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Off-Brand Games: Introduction


Back in 2006, my roommates, a few other friends, and I went to the theater to catch Snakes on a Plane. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. We shouted at the screen. It was brilliant. Some days later, I was scouring the shelves at Blockbuster and happened upon a movie called... I swear to God... Snakes on a Train. I had half a mind to grab it and race to the check-out counter, knowing how well cinematic schlock is received in our MST3K-loving apartment. Instead, I replaced the case and continued down the aisle.

There was something about it that just tickled me. When something popular explodes on the scene, there are bound to be a number of copycats hoping to ride the coattails of the former's success. Usually, these are wholly original works that merely draw inspiration albeit to a large degree (think Harry Potter to Twilight). On the other hand, sometimes these efforts are so blatant and ballsy that you gotta wonder if the creators can even brush their teeth every morning without someone to perpetually remind them how it's done.

I'm sure you've seen other films like Snakes on a Train lining the discount racks at Wal-Mart. I've personally noticed Pirates of Treasure Island, Transmorphers, The Terminators, and most recently Transmorphers: Fall of Man. Wow. Really? After that last one, I had to do a little research. I discovered that all these films and many more are products of a single studio, The Asylum, whose claim to fame is a string of straight-to-DVD "mockbusters" that capitalize off of major films, even releasing around the same date. I guess these movies are successful enough because they keep getting made.

I have yet to watch any of these... curiosities... but perhaps aside from the legally questionable titles, the films have nothing in common with their "inspirations." I seriously doubt it, yet it did make me think about such instances of crass emulation in the video game world. We've all played a game or two that felt just a little too familiar. We've all been quick to call out clones as greed-influenced ventures. Less often, an otherwise stand-out game can't shake its attachment to the pioneer that influenced its direction.

Video game clones were pandemic in the early years of the industry. Pong spawned a number of imitators even though Atari caught heat from Magnavox for clearly drawing from the Odyssey's table tennis game, itself a descendant of William Higinbotham's Tennis for Two. Taito's Arkanoid and Nintendo's Alleyway both owe their existence to Atari's Breakout. Pac-Man was so popular that Bally Midway chose to develop their own unofficial sequels rather than wait for Namco to get around to making one.

As the industry matured and developers caught their creative strides, straight-up clones became less a commonplace staple and more a rare oddity. No one wants to be accused of creative bankruptcy, so developers will go through great lengths to distance themselves from the competition. Of course, the allure of easy money still gets the better of some folks (Great Minigame Flood of 2007 and 2008 and 2009). Other companies will cover their asses under the guise of "paying homage" to successful forebearers.

Guitar Hero revitalized the rhythm genre following the DDR craze, "inspiring" the likes of Guitar Rock Tour for the DS and Battle of the Bands for the Wii. So influential has Guitar Hero become that it is easy to forget that it was born out of RedOctane's desire to make a GuitarFreaks clone for Westerners. Ironically, this success eventually paved the way for Konami to try and reclaim their rhythm title with the vastly underwhelming Rock Revolution, a rare case of an imitator outpacing the originator by a country mile.

Now, not to condemn Harmonix as it has demonstrated great passion for the rhythm genre as well as innovation in establishing a true music platform, but for every Harmonix, there's a company or twelve with a habit for cribbing the blood and sweat of others, and many more who fall somewhere in between the two extremes. It's not just small companies either but big dogs as well like Capcom and Konami. The whole situation got me thinking how great it would be to highlight some flagrant and lesser-known examples of what I'm talking about.

I give you Off-Brand Games, a (hopefully) regular feature in which I will play a so-called clone game and measure how closely it copied the homework of legends such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and so on. I have a couple of ground rules, however. First, I will only consider games that are or were available at retail. Every boy and his dog have made Flash or freeware indie games that not only play like the classics but are treated as unofficial sequels by the creators. I've offered my opinion of fangames in the past and I harbor that there is something noble about giving your favorite games your personal spin, and yes, the fact that they are non-profit has everything to do with it. The situations do not compare.

Second, I will not consider games that copy other games made by the same company or the same developer. Harmonix made Rock Band because they had been released from the Guitar Hero franchise. Osman plays a lot like Strider because both were designed by the same man. The Maximo series was never officially named as a Ghosts 'n Goblins successor, but Capcom can call it whatever they want if you ask me. These are "spiritual sequels" and don't hold the same connotations as knock-offs from an unrelated party.

Other than that, anything goes. I leave you by saying that though clone games are typically of poorer quality by their very nature, there is a certain charm to them. Since they attempt to emulate the best on the market, you can find kernels of a good game underneath. You just need to dig for a while and find the creamy center. I'm excited to see what turns up and I invite you guys to offer game suggestions through email or PM.

Grab a case of Dr. Bold and pour a bowl of Honey Nut Scooters, 'cause things are about to get wild.

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About Tony Ponceone of us since 12:40 AM on 09.09.2007

(Decommissioned) Super Fighting Robot