Imitation isn’t just a sincere form of flattery for these indie games: Fan-driven passion projects continue and improve on the legacies of classic games abandoned by their original creators.
By Jordan Minor
In my most recent opinion column, I argued you shouldn’t get upset when franchises change, because other games may take up the torch of the older styles. If you want to play an RPG in the vein of classic Paper Mario, play Bug Fables. If you’re an old-school Sega fan hungry for more Jet Set Radio or Nights: Into Dreams, keep your eyes peeled for the recently announced Bomb Rush Cyberfunk and Balan Wonderworld.
Nostalgia plays a key role in what makes these familiar, yet new, indie games appealing. By creating games that look like they fell out of the 1980s but are spruced up with modern quality-of-life improvements, the developers give us the warm memory of what we played rather than the iffy reality. They also save themselves from massive AAA spending costs.
Many of these games ape a very obvious reference point. Shakedown: Hawaii puts its own spin on classic, top-down Grand Theft Auto open-world mayhem. The Bloodstained games, produced by former Konami employee Koji Igarashi, evoke specific Castlevania memories, specifically Castlevania III on NES and Symphony of the Night on PlayStation 1. Speaking of Konami, Blazing Chrome ‘s crunchy, side-scrolling shooting stands out in a sea of Contra clones. Meanwhile, Stardew Valley began as a passion project from one Harvest Moon fan and became the defining farming sim of our era.
Personally, I enjoy games that blend multiple references together to create a more original whole. The Messenger starts off as a straightforward Ninja Gaiden homage before morphing into something else entirely. Shovel Knight wouldn’t be nearly as iconic if his adventure didn’t pull from 8-bit hits as varied as Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man, and DuckTales.
There’s nothing wrong with indie games that riff on pixelated 2D games of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. But as gaming evolves, nostalgia evolves with it. Now, there are generations of players with fond memories for early 3D games. Fortunately, ambitious indie homages have shifted their focus as well.
Never Stop Sneakin’ gleefully skewers Metal Gear Solid’s absurdities and combines it with a smooth and effortless stealth mechanic. In Aragami, the shadows conceal you in the best 3D ninja-stealth game since the Tenchu series. The Rock of Ages series isn’t exactly like Odama, but they both scratch the very specific itch of absurd and vaguely historical games where players cause destruction with a big stone ball. In Skully, you play as a little skull ball rolling around levels that mash up Super Monkey Ball controls with action-adventure game level design. For EA fans, Skater XL may not quite be the Skate 4 you’re looking for, but Cities: Skylines is the best SimCity in ages.
Parallel to this is a growing trend of old-school creators making spiritual successors to their original work. A new team from the folks behind Banjo-Kazooie debuted with Yooka-Laylee, another 3D platformer with its own animal-buddy duo. Obsidian’s history with the Fallout franchise shines through in The Outer Worlds, its latest open-world, sci-fi RPG. Daemon x Machina wears Armored Cored roots on its giant mech sleeve. Even though we did get an actual Shenmue 3, the real legacy of that bonkers, action-packed Japanese city life game continues with Yakuza, also from Sega.
We’re also seeing companies hand the keys to their franchises to smaller teams. The Square Enix Collective lets indie teams pitch ideas based on Eidos properties, so come up with your best Gex design doc. Games Workshop offers a similar deal to diversify its selection of Warhammer games. Christian Whitehead got his start porting old Sonic the Hedgehog games, developed the truly incredible mascot redemption Sonic Mania, and is now working on Freedom Planet 2, the sequel to an indie game very much inspired by Sonic. That’s like a loop-the-loop of fan creator to official creator and back again. Blur the lines until they no longer matter.
It should come as no surprise that the company that inspires far and away the most indie imitators is the company that inspires so many young players to get into gaming in the first place. Tons of indie games clearly started as “we want to make X Nintendo game” and went forward from there. Because Nintendo has so many classic franchises, that broad starting point leads to many different outcomes.
Brawlout brought platform-based fighting to the Nintendo Switch months before Super Smash Bros. Fast RMX fills the high-speed, futuristic hole Nintendo has yet to fill with F-Zero. Temtem wants to be the Pokemon MMO we’ve always dreamt about. Golf Story recalls the handheld Mario sports RPGs. While Fire Emblem enjoys newfound success, Tiny Metal and WarGroove show love to fans of Nintendo’s other strategy franchise, Advance Wars. The Venn diagram of EarthBound fans and Undertale fans is a perfect circle. Save Me Mr. Tako doesn’t reference a game as much as it references hardware, with its green Game Boy color palette and compact, handheld-friendly gameplay. While writing this column, I learned about an upcoming Star Fox-esque game on Steam called Whisker Squadron.
The biggest Nintendo games are just so influential that naming all of their imitators would be impossible. From Oceanhorn to Okami, we have an entire list of Zelda-type games on the Switch alone. Metroid’s name makes up one half of an entire subgenre encompassing games as varied as the moody Axiom Verge to the monochrome Gato Roboto. Practically any game about running and jumping, from Braid to Celeste to Super Meat Boy, takes inspiration from Super Mario Bros.
Aside from an occasional high-profile debacle (doomed Mega Man revival Mighty №9) or a Kickstarter that fails to materialize (Project Rap Rabbit from the makers of PaRappa the Rapper), countless indie games picking up where famous games left off leads to more and better games for everyone. Can’t find that old Neo Geo Pocket Color? Fire up Pocket Rumble instead. If you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best.