native American princess of the Powhatan tribe named Pocahontas, a free spirited girl who is conflicted about a proposal she got and wishes to instead see what life has to offer her. Since this is the year 1607, she is somewhat in luck as a boat of English settlers are docking at the shores of her tribe’s land.
It is really hard to say that this is an intriguing plot overall, as the movie is more of a visual and auditory treat than something with good storytelling. What is surprising though, is how the Mega Drive version does a solid job at translating this into its format. To start off with, important scenes are presented through smart uses of in-game presentation, such Pocahontas’s discussion with her father having only their shadows being shown, utilising their movements to convey clear emotions. There are also usages of still images with some animations implemented, but these are sparsely used and only for upcoming events, making this a neat artistic choice.
While it can feel rushed with plot elements being quickly told after each stage, this does make the story small and confined compared to its source material. The Mega Drive version also added in more focus to Pocahontas’s connection to the spirit animals, and I love how the parts revolving around the compass was thrown out due to how worthless it is. Really, as a retelling, this is extraordinary and includes all the significant characters and events while refining certain aspects of them, turning itself into a better adaptation than the movie it is based on! The problem comes rather from what it retells, which is unfortunately hard to escape from.
Story Score: 6.5/10
Let me teach you the way of the spirit animals
Even if I was expecting a different take on this project compared to the other Disney titles for the Mega Drive, Funcom’s Pocahontas was one that still took me off guard. This is a puzzle platformer where you will be controlling Pocahontas and Meeko alternatively by pressing the C button. Through linear progression, you must use their abilities together for getting through obstacles and reach the end of each sizeable stage.
Pocahontas cannot do much at first besides jump, climb up cliffs, hang from ledges, push objects, duck, and gently interact with the environment. However, in the first three stages, you must find different animals and help them out with their problems in order to progress. By doing so, you will get their spirits and acquire new abilities. For example, helping a deer that has gotten stuck will make you able to run and thus jump further, and racing a wolf to show them your strength will let you learn how to sneak.
One skill that only makes you swim faster is honestly optional, but it is so easy to get that it might as well be mandatory. Similarly goes for the move you acquire in the the fourth stage that is for a cutscene and nothing else. The rest of the abilities are for making traversing easier and figuring out where to go next, which makes them exciting to unlock. Think of each stage as semi-linear, with every new power giving you the possibility to explore more parts of them.
Although, it is a bit of a shame how inconsistently you will use these moves. I only had to sneak three times throughout the entire game, while the ability to climb trees was constantly required, as it can be used for both swinging off branches and climbing up them. This makes the adventure feel uneven, but this title does keep focus on its puzzles to solve. Some you will also have to take into consideration on how your raccoon, Meeko, can be of support. He can climb specific trees, go through small caves, and push certain objects, but cannot swim.
Despite focusing on exploration and puzzles to solve, this is a severely easy game due to the stages’ smaller scope and the solutions being simple enough to decipher on the spot. Because of this, you will have a hard time ever becoming lost or be unsure on how to get further. This is also thanks to the texts popping up. Not only will you be told how the controls work, but you will even be directly hinted at what you should be doing next whenever you are taking your time with an objective. Unless you are terrible with puzzle titles, I would recommend simply neglecting these hints in the option menu.
In fact, there is a lot here that suggests Pocahontas was made for a younger audience or newcomers to video games. Not just because of its simple difficulty, but also due to certain aspects that are quite revolutionary for its time. One huge highlight for me, is that there is no life counter in this platformer. If you die from falling into a bottomless pit or by being caught by an English man, you are simply sent to the continue screen. Choosing to continue will have you respawn at the last checkpoint, which is represented by a pile of leaves. These are actually the only ways to die, and your health meter is barely affected by high falls onto another platform. Truth be told, I had no idea about this or that the feathers to collect healed me until after I had beaten the game.
I really enjoy this approach as Pocahontas is not a warrior, but a peaceful princess who seeks to help out those in need without resorting to violence. Neglecting a life counter is nice for a title that is a lighter experience, but also a clever way to avoid punishing the player harshly for minor mistakes. Even the puzzles, while simple, are satisfying to solve as you will have to explore and find the best cause of action in order to do so, without any of them becoming repetitive or tedious.
What is an issue, is actually the jumping for both Pocahontas and Meeko. It is incredibly stiff and feels reminiscent of those from cinematic platformers with tile-based and delayed movements. However, Pocahontas only has the same type of jumping and nothing else, making the controls hard to adapt to due to this uncomfortable contrast in mechanics. Luckily, it was never frustrating as this is a slow-paced, forgiving, and short game. There are only four stages included, and while all are sizeable, this title is beatable in one sitting within 45 minutes. You can gain a password if you collect all the berries in a stage as Meeko, but this is sadly a useless reward.
Another strange addition, is that the last stage tries to give you a linear run for your life where you must use all of the acquired abilities to overcome the hurdles in your way. It is a straightforward and fast-paced platforming segment, but fits as an immersive approach where everything comes together to strengthen the protagonist and showcase what she has learned throughout her journey. I do wish the last level utilised her abilities better for exploration as they were clearly designed for that, but I am happy that they all got a moment to shine for a solid finale.
Actually, this ties in with what is impressive about this entire package: how well it represents Pocahontas. She uses spiritual guidance to travel around her land and peaceful resolutions to the problems she comes across, making this for a competent puzzle platformer. It is very easy and the uncomfortable jumping is a sore point, but has enough variety to keep anyone entertained, both in its puzzles and level design. Even if it is a breeze to get through.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
Colours of Virgin
Similar to Virgin’s Aladdin or The Lion King, Pocahontas features animation service from the Disney company and it shows. Every movement is smooth and gorgeous, with Pocahontas looking extraordinary with the attention to details given to her. In fact, I am mesmerised with all the subtle elements going on around in this world, such as the trees rustling in the wind, critters and leaves flying by, and animals wandering around in the background. It really makes this land feel alive and vast, with enough variety included to make it inviting and intriguing. The settlers’ ground, the tepees of Powhatan, the side of the mountain nearby a dark forest and more, add to make this game feel more diverse than the movie itself.
It is all wonderfully complemented by the magnificent use of colours, making the whole adventure as strong as it possible can be visually on this 16-bit system. Not to mention, there are a lot of smart implementations added in to make this title into an immersive experience. You will not find extra lives, piles of leaves are checkpoints in disguise, letters for storytelling are written on fabrics or through carvings, and Meeko will be carried by the hummingbird Flit to safety whenever it is needed. It is admirable how this game masks so much of its assets to make itself as atmospheric as possible.
Furthermore, the story is simply beautifully presented with clever uses of cutscenes and in-game graphics to tell its tale. Even the animals change depending on the time of day, with owls and bats coming out at night instead of butterflies and birds. The visuals do a fantastic job at representing the movie it is based of, and the music is no slacker either. Pocahontas’s soundtrack is captivating with tons of lovely melodies that have great buildups, nice structures, and clear moods. Almost all of the songs got carried over, though I do legitimately miss “Virginia Company” and “If I Never Knew You”, as they could have provided to the tone in certain areas and are solid tracks on their own.
Every song sounds great on the Mega Drive, which is an impressive feat. All have background tones and clear highlighted ones, with them all almost sounding like real instruments! A touch I especially adore here, is how the songs of the settlers and the natives are deciphered through brilliant instrumentation. For example, a trumpet is being used for “Mine, Mine, Mine,” while you instead hear a pan flute in “Steady As The Beating Drum”. The same amount of quality can be said for the general sound effects, such as Meeko cooing, wolves howling, and bears growling in the background. This really adds to the atmosphere of this naturalistic land, with even some good voice samples being included.
The only real problems I had with the entire presentation of this project, are two minor things. One is how the music is not always utilised to create the same mood as the events occurring wishes to, making certain parts feel more hopeful when they are supposed to be dramatic. While the second issue is hard to notice due to the strong colours and variety in set pieces, assets are often reused. This can make the areas feel more connected, but also lessen the diversity this title was going for. However, these are only nitpicks that hinders this game from being perfect in its presentation. It is still truly magical.
Presentation Score: 9/10
This land holds some treasures after all!
Interestingly, both Meeko and Pocahontas can gather items that are optional, but adds to make the exploration fun. While the rewards for finding Meeko’s berries are not useful, it is entertaining to figure out how to reach some of these since you have less abilities than Pocahontas. The other collectables are the pieces of Pocahontas’s necklace. There are five in total, but these are rather easy to locate, making me get the reward for finding them all on my first try. At least, the reward is a sweet and heartwarming one. The collectables are uneven in reward and difficulty to search out for, but always engaging due to the exciting exploration alone.
Extra Score: 7/10
This is definitely a beginners puzzle platformer, but a solid one at that! Pocahontas showcases that while you can make a more atmospheric title, you can still do so with a great amount of interactivity. It is a nice retelling of the movie, and has something to offer for the general audience, even if you are not a fan of the source material. I can definitely say that comparably, Funcom’s take is well put together and entertaining. It really is more than meets the eye, even with its missteps. As a side note, there is the Game Boy version, but it is a cramped adaption of this game that will give you a terrible migraine. Although, it has some neat Super Game Boy effects, so there is that for collectors.