Saturday, September 6, 2008

Somari Team Presents: The Ocarina of Piracy

For a small portion of my life I lived in Turkey. The first thing you learn about video games as an expatriate is they're notoriously hard to get for your foreign system and games on the market in Europe are disgracefully delayed in coming to market. The second thing you learn is you need a multi-system TV with automatic switching. Seeing NTSC running on a PAL TV for the first time is a nightmare that causes a mental breakdown, once you consider the thought of needing repair on your console from a foreign region. The third thing you learn is to cherish and love the Sony hologram, the Sega Swirl, and the official Nintendo Seal of Quality as piracy runs rampant.

In North America, it is not very common to walk into a Wal-Mart or Toys-R-Us and see pirated games sitting on the shelf. I was blown away in Turkey to see Super Mario 64 for Game Boy. How cool was that? Well, as it turns out, it was not cool at all. Super Mario 64 for Game Boy was some sort of hacked Super Mario Land 2 with Mario's hat carrying some sort of funny wings on it constantly. They weren't the carrot hat ears from the source title but instead I think they were some sort of ruddy ear thing inspired by the wing cap from Super Mario 64. At the time I thought it wouldn't matter that these obviously faked cartridges exist - people knew better, right? The biggest shock of all came when I visited Toys-R-Us once.

Toys-R-Us had always carried legitimate Dreamcast titles and accessories, many of which I wanted after playing them on the in-store demo. They even had some Super Nintendo titles sitting around with some licensed controllers. Nintendo 64? Obviously someone had not gotten the Ocarina of Time gospel and come to the light of Miyamoto. I chalked it up to regional differences and some launch thingie things that needed to be worked out. Fast forward a few months and Nintendo had thrown a few Ocarina of Time ads on TV to promote the launch of the console. I decided I'd pop into Toys-R-Us to check to see how the European box art would be different. There were no Nintendo 64s. Instead I was greeting with the "Super Game!" or some such named thing. I examined the box curiously and saw "Cool 3D graphics!" depicting some sort of FIFA-type game along with some miscellaneous fighters. For $30 I figured it might be worth checking out and managed to procure one after nagging my parents.

After getting home and eagerly sitting in front of the TV, I pulled out my shiny new console and realized it looked a LOT like a Playstation. Except there was no CD drive. There was a cartridge slot under the supposed disc drive cover. I knew something was wrong by now but I took the pack-in game "1,000 in 1" cartridge and stuck it in. The shock set in as soon as I hit the power button. Apparently "Cool 3D graphics!" in Chinese means "8-bit". Pirated, clunky Mario titles lived inside the cartridge along with heinous hacks of Popeye and Excitebike, among many others. I knew something wasn't kosher for sure (bright kid, wasn't I?).

I managed to return the console to Toys-R-Us thanks to not being able to speak much Turkish. Nevertheless, my eyes were opened. What was all this junk out here? I kept an eye on Toys-R-Us for a while, watching as they stocked a large amount of consoles, quickly replenishing stock when running out. After a few weeks I was fed up and contacted Nintendo of America since there was no real central number for Nintendo of Europe I could find.

Despite being overseas, Nintendo was keenly interested in listening to me and forwarded things onto their teams in Europe for handling. I kept tabs on the store, surprised when suddenly one day the entire stock of "Super Game!" was gone without being replaced for a few months. I took a small portion of satisfaction out of it, thinking maybe I had made a small difference in the video game world.

I didn't win. The next summer Toys-R-Us started to carry more "Super Game!" while never picking up the Nintendo 64. Again the pattern continued of sell and restock. I called NoA again and reported once more. I was left on my own to conclude Nintendo had followed up with Toys-R-Us corporate in Turkey and had pressured them to stop carrying the console. Ostensibly this worked for a time but had ultimately failed. I was later informed via major game news outlets Nintendo would be withdrawing distribution of the Nintendo 64 from Turkey along with titles sold there due to the extreme piracy in the area.

As a gamer, I felt sad at the news. Many titles Nintendo has published over the years are frequently considered great works of art that push the human sense of emotion. At the time I felt it was like being denied the opportunity to see a Van Gogh or Picasso. I was also angry at the pirates for using "Cool 3D Graphics!" to lure people falsely into purchasing a fake product. As I thought more about it I became outraged at piracy. It wasn't just a little here and there - it was a lot of little heres and theres that combined to drive a great product out.

I never did keep tabs on the gaming scene in Turkey when I left. I do not know if the Wii ever made a successful launch there or if the Vii did. But now you know the story of a little black console that was driven out by piracy, despite a legitimate launch effort. Next time you consider grabbing a pirated copy of some title, stop and consider this little story. Maybe you'll change your mind.

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