The video game industry might be worth $83 billion, but not all games are made by large companies with sky-high budgets. In certain cases, small developer try their hand at making (or remaking) games—without the full permission of other companies involved. These pirate video games skirt the fine line between game creation and copyright infringement, often achieving a strange brilliance even while totally breaking the law.
Which is how we got gems like “Grand Theft Auto: Sponge Bob” and “Great Theft Auto: Kirk Douglas.”
Around the world, every video game market had its distinct styles and flavors of pirated games. Take, for instance, Asia. This giant continent is is a very large producer and consumer of bootleg games. This is usually be chalked up to the high prices and low availability of official products—often, you can’t pay for the real thing.
In the late 1980s, a Chinese company called SUBOR began to market their “Study Machines” which were pirated Nintendo Entertainment Systems inside keyboard shells. Later the models would evolve to feature computer mouses, floppy disk drives, educational software and even printer connections. SUBOR had created its own bootleg computer from a gaming console. In the absence of official products, unlicensed games such as “English Word Blaster” would teach valuable language skills to Chinese children. Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan even helped to promote SUBOR’s machines in magazines and on television.
In 1998 an infamous developer known as Vast Fame opened its doors in Taiwan. They developed many games for the Gameboy Colour, with the exact number being unknown. This is a common problem, as most bootleg companies are pretty murky; most developers and companies use pseudonyms and many games are swapped and stolen from other developers. Games by Vast Fame include the “Super Fighters S”, an original game using the “King of Fighters” engine and “Zook Hero Z”, a carbon copy of “Mega-Man”.
What made this market special was the bootleg-within-a-bootleg nesting dolls that emerged when another Taiwan-based game maker, Sintax, took “Zook Hero Z” and modified it into “Zook Hero 3”,while game publisher Li Cheng would sell it as “Rockman DX3”. The company was said to have operated until 2003, though this is only based on the copyright dates on their games producing games based on Lord of the Rings.
The writer of FC Gameland, an excellent blog about unlicensed and pirated games visited the address of their former headquarters in 2012. He found an empty flat in a large apartment block. They were located in a residential district near a local game store that was completely unaware of Vast Fame’s operation in the area. This obscurity was likely a deliberate move to avoid legal issues. He even speculates that Vast Fame was simply a small part of a larger bootlegging organization.
Logically, bootleg culture thrives when there is official restrictions on game sales. They are a replacement for a kind of entertainment that for the most part was widely unavailable or, in some cases, forbidden. For example, China placed a ban on home video games in 2000 citing concerns for the health of the youth. The ban was recently lifted, unsurprising the ban caused a surge in illegal game production and sales. When the Soviet Union fell, the population had little access to home video games so Taiwanese clones filled the market. They became quite popular; even earning their own television shows and are remembered by that generation as fondly as people in other countries who had access to the real thing. In response to the absence of computers, pirates created their own educational software, giving children access to skills in mathematics and English.
Another fascinating hub for illegal gaming is the Middle East, more specifically Syria. Located in the capital of Damascus, SyrianGames has been operating since at least 2011. Despite recent conflicts in the country, their website and Facebook pages have remained operational and they have continued to supply Syria and the world with the newest, cheapest and most… interesting games. The company operates like any other game store, selling new games like “Pro Evolution Soccer 2016” but take a closer look at their website and a different side is revealed.
“Grand Theft Auto: Dubai” is a modified version of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”. Despite it’s bootleg nature it can be played on any regular Playstation 2. The game is quite similar to the original though some things have been changed. An African-American character, CJ, from the original has been changed into a Middle Eastern man. The signs and billboards have been changed into Arabic and so have the songs playing on the in-game radio. Further browsing shows that Syrian Games have recycled this concept with various countries: Grand Theft Auto in Oman, in Libya, in Qatar and showing their international reach, Grand Theft Auto in Sudan.
Even stranger, “Grand Theft Auto: SpongeBob” is an attempt to sell a very adult game to a younger audience. Clearly he has as much appeal as Turkish folk singer Ibrahim Tatlises, who also has his own version of Grand Theft Auto. There is a very musical theme to many of these games: there are Grand Theft Autos with Bob Marley, 2Pac (with a picture of a completely different rapper on the cover), Eminem and Michael Jackson. “Grand Theft Auto: Avatar” is another cash-in, though the Shaun the Sheep version looks promising, as does “Grand Theft Auto: Donald Duck”. SyriaGames products find their way around the world, to places such as Nairobi Kenya, where it is sold alongside the legendary “Grand Theft Auto: Kirk Douglas”.
No, I’m not making that one up, you get to roam the city and cause chaos as Oscar-nominated actor Kirk Douglas.
Bootleg video games are often dismissed as scams not worthy of the respect of officially licensed games. While sometimes that’s true, the medium can be a place for artistic expression not limited by the market, the companies or lawyers. The sheer, though often ridiculous, creativity shown by some of these developers can put professional creators to shame. Now, if you don’t mind I’m going to go play some “Grand Theft Auto: Kuwait”.