The Lion King II and local culture in bootlegs

Hey, a post about something Not Dragons for once!

As anyone who's seen my Neocities site will know, I have a fascination with bootlegs, particularly videogames from the 90s and early 00s. These games were often graphics hacks of existing (licensed) titles, some of them barely changed at all from the originals except for the addition of popular characters, such as in the infamous "7 Grand Dad".

Other times, they were more elaborate productions, using existing characters and licenses to sell their product, but with an original game under the hood. Sticking with Mario games here, Kart Fighter is a great example of this.

It's this second category that I find especially interesting, because it showcases the creativity of developers who, often, didn't have the clout or financial resources to get their work published officially, yet still wanted to make games.

During the 90s, the giants of gaming - particularly Nintendo - exerted heavy control over what could be published on their platforms. They demanded hefty fees and insisted that all games should meet their particular specifications for quality, including censorship of religious symbols for games published in the North American market. Also, until 2014, laws in China forbade videogame consoles from being sold in the country at all. There *was* no legal Chinese market for games. If they wanted their creations to see the light of day, developers in China had to flout the rules and make their own "black market" consoles and games.

Thus, a large number of bootlegs come from China. Though Japan inherits much of its culture from China, there are differences in style and content that make each country's artistic output unique.

An interesting example of this is "The Lion King II", by Gamtec, for Mega Drive/Genesis.

You can see a longplay at the second link.

Immediately, you can tell that while this game doesn't have the quality control of the official Lion King games for the SNES and Genesis (those being widely acclaimed upon their release as some of the best platformers for the systems), it's a lot more polished than your average bootleg.

We start with Simba and Mufasa running towards the camera in a pseudo-3D scene resembling the famous "Stampede", using all-new sprites for Mufasa and for the castle walls. Simba and Mufasa run to the edge of Pride Rock, where Simba lets out a weak roar, Mufasa cuffs him around the head(!), and he rolls away, to return with a stronger roar. That one kind of shocked me; hitting a kid is not okay, there's no two ways about it, and the Mufasa shown in The Lion King would never do this to his son. It's not the only questionable thing in this game, however. A later area displays a "wan" or "manji", a Buddhist religious symbol from which the Nazi swastika was stolen, on blimps. Still, for its time and for the console, the graphics are well done, and the music is a good effort.

(That aforementioned "censorship of religious symbols" often applied to the wan/manji, which used to be a standard marking for temples on Japanese maps, but was recently changed due to association with Nazism. More on this symbol:)

Oh, about those castle walls? This version of the Lion King is set entirely in China. Simba and Mufasa will traverse the Great Wall of China, abandoned tombs filled with terracotta warriors, and a famous Chinese battlefield. The music is based on traditional Chinese instrumentation, and while I don't normally consider games and movies to be an authentic source of Chinese music, this game was actually made by Chinese people, and the team clearly thought it was okay.

While I haven't played the game, the longplay shows it playing pretty smoothly. It's got a lot of the mechanics that were in the original, like Simba/Mufasa grabbing and climbing the edges of the cliffs, and swinging on rocky protrusions. The art is mostly ripped from the Disney game, but it all looks coherent together and is used well.

I'm sure it's not a great game by any means, certainly not up there with the official ones, or with the Marios and Sonics of the era. The sound effects are grating, particularly the sound for when you defeat an enemy. But it is a decent, playable-looking game, not just a cheap money grab; and what interests me particularly about it is that the devs are essentially saying, "Hey, what if this cartoon that we all like was set in *our* country? How cool would that be?"

That's a raw bit of creativity, right there. In the YouTube comments, English speakers laugh at the idea of Simba in China, but for the devs this was probably about celebrating their home country and traditions. It's a uniquely local view of the story, and it reminds me a lot of the unofficial Star Wars comics, or lianhuanhua.

These localised interpretations of American stories aren't exact copies of the source material. Rather, they are interesting because of what they reveal: the ways in which all of us, including English speakers, interact with media from other cultures and shape it to fit our own narratives. They can't tell us everything, but they're little glimpses into other ways of framing things; a reminder that our default perspectives are not the only ones.