Sunday, September 20, 2009

Top 5 Suspect Homages in Videogames

"Suspect homages" are a fact in any medium. Sometimes somethings so good, the lightning in the bottle so crackling, that you must have it even if it means swiping the bottle when no one's lookin'. Here's my top five o' them.

5. Donkey Kong = King Kong

Right off the bat, you are thinking: "This is bullshit. It's a frigging parody; Donkey Kong 'steals' from King Kong as much as South Park 'steals' from Peanuts." And you and anyone else with a brain would be right. But tell that to arrogant Hollywood moguls.

In the early 80's, the original arcade smash Donkey Kong was making money hand-over-fist for a little company named Nintendo, with the latter planning incursions into the booming console and portable electronics markets. The success of videogames in general, and in particular Donkey Kong, was attracting the attention of a lot of Old Media, in the zenith of their power before they were to be humbled in the new millennium by little things like New Media and internet piracy. The mighty Universal Studios, owners of the King Kong property, dawned on an easy, all-American idea to enter the booming videogame market: sue Nintendo and friends for "stealing" their King Kong IP, demanding all profits and creative rights, and in return they "may" be allowed to work with Universal in the future. Don't you feel bad for pirating movies on the internet now?

Nintendo's licensors quickly folded under the threats, however, legendary Nintendo guru Howard Lincoln instead launched a legal campaign to fight back against this 800 lb. gorilla. Hiring the equally-legendary attorney John Kirby (of whom, it is said, the Nintendo character Kirby is named after), they proceeded to spank Unversial in court. The two companies together would essentially roleplay the "100m" level from Donkey Kong, with Nintendo as Mario yanking out the plugs and Universal as the doofus ape, stomping about, oblivious to its imminent doom.

Universal, it seemed, had argued in a case just years prior that King Kong was public domain, allowing them to swipe the character for a hideous retread. Now they were arguing the opposite, and on tenuous logic, no less. Universal's actions would lead to a loss of a good chunk of change and serious legal humiliation from a series of livid judges, one of them ruling that the gameplay of Universal's own King Kong videogame, in fact, ripped off Donkey Kong (King Kong = Donkey Kong!). The case would thus forever cement the legitimacy of videogame companies, and in particular Nintendo's prominence as One With Whom Not To Fuck With. It also gives us another reason to point and laugh at the movie cartel before we go back to torrenting. oh, that last line is in jest, I swear.

4. Limbo of the Lost = pretty much like all the games I own?

Since the days of Donkey Kong, the videogame industry has itself grown to be a huge, corporate behemoth. Despite this, there's still a trace of its old Wild West roots, sometimes showing up in scandals like this one: Limbo of the Lost from Majestic Studios. The development hell alone is enough to make it infamous. Low budget production values? Check. Ten years in development? Check. "Behind-the-scenes" clips made in YouTube amatuer-style? Check. A character named "Cranny Faggot"? Jesus Christ, check.

But what really made Limbo of the Lost the stuff of epic legends was that the game that was essentially a Frankenstein creation of stolen assets, images, even level design, particularly from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, of which they apparently didn't even bother to, say, remove references to characters in the art they stole from. Over a dozen titles have been linked to Limbo's thievery, and even footage from certain Hollywood films, such as Beetlejuice and Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series, have been spotted in the game.

Majestic Studios had wound up pulling distribution while it investigated what went wrong. Judging from my prior experiences in this industry, I'd say that, like too many projects in this industry, this one was headed by management dickheads whose videogame experience is limited to Minesweeper and online poker, and thus couldn't recognize the very assets being looted from AAA titles released only a few years ago. At any rate, Limbo of the Lost certainly lived up to its goofy title: forever lost in a limbo of infamy.

3. Quick Man = Stevie B

Videogame music has had already a rich, creative history in the 30 or so years since the genre first came about. While, for example, the American corporate music industry remains mired in churning out celebrities, chasing down teenagers for downloading illegal music, and slipping into irrelevancy, videogame music continues to grow and thrive, even into actual orchestra (check out the Toyko Philharmonic's rendition of a couple themes from Populous).

But with every artform, there's always a bit of suspect homage that shows up now and again, and videogame music is no exception. The similarities between the soundtrack of the original release of DOOM and popular rock metal of the day have been oft documented, Konami was forced to drop the Metal Gear Solid theme from their own series due to accusations of plagiarism, and the Elec Man stage theme from the original Mega Man seems to have been inspired by Tina Turner. Videogame music these days has gone far enough to become even a little intramural, if the recent Bandai Namco scandal is any indication (What bonehead steals music from Chrono Trigger? That soundtrack is one of the most obsessed over on the internets).

But, and speaking of Mega Man, the one that always amused me was the stage theme for Quick Man in Mega Man 2, and its passing resemblance to this cheesy funk single from the 80's.

I'm torn. On the one hand, Quick Man's stage theme seems to be Stevie B's "Spring Love" with a few beats altered, the tempo increased, a unique ditty tacked in on the end. I even recall me and my friends jokingly singing "Spring loooooooovvve....come back toooo meeeeeee" as we dodged those silly lasers back in 1989. On the other hand, Quick Man's stage theme, was, is, and always will be the dope show. And it takes pretty good talent to swipe a bit of music using a MIDI library, as opposed to, say, the Auto-Tune humping, sample-whoring "musicians" of today. So, uh, consider this entry redacted. Oh yes, and: Mega Man 2 rules.

2. K.C. Munchkin = Pac-Man

The O.G. of the "pretty blatant clone/supsect homage of a popular videogame" set, K.C. Munchkin! (exclamation point included!) was a home console clone of the original Pac-Man with some subtle changes (like turning the iconic Pac-Man character into a happy, hairy testicle with a mouth). Atari would ultimately sue publisher and archrival Magnavox over the issue, partly in retaliation for their similar lawsuit regarding Pong years earlier, but mostly in fear that the latter's superior quality to the notoriously awful Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man could cause them to evacuate in their moment of triumph.

Despite the obvious flattery, K.C. Munchkin! did have some genuine innovations, including dots that move around on their own and even level editors/generators (and hey, the courts did posit that K.C. himself had "more personality" and consumed "spookier" ghosts. Take that, Pac-Man!). However, the courts ruled in favor of Atari anyway, their decision probably influenced by Magnavox's own precedent regarding Pong, as well as the legions of knock-offs that Pac-Man had already been plagued with (witness Hangly-Man). The result was the premature demise of K.C. Munchkin! and a court decision that essentially confuses gameplay innovation with copyright infringement. History has not been kind to the decision; blatant clones still persist, most of them avoiding litigation, and the case would become especially irrelevant once the industry realized it was more lucrative to bring improvements to established gameplay ideas rather than pay lawyers obscene amounts of money to try to hold monopolies on them.

Despite their defeat, Magnavox was ultimately able to enjoy schadenfreude against Atari anyway, for two reasons. For one, the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man was such a failure that it's often blamed, along with E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, for causing the Crash of '83, whereas K.C. Munchkin continues to be appreciated by retro gaming fans to this today. The other was their cheeky "sequel" to K.C. Munchkin!, called K.C.'s Krazy Chase!. In Chase!, K.C. himself makes a little more effort to distinguish himself from Pac-Man, such as rolling about as he travels rather than "gobbling" forward. He still eats things, though, including his main target, a bloated, greedy worm; wonder what that last one's supposed to represent?

1. Squall Leonhart = this very metro J-Pop artist

There's perhaps plenty to dislike about Tetsuya Nomura, the popular character designer/artist of the new school Final Fantasy entries (and thanks to that popularity, now a high muckity-muck at Square-Enix). He's always had his detractors from the start, his by-the-numbers McAnime design (No sword too big! No hair too spikey! Never enough belt buckles and zippers!) in jarring contrast from the sumptuous and always recognizable work of series regular Yoshitaka Amano. Nomura was a mammoth hit with those millennials in the late 90's just beginning to experience these anime character design tropes for the first time. Those same fans wouldn't find out just how regurgitated these designs were until Nomura proceed to regurge all the way to around Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts, earning himself a fair amount of haters in the process. Speaking of Kingdom Hearts, when I heard of his role in the project, the first thing I thought was "He's gonna put a zipper and a belt buckle on Donald Duck's sailor cap". And sure enough, he did. (in fact, it almost looks like THREE zippers) Donald actually got off easy compared to poor Mickey Mouse, whose costume has, among other things, belt straps attached to the front of his shoes.

And speaking of his creations, there's perhaps plenty to hate about Final Fantasy VIII's marquee star, Squall Leonhart. Squall, in fact, can be seen as Nomura crystallized: for every one rabid idolater, there's a hater ready to stick in a shiv. Squall's game has been a victim of all sorts of excoriating reviews, the most legendary of which is a brutal, 7+ hour dismantling by Noah Antwiler of The Spoony Experiment. (On Nomura's designs, Antwiler wonders if there is a "'walking cliche' warehouse" the Final Fantasy VIII characters shop at) Often in the headlights for the game's creative failures is the ever-peculiar Squall himself; his cloying moodiness and sociopathic need to constantly prove he's a loner (even in the face of gorgeous women throwing themselves at his feet) is less Citizen Kane and more Anakin Skywalker, making Final Fantasy VIII that much more of a chore for some. Worse yet is that, in retrospect during this post 9-11/economic collapse/Bush clusterfuck era, his whiny pessimism about nothing looks all the more dated.

But one supposes that neither can be forgiven for stealing the look of one of Japan's most popular (and apparently most metrosexual) J-Pop artists.

Good grief.

Gackt is a musician/model/entertainer/human bishie based in Japan (whenever he's not torturing people with "crotch-splitting devices"). In the late 90's, right on the verge of launching his solo career, he would run afoul of this "homage" from Nomura and Square, and would later publicly deride the Squall character, according to this fan site, as "Gackt #2" . As you can see by the photo, Gackt is wrong; he only has one belt buckle in the pic on the right and zero on the left, whereas Squall has 8 buckles (including two on his shoes, unpictured). Case closed, go home Gackt.

Gackt would eventually forgive Square-Enix and Nomura, even himself crafting music for a later Final Fantasy title (the underwhelming Dirge of Cerberus). However, this suspect homage here will forever give haters of Nomura and Squall more ammo than they probably need.


karadin said...

Fab entry on Gackt and Nomura, Gackt finally went official in 2006/2007 as FFVII character Genesis Rhapsodos,in Dirge of Cerebus and Crisis Core, lending his voice as well as his image.

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