Disney’s Pocahontas (Sample, Game Boy)
Chief Roy Crazy Horse, the leader of the Powhatan Renape Nation, wrote a scathing review of the 1995 Walt Disney film Pocahontas, decrying its distortion of history “beyond recognition.” According to him, the Powhatan girl nicknamed Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, would have been 10 or 11 at the time when she allegedly saved John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607. Smith, who was voiced in the animated adaptation by Mel Gibson, of all people, was in reality a brash, self-indulgent 27-year-old mercenary soldier who never recorded such an event taking place after his winter stay with the accommodating tribe until over a decade later, when she was already in her grave and unable to respond.
The real-life Pocahontas was imprisoned by the English at the age of 17 during the First Anglo-Powhatan War, and was only released when she agreed to marry John Rolfe, an English settler who was Virginia’s first tobacco planter. In a letter to Virginia’s deputy governor, Rolfe referred to his soon-to-be-bride as an “unbeleeving [sic] creature” (link). She converted to Christianity before the wedding and was renamed Rebecca, and they soon had a son together called Thomas. She then sailed to England and was used to propagandize the Virginia colony to wealthy investors, being paraded as an example of the “good Indian.” She died at the age of 22 while on a trip back to Virginia. Although her marriage to Rolfe was reported to have momentarily created peace between the English and the Powhatans, he ultimately died after his plantation was destroyed in a Native American attack (link, link, link). The American Indian population was decimated in the ensuing years, from in the millions before the colonists arrived, to 250,000 by 1900 due in large part to forced relocations and newly introduced European diseases like Smallpox (link).
If that background doesn’t lend itself to a cheerful adventurous romp on the Game Boy, I don’t know what does.
(Image source: RetroMags.com)
“Romp” may be too lively a word for Pocahontas, as the titular Disney Princess handles more like the walking dead in her portable game, no disrespect to the historical person intended. Even the unabashedly forgiving Nintendo Power called the title’s play control “awkward and often unintuitive,” and its puzzles, “illogical.” The player can switch between Pocahontas and a tree-climbing raccoon named Meeko, by pressing the Select button, and use the unique abilities of each character to forge a way through the Virginian wilderness and the settlers’ encampments. Additional special skills can be learned from animal friends along the way, including my favorite, the Bear Scare, which thrusts a roaring bear spirit out of Pocahontas to frighten rifle-wielding Englishmen.
This development cartridge was purchased from a Pittsburgh eBay reseller who had acquired it from former Tips & Tricks magazine Senior Editor Jason Wilson in November 2013. Normally a movie-licensed game based upon a whitewashed fairy tale wouldn’t show up on my radar screen, but the seller advertised the prototype as being a “very early” build and started the bidding at only a penny, leaving me with little choice than to look the other way from this country’s shameful past and paint with all the monochromatic colors of the wind. After all, I’m not here to make anyone feel guilty for their ancestors’ offenses. I’m here to make you feel guilty for reading about a Pocahontas video game. By the end, I hope I will have succeeded.
Pocahontas for the Game Boy was developed by a studio in Manchester called Tiertex Ltd. Even centuries after her death, the English continue their desecration.
Established in 1987, the development house went on to make more than 250 titles over the years. According to its own archive, that library includes arcade conversions (Klax and Ms. Pac-Man for the SEGA Genesis), sports games (Madden NFL 98 and NBA Live 98 for the Super Nintendo), and obviously movie tie-ins (Toy Story, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules for the Game Boy) (link). I had to preface “according to its own archive” because the company’s name was regularly hidden from the credits of the games that it produced. Later on, Tiertex began exploring the mobile business with a series of casino titles. As of 2014, the company sells LED matrix displays and PIC microcontroller boards from its corporate website (link).
Black Pearl Software was one of three THQ-owned publishing labels at the time of Pocahontas‘s release, along with THQ Software and Malibu Games. The company was initially founded in Chicago by Lawrence Siegel, the former president of Atari’s Entertainment Division, who was responsible for worldwide software development on the Lynx, and was acquired by THQ in June of 1993. THQ eventually dissolved Black Pearl and Malibu Games in September 1997 (link).
The sticker on the prototype’s EPROM chip reads “Pocahotas0315a.Gby/Joe Moses” [sic]. I recognized the name as the CEO of a small New York-based developer called Bonsai Entertainment. He and his team were working on the Game Boy port of Disney’s Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow at the time.
“Oh, the Pocahontas cart. They might have sent [it] to us as an example to improve Maui Mallard, but the games were like night and day,” Moses told me. “This girl was so small, that of course she could have a lot of silly animation sequences. Maui was fatter and became a ninja, too, so right there our animations per character had to be cut in half. In the end, Maui was published, and Disney said it was the best Game Boy conversion of any 16-bit console game. We busted our ass on that game.”
Despite the compliment, he didn’t have any kind sentiments regarding the House of Mouse.
“Disney is a shit company to work for, at least was, but I don’t think much has changed. Recall that Disney tried and failed two times to get into games, with Disney Entertainment and Disney Interactive. Both were shut down. Disney was really cheap. Maui Mallard paid shit for months of work and an extra 45 days of unpaid work to make it even better. They promised us extra money for the rework, but gave us only 30 days. Since we took longer, there was no extra pay. Supposedly, our first final submission was rejected by Nintendo, but they refused to tell us why. That is why we did the extra work to supposedly get it approved by Nintendo. These guys were real devious fuckers, and I won’t be the first to tell you that. At least, that is how it was, maybe things have changed with new blood in the company.”
Moses went on to say that Bonsai was given two more contracts afterwards when Disney Interactive was relaunched, Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland.
“We started Alice and were working on the final design of Sleeping Beauty when Disney cancelled on us.”
It was clear that I had opened an old wound, as he continued to tear into the Disney software division, claiming other defaming things that are inappropriate to publish for a variety of reasons. I had heard enough, and thanked him for his time.
When the cartridge finally arrived, I dumped the data only to find out that this supposedly “very early” build was exactly the same as the final release, aside from three insignificant bytes in the header. I alerted the less-than-truthful seller of this, and promptly shipped Pocahontas back to Steel City. I could not think of a more suitable end to the whole depressing mess.