Blatant clone or marketing hoax? The curious case of Tokyo 41 and Tokyo 42

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accusations that a new game is just a lightly reskinned clone of another title. But there’s that, and then there’s the “cloning” debate surrounding Tokyo 42 and its alleged inspiration, a 30-year-old ZX Spectrum and PC game called Tokyo 41.

As manufactured controversies go, this one leaves a lot to be skeptical of. As clever marketing plans go, though, it’s an interesting public performance that touches on some real issues in modern gaming.

The first mention of a game called Tokyo 41 anywhere on the Internet seems to have come from a Twitter account belonging to alleged developer Mark Followill. On the same day the account was created, Followill replied to Tokyo 42 publisher Mode 7 Games with a couple of CGA-style screenshots of Tokyo 41. Those shots heavily resemble Tokyo 42‘s isometric shooter gameplay despite Tokyo 41 allegedly being originally published in 1987. “It is clear that this game is strongly similar to my game Tokyo 41 which you are clearly aware of,” Followill tweeted.

Over the weekend, Followill started up a WordPress blog and posted more details about Tokyo 41‘s alleged history, including a video of an alleged updated and emulated version of the game. Followill writes of his frustration trying to get Mode 7 to acknowledge its debt to his earlier game:

Despite many efforts to contact the publishers and developers I have received no meaningful reply. The press has been silent on this matter, as 1980’s British game development has been forgotten amongst the corporatisation of computer games, a trend which drove me out of this vibrant creative area at the time.

The legal protections for computer games are very poor, and my partner at Omen Barn Michael Hernandez has told me he is not interested in pursuing any claim against the perpetrators of this. Personally I would welcome any legal advice on this matter – I know there are many on the internet with far greater expertise than I.

Mode 7 Games’ Paul Kilduff-Taylor is publicly calling Tokyo 41 “blatantly fake” on Twitter, speculating that it could be “some kind of elaborate trademark troll.” This morning, he wrote that he’s “not commenting on THE THING currently due to ADVICE but am enjoying all of your viewpoints.”

The “developer” speaks

How can Tokyo 41 have existed for 30 years without any mention by the hordes of classic PC gaming fans on the Internet (or contemporary attention from the late ’80s gaming press)? “We sold games in local shops only and so they are not well recorded, with little information available on the internet,” Followill said in response to an e-mail from Ars Technica. “As I have said, I am looking to promote the work of such developers as ourselves if people will only listen to what I am actually saying instead of misquoting me etc.”

Followill tells Ars he formed the Kent-based developer omen Barn (yes, that’s company styling) in the late ’80s with partner Michael Hernandez. The company was “named after a barn near our houses which we found to be particularly ominous in nature,” he says. “Barn is capitalised there as it was a big barn, also this was the fashion at the time.” Tokyo 41 was “inspired by my love of Tokyo and Japan which I established as a young boy, visiting the blossom season and having adventures with police,” Followill says.

While the ZX Spectrum version is lost forever, Followill says, the footage he posted “is based on an emulated version OF THE PC VERSION with MODERN SOUND And some changes.  I am using basic hardware emulation techniques in a C++ wrapper I have written myself in order to run the DOS CGA version of the game, then on top of this I have added elements to present the game to a modern audience.”

That supposedly explains why the video footage runs with better graphics and sound than would seemingly be possible on a 1987-era PC. But Followill says he can’t share the emulated ROM publicly “for obvious reasons – who knows what could happen to it as soon as it was released. After this controversy I do not want more exposure for the game.”

An expert hoax

While the parties involved are doing a great job of staying in character, it should hopefully be clear by now that the story surrounding Tokyo 41 is an elaborate marketing hoax. The lack of any sort of contemporary paper trail or Internet memory of the game seems utterly implausible for a game that a Mode 7 developer would know enough about to steal. The “emulated” footage also seems much too sophisticated for a late ’80s PC release in a number of ways (“some changes” notwithstanding).

Followill’s relatively recent Internet presence and the timing of his accusations are suspicious enough, but if there’s still any doubt, the end of Followill’s e-mail to Ars reads like thinly veiled marketing copy for the “copycat” game he’s attacking. “There is a lot of focus on me now and I will say that I only want recognition for my work, not to intefere [sic] with the forthcoming PlayStation 4 release of Tokyo 42 tomorrow, which as a fan of games I am looking forward to even though it will be bittersweet for me.” While some in the indie game scene are playing along with the story on Twitter, many seem to be in on the joke.

So if this “controversy” is obviously fake, why even bother writing about it? For one, it’s a fun twist on the trend of “demaking” a modern game by capturing its look or feel in a decidedly retro style. Recently, the demake trend led to a surprisingly playable 2D version of Breath of the Wild, but the concept can trace its roots back much further than that.

More than that, though, we respect the sheer audacity of play-acting this kind of scandal in such a blatant and public way, with tongue firmly in cheek. Yes, you could argue the Tokyo 41 hoax makes light of the very real issue of game cloning, which can be devastating when it actually happens to developers. There’s also a thin line between playful marketing hoax and actively misleading the public that Tokyo 41 straddles uncomfortably.

In many ways, though, the manufactured controversy resembles an alternate reality game, adding a layer of “real world” fiction that places layers on top of the self-contained in-game world. When a marketing plan is put together with such cleverness and care, it’s hard not to be charmed.

Listing image by Mark Followill

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