Christmas for me will always mean temperatures of 32 degrees Celsius. That’s 90 degrees in Fahrenheit, and only in the shade. Being in the southern hemisphere, the peak of South Africa’s eight summer months begins in December. When I was a child, Christmas meant ice cream, braais (BBQ), grass yellowed by the sun and Chinese emporiums of bootleg games.
I lived in Johannesburg up until the mid-1990s. As I recall it, South Africa was a happy melting pot of Italians, Germans, Greeks, Portuguese, East Europeans, Chinese and local ethnic groups. My father, for instance, was a deep-sea fisherman who jumped ship to escape communism in Poland. We were also friends with a family from Hong Kong who left before the impending handover to communist China. Our house always had an eclectic mix of guests, and each nationality influenced our Christmas celebrations.
While I was aware of how America and England celebrated Christmas thanks to films, my holidays in South Africa were very different. There was never any snow except on Christmas cards, and no Santa coming down the chimney, as very few houses had a fireplace. There were also no carol singers walking around at night, due to the extreme violence for which South Africa was becoming notorious. Because of the danger of muggings and attacks at gunpoint, my family was vigilant when going out, and at home we were protected by barbed wire fences, Rottweillers and my father’s collection of handguns. We didn’t walk anywhere due to the distances between places and the violence that one could encounter.
The international trade situation also affected my life. All videogames that I saw for sale at that time were either unofficial imports of legitimate items from America and Japan (there was some official PAL support, but it was negligible), or counterfeits from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. These weren’t the usual cheaply-made bootleg games with faulty menus and broken graphics, like those I bought off Russian smugglers in Eastern Europe at the turn of the millennium. The pirate cartridges I received in South Africa were top quality, complete with little stickers around the edges explaining that my 30-day warranty would be void if I tampered with it.
My first experience with games occurred in 1991. It was Christmastime, my favorite time of year since I had the whole month of December off from school. We were visiting our friends, the Lai family from Hong Kong and their son Kit who was around my age. Kit had a Famicom clone – a magical box under the TV with interchangeable games. It totally blew my mind! One multicartridge had 42 games on it, including Star Force, Ice Climber and Adventure Island, though in the latter’s case we couldn’t read the Japanese title and so named it “that skateboard game.” I wanted one desperately, and with unparalleled fervor my nagging engine went into hyperdrive. It was nearly Christmas, and I’d been especially good, so my parents talked with the Lais about buying a Famicom clone for me and my brother.
Visiting stores, I saw other machines besides clones, but these were black-market imports of legitimate hardware and cost a lot more South African Rand than a counterfeit Famicom. By the time these machines passed through so many middleman to finally reach the stores, the price would be quite high. At one point, I recall that an imported American SNES cost, taking into account the exchange rate back then, over $300, and the Sega Genesis was only slightly less. Much later, the Sega CD cost over a whopping $400. One store at North Gate Shopping Mall even had what appeared to be PC-Engine Shuttle (the Turbo Graphix 16 in the U.S.) systems. To put all of these prices into context, my dad says a crate of 24 beers at the time cost $10 and a Famicom game cost around $30.
With the decision that my brother and I would jointly receive a Famicom on condition of good behavior, my mom told us to think about what games we’d want. Now, newsstands stocked copies of EGM, Game Players and British game magazines, but they were often months out of date. At the start of December, I was still using the magazines published in September to write my wish list.
Christmas shopping was also a bit different. While my parents shopped at Jo’burg’s chic designer boutiques, which were at that time on par with those of Paris and London, I found these places boring compared to the more exotic consumer outlets like Bruma Lake on Jo’burg’s outskirts. Bruma Lake was an enormous open-air market with hundreds of stalls selling every conceivable item allowed by law. We bustled against thousands of people buying and selling and haggling with each other, walking for three hours and not seeing half of it. There were crocodile handbags and ivory carvings at a fraction of high-street prices, hawked by vendors who had traveled from as far as the Cameroon, over 2,400 miles away. Sadly too young to appreciate this enchanting cultural bouillabaisse, my 10-year-old self made a beeline for the electronics stalls.
People are sometimes surprised by my love of Japanese games, but growing up in South Africa forever warped my perception of games. On a shopping trip to Bruma Lake before Christmas, I was presented with rows upon rows, hundreds, of multi-colored bootleg Famicom cartridges. My parents always allowed me to choose whichever game I wanted, because they weren’t good at selecting games, especially when the games were labeled in Japanese. In my mind, each cartridge promised adventure, with the potential to be infinitely better than the last if only I made the right choice. Adding to the confusion, the cover art and names listed in my outdated magazines seldom matched what was on those stalls. Choosing a good game was an exercise in trial and error based on a piece of artwork no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, and the labels could be misleading. My friends and I were excited that while America only had Super Mario Bros 3, one of us had a cartridge labeled Super Mario Bros. 8. Only years later did I discover it was actually a hack of Don Doko Don 2, which in fairness was worthy of the deception. Today I’m still unable to find some of the titles I’d seen on those stalls, and as a result of this mystique I now see exotic Japanese imports as familiar and comforting.
After choosing some cartridges, the weeks passed in an impatient haze, until eventually it was Christmas Eve and my parents invited the Lais to celebrate with us. Mrs. Lai brought ice-cream cake on a bed of dry ice, while Mr. Lai clutched a bag filled with mysterious wrapped items. One had to be the games machine! Being half Polish, we began celebrating Christmas Eve after the first star came out. We dined on barszcz, uszka and 10 other dishes, followed by the opening of presents. Of course, like most children that age, I was impatient to dispense with the culinary traditions and ready to play some videogames!
Our fathers sat outside drinking beer, swatting away mosquitoes and talking rugby, while our mothers prepared the big meal. Eventually it was time to unwrap boxes. Mine and my brother’s gift was indeed a Famicom clone, plus the multicartridges we’d chosen. Watching my father tune the TV for us to play erupted in me a joy that I’ve seldom felt since – even in adulthood which brings with it disposable income and a more refined taste.
As our parents played mahjong (real mahjong – not the solitaire knock-off), we three played Ikki, B-Wings and Dead Fox. With its Japanese text I couldn’t actually read the title, but the cover art featured an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike which convinced me I was reliving one of his films. Not that my parents allowed me to watch them, of course, but, being inquisitive, I’d gone through their collection of VHS tapes some months earlier. By the time we reached level two in Dead Fox, our parents wanted to watch that evening’s Christmas movie, and so hijacked the TV to put on M-Net, South Africa’s subscription film channel. The fact that we now owned a games machine and could play it at any time hadn’t quite sunk in for me and my brother, and we complained about having to switch it off.
Much later, our Chinese friends brought out the climax of the evening: Mr. Lai’s mysterious bag. Inside the bag were all manner of strangely shaped black-market fireworks, which he acquired from God-knows-where. They shot high and burned as hot as the night itself, producing the best explosions I’ve ever seen. They were a lot like the Famicom we received: Both were gifts from the Far East with a magical quality that left an everlasting impression on me. While I no longer have that first machine, I still fondly remember it and the Christmas when I received it.
John Szczepaniak is a South African-born journalist, formerly employed by a Time Warner subsidiary, but now freelance.