It's easy to draw comparisons between FromSoftware's Souls series and Team Ninja's latest, Nioh. The games are brutally hard, killing players with reckless abandon; players must survive until the next checkpoint (bonfire/shrine) to keep experience points (souls/armita); spamming buttons in combat won't get you anywhere; and you're always fighting screen-filling bosses that require pattern memorization to defeat. In short, calling Nioh a Souls clone makes sense! But I think that's too simplistic. What happened is that Souls invented a genre.
I've often called the Souls games my version of Call of Duty or Madden, as I'd happily play a new Souls game every year. That said, even though I enjoyed Dark Souls 3, it felt tired. That's not the case with Nioh, a game that uses the foundational elements of the Souls games and ventures off to do its own thing. There's a fine line between inspiration and stealing, but Nioh doesn't pretend Souls doesn't exist. Instead, it hops on its shoulders and asks "what's next?"
"Yes, it [Souls] did have a big impact on the direction this project eventually took," Nioh Creative Director Fumihiko Yasuda told Eurogamer. "We have very, very high opinions of the Souls series and it's captivated a very wide audience, even here in Japan. Also, fundamentally that the game is very difficult, very challenging, yet very well-done and refined as a great action game. That part is in common with the past Team Ninja titles. So we did take some inspirations from Dark Souls."
One of the aliases for the first-person shooter entry on Wikipedia is "Doom clone." When Doom was released in 1993, it was a genuine revelation. Though it wasn't the first game that allowed you to shoot a gun from a first-person perspective—there's evidence it goes all the way back to 1973, and Wolfenstein 3D literally arrived the year before— Doom is largely credited with popularizing the genre. For years, games like it were immediately branded "Doom clones."
Some games, like Heretic, actually used the Doom engine, but Doom itself kicked off a bunch of interesting first-person shooters with their own riff on what Doom popularized, whether it was Bungie's story-heavy Marathon, LucasArts' innovative Star Wars: Dark Forces (which introduced the ability to crouch!), or 3D Realms' unapologetically crude Duke Nukem 3D. All of those games came out within three years after Doom, and each was branded a "Doom clone."
What defines a "Doom clone," anyway? Those games don't have demons. The mere presence of a gun in first-person? The problem was language; we didn't know what to call these games, so they colloquially became "Doom clones." They looked like Doom, they played like Doom, so in the absence of anything else, "Doom clone" was sufficient. At the time, it wasn't clear if games like Dark Forces, Marathon, and Duke Nukem 3D were merely riding a wave created by Doom, a bubble to eventually pop, or, as we'd later understand, establishing a new genre.
On Wikia, there's a chart uploaded by a contributor named Fredik that purportedly tracks usage of the term "Doom clone" and "first-person-shooter" on Usenet, an old message board system during the early Internet. It begins following the two terms after Doom was released.
The chart suggests it took until early 1998, five years after Doom, before "first-person shooter" eclipsed "Doom clone" in Usenet lexicon. Even if that chart's data is bunk, as someone who grew up in the era of Doom, it fits with my own experience both using and observing the term.
Too many headlines attached to articles discussing Nioh fall into the same trap as "Doom clone." The easy explanation is people are looking for the easy way to draw people into the story, but it goes deeper than that. "Nioh pre-review: more than just a Dark Souls clone," reads one. "7 Reasons Why Nioh Isn't a Dark Souls clone," reads another. It's understandable. Heck, this piece is about discussing Nioh and Souls in the same breath. Clone, however, suggests something derogatory, framing Nioh's relationship to Souls games in a negative light.
Clone is the wrong term. Souls established a new genre we don't have a word for yet, and games like Nioh suggest Souls established enough of a personal identity for it to be singularly separate from other games, even if we didn't recognize it at the time. Souls has a design language unique enough to be its own playground.
Familiarity is useful. Playing Nioh, I know what to expect, and can focus on what makes Nioh Nioh, whether it's the way the game uses a more explicit form of storytelling to drive its narrative, focuses on defensive forms of combat, gives players the ability to wear whatever cool armor they like without giving up the stats of another, or provides an overwhelming degree of customization for fighting styles. That a shrine operates like a bonfire, allowing players to upgrade and respawn enemies in the area, misses the forest through the trees; it's a design shortcut built on a shared knowledge, a genre trope.
Part of the problem is that we've collectively failed at coming up with decent labels for video game genres. What's the difference between action and action adventure? What does it mean to be a role-playing game in an era where RPG mechanics have infiltrated every other genre?
I've seen people call Nioh a Souls-like, which feels more appropriate than "tough action game with an emphasis on animation priority combat." Souls-like implies a sense of vagueness. When you play a Souls-like, some things will be familiar, some things will be different. Whether that term sticks, it's certainly better than "clone," a disservice to the way Souls has inspired players and designers alike. Souls has become something bigger than what designer Hidetaka Miayzaki and his team at FromSoftware originally set out to do. That's really exciting.