The bootleg retro console culture of Brazil

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

“Nowadays, it’s all Chinese clones. There are no good clones anymore,” the 27-year-old Danilo Dias complains. We are talking about how videogames made their illegal entry into Brazil in the late 80s, when pirated carts and knockoff systems were all that you could get your hands on in the Portuguese world. Mostly, these were South American imitators of the Nintendo Entertainment System, like the Dynavision 1, 2, and 3, which strangely came not with controllers but pairs of flight-sim joysticks. (They must have been hell to control Mario with.) Unlike in the US, where everyone had the same gray box with rectangular pads, kids in Brazil played their Battletoads and Double Dragon on a rainbow of oddities, including the Phantom System, which was housed inside an Atari 7800 shell. “You have to see them. They are very good, quality stuff!” Dias says.

Dias cut his teeth on 8-bit counterfeits in his hometown of Presidente Venceslau 

Together with two friends in Manaus, which skirts the Brazilian Amazon, Dias designs games with a high concentration of nostalgia for the classics he never legally played. When their second project Odallus: The Dark Call releases later this year, it will have big chunky pixels, simple synthesized music, and a hero hacking away on tentacled creatures with his sword. It’s a dead ringer for an NES game, which is weird, considering that Nintendo didn’t enter the Brazilian market until 1993 with the Super Nintendo. The alternate history of retro games in Brazil is a beautiful example of how countries throughout the world have had incredibly diverse, and sometimes unauthorized, gaming experiences, outside of American copyright law.

Dias cut his teeth on 8-bit counterfeits in his hometown of Presidente Venceslau, a small city with palm trees and terra cotta-roofed buildings. The town is best known for its penitentiary, where Brazilian mafia bosses are sent for solitary confinement. In 2006, when seven crime bosses were transferred there, widespread prison riots ensued, resulting in the death of 141 inmates, guards, and bystanders. But Dias focuses on the bright side of crime, like playing pirated software. “I remember that my father hated when I went to arcades,” he says, because they often doubled as bars, where kids clung to the joysticks while adults hung out drinking bottles of Brahma. Ashtrays were soldered right into the panels of the Street Fighter cabinet. “I still remember playing against this one guy. He’d pull off a special attack, ash in the tray, and get back to the stick!” he says.

Growing up in a remote town located nearly 400 miles inland from São Paulo, Dias rarely came across official games cartridges, which would have been imported by petty smugglers in larger cities. He was oblivious to the fact that such a thing as a NES existed until years later, when he stumbled on some legit NES carts while shopping at an electronics store. “It was a shock,” he admits. His “NES,” which he still owns and plays, is a bizarro piece of technology called the Turbo Game, made by the Brazilian electronics manufacturer CCE. It has the boomerang-ish controllers of a Sega Genesis, the body of a TurboGrafx-16, and generally looks uncanny, the centaur of gaming machines. He showed me some of his NES games, which are black with generic labels, one bearing the words “7 x 1 Radical!” While ostensibly laughable, these counterfeit games and consoles weren’t hawked in back alleys, but sold in regular department stores, like Mesbla, and Magazine Luiza, the Brazilian equivalents to Wal-Mart and K-Mart. “It was like, ‘We don’t have law!’” he says.

Around the mid-90s, when companies like Nintendo and Sega began to make inroads in Latin America, the clone systems became a dying breed. But that didn’t put an end to seedy deals. “After the clones, people got games by smuggling,” Dias tells me, referencing the age-old practice of Brazilians crossing the border to Paraguay to buy cheap goods. That’s how Dias got his Gamecube, he tells me. Electronics of all types have always been taxed exorbitantly in Brazil, as the blogosphere was reminded last year with reports that the PlayStation 4 was going for $1850 there. The Brazilian government does this to encourage foreign businesses to set up shop in Brazil, but it often doesn’t work out that way. Not far away, in the black markets of Ciudad del Este, where men with shotguns routinely stand guard at the grocery store, anything can be had at a steep discount: contraband cigarettes, fake handbags, bootleg DVDs, bricks of marijuana, AK-47s, and, sometimes, videogames.