How often do you re-play old games? When you do re-play them, have they stood the test of time? My first re-played game of 2023 is Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, which launched more than twenty years ago on multiple platforms (and which coincided with the film of the same name). My memory of it was that it was a colorful adventure with delightful voice acting and an even better soundtrack. Most importantly of all, it's still extremely good fun today.
Here's my run down of how it plays in 2023.
If you're not familiar with The Emperor's New Groove, here's the basic summary. Kuzco is a conceited and self-centered teenage emperor, who has utterly no remorse: he plans to kick the inhabitants of a peacefull village out in order to build Kuzcotopia, a vacation reort, for his birthday. After some unfortunate events (which include him firing his evil advisor Yzma), he ends up being turned into a llama, and accidentally falls into Pacha's cart. Pacha is the leader of the village he intends to demolish to build his resort; the very same peasant who he had received earlier in the palace, only to throw out of the building.
The adventure truly begins when Pacha arrives at his village, unknowingly bringing emperor Kuzco along for the ride. In the meantime, Yzma has assumed control of the empire. It's up to Kuzco, Pacha, and friends to stop her.
The player controls Kuzco, who can run, jump, lunge, strike enemies, spit grapes, and carry some objects on his back. Yes, he's a llama and he can talk, but he's also one of the funniest characters I've ever seen in a video game. He's something of a fool who never takes things too seriously, and loves to make fun of others. Come to think of it, he's the kind of personality I'd probably hate in real life. But as a video game protagonist, I can't help but like him (it helps that the game's roughly four hours of playtime is filled to the brim with his quips and jokes, which are often guaranteed to evoke a chuckle...or even a belly laugh).
Perhaps it's no surprise - given Kuzco's outlandish personality - that the supporting cast aren't nearly as memorable; not even Pacha, Yzma, or her incompetent servant Kronk. At least, not when it comes to voice acting. Having said that, these characters move, look, behave, and feel authentic enough for me. Yzma is, as you'd expect, continuously trying to kill Kuzco (while Pacha helps him make it to the palace alive), and Kronk, well...I won't blame you if you are unclear whose side he's on. Despite this, I was pleasantly surprised by secondary characters like Chaca, Tipo, and Bucky, who actually round out the cast quite well despite playing a relatively small role throughout the adventure.
The actual mechanics here are pretty straightforward: there's lots of jumping, running, fighting enemies, collecting coins, playing mini-games, and solving simple puzzles. There's even a little exploration and stealth thrown in for good measure.
The player generally controls Kuzco freely, but in some cases, they'll control Kuzco and Pacha who are tied to a log as they drift down a river or as they dive into Yzma's secret laboratory aboard a roller coaster cart. Levels like these are welcome additions that mix up the experience to some degree.
It may surprise you to learn that Kuzco doesn't spend all of his time as a llama. In fact, he'll sometimes transform into other animals like a frog, rabbit, or turtle. It's pretty cool, honestly. As a turtle, Kuzco races against Kronk; as a rabbit, he can make huge vertical jumps; and as a frog, he can take big leaps forward. These new animal forms are both fun and challenging, and they also tend to change the pace of gameplay and introduce small variations to level design.
Admittedly, this action-platformer formula isn't particularly new (and wasn't new even when the game came out). Still, the implementation here is solid and polished. There's just enough variation to keep you engaged throughout the entire adventure, too.
Resemblance to the film
Disney's The Emperor's New Groove aligns pretty closely with the film in general. You'll encounter numerous locales featured in the movie, like Pacha's village, Kuzco's palace, Yzma's secret lab, the catacombs, and the city itself. Everything is rendered with great attention to detail that attempts (rather successfully) to align with the aesthetic design of the film. Everything - not just the game world itself - is made of beautiful chunky polygons and a highly saturated color palette that radiates pure joy without leaning on fancy visual effects or state of the art graphics (that is to say, there were certainly more technically-advanced games of this era).
Aside from the visuals, sound design and voice acting are generally pretty strong here. But I'd really like to highlight the quality and variety of the soundtrack. Interestingly, this game uses its own unique soundtrack, with tracks composed and performed exclusively for the game (only the main menu theme is borrowed from the film - specifically, the song "Perfect World").
I think the biggest virtue of this game is the way it takes the story, characters, environments, and tone from the original film and translates them into a video game context. Games based on movies have something of an odious reputation (or at least, they used to), and so, it's great to see such a strong exception to the games-based-on-film curse.
Overall, I had a great four hours with Disney's The Emperor's New Groove. It made me feel like a child again thanks to its humor, the charisma of its characters, as well as the gameplay and popping visual design. When I finally reached the point where I turned Kuzco back into human form, and the credits sequence rolled past, I knew I had to write about my experience.
If you've seen the film, you'll certainly appreciate this game all the more. But don't worry if you haven't; Disney's The Emperor's New Groove is a truly joyful adventure that's worth your time, especially if you're looking for a retro action-platformer that won't absorb too much of your spare time.
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