90s Gaming in Eastern Europe: From Communism to Hyrule
I was born during the Communist fall of '89 in a little country called Romania. You might know it from that one South Park episode where they compared it to a rectum... but I call it home. Growing up as a gamer in a country that struggled to embrace democracy after 35 years of living in fear and poverty under a mad dictator was not as fun as some of you might think (seriously... does anyone think it was fun?).
But while you were probably rocking out your NES or SEGA systems we were probably outside -- playing with sticks... and stones if we were lucky. Companies like Nintendo, Atari, or Sega were not to interested in selling their products here, and even if they were, people probably had to sell a kidney to afford them based on how low our incomes was.
But the nation's need for gaming was evident and certain consoles started popping out on the market. Thus began my gaming journey in the winter of '94 when my parents surprised me with my first gaming console for Christmas. It looked something like this:
Looks familiar, doesn't it? No, it's not some fancy Atari 2600, it was actually called Rambo, that's right... ol' Sly was the face of the first console you could get your hands on in Romania. It's a 'made in china' clone that you could buy from Russian traders that used to sell stuff in my home town. The best part about it was that if you accidentally broke one of your controllers... which you did... often (made in china, remember?) you had to buy a new console all together because there was no way in hell you could find a joystick sold separately (cool, huh?).
Another fun thing about it is that it didn't use cartridges, instead it had about 30 games on it and when you got bored with those, well, that was it. But who am I kidding? It was the only console around and you were actually lucky to have one back then, so you never got bored. You could enjoy such classics as "throw the brick," "move the brick slightly to the left," and "this brick is a car and you're actually playing a racing game." Jokes aside, I really don't remember the names of the games, but they all involved you moving a square thingy from one edge of the screen to the other.
As for handheld gaming, while kids in the US were busy catching pokemon on their Gameboy handhelds, we had these:
I have no idea where these came from but they were suddenly that one thing you really wanted and couldn't live without. Gaming on the go? Are you kidding? That was like Science Fiction to me and couldn't wait to get my hands on one of these -- it also had 9999 games on it. The only place I've ever seen a GameBoy or a Sega Game Gear was in a commercial on some German channel we could pick up with our TV antena. Well the handheld wasn't all that great.
Now, you're probably thinking "what do you mean? It has 9999 games in 1... what's not to like?" Yes, it did have 9999 games but they were all Tetris. All 9999 of them were the same damn game with only small tweaks so you can tell them apart. I can still hear the Tetris theme song in my subconscious sometimes.
Come 1996 and this happened:
It was called Terminator, and it was glorious. First off, I don't know why these clone systems were named after successful action movies, and frankly I don't give a damn because this console was the bomb. There was not one kid on the block that didn't have one and you literally couldn't walk inside someone's house in Romania -- circa 1996 -- and not see one of these babies right next to their TV. Every kid loved his Terminator -- even when it randomly exploded and needed to be replaced, or when you realized that your system came without a controller.
It wasn't all bad with the Terminator, this thing actually played NES games and boy were they miles better than anything we've experienced with the Rambo console. We finally had Mario, Contra, Kirby, and a bunch of Japanese titles with no translation that nobody knew how to play. This system had cartridges that you could buy from every corner store. The major drawback was that the sticker on the cartridges never matched up with the actual game on the cartridge. I remember one time I saved up for a month to buy Castlevania.
I used to look at the cool artwork on the cartridge every single day for a month until I could afford it, and when I finally had enough money I went on and bought it, ran home full of excitement, stuck it into my console and surprise surprise.. it was actually Super Mario Bros, which I already had. I never knew when to give up so I saved up all my lunch money for another month and bought a copy of Castlevania from a different store... and so I found myself owning three Super Mario cartridges. All drawbacks aside this system was actually fun, and if you were lucky enough you could actually get some quality NES games on it.
Image credit - Andrew Nollan Photobucket
As far as arcades go, my city had one, and not one arcade where you could go with your friends and enjoy sugary drinks and play games all day, one machine. It was one arcade machine, and it was Street Fighter 2 and I had to save up a week's worth of school lunches to play for an hour on it. That didn't matter much to me, it was well worth it and I can still remember seeing those graphics for the first time, especially Dhalsim's flames -- they all seemed so real. We usually would gather up groups of six or seven kids and all chip in so that only one of us could play and the rest could enjoy the show. It goes without saying that the bigger kids always had priority but the rest of us were lucky enough to enjoy the show.
Probably the most memorable moment of my 90s console gaming experience was in '98 when I got an SNES as a gift from a relative -- maybe? -- from Austria. He said he didn't need it anymore because it's old and his (spoiled) son isn't using it anymore. So when the rest of the world was enjoying the Sony Playstation and the Nintendo 64, I got my hands on the SNES. I had four games for it, and luckily enough one of them was Street Fighter 2 so suddenly every kid wanted to be my friend. The other three were Super Mario World, The Adventures of Pinocchio (pretty dull but nice soundtrack) and my favorite of the list The Legend of Zelda : A Link to the Past. I spent my entire summer in Hyrule that year and I have no regrets. The only major drawback of owning an SNES was that you couldn't find games for it, I mean anywhere, and if you did somehow managed to find one, you had to drop your dad's whole month's salary on it.
PC Gaming was totally different thought, while you were playing triple A titles, we were playing DOS games in the early 2000s. But I'll leave that to another story...