Nintendo‘s legacy as one of the definitive cultural names in gaming can’t be attributed to any one thing. However, when most people think of Nintendo, they’re almost certainly thinking about Nintendo’s games. When you buy a new Nintendo console or handheld, you’re really buying into the next Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Super Smash Bros. title. More than 35 years after the release of the NES, few game companies have preserved the integrity and quality of their franchises as well as Nintendo has.
Maybe that’s why Nintendo has been so adamant over the years about shutting down nearly all fan projects involving their legendary original properties.
In 2016, Nintendo worked to remove all download links for Pokemon Uranium: an ambitious fan-made Pokemon title that rivaled the originals. That same year, Nintendo struck down a project known as AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake), which brilliantly re-imagined the Game Boy game Metroid II: Return of Samus. Nintendo gave an HD remake of Super Mario 64 the same treatment, while a beloved Smash Bros. mod known as Project M was discontinued partially due to its creators’ worries over potential legal troubles. Nintendo fans have demonstrated their desire and ability to create new entries in beloved Nintendo franchises that adhere to the quality standards of the originals, but time and again, Nintendo has chosen to shut these fan games down.
Yet, this year, a new breed of Nintendo-inspired projects may have found a way to preserve the passion of those previous works while avoiding Nintendo’s considerable legal reach by avoiding the company’s IP altogether. The result is PC games that closely resemble Nintendo properties without any of the copyright infringement.
A game called Hokko Life is set to debut on Steam this year. It looks like a cute title that allows you to move into a cartoonish village, interact with the animal locals, design your home, and…okay, it looks just like Animal Crossing. The debut trailer teases a few differences and modern flourishes: it doesn’t look as refined as an Animal Crossing game (it’s the passion project of a single developer, Robert Tatnell), but it does offer things like mouse-enabled precision movements, which are not really possible in the official Animal Crossing games due to Nintendo’s dependence on controllers.
Hokko Life was announced just weeks after the debut of Temtem, a game that can best be described as a Pokemon MMO developed by an indie dev team in Spain. Some fans have pointed out that Temtem is closer to a Digimon MMO, but when you’re talking about a game where you wander an area in order to capture creatures so that you can battle other trainers, we’re not going to split hairs. The point is that the game looks incredibly familiar, even if it offers an MMO component that Nintendo’s Pokemon titles do not.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon — games such as 2013’s Oceanhorn and LandSalkter for the Sega Genesis have offered Zelda-like experiences over the years — but the appearance of these two games in such a short time span feels like much more than a coincidence. It feels like a response to a rapidly changing gaming industry that Nintendo has, thus far, not been an especially active member of.
Microsoft has pushed to eliminate the borders of traditional gaming exclusives by not only ensuring that titles that may have otherwise been next-gen console exclusives will come to PC, but by releasing former Xbox exclusives on the Nintendo Switch. Even Sony is reportedly thinking of bringing some of its former exclusives to PC through standalone release and even the PlayStation Now service. Sony’s actions in that regard might have something to do with the reportedly growing popularity of PC gaming among Japanese studios and gamers.
Through all of these changes, Nintendo has largely remained steadfast in its belief that its games belong on Nintendo platforms. That makes sense from a business standpoint, and that practice has served Nintendo well over the years, but we live in a time where the growing belief is that game companies benefit most from getting their experiences in the hands of as many gamers as possible. The world is full of Nintendo fans, but not all of them can buy a Nintendo console to play the latest releases.
This PC movement could be about more than expanding the reach of Nintendo concepts, though. At the heart of the many Nintendo fan projects that have been shut down over the years was a desire to offer experiences that Nintendo was not. A more advanced Pokemon game that didn’t take a generation to develop. A modification of Super Smash Bros. that brought the series closer to its Super Smash Bros. Melee “glory days.” A remake of a Metroid game that was sadly falling through the cracks of history. It’s telling that Nintendo has gone on to explore many of these concepts in official games like Metroid: Samus Returns (which began development in 2015, a year before AM2R, a fan remake that took 10 years to develop, was released) and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which brings back the full roster and stages of Melee.
Temtem and Hokko Life could represent a brave new future for amateur and pro developers who want to make their dream Nintendo games. After all, a series of PC games inspired by Nintendo concepts that also push these concepts forward is enticing, especially if these games also push Nintendo itself to try new things. And while in the past, fan games such as a multiplayer version of Super Mario 64 or a pseudo-3D remake of the original Legend of Zelda were destined to be shut down by Nintendo, Temtem and Hokko Life will likely avoid this fate, free to exist and grow on a platform Nintendo has largely avoided.
While Hokko Life could end up being little more than a reskinned variant of Animal Crossing and Temtem is a Pokemon homage that takes the concept into MMO territory, they’re also an evolution of the bold fan projects that came before. If this trend continues, Temtem and Hokko Life could lead to the creation of a new series of “Nintendo-like” titles that do not settle on offering unofficial Nintendo games but rather represent the spirit, skill, and grand design concepts that made those classic franchises household names in the first place. Besides, a little competition is a good thing.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.