One of the best marketing tactics a corporation in the creative industries can employ is to represent their product as something completely unique and new, or as something that has evolved the formula beyond the competition. The whole This game/genre has evolved! schtick is especially common with sequels, and was rather common in the Japanese ad media during the first decade of the 2000’s. You don’t see Japanese developers mentioning their sources of inspirations much outside few notable exceptions like Hideki Kamiya, who has been vocal about his love towards arcade games. Western developers often do the opposite, citing examples what their game is like. The difference between cultures here is rather contrasting to the point of American audiences preferring to refer their games ‘as like something’ even in genres, like Doomclone, Soulslike, Metroidvania and such.
Japanese like to invent new genres for specific games though, though this is in order to endorse the whole idea of these games being something completely unique. Shenmue‘s FREE, Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment and Mega Man Legends‘ Free-Running RPG are the ones I cite the most as examples, mostly because both of them are full of bullshit. Sometimes you can find these redefining genre names as a game’s subtitle as well, with Metal Gear Solid‘s Stealth Espionage Action being a prime example. By introducing something as new and wholly created by oneself or one’s own team, prestige, reputation and face can be gained. A culture most of the credit, if not even all of it, can be credited to one person alone while putting all the faults and mistakes unto lower staff members, it becomes understandable why Nintendo wants their customers to believe that they have created their games in a bubble of creativity, free of whatever is around them.
Staff at Nintendo have always been aware what’s around them. They have always been as much trendchasers as they have been trendsetters. With their pre-Famicom era Pong clones to the very early era of making Hanafuda cards, they’ve always taken something that exist and given it a whirl of their own. What I mean by this is that Nintendo, especially with their video games, have always taken a game and looked at it how it could be given a different spin. This sometimes improves the formula, sometimes it doesn’t. Devil World is a great example of a failed attempt at improving the Pac-Man formula.
The game is actually pretty bad. It has one nice tune, but overall you just wish you were playing real Pac-Man
The Legend of Zelda and the Action Role Playing Game myth is probably the biggest one out there. As touted by Nintendo Power during the game’s release, it was the first game of its kind. In reality, it of course wasn’t. Even Link’s Adventure, a game which is considered to be an outlier, adheres to pre-existing games to a large degree, trying to improve on mechanics and ideas that already established. However, it must be said that The Legend of Zelda was the first true mainstream success of its genre in the United States, as the closest relative the game had at the time was Ultima games. There are links missing between Ultima and The Legend of Zelda, though not many.
First of the links is Falcom’s 1984 Dragon Slayer, which more or less takes the Ultima formula and simplifies it down to one massive dungeon.
Zelda would adopt this same top view perspective. All the base building blocks are here that would be seen in The Legend of Zelda down the line, though battling is still done with statistics. You can expect a hard defeat if you don’t have proper stats or magic. Dragon Slayer wasn’t the only game in town to get inspired by Western RPG or use an early version of bump combat that year.
Hydlide has become a sort of punching bag on the Internet for being terrible, but in reality it’s no worse than other RPGs of the time. Visually there are similarities that we’d see in later games like Dragon Quest, which in itself is a combination of Ultima’s top-down view and Wizardry‘s in-window battles. The way both these games hit the scene in 1984 is telling how much impact early Ultima and Wizardry had on the Japanese PC gaming. Falcom’s influence on Nintendo wouldn’t stop with Dragon Slayer, as 1985’s Xanadu‘s battle mode very much like Zelda‘s overall play.
The difference of course being that all of the games still use statistics and experience as a play basis, not removing them from Ultima too much. The Legend of Zelda changes the formula by removing experience and the need to grind for experience points to item statistics. While Link doesn’t gain any visible statistics during the game, the player progression and curbing is done by gaining stat growth via weapons. This makes the game easier to approach and opens all of the game map to the player from the start, and encourages the player to wander around to adventure even more. Falcom’s influence on the series can also be seen in Link’s Adventure, which more or less uses Xanadu‘s changing battle-mode to shake things up, but keeps things viewed from the side. While not exactly new at the time. While Link’s Adventure is seen as a kind of black sheep of the series, despite historically it outselling its stock and being an excellent title on its own rights, Falcom released their own game using the same side-view concept Link’s Adventure had in Sorcerian.
The two games were developed about the same time, though Sorcerian sticks to the side-view throughout its whole game without changing perspectives. The play itself is dramatically different, structuring the game on particular quests and scenarios. Combat itself is surprisingly downplayed, though player has to directly attack enemies in similar fashion to Link’s Adventure. Having four party members means you can have mages shooting fireballs while melee characters hack with their swords. Sorcerian can be traced as one of the ancestors of Wanderers from Ys rather than be coined as a Link’s Adventure clone. Influenced without a doubt, just like Falcom’s and other companies games influenced Zelda overall.
Zelda just happens to be one of the better examples, where most of the influences never arrived to US. European micro-computers had their own games depending on the countries, with Sabrewulf being the most popular example. Another would be F-Zero, in which Nintendo can’t really deny influences of other racing games. The game was developed as a tech-demo for SNES’ Mode 7, which largely explains why the series has been left on the side. F-Zero X showed how fast and furious games can be on the N64 and improved the concept leaps and bounds, but Nintendo never really knew what to do after that. For them, the lower revenues and lack of ideas how to introduce a new kind of gimmick to the game has left the series dormant. AM2’s F-Zero GX is effectively just an improved version of F-Zero X, but the genre doesn’t exactly offer the best chances of installing new gimmicks without breaking the purity of play. Mario Kart on the other hand does, and gets all the attention instead.
In the absence of new futuristic racing games, Wipeout hit the scene of fill the empty niche. Games like Redshift have continued this sort of tradition, but more games in the genre are being inspired by Wipeout rather than F-Zero, similarly how Nintendo’s games inspire other titles rather the original sources
Not all influences are in the open or traceable. Argonaut Software’s Croc: Legend of the Gobbos was stated to be a primary inspiration for Super Mario 64 according to the studio’s founder Jez San. In an interview with Eurogamer, San goes over how they had a completed Star Fox 2 and had made a pitch for a 3D Yoshi game to Nintendo, but appropriated much of their Star Fox 2 code into Star Fox 64, and have people would never see royalties from Star Fox 2‘s release on the Super Nintendo Mini or through Switch’s online service. Super Mario 64 is very similar to what their pitched prototype was. Despite Croc released year later than Super Mario 64, these similarities they carried from their original pitch are evident, even having similar movesets. It’s easy to see Croc as an alternative skin to Yoshi, changed enough not to infringe copyrights. Shigeru Miyamoto has effectively admitted lifting the 3D game idea from Argonauts to San despite their close relationship.
“Miyamoto-san came up to me at a show afterwards and apologised for not doing the Yoshi game with us and thanked us for the idea to do a 3D platform game. He also said that we would make enough royalties from our existing deal to make up for it. That felt hollow to me, as I’m of the opinion that Nintendo ended our agreement without fully realising it. They canned Star Fox 2 even though it was finished and used much of our code in Star Fox 64 without paying us a penny.
Super Mario 64 would go cited as the first ‘true’ 3D game, which in itself is patently untrue. Despite the hype around Mario 64, 1980’s already saw games like Star Wars and Battlezone, which used wireframe models to create a 3D environment. We can cite Ultima Underworld as one of the earliest examples of 3D game that didn’t use wireframe models. Alone in the Dark can be cited as an example as well. The distinction of course becomes whether or not all the environment is modelled in polygonal 3D or not, in which case we need to give the first ‘true’ 3D distinction to Quake. We shouldn’t forget Sega’s Virtual-On series either, which offered full 360-degrees of free range of controls via its twin stick control scheme. Ultimately, the pretty much everything Super Mario 64 did, from its 3D nature to having game designed to be controlled via a stick, can be traced to numerous other titles and sources.
I fully admit, I never liked Quake
However, cultivating the idea Nintendo, and every other company out there, is some kind of single creative force makes good money. It’s a PR dream to have a product that stands apart from the rest of the shelf, but is familiar enough for the consumer to understand at first sight. One you manage to gain a position as the one who defined a type of product, yours is the standard that is compared against. The Legend of Zelda doesn’t have much direct competition any more, though games like Nier: Automata are effectively in the same Action RPG genre, but a distinction is made between the two to make a separation for marketing reasons. It’s all about the money and position at the end of the day, and if you can claim to be at the top, you’ll get the most fame and money.