Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Copycat Culture, final part...

So far in this series I had highlighted where Xuan Dou Zhi Wang / King of Combat had poached the designs of SNK and Capcom fighting games. It wouldn't be very fair to the Chinese developers if they were painted as wholesale thieves of IP. If you look at the Japanese and US fighting game developers they often took liberties with the characters that appeared in rival titles. In fact just after Street Fighter II debuted in 1991 there were a flood of copycat titles, the majority of which came from Japan. One of the more blatant entries was a 1993 game called Fighter's History by Data East. The game was so familiar in form and content that Capcom slapped the publisher with a lawsuit. The funny thing however was how much Capcom had stolen from other studios during the development of Final Fight, originally called Street Fighter '89 in addition to Street Fighter II. In the interest of time let me just point you towards AerialGroove's definitive list of Street Fighter rip-offs. On that website you can see the real life athletes, films, manga and animé characters that "inspired" the designers at Capcom.

Remember that Data East had released Kung-Fu Master in 1984. That game was a one player affair but it did feature villains of different backgrounds to fight against. Then Konami released Yie Ar Kung Fu in 1985 which added the familiar format of 1-on-1 combat against different martial arts forms. Yie Ar Kung Fu even featured a health meter at the top of the screen so players knew when they were close to a knock out. The original Street Fighter would not debut until 1987. It took elements of the aforementioned titles and Technos' Karate Champ from 1984 but was not called a copycat. That was because history always favored the most successful franchise, which was not necessarily the first.


Capcom actually lost the lawsuit to Data East and that ended up opening the floodgates for even more blatant Street Fighter rip-offs. There was little that Capcom could do in the face of some of the most glaring copies. The ADK developed and SNK published World Heroes was one of the first copies in arcades. The format was very similar to Street Fighter II and the character roster slightly familiar too. The same thing could be said of Kaiser Knuckle. The sleeper from 1994 was known for some of the cheesiest characters ever. I mean just how many Bruce Lee clones fighting power mad dictators did we really need to see before audiences had enough?

There was no internet in the early days of the genre. There were not forums calling out the developers for creating second-rate copies of a franchise. These things were accepted as status quo because, well, frankly the Japanese were the only ones in the market that knew how to develop a decent fighting game. It would take a few years for the West to catch on and when they did they offered experiences that were decidedly un-Japanese. The ultraviolent and combo heavy games like Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct and Primal Rage would help pull audiences away from the Japanese mechanics. On top of trying to copy the SF II format Mortal Kombat had taken a number of elements and characters from Big Trouble in Little China. There was no outrage amongst fans instead they saw the poaching as an homage to the film.

In return the Japanese studios would adapt their fighting engines to become faster paced and more focused on longer combo strings because that’s what the West seemed to enjoy. Remember that the Chinese SF II bootlegs had a hand in shaping the pace of the format during the early '90s. I would call the games that offered rapid juggling of opponents "combo porn" titles. It was during that era that Japan had a free pass on copying icons from different sources in order to put them in a fighting game. The most successful Japanese studios of today would not have grown as large without poaching characters that had been established in comics and even martial arts cinema.


Poaching ideas seemed okay during the early ‘90s. Part of that was because audiences were starved for unique fighters. They demanded new games with the fervor of a junkie looking for the next fix. I'm not going to lie, I was jonesin' for a new fighting game whenever I went to the arcade. The home consoles just weren’t up to par yet so the only way to experience the genre was outside of the house. In hindsight I could see how the runaway demand for fighting games eventually killed the genre. There were too many copycat titles and not enough innovative ones. Audiences today should actually be grateful that there are only few studios in China capable of developing quality fighters. Otherwise the market would be saturated once again with clones.

Imitation in and of itself was not necessarily a bad thing, especially not when the right developers were in charge. One of the best wrestling franchises ever created had poached dozens upon dozens of real wrestlers and promotions from around the world. Fire Pro Wrestling, a series which began in 1989, allowed console players to enjoy the spectacle of pro wrestling without paying one dime in licensing costs. The developer Human Entertainment / Spike, created a sprite-based wrestling game with a fixed camera. It sounded like an outdated visual format and it was compared to other wrestling games in the arcade. While it lacked 3D graphics it made up for it in the character, match and move editors. The game actually gave audiences all the tools they needed to create an entire library of wrestlers, each with their own trademark moves including taunts and finishing attacks.

The studio helped audiences out by including dozens of generic versions of wrestlers from the biggest promotions in the US and Japan. In later versions they also included MMA competitors and octagonal cages as well. Audiences were free to use the editing tools and rename the characters, change their appearances to make them identical to actual athletes. Audiences could even create comic book characters using the editors and assign them special moves as well. By building a solid but customizable engine the publisher could offer a tremendous wrestling experience that had all the spectacle of the biggest matches in the world. By giving audiences the liberty to mix formats they were free to combine the biggest promotions into a mega-crossover that would never exist in real life. Without having to pay licensing fees to a dozen different promotions or for use of the likenesses the company was able to sell the game very cheaply. Imagine how the publisher would have been talked about online if the game were to debut today? The game lacked originality, it was nothing but a collection of stolen likenesses and moves. I think that it would have gotten the same reception as King of Combat got from the fighting game community. Human Entertainment / Spike would have been shamed for something that other studios in the community had gotten away with.

Originality did count for a lot in the videogame world but audiences that think the biggest franchises appeared out of thin air were deluding themselves. The developers in Japan, the developers in the US, China and Europe were influenced by countless things. Some of those experiences were shared, like popular music or hit movies, while some were more regional. Those influences in turn were synthesized in the story, art and game design of the projects that the developers worked on. The things that worked well were copied by the developers again and again. Perhaps they would adjust a few details here and there but there was a lot of repetition of what worked. If you don’t believe me look at the number of sequels that the biggest franchises got. There was even repetition within many of the the games themselves. Count the number of karate fighters in the Street Fighter series that were similar to Ryu. Count the number of brooding cool guys in the King of Fighters and see how many were derived from Kyo Kusanagi.

Tencent did owe SNK and Capcom credit for the success of King of Combat. But SNK and Capcom also owed credit to other companies for the success of their respective franchises. I want visitors of this blog to remember how the genre evolved before taking sides in a debate. Regardless of what nation they were from no one company was perfect. As long as they pushed the genre forward, as long as they kept it evolving then I would call their contribution valid. King of Combat had a classic aesthetic but with a bunch of modern twists. The things that never made it into King of Fighter Online and King of Fighters World had at least a spiritual successor. I’m glad the company was staying true to the early format of the genre but was also not chained to it. Audiences in the west may never get to play Xuan Dou Zhi Wang but that wouldn’t stop the die-hard fans from pushing for it. If you’d like to give it a go then sign this petition to bring King of Combat to the US.

The only concern that I have with the genre is that Capcom is on the decline and has limited funds (somewhere over $100 million in cash) available to produce new games from. The board of directors in Japan declined an anti-buyout plan in summer 2014, meaning that a larger company with enough money could buy controlling shares of Capcom. Many journalists and fans hoped that a company like Nintendo or Sony might step in and buy them out and keep the licenses intact. This might not be the case. If Capcom dissolves then companies can pick and choose which IP's they want as part of a fire sale. Tencent is a company loaded with money and may very well buy Capcom in its entirety or buy the fighting game licenses and fold them into the King of Combat series. Having a Chinese publisher purchase a long-standing Japanese developer is both a scary and interesting scenario to consider. Whatever the case I hope that fighting games continue to grow and evolve. Tencent has shown through some of their more recent updates that they trust their designers a bit more than before and in doing so are coming up with fighters that compliment some of the best Japanese designs ever created. Maybe this trend will continue. Thanks for reading this series. If you have any questions or comments then please feel free to leave a note. Until next time take care!

No comments:

Post a Comment