Steve Gerber wanted his duck back.
It wasn’t just any duck, after all. It was Howard the Duck, a popular character that Gerber created at Marvel Comics. Because the character was created as a work-for-hire, however, Howard was owned by Marvel. So, Gerber created a spiritual successor at Image Comics that he would completely own: “Leonard the Duck.” Not only was there an uncanny resemblance, but Gerber even found a convoluted way to show his fans that this was, in his mind, the real Howard, and the one at Marvel was the fake.
While the video game industry has seen a number of similar spiritual successors as of late, none have yet claimed to actually be those original characters. In truth, they really don’t have to. Once proud franchises like Banjo-Kazooie, Mega Man, and Castlevania haven’t had new iterations in years, essentially making titles like Yooka-Laylee, Mighty No. 9, and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night their replacements. And since the original franchise creators are developing all three of these new games, there’s a certain degree of legitimacy to each of them.
Fans are certainly treating them as legitimate, anyway. Despite the fact that these games feature new protagonists (something the industry isn’t known for embracing), the collective Kickstarter campaigns for Yooka-Laylee, Mighty No. 9, and Bloodstained have amassed more than eight million US dollars between them, as of this writing– an amazing feat when you consider that the franchises these titles are based on have all but disappeared.
If the original publishers are bothered by these spiritual successors, it clearly isn’t showing. Rare is currently focused on making games for Microsoft’s Kinect, while Capcom and Konami have shifted their attention toward HD remakes and mobile gaming, leaving icons like Mega Man and Simon Belmont neglected. As a result, these spiritual successors would seem to represent more than just temporary replacements for their franchises: they represent the massive changes that seem to be happening in the video game industry at the moment.
It’s not just that fans of those genres are currently feeling starved for new games. While nostalgia is certainly helping to fuel the success of these spiritual successors, for the first time in the history of gaming, it seems that creators have become a more tempting draw than their creations themselves. In the case of games like ReVeN and The ’90s Arcade Racer, we’ve seen homages to games of the past find funding on Kickstarter without the original developers. Those projects haven’t come close to the same level of interest or funding as the titles with bigger creators attached, however. Names like Keiji Inafune and Koji Igarashi are bringing in funding superior to any previous games on Kickstarter, which allows these titles to become fully realized. We aren’t just seeing small indie games come out of these campaigns. Instead, we’re getting experiences that look superior to what many third party publishers are offering at the moment.
If these games are meant to be temporary placeholders for the “real” franchises, the developers certainly aren’t treating them as such. Mighty No. 9 won’t release until sometime this fall, but producer Keiji Inafune is already pursuing licensing opportunities, including films and merchandise based on the game. With the developers taking steps like these to make their new endeavors a household name, we could very well be seeing the rise of a new set of gaming icons, even if they might seem a bit familiar!
Shortly after Leonard the Duck’s debut, the character was never seen again. Steve Gerber eventually returned to Marvel to write Howard, a character that’s recently seen a surge of popularity thanks to his cameo in the Guardians of the Galaxy film. One has to wonder if characters like Yooka and Laylee or Beck from Mighty No. 9 will end up an interesting footnote like Leonard, or if they’ll completely supplant the original characters. The latter certainly seems possible, given the attention these Kickstarter campaigns have been getting. Of course, that same success could show publishers that there is still a strong desire for these classic franchises. We could even see “real sequels” to games like Banjo-Kazooie competing with their would-be successors. No matter what happens, it’s going to be very exciting to see.