The video game market is filled with niche genres. From fighting games to first-person shooters, RPGs to puzzle games, all of us have our favorite go-to. And within every genre of game, there’s a huge sub-collection of games that satisfy our player preference- games that follow a set of rules or decorum that help it feel familiar, like playing Tetris Attack and moving on to Puzzle Fighter. Or playing Street Fighter and knowing the basics of Mortal Kombat.
But today, we’re not talking about collective genres, or games inspired by its predecessors. We’re here to talk about those other games. You know the ones- the games that are just too uncannily similar to a specific, unusually wildly successful, game. The ones that are so blatantly cloned, you wondered how the new publisher even had the audacity. And it’s true, because every once in a while, a shameless clone not only slithers into existence on home console or arcade, but attempts to replace the original.
The Great Giana Sisters is a Super Mario Bros. clone like no other
Learning that The Great Giana Sisters exists is nothing short of an Uncanny Valley fever dream. The music has an ominous feel and an urgent, bizarre pitch that can only be achieved from the Commodore 64. And once the dark and mysterious start screen switches to the gameplay and the opening sound blasts through your ears, seeing the near identical graphics is nothing short of incredible. Released in 1987 by Time Warp Productions and Rainbow Arts, The Great Giana Sisters is the most incredible example of a Super Mario Bros. clone. This isn’t simply another platformer inspired by Super Mario Bros., it’s just too eerily the same. Not only is the aesthetic and gameplay identical, (as well as some heavily inspired Goomba sprites) but Giana finds herself in an underground pipe level after she’s finished in the above-ground daytime level.
One very interesting thing about this game is that there’s no outstanding evidence that Nintendo ever went after them in court. According to the game’s Wikipedia page, there’s an urban legend about Nintendo suing Time Warp, but upon research, there was no evidence of a court case. And if you recall the times Nintendo forced Tengen (as described by Norman Caruso, creator of The Gaming Historian documentary series on YouTube) to remove their version of games from shelves, we know that Nintendo has no qualms about taking publishers to court. In fact, after a twenty-year break, The Great Giana Sisters came back with several more games that were released between 2009 and 2015, and those games were available on the Nintendo DS and Virtual Console.
A freeware Dance Dance Revolution engine brought on hordes of clones
Dance Dance Revolution, released in 1999 (1998 in Japan) by Konami as part of their Bemani rhythm game series, was the first game that really taught me about arcade etiquette. It was with DDR that I learned the importance of putting your quarter on the machine, waiting in line, understanding the player fan-base, learning how to get home when you’ve fallen off the machine from dancing too awesomely, sprained your ankle, and your mom won’t pick you up from the arcade- all the important life lessons of early teenage-hood.
The game was explosively popular in arcades all around the world. However, new versions of the game were available every year and it was likely becoming expensive for arcade owners to keep up. Soon after DDR hit the scene, an open-source freeware system called StepMania appeared, and before you knew it, it was an attack of the dancing clones.
First, a Korean game called Pump It Up by Andamiro hit the arcades. Though built from the StepMania engine, it lacked DDR’s four-paneled up/down/left/right format. Instead, Pump it Up featured four diagonal directional buttons and a center jump button. It left us feeling confused by the unnatural movements, and missing our standard dance patterns. Plus, the only good song was Beethoven Virus (that’s a fact, no need to site sources).
Then, one by one, the DDR machines started disappearing from my local arcades. Instead, a knock-off program that was installed right into the machine, titled In the Groove showed up. It was published by Roxor Games, who would later team up with Red Octane to publish a home version of the game. And for those who don’t know, Red Octane was the creator of what was deemed the best quality soft-pad for home use at the time. It featured many of DDR’s songs. And the gameplay was similar to Dance Dance Revolution’s. So similar in fact, that this time, Konami took Roxor to court and managed to win the intellectual rights to In the Groove, as well as another (almost not worth mentioning) dance game for the Game Cube called MC Groove Dance Craze.
The final clone was a mythical beast called TechnoMotion by Korean published F2 Systems. This urban legend of dance games was impossible to hunt down. There was one rumored machine in the entire Los Angeles, California area, but no one could confirm the arcade. People would say they saw it, but no one could remember anything about it. But if you saw this thing clone in person, there’d be no forgetting it. First off, look at the dance pad. There are nine buttons. It has all the directions that ever existed. It’s a Dance Dance Revolution clone. It’s a Pump it Up clone. It’s a clone of a clone, and if any dance machine could take you to the moon, wallhack, give you magic powers, and help you with your homework, that machine would be the centaur of dance machines known as TechnoMotion.
And while we’re on the topic of rhythm games…
Back in 2005, fresh off the dance pad trend, Red Octane (remember, the home DDR pad guys) and Harmonix collaborated with the now defunct NeverSoft to dip into the Bemani-clone rhythm market. By copying the Guitar Freaks guitar controller, and taking liberties from the gameplay, the game that came out of that relationship was Guitar Hero.
They put a lot of time and money into it, clearly. There was motion capture of bands, and there’s no way those music licenses were cheap. Hordes of friends gathered in homes, bars and pubs had competitions, stores had kiosks set up for loiterers to show off their Guitar Hero skills- it was an exciting time in at-home rhythm gaming.
Not too long after the peak of Guitar Hero’s popularity, another home rhythm game emerged- that game was Rock Band, a collaboration between Harmonix and MTV Games. It seemed revolutionary, an entire set of gaming instruments ready for players to form their own bands and sing/play their favorite songs. Except for those who’d been playing Konami’s arcade versions of the Japanese games for years at this point.
Donkey Kong and Pac-Man clones flourished in arcades
I recently saw an article that called out ten “Donkey Kong Imitators”. The games varied from the Popeye arcade game, to Mr. Do’s Castle (you can read the article in its entirety here). And it got me thinking about the words bootleg, clone, and inspired by. Before I delve into the guiltiest contenders in this entry, I wanted to talk about those words really quick. I personally think it’s cheap and irresponsible to crown every game an imitator simply because it’s inspired by the gameplay. Going back to our very first entry, The Great Giana Sisters– that game is not a Super Mario Bros. clone because it’s a 2D platformer. It’s a clone because look at it! When I first read an article that called out every 2D platformer as a Mario clone, or a game like Ice Climbers as a Mario Bros. arcade game clone I just found it annoying. Throwing those words around because you’re reminded of a different game is irresponsible. Because truthfully, the word clone needs to be saved for games like this, Crazy Kong.
The game’s own Wiki pages immediately clarifies that this game is not a bootleg. And it’s likely not- it’s a clone. There are enough visible differences in games, sounds, and animations (though I’d argue the sprites are lifted, but that’s a different conversation) to see that it’s not simply copy/pasted. And according to the Wiki, the game was licensed. But that doesn’t stop Crazy Kong from being the most mind-boggling example of shameless clones. It did nothing to try to build on the genre. It just farted itself into a cabinet and let itself make money.
On the flip side, take the story of Pac-Man and a game inspired by it, KC Munchkin. Midway and Atari ended up taking Magnavox to court because they claimed KC Munchkin impeded on copyright laws.
This entire battle, according to The Gaming Historian, largely impacted how video game copyright laws are still in effect today. It’s fascinating, really, when you think about how much of a load of garbage Atari’s own licensed version of Pac-Man was. It was such a disappointment to arcade fans that it’s said to be part of the reason Atari started drowning, leading to the Video Game Crash of 1983.
Bootleg Console Games
And no list of cloned games could be complete without talking about straight up bootlegged or knock-off console games. Homebrew games, mods, and hacks are common words to home gamers. A mod or a hack is basically when someone cracks the code of a game (let’s just say Super Mario Bros.) and changes how the game works. This could be as simple as changing the music, making Mario wear a Santa Claus hat, changing the sprites, etc. It could also be as complex as changing how the levels work or designing new ones for a whole new challenge in gameplay. They’re very interesting sometimes, and it’s really cool to see fan reimagining new worlds for their favorite games.
But that’s not exactly what’s happening in bootleg games; those suckers were stuffed onto cartridges and sold for a profit. And that’s the difference- stolen licenses for a profit. Hell, it’s still happening to a lesser extent today with 3rd party plug and play games like this Gamer Portable 220, available at my local convenience store!
There were loads of bizarre Chinese bootleg games readily available on the Super Famicom. There’s a phenomenal list of them here, but we’ll just touch the surface on some of the most incredible ones for a moment.
Now, when we talk about Chinese bootleg video games it’s important to be clear that these games aren’t fooling anyone. Check out this one, titled AV Bishoujo Senshi Girl Fighting. For those who don’t know, the original Japanese title for Sailor Moon is Bishoujo Senshi Sera Mun, which translates to Pretty Soldier (or Guardian) Sailor Moon. Not only does the game take from Sailor Moon’s title, but the start screen song is also a rip of “Moonlight Dentestu”, the Sailor Moon theme.
This game is a smorgasbord of shit. I love how it’s a fighting game with characters/sprites stolen from the Sailor Moon, Ranma ½ fighting games, Street Fighter, and more! I’d be so curious to know how well these games actually did, because the visuals and sound aren’t much more sophisticated than a Game Boy ROM. And this game here, Master Fighter II, suffers from the exact same aesthetic, only less effort was made. This is a direct Street Fighter II booty-boot clone.
Did we miss the best of the best? What are your favorite clones/bootlegs, or even mods and hacks?