Venturing into the world of bootlegged unlicensed Genesis games can often be kind of tricky. You rarely truly know what to might expect with a purchase. Chances are that the bootleg itself is just a simple hack that altered the original game. These changes can often be only minimal at best, like hacked sports games featuring an updated or localized team roster (in pirate circles also known as “pulling an EA.” Just kidding, of course). While some might find some appeal in this, most of the time you stumble over a game featuring a popular character, it will probably be rather disappointing to find out that, for example, Finding Nemo for the Genesis is only the game James Pond with one(!) altered sprite and slightly altered text. However, sometimes when you reach for such a game, you might be in for a surprise. While not really a completely original game, you sometimes may find a strange hodgepodge created from ripped sprites, altered graphics, and new designs thrown all together to create a new game of sorts. Case in point: The unofficial Genesis sequels to Disney’s The Lion King. While not exactly the Holy Grail of unlicensed games, these two little Chinese efforts offer a little surprise to the unaware gamer.
Lion King II
First of all, you should realize that this game has NOTHING to do with the movie’s direct-to-video sequels! In fact, apart from directly ripping the main protagonists character sprites from The Lion King, this “sequel” has next-to nothing in common with the official game! That doesn’t mean that it is without any entertainment value, however.
Lion King II opens up with a nice little sequence showing a grown lion and its cub running toward the player along the Great Wall of China. This little intro alone looks pretty nice, but also gives a first hint of the qualities and oddities that this game contains. While the sprite of the cub is directly taken from the fourth level of the original, the accompanying sprite of the grown up lion is completely new – and it doesn’t look half bad! While certainly looking decent, especially for a pirate Genesis title, the whole scene however raises the first two questions. Number one: What is Simba doing in China? The level cards confirm that this is in fact supposed to be the Great Wall – what gives? And second: Who are these lions supposed to be? Are those Simba and his father, Mufasa? Or is it a grown-up Simba and a cub of his own? Pondering these questions while looking at the nicely-done title screen, however, will not in any kind prepare you for what the game entails.
Click to see all the stages!
The game stretches over five levels, all distinctly set in China. While this makes for a rather short game, each level comes with its own surprises not generally expected from an unlicensed platformer. The first level, for example, contains a short trip on a tiny raft over a river – basically just a moving platform, but a nice touch nonetheless. Level four is a maze that urges you do find the correct path through several doors, which you can only pass once you’ve eliminated all the enemies in the room. The fifth and final level is actually auto-scrolling, urging you to avoid obstacles and adding a little extra pressure to the gameplay. All this is actually nicely done, and the diversity definitely raises the game’s fun factor.
The gameplay itself is pretty different from the original. You start out as little Simba as you make your way through the levels. However, gone are the original’s Lion Roar or the ability to roll. Also, better not try jumping on enemies, as each direct contact will now hurt you. So how does little Simba defend himself? Well, even though the programmers directly ripped the character sprite from the original game, they actually went and tinkered a bit with it, adding some new animations and giving little Simba the ability to slash at enemies. The rest of the game, however, completely detaches itself from its licensed predecessor enough that one might call this game Lion King in Name Only and it makes the Chinese setting, odd as it may be, only a side note in all the strangeness going on. For example: The enemies Simba is confronted with are odd – the first level throws weird teddy bear-like creatures or green monkeys at you. And why does the fifth level feature floating propeller-platforms sporting a Swastika? Strangest of all? As you start out as a small lion cub, each time you pick up a Star, your character turns into the big Simba sprite! While such power ups aren’t too uncommon (like Mario turning big each time he picks up a mushroom), it seems pretty out of place when this character is supposed to be the Lion King of Disney fame! Being hit once makes the character turn back into a lion cub. Apart from growing bigger and thus gaining a slightly bigger reach for swatting enemies, this feature doesn’t affect the rest of the game at all. It’s just weird.
Overall, it makes for a short, but nice little game. There is just one really big problem with it: It appears to be broken in a very strange way. I don’t mean the fact that sometimes Simba might fall through solid ground or hang from invisible ledges – which is annoying, but doesn’t happen too often. Whenever you’re being hit by an enemy, though, the life bar doesn’t register it. The game acts like you were hit, including throwing you into a short period of invincibility, but it doesn’t matter. You’re not completely invulnerable, however, since spikes hurt you as normal, but even then, though they deplete your energy and you die, you still don’t get a life subtracted. This seems to be a common phenomenon in every version of the bootleg I’ve encountered so far, and the same bug has been confirmed by others who own it. It seems to be an oversight on the programmer’s part. The fact that you can’t really die, combined with the shortness of the entire affair, makes for a very easy game that can be easily beaten to enjoy the fireworks afterwards.
Lion King 3
In any case, even though Lion King II was plagued by an invincibility bug, it has gained a certain popularity and is often sought out by people venturing into the pirate market. Which might have been a contributing factor in why another Lion King game found its way into existence. While acknowledging its predecessor by calling their creation Lion King 3, whoever created this game decided to forfeit the setting and feel of the other unlicensed, trying to be closer in spirit to the original game instead. Lion King 3 heavily borrows elements, sprites and animations not only from its two prequels, but most of the enemy sprites come from a completely different, unexpected source: Donkey Kong Country! While that one seems to be a surprise at first, these enemy types actually make the game feel closer to the original Lion King than to its successor. Some more enemy types, like the chameleons or the porcupines, also found their way back from game one. Furthermore, the game utilizes remixed versions of the original soundtrack for its stages; a nice touch especially when hearing it for the first time around. However, these remixes are rather short and, being stuck in an infinite loop per level, can become pretty annoying after a while. Anyhow, all these revisions, as well as the overall feel of the game, give the impression that this third release was created by entirely different people.
Click to see all the stages!
The star that turned little Simba into big Simba has also been removed from this “sequel.” Instead, you can select the lion of your choice at the very beginning and complete the game either as lion cub or as adult lion. There isn’t any difference between those two other than the looks, though. Also, for some levels the character sprite of Simba Jr. has a strange purple tint to it, which makes it seem as though something went wrong during the porting and inclusion of the sprite. Interestingly enough, the character has the right color scheme during the intro.
Yet another staple that was missing in Lion King II but found its way back from the original are boss fights. Even though Lion King 3 consists only of five rather short levels as well, in levels two, four and five you are faced with a special foe. These three characters actually seem to be specifically created for the game, although their designs differ greatly from another. The level two boss, a bear, seems to have strangely contorted extremities and moves in a weird manner, seemingly floating through the air when attacking. The boss patterns are simplistic at best, which is at least counteracted by strong randomization. You can never count on whether a boss enters the screen at the same spot he left, which can make the battles rather confusing affairs. With a fair amount of patience, however, none of these fights turn out to be too hard.
The biggest change which distinguishes this Lion King from the other two is the inclusion of a ranged attack for the lions. After collecting certain icons strewn throughout the five stages, Simba can fire some sort of shockwave to attack enemies from across the screen by swatting the air. While it is rather odd to make it possible for a lion to basically shoot at enemies, it strangely fits into the game rather well. Besides, if one did readily swallow that the movie wanted us to believe that an ostrich would willingly let a lion cub ride on its back, I readily suspend my disbelief when it comes to a lion attacking scorpions with some sort of sonic boom.
While not exactly a hard affair either, or even a long one (it also contains of only five levels) this game is a tad less entertaining than the second part. It just doesn’t seem as fresh and lacks a certain originality compared to its predecessor. It also contains an auto-scrolling level itself, but while the one in Lion King II was rather colorful and with nice scrolling, in Lion King 3 this level turns into an ugly mess, urging you to make lots of blind jumps that more often than not end nowhere and result in the loss of a life – pretty irritating. Furthermore, compared to Lion king II, which only had one major bug (the life bar issue), Lion King 3 suffers from several minor issues. Pretty often you need to swing from a peg, but clipping and collision detecting issues make these swings and jumps very random and irritating. You’ll find yourself falling past a peg one time, and clinging from an empty spot in mid-air instead… or falling to your death altogether. Dropping through solid ground or enemies hanging in mid-air also happen quite often. It is still a nice platformer, though, and unlike its predecessor completing the game actually poses a challenge since you can lose all your lives in this one. The first three levels shouldn’t pose much of a problem, but once you reach the auto-scrolling level 4 you’re likely to run through your lives in no time.
A Pirate in Disney’s clothing
Now, do these games reach the entertainment value of the original licensed game? Of course not, but that wasn’t to be expected. Keep in mind that while the original Lion King was created by professional studios with enormous financial backing and highly qualified programmers and artists, these Chinese hacks were usually created in a rush by rather young, inexperienced programmers that probably weren’t all that familiar with the console to begin with. These games don’t enjoy quality assurance or intensive playtesting, so unfortunately, they tend to be buggy. Just don’t try to see them as legitimate sequels just because they use the Lion King likeness – in that regard they come off as abominations, and Disney certainly would never allow them to exist officially. But nevertheless, these two games, despite their flaws, are actually quite enjoyable. The second one especially has some nice original touches to it, and with a lot of imagination the third actually has some sort of cheaply made knock-off sequel feel, like a direct-to-video half hour spin-off sequel of the original feature film. They may not exactly be diamonds in the rough… but sometimes, rhinestones can also be pretty.