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A game is said to be a spiritual successor of another when it is explicitly inspired by the older game in gameplay and/or aesthetics, drawing heavily on concepts from it. At the same time it is not part of the same franchise nor infringing on related trademarks. If the trademarks to the original game were held by the same people creating the new game and used in it, it would be called either a reboot or a sequel instead of a spiritual successor, depending on whether it continued or reimagined the original story line. If the gameplay were close to identical, it would be called a clone.
There is some room for debate as to where the line between a clone and a spiritual successor should be drawn.
Many Free Software games can be called spiritual successors of non-free games which the authors liked and wished to duplicate the fun experiences from, while still applying their own creative freedom to make (so it is hoped) a better game.
Think of it as being a case of: "If I made the original game, here's how I would have done it."
- UFO:Alien Invasion is a spiritual successor to X-COM: UFO Defense.
- The Battle for Wesnoth is a spiritual successor to Master of Monsters (especially in the combat system).
- Freeciv is better described as a clone rather than a spiritual successor to Sid Meier's Civilization and Civilization II. (The game can vary to even directly compatible with them depending on configuration options selected.)