Console Clones

Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are ostentatiously dangling the carrot of seventh generation video game consoles, but how many more technologically advanced vegetables can the donkey be force fed? If the current retro revival trend sustains itself, I’m willing to bet the midnight queues on the release dates will be reduced to small, friendly gatherings of tech collectors and their kids.

It doesn’t take a psychology student to figure out that I am firmly encamped in the “classic gaming” trenches, so I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Players don’t care about hardware, and corporations don’t care about software. Deciding which of these “amazing” new systems will best provide your personal gaming experience now seems impossible. The boundaries have been deliberately blurred in a cross-corporate attempt to convince players that the best option for everyone involved is to buy all the available hardware, then pick at the limited selection of software until third party developers take up the slack.

The market leaders are suddenly and desperately trying to slap either a price tag or a jail sentence on the emulation scene, as it has risen quickly to pose a legitimate threat to the next generation of consoles. We, the gamers, are in a position right now to take a lead from a region of players who have kept the corporations at arm’s length since the beginning, and, for their refusal to comply, have been rewarded with one of the largest active video game back catalogues in the world.

Brazil is a country of seasoned, passionate players that have chosen a different path to video game enlightenment. But the whole of South America represents about 2% of the world video game industry, which is hardly going to capture the interest of avaricious conglomerates. Market reports and industry analysts quickly and efficiently sweep this gaping hole under the rug by blaming the region’s slow economic growth, under investment in the ICT infrastructure and the stereotyped assumption that everyone who lives there is on the breadline.

This just isn’t true. Brazilians have always been devoted gamers, sustaining many a failing system while we, the “first” world, binned them on our way to buy the next next big thing in video game technology. The successor to the original Magnavox Odyssey (the first ever video game console) was a massive hit in Brazil, living on far beyond the limited reaction it gained in its country of origin.

Philips, Magnavox’s parent company, released the Odyssey console (known as the Odyssey 2 in the States) to the astonished Brazilian populace around 1981 and it thrived well into 1987, some four years after Philips had abandoned the system and Magnavox had pulled out of the video game race completely. Due to a delayed release of the system, Brazil’s first experience of gaming delights was already backed up by a considerable catalogue of great games and was the only country in the world to be graced with the entire Odyssey game library, with a few titles released there exclusively.

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What killed the Odyssey 2 in America was the stiff competition from the Atari VCS (later to become known as the Atari 2600), a market pattern that was mirrored in the Brazilian shops, only with a delicious twist on the usual difficulties faced by the video game industry. In Brazil, it wasn’t software that was hijacked, but the hardware. One or two official Atari consoles had been sneakily imported by some of the more ardent Brazilian game fanatics, which was more frowned upon by the government of the time than the sudden and prolific influx of locally built, yet illegal, hardware. With Brazilians again introduced several years after the system’s official release, missing the bombardment of propaganda about why upgrades are the most important purchases of their lives, it seems they developed a keen taste for quality games – indifferent to the platform.

Exactly the same trend followed when Nintendo’s flagship, the NES, also found its way across the border as an illegal immigrant. The NES format quickly began to dominate the localized market from the late ’80s onward, despite the fact that Nintendo had never released or licensed its ground breaking console to South America.

Not only did Brazil embrace this marvel in video game history, but an increasing number of pirate consoles began appearing with additional features in an effort to beat the abundant competition. To differentiate between the two largest consumer bases, America and Japan, Nintendo had stemmed the import and export of games by employing different cartridge connections between the Famicom (Japanese version with a 60-pin connector) and the NES (American version with 72-pins). Since Brazil had never been properly established on Nintendo’s world map, no marketing decision had been made to determine how sales would be controlled. Being stuck in the middle, with an increasing number of legal and illegal NES cartridges being shipped in from across the globe, clone consoles began appearing in Brazil with two connectors to accept either of the formats. On top of that, some pirate cartridge manufacturers began turning out double-ended casings, with 60-pins at one end and 72 on the other! Many of the NES and 2600 clones, still available today, even come with a multitude of games built into the system.

When Sega became a contender for the world title with their 16-bit Mega Drive console, Brazil once again took an interest a few years down the line after a quality games catalogue had been established. The Master System (Sega’s challenge to the NES) and the Mega Drive landed in Brazil about the same time, where the systems were licensed to a local manufacturer. They were already due for replacement across the rest of the world, so Sega wisely allowed their licensee more freedom for internal development than was usually permitted. This has kept cloning and piracy of Sega products to almost nonexistent levels throughout South America. The entire range of Sega consoles are still in manufacture today – the only region in the world where Sega is still selling hardware – while sales of the Playstation 2 and Xbox are noticeable only by their absence.

Philips made an effort to take their business to Brazil personally, but the majority of subsequent developers never bothered, so the other systems’ identities were never properly established. This completely turned the tables on the way Brazilians perceived their game playing experience as compared with the rest of the world. The software was already there, available in vast and diverse quantities, and would play in almost any console bought, so the buyer’s quandary came in the form of deciding exactly which NES or Atari compatible clone offered the features they wanted.

Software wasn’t a concern; it was the hardware that mattered.

What is particularly unusual is that no licensors, such as Atari or Nintendo, ever bothered to hunt down developers of pirate systems and software, which was just as contrary to their personalities then as it is now. Why did they leave Brazil alone when most executives at these companies would beat their own grandmother with a bag of sand for not handing the OEM a cut at every turn? Perhaps this was a ‘pocket money’ market that they knew would disappear overnight if their legal weight were to descend upon it, or perhaps they were aware this was not a trade war they could win.

A society that has the strength of will to resist sparkling new consoles until the manufacturer concedes to providing a strong enough games library to support it is, in my opinion, not at the back of the sophistication scale, but a guiding light to those of us buried in the future and unable to find our way toward video game paradise. The current manufacturer of Brazil’s line of Sega licensed clones, which contain up to 100 built-in games as well as the cartridge slot for all your eBay purchases, is apparently drowning in requests from all corners of the globe as to the availability of these magnificent machines. People do want hardware, just not in a way that is palatable to the seventh generation giants.

It’s a remarkable notion that Sega, who pulled out of the hardware market due to their inability to compete with the original Playstation, may quite seriously pose a threat to the PS3 and Xbox 360 with a fifteen year old games system – hardware that is affordable in a second world country which has spent the last three decades being ignored by the industry. Maybe we should all heed the wise Brazilian player who has been shouting above the white noise of insipid video game exploitation since the early ’80s: “Who cares what new hardware is coming out? There’s nothing left to play.”

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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