Plagiarism through the ages

The creators of the vastly popular PlayerUnknown’s Battle Grounds made gaming news headlines last week, taking legal action against a handful of games mimicking PUBG a little too closely.

One clone features a frying pan as a melee weapon, while another uses the term ‘Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner’ in their marketing. Both are under heavy scrutiny and may end up being yanked.

While PUBG Corporation/Bluehole have every right to protect their brand, some allegations push the boundaries somewhat. It’s almost as if they’re taking credit for creating the whole Battle Royale genre, despite a few examples – including DayZ and H1Z1 – existing before PUBG’s release.

Can you imagine if Nintendo claimed ownership of the side-scrolling 2D platform genre following the success of the original Super Mario Bros? The NES would have missed out on several key titles, most of which became long-running franchises.

Indeed, it’s impossible to stop rival developers from copying currently popular trends. Once a studio finds themselves with an unexpected hit, a dozen imitators will surely follow. This is how new genres are formed, inducing some friendly competition.

In fact, blatant plagiarism in the video game market can be traced back all the way to gaming’s inception, as we dare to delve into below.

Breakout – 1976

Clones of Atari’s Breakout were so rife that you may not even know it by its original name. Even the genre it belongs to has different monikers. In France, the genre is known as ‘casse-briques’ (brick breaker), while Japanese gamers refer to it as ‘block kuzushi’ (block destruction). Generally, though, Breakout clones are known as either ‘paddle’ or ‘bat and ball’ games.

Arkanoid was Taito’s rendition – released ten years after Atari’s original – and it became a huge arcade hit, gaining numerous sequels. The Game Boy also had its own brick breaker in the form of Alleyway. Although a popular release, being one of four GB launch games, it wasn’t rated highly by critics due to failing to add anything new to the genre.

The Watara Supervision (known as the QuickShot Supervision in the UK) even came packaged with a bat and ball game, known as Crystball. It wasn’t the best choice to bundle with the system, highlighting how blurry the screen became when handling fast moving objects.

Sticking with handhelds, SEGA had their own take too. Woody Pop for the Game Gear was a popular release during the system’s early days, so called due to the bat being a wooden log known as Woody. A tree spirit, no less. It was a darn sight more imaginative than dull old Alleyway.

Space Invaders – 1978

We don’t need to tell you that Space Invaders was a colossal hit. It was a pop culture phenomenon, leading Taito’s classic to become a household name. Even now, 40 years on, it’s still possible to purchase Space Invaders merchandise. T-shirts, keyrings, baseball caps, mugs and more are readily available in high street stores and supermarkets.

It has to be one of the most imitated games of all-time. Why didn’t Taito clamp down on clones? Quite simply, the copyright of the original game hadn’t been properly protected – only the name ‘Space Invaders’ had been trademarked. In short: it was a free market.

Pretty much every system ever released has a Space Invaders style game, with early examples including the Intellivision’s Space Armada – the first Intellivision game to animate more than eight sprites – and the Fairchild Channel F’s Alien Invasion.

We can’t forget Galaxian either, which was Namco’s attempt at creating a bonafide rival rather than a mere clone, boasting full-colour graphics, a scrolling starfield, and background music. In many ways, it set the standard for all arcade games that followed.

Pac-Man – 1980

The moment Atari felt somebody treading on their toes, they beckoned their lawyers. After the biggest name in gaming bagged the prestigious Pac-Man license from Namco, Atari’s rivals tread very carefully when it came to developing their own Pac-Man style maze games.

This pussyfooting resulted in K.C. Munchkin, published by Philips for the Magnavox Odyssey. The creators went great lengths to add several key differences to Pac-Man, so that should they end up in court they’d have a leg to stand on. Instead of four ghosts, there were just three. Mazes – which featured optional random generation – had just 12 pills (known as munchies) to collect, and K.C himself was blue rather than yellow. Sadly for Philips, these changes weren’t enough – Atari managed to convince the courts that Phillips had copied Pac-Man, and so K.C. Munchkin ended up being pulled from shelves. It had a good run, however, making it to store shelves a whole year before the notorious Atari 2600 rendition of Pac-Man.

Lock ‘n’ Chase – published by Data East in Japan and Taito in the US – managed to elude Atari’s grasp by taking the cops ‘n robbers route, adding the ability to erect walls. Other clones tasked players with filling a maze with indefinable pills and pellets, rather than emptying it.

Atari’s reach extended to the European microcomputer market, forcing Commodore to yank the Vic 20’s Jelly Monsters – one of the system’s most impressive looking games. Luckily for Sinclair, Hungry Horace for the ZX Spectrum got off scot-free.

For those unable to afford a microcomputer or console, Grandstand’s Munchman tabletop electronic game was the only way to bring the Pac-Man experience home. It wouldn’t be fair to call this a knockoff as it was, in fact, a rebranded officially licensed Pac-Man game from Tomy.

Later Pac-Man clones were far more creative and unique than those that preceded them, including Shigeru Miyamoto’s Devil World, an innovative maze game that was denied Nintendo of America’s approval due to religious imagery.

Donkey Kong – 1981

Regardless of format or year of release, the box art for a typical Donkey Kong clone is nothing short of terrible, often depicting the cartoon-like Donkey Kong as a vicious, lifelike, gorilla. This was a time where Nintendo was yet to make a name for themselves as a fun, family-friendly, developer and so many publishers turned to the savage brute King Kong as inspiration.

Tiger Electronics went one step further than most imitators, gaining the official King Kong license for their Donkey Kong clone – a rectangular LCD handheld released the same year as Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Game & Watch.

As for home releases, the microcomputers were treated to an unholy trio of Crazy Kong, Killer Gorilla, and Kongo Kong.

EA had their own, albeit less brazen, clone too – Hard Hat Mack. It was one of their first ever games, released on Apple II, C64, and other micros.

Infamously, Nintendo found themselves in a spot of bother regarding the name Donkey Kong. But when Universal Studios took Nintendo to court, claiming infringement on their King Kong trademark, it soon emerged that the rights to King Kong had entered the public domain long ago. Whoops!

Super Mario Kart – 1992

While Nintendo’s Mode 7 showcase did share similarities with SEGA’s 1988 racer Power Drift, Super Mario Kart threw power-ups into the mix. And with a clap of thunder, the kart racer was born.

Despite notching up over 8 million sales, Super Mario Kart went largely unchallenged. Japanese gamers had SD F-1 Grand Prix as an alternative, featuring cartoon animals resembling real-life F1 drivers of the era. In the western world, there was Ubisoft’s Street Racer which fared well on the SNES but was rather lacking on Mega Drive due to the system’s limitations, becoming more of a generic racing game than a pleasingly chaotic kart racer.

On Game Gear there was Sonic Drift and its sequel. Oddly, only the sequel left Japan. It was rebranded as Sonic Drift Racing in Europe yet was still referred to as Sonic Drift 2 on the title screen.

The next generation of consoles finally caught up with the trend. Rare put their own stamp on the genre with Diddy Kong Racing, which featured 3D characters and vehicles – as opposed to Mario Kart 64’s 2D sprites – and added both aeroplanes and hovercrafts. Where Diddy was going, we didn’t need roads. This was followed up by Mickey’s Speedway USA, one of Rare’ lesser-known N64 games.

The PSone had more than its fair share of colourful racers, with the best of the bunch being Crash Team Racing and the often-forgotten Speed Freaks (aka Speed Punks). But not all were made equal – Chocobo Racing, Woody Wood Pecker Racing, and Nicktoons Racing all received a critical mauling from the press. It’s fair to say the PSone had more bad kart racers than good.

A special mention also goes to Walt Disney World Quest: Magical Racing Tour on PSone and Dreamcast. Eidos refused to shell out for the renown likes of Mickey and Donald, and so this not-so-magical racer ended up featuring just three Disney characters – Chip n’ Dale, and Jiminy Cricket.

DOOM – 1993

There was a time when all first-person shooters were known as ‘DOOM clones’ – the term FPS simply didn’t exist. Although it was DOOM that captured the imagination of a generation, there was a hint of truth in the term ‘DOOM clone’ as numerous early FPSs used the DOOM engine.

Heretic, Hexen, and 3DO’s Strife: Quest for the Sigil are relatively well-known. Less so: Chex Quest, a non-violent shooter intended to reinvigorate the Chex cereal brand. Come 1996, Id Software was getting ready to launch Quake, so it’s believed the developers of Chex Quest obtained the DOOM engine at a knockdown price. When your game is destined to ship inside a cereal box, every penny counts.

1997’s Chex Quest 2: Flemoids Take Chextropolis had an even lower budget, made on a tight schedule and released as a free download on the Chex Quest homepage.

So far, all the games mentioned have been officially licensed; nothing here was intended to cash-in on DOOM’s name or steal Id’s thunder. Enter Gloom on the Amiga, an alarmingly brazen DOOM clone that became the first of its kind for the then-struggling system. It was followed by Alien Breed 3D, the first Team 17 title to be published by Ocean.

Both Gloom and Alien Breed 3D were very similar to DOOM, filled with hellish creatures, buckets of gore and shotguns that pack an almighty punch. Given the Amiga was on its deathbed come 1995, it’s likely Id didn’t give a hoot about either.

Mortal Kombat – 1992

This entry was originally reserved for Street Fighter II clones, but in truth, it’s hard to find anything interesting to say about Fatal Fury, World Heroes, Art of Fighting, Power Instinct, et al. They’re all one-on-one brawlers with backdrops set across the globe, featuring characters uncannily like those in Capcom’s stone-cold classic. As for console clones, many were simply products of the era –Tuff E Nuff is about as ‘90s as you can get.

It’s a different story for Mortal Kombat clones. They’re delightfully trashy and brainless to boot, misguided at best and offensive at worst. Eternal Champions and Killer Instinct are the picks of the litter, with the SEGA CD version of the former featuring grizzly FMV death moves and the latter shrewdly replacing digitised characters with rendered visuals.

Nintendo’s tight censorship did keep Killer Instinct’s violence low-key though, making ‘No Mercy’ moves brutal rather than barbaric.

Atari was more than keen to jump on the Mortal Kombat bandwagon, commissioning two brawlers for the Jaguar – Kasumi Ninja and Ultra Vortek. Kasumi Ninja is the more renown of the two, featuring a bearded Scottish chap who lifts his kilt to fire a projectile. Also: a hugely redundant, painfully sluggish, first-person character selection screen.

Then we have Primal Rage, a game designed to serve a dedicated purpose. Its sole reason to exist was to provide arcade goers with throwaway thrills while waiting for their turn on Mortal Kombat 3. That didn’t stop it from gaining a home release though, eventually gracing 12 (!) different formats – almost double the amount Mortal Kombat 3 reached.

Pokemon – 1995

The Pokemon craze was one of our favourite fads of the ‘90s, even more so than the ‘attitude platformer’ craze spurned by a certain hedgehog.

The success of Pokemon Red and Blue forced developers to create countless weird, wonderful, and in no way copyright infringing, characters to populate their monster hunting games with. Digimon opted for monstrous dinosaurs and vicious beasts a tad more menacing than your typical Pokemon.

Monster Rancher had a weird fixation with giant eyeballs, while Dragon Warrior Monsters – which sold 2.5 million copies in Japan – featured yet more artwork from the talented Akira Toriyama.

Hudson’s Robopon – released in Sun, Star and Moon versions…some 20 years before Pokemon: Sun and Moon – went for the cute robot route, meanwhile.

Then there was Looney Tunes Collector, which also saw two iterations – Martian Revenge and Martian Alert, each with either predominately blue or red box art. Released a few months apart, the two entailed rounding up Looney Tunes characters and using their unique skills in battle. 45 characters featured in each, swappable via the Game Boy Color’s infrared port.

It isn’t clear how well Looney Tunes Collector sold, but it’s believed Infogrames spent a small sum of cash as the rights for each character had to be acquired individually.

Monkey Puncher, a game littered with grin-inducing translation errors, didn’t perform too well either. This wasn’t a straight-laced Pokemon clone, however; it had more in common with a typical virtual pet, allowing you to choose, train, and discipline a boxing primate. Publisher Evolution Entertainment released so few games and was around for such a short period of time that Google brings up very little about them.

Super Mario 64 – 1996

After the success of Donkey Kong Country, Rare began work on Project Dream. A pirate adventure with rendered visuals, it saw Rare branch out into the role-playing genre. Development was far from smooth, as the team hit several obstacles along the way. Initially, it was to be a pseudo-3D platformer, like Bug! on SEGA Saturn.

Work continued until it was clear the SNES was running out of steam, leading the title to make the jump to N64. Even with the extra horsepower, Rare wasn’t best convinced their 3D platformer was built on the sturdiest of foundations.

Everything changed the day Nintendo revealed Super Mario 64 to the public. Now, this was how a 3D platformer should look and feel. Fully interactive open environments, and fluid analogue controls that make platform jumping and exploration an effortless joy. Project Dream finally had direction, evolving over time into Banjo-Kazooie.

Rare stuck with the ‘N64 platformer’ formula for the entirety of the system’s life, giving the world Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, and Conker’s BFD.

Of course, there were other imitators too, featuring open worlds with numerous quests and things to do, rather than small levels with just a few objectives. Rayman 2 and Rocket: Robot on Wheels hit high notes, while Glover gained a cult following. Earthworm Jim 3D and Starshot were feeble imitations. Gex never found his feet in 3D either.

Over on PSone, there was the Spryo trilogy, Jersey Devil – an early PSone release from Ocean – and Croc, which began life as a 3D platformer starring Yoshi, hence the similarities between the two characters.

Super Mario 64 was so influential that even PS2/Xbox era platformers pilfered ideas. Acclaim’s Vexx was guilty of this, copying Bob-omb Battlefield almost in its entirety.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – 1999

Activision caught lightning in a bottle with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, a game that exceeded all expectations. It’s one of the few instances we can recall of a game selling out due to the publisher vastly underestimating demand.

Not only did it gain dozens of sequels, but Activision was quick to cash-in on their own success, releasing Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX, Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer, and Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder. Out of these, only Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX was deemed worthy of a sequel.

In fact, Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX was so successful that it too had a competitor – Acclaim’s Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX series, which reached an unfortunate end after the release of BMX XXX, a game so trashy that Dave Mirra refused to be associated with it.

But what of the Tony Hawk’s clones? Just about every publisher saw dollar signs and released their own skateboarding games, resulting in Thrasher: Skate and Destroy, MTV Sports: Skateboarding, Street Sk8ter, Grind Session, and eventually EA’s Skate series.

Konami’s Evolution Skateboarding is worth a mention, as the engine was used for Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance’s skateboarding mini-game. A playable demo, essentially, allowing Solid Snake to show off his unlikely skateboarding skills.

The Simpsons Skateboarding was also unintentionally amusing. The idea of Bart Simpson being a skateboarding prodigy is one we can get behind, but the developers didn’t stop there – Chief Wiggum, Marge Simpson, and others were all playable.

Guitar Hero – 2005

Although Activision was along for the Guitar Hero ride until the bitter end, the early days for the franchise are convolved. Activision was simply the distributor for the first GH – RedOctane was the publisher and the mastermind behind the series. After creating peripherals for Konami’s Guitar Freaks arcade game, the upstart company decided to expand into the console market.

Harmonix developed the first two GH titles. After this, it was a case of ‘all change’ – Activision snapped up RedOctane, while Harmonix jumped ship to launch Rock Band. Neversoft (primarily known for the Tony Hawk series) came on board for future duties.

To say GH was a success is an understatement. 25 million copies were sold, generating $2 billion; $1 billion of that came from Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock alone, leading GH to become the third largest franchise after Super Mario and Madden NFL.

The clones were notoriously terrible, scrimping on quality and rushed out the door. Rock Revolution may have come from Konami, the home of Dance Dance Revolution, but it had none of the craftsmanship. Even the drum controller was panned due to illogical pad placement. The mediocre zombie themed Rock of the Dead never left the US, while many Wii clones – such as Musiic Party: Rock the House and Pop Star Guitar – were rightfully lost in a sea of shovelware.

DJ Hero had its copycats too, including Armin van Buuren: In The Mix on Wii andDJ Star on DS. Publishers jumped the gun here. DJ Hero was cancelled after just two games, while the 3DS iteration – originally planned as a launch title – ended up on the digital scrapheap.

Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training – 2006

A permanent fixture in charity shops up and down the country, Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain is a firm reminder that not every game needs a huge development budget and a three-year development cycle to be successful. Nintendo’s trendsetter was made by nine people in just three months and went on to sell 20 million copies.

Low development costs and quick turnaround times allowed every publisher, regardless of size, to release their own brain boosting software. We even started to see the word ‘brain’ randomly slipped into titles, such as Margot’s Word Brain – a collection of word games.

When the handheld market began to overflow, spillage landed onto consoles – Ubisoft’s Brain Challenge hit PS3 and Xbox 360, gaining a physical release on the former, while Namco also enlisted Dr Kawashima’s expertise for the duly titled Brain and Body Exercises for Kinect.

The popularity of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training can also be attributed to the rise of Sudoku games on DS, which were immensely popular despite the fact that Brain Training contained a perfectly function Sudoku mini-game. People were effectively paying £20 for something they already owned or could find in the daily newspaper. Ironically, that doesn’t strike us as being particularly smart.

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