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Derivative Differentiation

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Following the leader is ubiquitous in all media. The reasons for this vary, ranging from a desire to attain some of the success of the original work to a desire to pay homage to a work that the creator of the derivative work adores.

This technique can be quite a double-edged sword, however. Some fans stay away from such derivative works, either because they know that most imitations are bound to be bad or because the work is so similar that they feel no need to invest any time into experiencing more of the same, regardless of quality.


So creators of derivative works find ways to make later installments less derivative, either in response to fan reaction or because their storytelling skills have improved to the point that they themselves no longer have to use derivation as a crutch. The work may still have some trappings that hint at its formerly derivative nature, but it's less likely that newcomers will easily be able to discern this.

Related to From Clones to Genre and Growing the Beard. Compare to Spiritual Antithesis. Has nothing to do with calculus.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • Dragon Ball started off as a retelling of Journey to the West that mashed up Fantasy with Science Fiction elements, but come Dragon Ball Z and the series went in a very different direction that focused more on combat and action and played up the science fiction elements even more.
  • Gasaraki started out as a clone of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but evolved into more of a spiritual predecessor to Code Geass.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure began as a clone of Fist of the North Star (and Dracula, oddly enough). This changed with the advent of Stands, and the series drifted away from its inspiration. The eponymous Joestar line even grew progressively less like Kenshiro with each generation.
  • PriPara began as Takara Tomy's version of Aikatsu!, but as the show went on and became more popular, it became an idol show that was very different from the other popular ones at the time, doing things Aikatsu! did not including a whole season based on five-person lives, different versions of the idol world in the show existing and even some concepts that are similar to Magical Girl anime such as taking care of a magical baby and the girls getting a magic wand to change their dresses.
  • Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch are rival mon JRPG series where you play as a Kid Hero fighting with a team of monsters. Their anime adaptations decided to go in two completely different directions. While the Pokémon anime more-or-less adapts the games and is an action-focused series, the Yo-Kai Watch anime ditches most of the game's plot in exchange for a comedic Slice of Life series about schoolboy Nate's life alongside yo-kai. The two anime became even less alike when Yo-Kai Watch ended and was replaced with the Darker and Edgier, more action-oriented spinoff Yo-kai Watch: Shadowside. Unlike the forever ten Ash, Nate grew up. The Yo-kai Watch (or rather, the role as the Yo-kai Watch Holdernote ) was passed onto his teenage daughter.

    Comic Books 
  • In his first appearance, the Bat-Man was pretty much The Shadow with wings. Then he got his own backstory, decided he didn't like guns, recruited a kid sidekick, and generally became his own person.
  • Deadpool used to be Deathstroke in red until they made him insane to the point of fourth wall–breaking and gave him his own fighting style.
  • The lead character of Peter David's Fallen Angel was widely assumed to be a lawyer-friendly version of Supergirl from his recently completed series, but was eventually distinguished.
  • In PS238, many of the background superheroes are obvious walking shout-outs. For example, Ron's father Atlas is obviously Superman, down to be raised by an older couple on a farm...until it's discovered that, to his own surprise, he's not the Last of His Kind, he's a Hidden Backup Prince. His personality also winds up being rather different as he becomes more aloof and distant from his family, culminating in a divorce from Ron's mom and him taking the throne of his home planet.
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was based on Alternate Company Equivalent of Charlton Comics. In the course of writing, Moore and Gibbons moved away from their inspirations by careful reinterpretation and altering the characters:
    • The Peacemaker was a US diplomat and Martial Pacifist who believes in peace so much he fights for it, and works with government authorities to take down warlords and dictators. Moore found the idea bizarre (believing in peace and pacifically subverting foreign governments and passing it off as diplomacy) and so made him The Comedian who thinks everything is a joke and nihilistically serves the US Government's foreign policy even if he's entirely cynical and indifferent to its idealistic and political justifications.
    • The Question, as Moore noted in interviews, was Ditko's self-created audience-friendly whitewash of Mr. A. Where Mr. A was outright propaganda for Randian ideas, the Question subscribed to objective ideas but had a civilian and superhero work/life balance working as an Intrepid Reporter who had a smart-guy scientist create the chemicals that gave him his face-mask, which made his adventures work like a traditional superhero story with Randian subtext that audiences could take-or-leave. Moore made Rorschach a full-time superhero without a civilian identity, while also making him a Small Steps Hero interested in seeking the truth like the Question and Mr. A, which meant that Rorschach became a hobo and the only avenues for "truth" he would be interested in are extremist publications that validate his biases (like the New Frontiersman).
    • Ditko's Ted Kord Blue Beetle was a Legacy Character to Dan Garret's Blue Beetle (civilian alter-ego created by Will Eisner) and he was intended to be athletic, energetic, and enterprising compared to Garret. In Moore's version on account of Dr. Manhattan's arrival ending the costume superhero age just at the moment that Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl II wanted to get in, the dynamic is reversed. Hollis Mason or Nite Owl I is a fit-for-his age handsome older man who has a sense of achievement and contentment about his life, while Dreiberg o Blue Beetle II is a mid-life crisis pot-bellied Jaded Washout.
    • Captain Atom or Allen Adam as he was called in the Charlton Era was a lab technician who accidentally got atomized during a nuclear rocket launchnote  and then somehow reformed his own atoms and became a being of pure energy who needed to wear special outfits to shield people from radiation. Moore updated this very obvious I Love Nuclear Power origin (a Silver Age Excuse Plot made without any real awareness of actual particle physics and radiation) with Quantum Mechanics Can Do Anything, noting that reforming oneself into matter would not happen on the atomic but on the smallest possible level and rather than an excuse plot, the quantum understanding of the universe fundamentally changes and alters Jon Osterman's personality and understanding of life. This also allowed Moore to do away with radiation and with that a need for a special outfit to shield others, hence why Dr. Manhattan walks around nude.
    • Nightshade was a woman who was the daughter of a US Senator and a woman with magical powers and teleportation abilities. Moore and Gibbons didn't find her especially interesting so they borrowed from the Black Canary who had Golden and Silver Age versions. However, Nightshade's dad being a US Senator informs Laurie's revelation that her father is The Comedian, a government operative and black ops assassin.
    • Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt created by Peter Morisi (a former NYPD cop turned writer) was a Charlton acquisition that had traits common to Doc Savage and Bruce Wayne, namely in that he was an orphaned child of philanthropists who traveled around the world and became a McNinja. He was also known for using "the unused portion of the brain" and being super-intelligent with the ability of clairvoyance and anticipating future outcomes. Moore kept the "unused portion of the brain" pseudo-science and played it straight (since it allows Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias to be a compelling villain) but played up the entire clairvoyance and idea that he could predict the future as an expression of an overly deterministic and utilitarian mindset, and likewise leaves it ambiguous and uncertain if what Veidt did averted an apocalypse, if it was All for Nothing, and also revealing in the end an entirely uncertain and unsure man behind the facade of superhuman intelligence.
  • The pirates in Asterix started off as straight-up redraws of the characters from Barbe-Rouge, apart from art style. Notably, in some of Baba's early appearances, he looks almost exactly like the original, photorealistic one, apart from bright-red lips. Then one of them, Erix, got removed from the crew, and the remaining crew got increasingly grotesqued until they all ended up looking really different to their original inspiration, especially Baba.
  • India has a large and thriving comic-book industry, largely depending on original superhero characters such as Nagraj and Shaktimaan. American icons such as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman have crossed over to Indian comics - but not always in a licenced and approved way. In unauthorised versions, the Indian Superman takes sadistic pleasure in dreaming up prolonged and painful deaths for the villain, while the normally chaste Wonder Womannote  is allowed active sexual expression (within the limits of Indian moral attitudes). Meanwhile, Shaktimaan crossed over to American comics, but as a minor character representing India in a sort of international League of Superheroes. His portrayal in the American adaptation similarly changed to reflect American taste.


  • Tales of the Magic Land started off as a loose translation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but later books in the series are original works that use said translation as a basis.
  • The Lord of the Rings is so very much the 800-pound gorilla of High Fantasy that any work in that genre written since is going to be compared with it (and with J. R. R. Tolkien's other works), for better or worse. Still, the... influence... is pretty visible in some works.
    • The Shannara series started off as fairly derivative of The Lord of the Rings, with the largest distinction being the former's After the End setting. The Sword of Shannara even took its general plot structure straight from The Lord of the Rings. As the series went on, however, the books developed more original plots, including an Urban Fantasy trilogy.
    • If you only read the first novel of The Wheel of Time you could be forgiven for dismissing it as The Lord of the Rings with some light gender politics. The setting and metaphysics become much more distinct, and the gender politics much more pronounced, as the series continues.
  • The early books in the Sword of Truth series were typical High Fantasy books that borrowed many elements from The Wheel of Time (itself somewhat derivative of LotR), but developed a unique feel in Soul of the Fire with the introduction of Objectivist themes.

    Live-Action Television 
  • The Russian version of Married... with Children recycled all the scripts from all 11 American seasons and then had a contest for suggestions to write more.
  • The Russian version of The Nanny was so popular that the producers actually hired the original American writers to write 25 more episodes.
  • The first twelve episodes of The Office (US) were simply reworkings of the scripts of the British version, and not very well received. Then they ran out of source material, and once the US series found a voice of its own many of the characters were completely unrecognisable (particularly Michael Scott, who became much more of a well-intentioned buffoon than the venal and unpleasant David Brent), which created a lot of Early Installment Weirdness in the first season.
  • Likewise, the first season of Parks and Recreation was very much The Office in the public sector with a female lead. Starting in the second season the show dropped its reliance on Cringe Comedy and found its own identity.
  • In America, ABC piloted a 1980 Harvey Korman vehicle, Snavely's, which was not only based on the BBC's Fawlty Towers but said pilot was a scene-by-scene word-by-word duplicate of a Fawlty Towers episode. It would be tweaked and be greenlit for series under the new name Amanda's (with Bea Arthur in the John Cleese role).

    Role-Playing Games 

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • SNK's Art of Fighting was perceived by gamers to be a cheap cash-in of rival company Capcom's Street Fighter. Despite this, Art of Fighting set itself apart by introducing several new gameplay mechanics such as taunting, the addition of a spirit gauge to regulate use of specials, along with supers and desperation attacks. The game's scaling feature also became a series trademark.
    • Capcom later incorporated these same features, beginning with Super Street Fighter II: Turbo, the first game in the series to feature supers and a secondary meter for regulating them.
    • Super Street Fighter IV adds revenge moves, which can only be used after the character has sustained enough damage, making them the SF equivalent of desperation attacks.
  • Banjo-Kazooie never tried to hide its similarities to Super Mario 64, but fans didn't mind too much because the game was pretty good anyway. As gamers started to get tired of the formula set up by Super Mario 64, however, Rare decided to go in a different direction with Banjo-Tooie. The sequel contained more interconnected areas to make it resemble a Metroidvania more than anything. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts abandoned the Platform Game trappings altogether, introducing customizable vehicles as the central gameplay concept instead.
  • Similar to the Ratchet and Clank example below, Rare created Conker, in hopes of making another exploration-heavy series with platforming and collection sidequests starring a cute protagonist. After their rivals mocked the company for seeming to create another formulaic series, they kept the gameplay but reinvented the product as Conker's Bad Fur Day, completely changing the tone from a cutesy mascot with clean, shiny graphics to a deliberately unappealing, profanity-ridden Black Comedy with a protagonist that talked, and wasn't at all shy about voicing his displeasure about the rivers of feces, frequent hangovers, alien invasions, a suicidal fork with a bad sex life, the giant poop monster that sang opera tunes, and any number of surreal and definitely not child-friendly madness the game had to offer.
  • Nintendo's Donkey Kong arcade game was born out of this kind of serendipity; Nintendo, still trying to get their foot in the American game market in 1981, tried releasing a standard Space Invaders clone called Radarscope in the arcades; while it did well overseas, it completely flopped in the US and left them stuck with thousands of unsold cabinets. This prompted them to place Shigeru Miyamoto in charge of improvising another game to replace Radarscope (while converting the unsold cabinets into new games) and, instead of making another cookie cutter maze or shoot em up, created one of the earliest,note  and certainly one of the most important platformer games in history.
  • The Great Giana Sisters was such a blatant clone of Super Mario Bros. that Nintendo successfully sued to get it off shelves. When Giana Sisters DS comes out decades later, it's nothing like Super Mario Bros., and later Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams comes along and introduces mechanics such as Dual-World Gameplay and heavier emphasis on melee abilities. Numerous critics noted the irony that a game that started off as a knock-off ended up being revived on a Nintendo platform then later becoming one of the most original platform games of 2013.
  • The first Halo game, Halo: Combat Evolved, was initially planned as a Real-Time Strategy. Between that preliminary design and the release of the final product, however, Bungie probably deemed a RTS with humans fighting alien zealots and both fending off a parasitic swarm to be a tad bit too similar to StarCraft, hence the shift to a First-Person Shooter. They would eventually revisit the RTS roots with Halo Wars.
  • K.C. Munchkin! for the Magnavox Odyssey²; the first installment is an obvious clone of Pac-Man (although there are a fair amount of differences between it and its inspiration already, most notably the ability to create your own maze), enough that a year after it was released, Atari, who had just released their own port for the 2600, successfully sued to get it pulled from shelves. To continue the series, a sequel, K Cs Crazy Chase, was released, which redesigned the lead character, and revamped the gameplay to where your goal is to chase and eat a giant centipede throughout the maze to get power ups and win (not only distinguishing it from Pac Man, but also serving as a sly jab at Atari). It also supports the Odyssey 2 voice module.
  • League of Legends took the simplification path after breaking away from Defense of the Ancients: All-Stars. The old Warcraft 3 main stat system was removed and replaced with direct manipulation of the underlying stats: attack damage, ability power, attack speed, movement speed, HP, mana, armor and magic resist. The standard ability kit of three powers and an ultimate was replaced by one passive, three abilities with or without passives, and an ultimate. The "Blue Pill", the equivalent of DOTA's Town Portal Scroll, was removed and made into a long Recall that can be performed any time without limits. The Blink Dagger and the Ancient Pocket Watch were made into the summoner spells Flash and Teleport. Then the champions started to be designed around the standard roles of tank, fighter, mage, marksman, assassin and support—six roles, as opposed to DOTA's hard carry, soft carry, disabler, support, lane support, initiator, jungler, durable, nuker, pusher and escaper. The barracks were replaced by inhibitors that regenerate over time. Roshan was replaced by Baron Nashor, which is much stronger and usually requires at least three champions at late game to be killed. Other mechanics such as creep denying, neutral creep luring, hit dodging, turn rate or terrain height were removed. The result? After these and much more differentiation changes, Blizzard decided that League of Legends was different enough to not count as a derivative work—unlike Dota 2, which put Valve into a trademark scuffle with Blizzard on account of being basically Defense of the Ancients: All-Stars on the Source engine, with Serial Numbers Filed Off, and a few cursory mechanic changes.
  • Having also been made by Squaresoft, Super Mario RPG naturally has a lot in common with Final Fantasy games and other Square Role Playing Games of that era, albeit with Action Commands and the obvious Super Mario Bros. trappings among other things. After Square partnered with Sony and left the Mario RPGs in Nintendo's hands, however, they gave its Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games a different focus from typical Square RPGs, such as a much heavier use of intricate Action Commands, simplified battle stat calculations, fewer party members on screen at a time, and Pre Existing Encounters with enemies that can be attacked for some damage at the beginning of a battle. Super Paper Mario in particular is a mix between a platformer and a traditional Role-Playing Game.
  • The Metal Gear series was initially just a tongue-in-cheek take-off of American spy and action films, but Metal Gear Solid was where the series started to establish its own identity of having longwinded, cinematic cutscenes with melodramatic war stories with an everything and the kitchen sink mentality, (as the Sequel Displacement can attest to). Although the impact is greatly lost due to it being on the dated MSX2, even the second game dealt with themes and questions such as what happened to soldiers once they left the battlefield, and what happened to the local survivors of a warzone.
  • Saints Row started out as a pretty straightforward Grand Theft Auto clone, with the only caveat being Saint's Row's focus on gang violence. Each game has dialed up the Denser and Wackier aspects (Saints Row IV even features an Alien Invasion), with Grand Theft Auto IV dialing down the same. Putting Grand Theft Auto IV side by side with Saints Row: The Third shows that the two now bear very little resemblance to one another, aside from the gameplay involved stealing cars.
  • The first two installments of Sidewinder were heavily derivative of Ace Combat, their main point of differentation being features that weren't in the first Ace Combat (such as analog controls, cockpit view, landing sequences, and the ability to equip different type of missiles) and minor concessions toward realism. Sidewinder MAX shifted the flight model toward realism, and the last two installments (titled Lethal Skies in the west) changed the setting from the present to a futuristic, post-global warming Earth.
  • After Sega tried to directly compete with Nintendo by copying the NES with their Sega Master System, only to fall flat on their face, they decided to go in the opposite direction and become Nintendo's antithesis with the Sega Genesis, aiming for older audiences and darker games with slicker graphics, action and very lax censorship policies. Even their headlining mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, was a unique contrast from the Mario series in art and gameplay, and also a contrast to Sega's own Mario-derivative Alex Kidd, who was quickly abandoned by the company. Unsurprisingly, it worked. The series was unmistakably inspired by Super Mario Bros., but in contrast to Mario's strategic, defensive platforming, Sonic's gameplay usually leans more towards casual, heavily streamlined platforming romps with rollercoaster/pinball like physics and level design that emphasized maintaining speed and precision timing more than anything else, with the occasional slower platforming, combat, puzzles and minigames sandwiched in.
  • Ratchet & Clank:
  • The first trio of Robopon games were blatantly riding the coattails of Pokémon Red and Blue, with monster/robot collecting, similar battle styles, beating a series of "legends" who bore no small resemblance to gym leaders, and multiple versions. The sequel kept the version system, but made substantial changes, like making battles party based, making it so that players could not catch Robopon, but had to create them, and taking the plot completely Off the Rails.
  • The original Burnout was extremely similar to the arcade game Thrill Drive in all respects, to the point it was pratically a Spiritual Adaptation of it. Burnout 2 differentiated itself with a more definite art direction and a greatly increased focus on the Nitro Boost mechanic; Burnout 3: Takedown further shook things up by introducing the combat mechanic that would define the series for mainstreaum audiences.


    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • The Looney Tunes prior to the mid to late '30s started off as standard gag and music cartoons in the vein of other studios of its day, such as Fleischer Studios and Mickey Mouse (the latter being the most understandable connection, since the early Looney Tunes were made by former Disney artists in the first place). By the 1933–1935 period, the studio really tried hard to imitate Disney's cutesy cartoons, but that got them nowhere. By 1936, Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin (and eventually Bob Clampett) got their place in the studio as directors and slowly started leading them into a more humorous direction. Early entries of theirs such as I Love to Singa and Now That Summer is Gone superficially resemble the cutesy stuff Disney was doing, but their humor and tone was unmistakably irreverent, street smart and contemporary for their time. By the 1940s (especially by the end of World War II), the studio finally crystallized its art style, rich cast of characters, and brand of humor into its iconic form.
  • Per word of Stephen Hillenburg, a big reason Spongebob Squarepants is centered around Spongebob as a central character as opposed to having a hard-set duo billed was because at the time the show was created, buddy shows like Ren & Stimpy were very popular, and Stephen wanted to do something different.

  • BBV's Direct-to-Video sci-fi series The Stranger featured Doctor Who star Colin Baker as a mysterious stranger obviously based on the Doctor. Over the course of the series, the character's backstory was revealed, distinguishing him from the Doctor in the process.
    • BBV's follow-up audio series, featuring Baker's successor Sylvester McCoy and his co-star Sophie Aldred, did all its differentiation in a single unsubtle lump, to avoid the onset of legal trouble arising from the fact that its leads were practically indistinguishable from the roles McCoy and Aldred had played in Doctor Who.


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