We’ve all seen image galleries of hilariously bad knockoff gaming consoles. The Polystation 3, The Game Joy Micro, the WiWi… most are junk that only play built-in games that have NES quality graphics and are about as fun as doing paperwork. They’re intended to trick innocent grandmas shopping for Christmas presents and naïve gamers browsing street markets in countries with lax intellectual property laws. My favourite is the Neo Double Games, a DS lookalike with only four games and a second screen that’s purely cosmetic.
For western gamers these knockoffs offer nothing more than a quick laugh and a tinge of pity for the poor kid who unwraps a PCP Station on his birthday. But elsewhere these unlicensed hunks of plastic captured the hearts and minds of gamers. Sure, they were probably made in Chinese sweatshops, but they were considered just as legitimate as the consoles we know and love.
Elsewhere, these unlicensed hunks of plastic captured the hearts and minds of gamers.
The best example is Russia. The Soviet Union, despite being the birthplace of Tetris, was not gamer friendly. Soviet citizens could buy imported Atari 2600s and Game & Watch clones, but that was pretty much it. Nintendo had no license to sell the NES in the communist state, and even if they did its price tag would have kept it out of the hands of most gamers anyway. The NES Deluxe Set launched in 1983 at a cost of 299 dollars, which would be a little shy of 700 bucks today-not exactly pocket change, especially if you’re spending your free time standing in bread lines. Even when the Iron Curtain came down Nintendo saw no need to enter the land of borscht, as for years after the collapse of communism the Russian economy was in shambles. So in its place came the Dendy, an unlicensed NES clone produced in Taiwan and sold by a Russian company, Steepler, that saw potential in the Russian market.
The Dendy launched in 1992, nine years after the NES reached the west and a year after the SNES hit the shelves. No one today would rush to the store to buy an obsolete console approaching its tenth birthday, but for a game starved country it was a Godsend. The price tag helped, too-while it started off at the relatively expensive price tag of 39,000 rubles (about 94 dollars then, 150 now) by 1994 it was going for just 35 bucks, or a little over 50 today.
Of course, there’s no point in buying a bootleg console if there aren’t any fun bootleg games. Luckily, the Dendy was full of them: pirated copies of legitimate NES titles, Russian and Taiwanese originals, homebrewed hacks and those infamously bad multicart games. Anyone who owned a multicart remembers their mighty claims-99 games-in-1! Too bad most of them are just the same game with slight variations, and the rest are flat-out broken.
Nine years after the NES reached the west and a year after the SNES hit the shelves.
Perhaps the most infamous Dendy title is 1994’s Somari, a hack of Sonic the Hedgehog starring a Mario who inexplicably wore Tails’ shoes. It’s mostly the same game as Sonic, but it remixed the levels and introduced Mario style hidden areas. It also slightly slowed down the gameplay, gave Mario access to the spin dash that was introduced in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and only took away three rings when you took a hit.
Somari is a bit of a gaming mystery. Nobody’s sure who made it, only that they were probably based in Taiwan. It’s still an object of fascination today-as the time of writing there are four copies on eBay with bids ranging from 25 to 55 dollars. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a brilliant hack or a barely playable train wreck. The only things everyone seems to agree on is that it’s a brutally hard and surreal experience. The official Dendy magazine, Great Drakon, panned it but admitted that it gave gamers stuck in the 8-bit generation a tantalising preview of 16-bit gameplay.
Yes, there was an official magazine for an unofficial console. It also had a mascot (Dendy the Elephant) and television commercials. There were even Dendy stores, which I learned about in a 1994 Russian TV series/thinly veiled commercial on the Dendy. Check out this clip for a review of Somari and a handy tip on how to trick your mom into letting you play for an extra half-hour!
Now that you understand the breadth of the Dendy phenomenon it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that an estimated one and a half to two million were sold. Not bad for an illegal clone, considering legal NES sales in all of North America totalled 34 million. In fact, the Dendy was so popular that it inspired its own knockoff consoles, officially elevating piracy to Inception levels. There’s an anecdote that “Dendy” even became synonymous with all video games, like how you’d hear the expression “playing Nintendo” back in the day. “Hey Sergei, let’s go play Dendy!” a Russian child would say to his friend, if his buddy had one of the most stereotypical Russian names ever.
The Dendy only lasted four years before Nintendo and Sega realised what they were missing out on and moved into the market themselves. Regardless, it remains as treasured in Russia as the NES is in North America-homebrewers, hobbyists and collectors continue to use them, and with a little patience you could easily track one down to add to your own collection.
But what if you grew up in, say, Poland or Bosnia?
So that’s how Russia was introduced to modern gaming. But what if you grew up in, say, Poland or Bosnia? Then you probably played the Pegasus, another NES clone released in the former eastern bloc under similar circumstances. Nobody seems sure who actually manufactured it, but like the Dendy it was popular enough to get its own TV commercials and knockoffs. Its lineup was similar to that of the Dendy’s, including the ridiculous 9999999 in 1, the multi-cart game that makes other multi-cart games look like lazy pieces of junk. There was even a 16-bit version introduced later, a clone of the Sega Mega Drive that let Eastern European gamers experience Sonic the way it was meant to be played.
It’s impossible to list every influential clone, both because of the sheer number of them and the general dubious nature of trying to track illegal hardware. But I would be remiss not to mention the awesomely named Super Design Ending-Man BS-500 AS, also known as the Terminator 2. Resembling a Mega Drive more than a T-1000, it’s perhaps the most widespread of the NES knockoffs – sold from Spain to Serbia and India to Iran, the Terminator 2 can still be found today in flea markets and online auction sites. In this brief hardware review, commenter after commenter says that the Super Design etc. was their first console.
It’s impossible to list every influential clone.
More novel knockoffs included the handheld Game Axe, which lets you play NES games in the palm of your hand if you’re made of double A batteries and can hold the thing perfectly still to prevent the cart from falling out, the Gun Boy, which comes preloaded with games and is shaped like an N64 with a light gun sticking out of the end like it’s happy to see you, and the Mega Kid MK-1000, which came with a full keyboard along with word processing and typing training programs. These clones could be found as far and wide as Brazil and South Africa, spreading as fast as the popularity of Nintendo itself. They helped turn gaming from a niche fad into an international hobby, something console makers were happy to cash in on as the world economy embraced globalisation and gave them access to new markets. Unfortunately for knockoff artists, their success invited in overseas competition they couldn’t compete with.
In an age where almost anyone with an Internet connection and a little money to burn can buy games on Steam, hardware clones have largely been relegated to curiosities bought by those looking to relive their childhood or mock their crude designs. But they haven’t completely lost their market share-the release of the Nintendo Wii lead to a flood of opportunistic Chinese products, including the MiWi and the Chintendo Vii. The latter was popular enough to air commercials and be sold in legitimate malls across Asia, despite only having lousy built-in games and quite possibly the laziest name ever.
But while they may bring in a fair bit of cash to their dubious developers, the Vii and its friends will never have the influence the Dendy once did. Hardware clones will forever clog up toy store shelves and ruin perfectly good Christmases, but as the next generation of consoles launch we won’t see a new series of clones introduce gaming to an entire generation. The Wii U, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will be available around the world, and the rise of Internet piracy will fill the gap for those who can’t afford their (sometimes ridiculous) price.
That’s for the best, but the next time you feel the urge to laugh when the see the Game Theory Admiral in stores, try to hold off. Its brethren played a small and strange but vital part in gaming history, allowing millions of gamers to grow up with the classics they otherwise never would have experienced. We shouldn’t support piracy, but anything that let a kid who grew up under communism play Super Mario Bros. can’t be all bad.