The top 10 most cloned videogames
From Space Invaders to World Of Warcraft, we salute the most commonly copied videogames in history…
If the board game industry was like the videogame industry, there would now be at least three dozen variations of Chess on the shelves of Toys R Us, all with subtly different rules, and each called Chezz, Chess Deluxe, Super Chess, and so on.
In the realm of videogames, the success of any title pretty much guarantees that, a few months after its launch, at least one clone of it will appear. This list, then, is devoted to some of the most copied, ripped-off and cloned games of all time.
The great granddad of every shooter that came after it, Taito’s seminal Space Invaders had a seismic impact on 70s culture. Its instantly recognisable alien sprites are still a common sight on T-shirts and websites more than three decades later, and the game’s popularity following its release in 1978 was such that an entire armada of remarkably similar shooters followed in its wake.
The home computers of the early 80s were subjected to a tidal wave of Space Invaders clones, most of which went under imaginative titles such as Spectral Invaders, Space Intruders, or just plain Invaders.
Tellingly, 90 per cent of Space Invaders clones completely fail to recapture the mysterious energy of Taito’s classic coin-op – there’s something about the ominous thump-thump soundtrack and gradually rising tension of the original that, even for today’s programmers, is tricky to replicate.
After the success of Space Invaders, arcades were jammed full of shooters set against a backdrop of shimmering stars. By 1980, many players were beginning to suffer from shooter fatigue. It took Namco’s Pac-Man to prove that a successful arcade game didn’t have to be about mass alien extermination to capture the public’s imagination, and its cultural impact was inarguably as earth-shattering as Space Invaders.
The broad appeal of Pac-Man inspired a legion of similar games in both arcades and on home computers, kicking off what would later be known as the maze chase genre (or “dot eat game” as they’re referred to in Japan). A few examples include Bally Midway’s Ms. Pac-Man (which was developed without authorisation from Namco, but was later adopted by the company), Hungry Horace on the ZX Spectrum, and the brilliantly named arcade clone Hangly-Man from 1981.
Ironically, even the most uninspired Pac-Man clones were infinitely superior to the infamously half-arsed official conversion for the Atari 2600. The shoddiness of this game, along with an equally dreadful E.T. tie-in, is frequently blamed for the industry crash of 1983.
It’s hard to believe that a game that involves drawing boxes should be so enduringly successful, but Taito’s 1981 coin-op Qix inspired numerous ports, sequels and clones. Playing like a digital Etch-A-Sketch, with the player frantically sectioning off areas of the screen before they’re killed by a marauding green stick, Qix later became the basis for numerous ‘adult’ games.
The most notable of these is the Gals Panic series, in which the player is treated to pictures of scantily-clad ladies if they successfully complete each round. This formula was considered interesting enough to be copied by numerous other developers, resulting in titles like Perestroika Girls, Fantasia, Fantasy ’95 (in which the player could choose to play as RoboCop, of all people), and Party Time: Gonta The Diver II. Needless to say, we haven’t played them – honest.
Alexey Pajitnov’s hideously addictive organisation game is quite possibly the most ported and cloned game of all time. Originally programmed by Pajitnov in 1984 for the Elektronika 60 system, Tetris gradually spread all over the world like a virus, appearing next on the IBM PC courtesy of Google engineer Vadim Gerasimov, and then every other system known to humanity.
The Game Boy version alone sold 35 million copies (helped, of course, by being included with the machine), and the sheer number of homages, rip-offs and variations on the Tetris theme is overwhelming. Some of them, including Taito’s obscure yet jolly Cleopatra Fortune, are quite fun and worth playing. Most are merely poorly programmed clones, and their titles usually end in “–is” or “–ix” – my personal favourite is the chuckle-inducing Pentis.
Like Qix, the Tetris recipe was also used as the basis for numerous erotic games, including one for the Nintendo Entertainment System called Bubble Bath – for some reason, Nintendo never released that one outside Japan.
Programmer Eugene Jarvis has much to answer for. Aside from breaking the spirits of a myriad 80s gamers by making Defender so soul-crushingly difficult, he inadvertently defined the scrolling shoot-em-up genre that would rule arcades for the remainder of the decade.
Defender clearly influenced other important and classic titles, such as Konami’s Gradius and Irem’s R-Type, but was also the subject of an almost incalculable number of almost identical clones. Some of these, such as the Spectrum’s Guardian II: Revenge Of The Mutants, and Jeff Minter’s typically weird Andes Attack, were rather good. Others, such as the cheekily titled Deffendar (if you say it out loud, you’ll sound like an 80s yuppie), were utterly awful.
Some might argue that Nolan Bushnell’s Pong should be included here instead, but it’s surely Breakout that has spawned the greater number of imitators. Rotating Bushnell’s earlier bat-and-ball game through 90 degrees and adding a wall of bricks, Atari’s 1976 coin-op inspired thousands of clones. The most obvious is Taito’s Arkanoid, which arrived a decade later, but Breakout’s gameplay has been copied so often that it’s possible to find at least one clone of it on any mobile phone, computer or handheld device you could mention.
World Of WarCraft
By now, you’ve probably noticed a common theme emerging in this list – a game sells upwards of a million copies, prompting other developers to make their own iterations of the same title. It happened in the earliest days of the industry back in the 70s, and it still goes on today, and for proof, just look at the extraordinary number of World Of Warcraft clones lurking on the internet.
Blizzard’s fantasy MMORPG enjoys a devoted following of around 11 million players, and dozens of developers have created their own online time sinks to lure in wandering adventurers.
Most of them are free to play, and funded by advertising and the sale of in-game items (talismans, healing potions, stick-on beards and the like), and some, such as Runes Of Magic, are well-made and great fun, if you like that sort of thing.
Like Qix and Tetris, World Of Warcraft has inspired an erotic-themed clone of its own, called BoneCraft (tagline: “Somewhere in some galaxy”). It’s apparently due out this year, and will, we’re told, feature drunken space marines and elf brothels. I think you can probably guess how experience points are earned.
Capcom’s Commando rode the crest of an 80s wave of cinematic military violence, and its up-the-screen, run-and-shoot gameplay inspired a legion of imitations. Poetically titled Wolf Of The Battlefield in Japan, Commando’s 1985 release was swiftly followed by several suspiciously similar games, such as SNK’s Ikari Warriors, the rather more obscure Fernandez Must Die (which surely goes down as one of the greatest videogame names of all time), and Konami’s Jackal, which was like Commando, except its rock-hard soldier protagonist drove around the screen in a Land Rover Discovery.
Interestingly, Commando’s gameplay was cloned for the Rambo: First Blood Part II videogame tie-in that appeared on the Sega Master System and 8-bit home computers – a rare instance of a film influencing a game influencing another game based on a film. Or something.
Anyway, one of the best Commando clones is surely Toaplan’s brilliant, underrated Out Zone, which took the lone gunman gameplay of Capcom’s arcade classic and placed it in a sci-fi world full of baroque alien hardware to destroy.
Walk along a little bit. Kick someone in the face. Walk along a little bit more. Kick someone else in the face. It’s such a simple formula that it’s no surprise that other developers rushed to create their own versions of Data East’s Kung-Fu Master, known as Spartan-X in Japan. Interestingly, the game’s based on Hong Kong martial arts movie Wheels On Meals, so you could say that Jackie Chan’s indirectly responsible for inventing the entire scrolling brawler genre.
Widely ported to numerous computer and console systems, Kung-Fu Master’s influence can be seen in games such as Karateka (created by Jordan Mechner, who would go on to create the classic Prince Of Persia), Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja and Altered Beast.
One of the most blatant Kung-Fu Master clones came from Data East itself. 1988’s Vigilante starred a man in dungarees who walked along a little bit, kicked someone in the face, walked along a little bit…
The game that launched game designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s career into the stratosphere, introduced two legendary videogame characters (the titular Donkey Kong and his nemesis, Jumpman, later rechristened Mario), while its running, jumping gameplay popularised the platform genre.
Once again, Donkey Kong’s success ushered in a wave of almost identical clones, some of them sneaking into arcades (Sega’s Congo Bongo, Falcon’s Crazy Kong, also known as Congorilla), most appearing like a rash on 8-bit computers. These all went under titles like Killer Kong, Krazy Kong (there were, in fact, three of these on the ZX Spectrum alone), Kongo and Wally Kong.
Weirdly enough, prolific 8-bit software house Ocean put out two Donkey Kong games – one was an unlicensed clone called Kong in 1983, the other a properly licensed version that followed on three years later. Neither of these was particularly good, but both were infiinitely better than C-Tech’s Krazy Kong for the Spectrum which, as veteran videogame journalist Stuart Campbell once pointed out, is one of the worst games of all time. Just look what they did to poor old Donkey Kong: