Adventure Time, Falling Skies, and the blurry line of homage

By Steve Watts, Jun 16, 2014 1:15pm PDT

You might not know Little Orbit, but you certainly know the franchises it works with. The small publisher has made a name for itself developing licensed games from TV and movie properties like Young Justice and How to Train Your Dragon. Many of these are based heavily on existing popular games, and at E3, I saw a pair that exemplified the blurry line between homage and direct copy.

Those two games were Adventure Time: Secret of the Nameless Kingdom (from WayForward) and Falling Skies, both based on TV shows of the same name. They were roughly equal in how heavily they lifted from existing games, but age made a huge difference in how I perceived them.

Adventure Time: Secret of the Nameless Kingdom is a classic Zelda game through and through. Specifically, it's based largely on A Link to the Past, with a graphical style that approximates the 16-bit era. The dungeon design drives this home even further. There are walls that need to be broken with bombs; switches that alternately raise and lower red and blue pegs; and enemies that use common Zelda patterns. One of Finn's items, a banana, has a boomerang arc. A special ability for Jake lets you hit special switches that open up doorways, and is necessary to defeat the mid-stage boss.

It's all delivered with Adventure Time's signature brand of off-beat humor, with the help of show creator Pendleton Ward. The story centers around Finn being sent to the Nameless Kingdom by Princess Bubblegum, but in typical Finn fashion he didn't listen well to her instructions. Arriving there, he's supposed to assign one of three princesses to lead the kingdom, but they're all trapped in their own respective dungeons. Hijinks and Zelda-style adventuring ensue.

Nameless Kingdom was certainly a Zelda game in all but its name, but it didn't strike me as cheap or unoriginal. Falling Skies, on the other hand, did.

Falling Skies is based on the TNT show of the same name. I noted in the announcement that it sounded like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but it didn't strike me just how XCOM it was until I saw it for myself. Though not nearly as good-looking as Firaxis' revered strategy game, it's as close an imitation as imitation can get. The game mechanics looked identical, from recruiting nobodies to the subsequent class system where they'd rise the ranks. Your base includes a research station to develop new weapons. The actual missions have the same perspective, and even use similar visual cues to identify your movement options. Cover points are marked by a shield icon. It could only be more XCOM if it were an actual sequel.

In reflection, though, Adventure Time borrowed roughly the same amount of mechanics from Zelda. So why did one strike me so poorly, and the other didn't?

As far as I can tell, it comes down to the passage of time. Zelda games, and specifically LTTP, has gone down in history as one of the greatest games of all time. Many games have iterated on its style in one way or another. It's an influential game that has had time to produce ripple effects throughout the industry. A game that serves as a throwback to it, be it Adventure Time or 3D Dot Game Heroes, feels like a loving homage. The producers are in on the reference and they know we all get it.

XCOM, on the other hand, is too new. It may have been based on an older game, but Enemy Unknown revitalized it in some very specific ways. Falling Skies feels off because it doesn't come across as a loving homage to a classic, but rather a carbon copy with a new wrapper. It files off the serial numbers and hopes we either won't notice or won't care.

I didn't play either game. For all I know, Adventure Time will be a wreck of a Zelda homage, and Falling Skies will be a competent pseudo-sequel to one of our favorite games. But based purely on looks alone, one felt much more respectful of the obvious source material.

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