First off, let's get straight to business. At first glance, Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale is a massive Smash Bros. rip off. You don't have to play the game to see it, it's there right before your eyes. The concept, the level design, every tidbit of information to have come out regarding the game says "We want some of that pie!"
Let's break it down: it's a four-way, multiplayer brawler, with relatively small, quirky arenas plucked from the PlayStation back catalogue allowing for a crucible of frenetic action as endearing Sony mascots from the last two decades smack one another silly. Remind you of anything else?
But to be honest, why wouldn't you want a slice of that pie? Smash Bros. is an immensely successful franchise in a genre that hasn't been touched by anyone else. With Nintendo sticking to their guns there's simply nothing like it on the Xbox 360 and the PS3, both of whom have mascots of their own. Sony have a long list of exclusive characters, and a rich tapestry of gaming history that deserves recognition, and no-one can really begrudge them a game that delivers a bit of fan service.
It's clear too that Sony have invested in a game that attempts to provide some form of evolution for the 4-way accessible brawler, with a wide range of attacks and tactical variants potentially allowing for deeper gameplay, though I would hasten to say that some people forget the amount of combinations that Smash Bros. has offered up since inception, with surprising technical depth (should you desire it) throughout the series. The levels, although small and simple in terms of size and layout, encompass a number of different themes rather than sticking to just one game or series.
But there's still a significant feeling of deja vu.
There's an old saying about imitation and flattery that gets trotted out whenever the (rather contentious) term "rip-off" comes up. Of course, copycat titles used to be de rigeur back in the olden days. We'll be casting our minds back to deliver a list of ten of the worst culprits in gaming memory tomorrow, but you can be sure that the likes of Hangly Man and Golden Axe: Warrior will be showing their faces.
Exclusivity was always the issue, particularly when one took Nintendo's aggressive third-party contracts for the NES and its successor into consideration. Wacky Wheels only existed because PC gamers wanted something akin to Super Mario Kart on their platform, and Nintendo wouldn't deliver it. The same could be said for The Great Giana Sisters - which shamelessly stole inspiration, gameplay, and even Goombas (albeit now with little horns) from a certain moustachioed plumber.
Of course, what Sony fanboys have been getting their knickers in a twist over is the nature of the term "rip-off". Depending on one's mood and console affiliation, Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale could simply be seen as "inspired by..." or "an evolution of..." Nintendo's classic. After all, there are rip-offs all over the place from a certain perspective, so where do you draw the line? It can't be an homage - Sony have ensured that The Other Game receives no mention whatsoever.
But the difficulty is that Nintendo have had this sort of knockabout fun monopolised for some time. Smash Bros has been untouchable, to challenge its dominance would have been unthinkable, and make no mistake, this is a competitive title. Nintendo EAD have a stamp of critical approval on their products even before release - they are the reason that people buy Nintendo, and Smash Bros. has been a killer app for every console upon which it has released. It hasn't hurt, of course, that Nintendo's Wii branding has given the Big N a reputation for whimsical Fun that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. Sony have responded directly - suggesting that this holiday season is all about trying to appeal to the family a little bit more, and this is the biggest title in their arsenal.
All of this piles the pressure on Playstation All-Stars. In setting out its stall, at a conceptual level at least, so closely to the acclaimed template of its genre fellow, PSASBR underlines the methods by which it needs to be judged. Of course, there'll be elements of fan service at play here, but Sony are targeting newcomers too, and so this isn't a game that can simply hope for the best. The lack of competition in this rather specific field and the dominance of Nintendo make this a spotlit release. Superbot only have one shot at this, and they have to make it stick.
The ethics of the situation are a bit vague, and indeed it all depends on the quality of the final product. We can only talk about concept and design at this point (although we will be getting hands-on with the title in a week at Gamescom), and only a blinkered fool would attempt to argue that there's not a certain element of borrowing at work here. But that's to be expected: Super Smash Bros. defined a genre, after all. Should PSASBR mount a successful challenge to Smash Bros.' crown, though, it will be elevated to "competitor" levels, and vindicated through quality.
Kamiya's criticisms were pertinent and understandable, but also only show one side of the picture. Yes, Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale could be considered something of a rip-off at this stage, and of course it's being done for money; but the nature of its competition means it can't just be a cheap affair, and that's not what Sony are going for. And why shouldn't Superbot look up and try to test themselves against one of the finest (if not the finest) development houses in the world? Why shouldn't Nintendo's monopoly in this space be challenged? To write something off as a rip-off is to automatically consign it to second place, and given Nintendo EAD's track record, that's perhaps an understandable standpoint.
So the furore is really just what this industry and its fans do best: theorising and hypothesising over things that are still under the hammer, and casting aspersions based on concepts. So of course Sony fans will argue that the term "rip-off" is unjustified, as they hope against hope that PSASBR matches up to the lofty heights it's set for itself. And of course detractors will point fingers and gasp melodramatically as they argue tired points about borrowing ideas from an unexplored sub-genre. As for me, well I'd rather have an industry that embraces competition. I want a studio to push Nintendo at what it does best. I could think of nothing better than for Superbot to take Smash Bros.' template and innovate on top of it. Whether or not it succeeds in doing that is a different matter completely, and impossible to call at this stage, hence the prevalence of an unwelcome term. But if you can't stand the heat...
It's not like there are dozens of solid 4-way, multiplayer, mascot-ridden brawlers in the same way that it's possible to point to numerous COD-wannabes, and that's precisely why we should be excited. PSASBR, as the pretender, has it all to prove but I can't help feeling, and this may just be Olympic spirit talking here, that the underdog might just have a shot at glory. Whatever the outcome, it certainly won't be from a lack of effort.