I’ve loved playing video games ever since I can remember, and I never once wished for more than I had. However, since the Internet age and availability of information, I’ve come to realize that I didn’t always have what the modern world had. When it comes to gaming, people in the Balkans really played some weird stuff. There really is too much of this to mention, but let me try to paint you a basic picture of what was happening here.

Christmas Gaming NostalgiaThis image awakens my childhood memories like no other. Credit to Toni Bratinčević
When I say “The Balkans”, I mainly mean former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Serbia, etc.). This wasn’t exactly a third world region, but we were part of the communist Europe and were suffering from a war in the years after the Soviet fall. Suffice to say, the standard of living wasn’t as high as in Western Europe. The internet was still in its early teens and it was rare for anyone to have access here. We did, however, have games. Oh, we had plenty of those.

I was probably five or six when I encountered my first game console in the early nineties. I’ve seen and played it at my rich cousin’s house. Mind you, by rich, I mean that they owned their own grocery store, which was insanely rich in most people’s eyes. As far as I can remember, it was some weird thing you plug into a color TV (oh my god they even had a color TV!) and you used a big stick to control a formula in a race. The cars would move from left to right and you used the stick to dodge enemy cars by moving it up and down. From what I know today, this was an early Atari clone. He had this console for maybe a few weeks and then the controllers broke.

OK, so in the last paragraph, I mentioned a clone. What would that be? Well, people here never could afford real, proper game consoles. A Nintendo or even an Atari was unobtainable by most people’s standards. What we did have, though, were pirated clones of these consoles. They were cheap, they had hundreds of games built in (well, more like dozens, but I will come back to that later), and they were about a generation and a half behind the rest of the world. So when the rest of the world played Nintendo, Sega Genesis or even Super Nintendo games, we just started replacing our Atari clones with Nintendo clones.

You’re kidding, right? Were Clones Legal?

No, I’m not kidding, not even a bit. As far a legality, I really have no idea. What I can tell you, though, is that I’ve never seen anyone get arrested for buying, owning or selling one of these consoles. They were sold in regular stores, department stores, fairs, street shops, pretty much anywhere where other toys would have been sold. A lot of people would buy them, including cops, so as far as I can tell, they were perfectly legal, or at worst, completely allowed.

The Early Game & Watch Clones

So, that was my first video game experience, but it was definitely not the last. Within a year, I owned my first video game system. You must wonder, what was it, was it really expensive and top-notch? Nope, not at all. It was a 5$ Nintendo Game & Watch clone. Actually, I have to use the term clone loosely here. It wasn’t really a clone, but from what I can remember, it worked similarly. The device had a single screen, which consisted of a transparent led over a painted background, giving an illusion of color. The led itself was not even black and white, just black. What I mean is, either a part of the screen was displaying a black graphic, or it was not displaying anything, making the painted background visible. In addition to that, there were no pixels, only fixed position graphics that would either be lit or not.

Now, I don’t know which one I owned first, but these things were cheap and broke down fast. It wasn’t even worth it to buy fresh batteries for them, since they used those tiny batteries you use in clocks. I went through a few of those, but then I got my first proper game system.

Brick Game Systems

Well, it was proper by my standards. It also actually played a game the rest of the world knew and loved, although it was a bit late to the party. What I’m talking about was Tetris. Actually, the entire system was called Tetris by most people here. The real name varied, though, but it was mostly known as Brick Game or Multi Game. You could get a 9 in 1, 99 in 1, 999 in 1 or even 9999 in one version, each with different variations of Tetris, Snake, or something similar. Most variations were barely any different from the regular game, but some were actually pretty fun. You could have regular snake where hitting a wall kills you, Snake with wrap-around levels, Snake with obstacles, faster or slower Snake, etc. When it comes to Tetris, there was the regular kind, Tetris with extra blocks, Tetris with special blocks that break down when landing, pass through other blocks and fill holes, fire at the ground blocks and lots of other stuff. There was also a racing game or two and a crappy imitation of Pac-Man which was mostly unplayable due to the type of display this system used.

9999 in 1 Brick GameMy first one wasn’t nearly as colorful, and had only 99 games.

The display was brilliant (sarcasm), by the way. Again, it wasn’t your standard pixel screen. The user interface frames were painted on it, this time from the front. The display itself was in the style of a dot-matrix, except the dots were single Tetris blocks and the color was a darker shade of grey, which would go dimmer as the battery would have less juice. This is why Pac-Man was unplayable. There were no pie heads or ghosts, no cherries or pills, only bigger and smaller Tetris blocks. Still, Tetris and Snake were fun, and I had a great time owning this system. Oh, and in case you are interested, the prices for these systems ranged from 7-8 to 15$, depending on the amount of games and complexity of the variations. I used these systems through my early school years, mostly in the first two grades, and rarely in the few years after that.

SuperCOM

Kids will be kids, though, and my neighbor’s kids were really jealous of me for owning this awesome pocket system, so, in the spirit of kid rivalry, they had to 1-up me. They got themselves a SuperCOM, made by First, from Austria. Now, this was a brilliant system. It looks like a Super Nintendo, right? Nope, it was a Famicom (Nintendo) clone and it used the original Nintendo Cartridge type. Of course, these too were pirated, so you could get a cartridge with one or even multiple games for around 10-15 bucks.  As you can see, this was a pretty bi jump in price, so most people dint own many extra cartridges, but the good thing was that the console came with usually tens of thousands of games built in.
Super COMApparently, made by First, Austria. At least, that’s what was written on the console.
Now, I said I would come back to this later, so here goes. Yes, there were thousands upon thousands of games to pick from, but in reality, there was maybe 20 really different games. All the others were clones with slight variations. You could get a clone that starts on a different level, with extra lives, with differently arranged enemies or color pallets, or if you really got lucky, you would find a clone where Mario can fly.  In any case, you could have som fun with a good clone, but most of the time it was just extra flavor and not much of a difference Still, I’m talking about around 20 great NES games for the price of a 40$ system.

An Actual Sega Genesis!

As I said, kids will be kids, so I had to top this. Now, I was extremely lucky here. I got my hands on the real deal. A Sega Genesis, or a Sega Mega Drive II, as it was called here. Seriously, I’m talking about the real deal, here, not a clone – the real deal! This was the golden age of my gaming career. Everyone would come and play at my house, even kids I didn’t know before. I only ever had the original 6 in 1 cartridge, but boy was that used a lot. Sonic, Streets of Rage, Revenge of Shinobi; everyone my age still remembers those games thanks to me.

Sega Mega Drive 6 in 1The only Genesis/Mega Drive cartridge I ever owned.
The golden age didn’t last long, though. Soon enough, the console malfunctioned and there was no place nearby where I could repair it. It stayed in my closet, collecting dust, only to be shortly revived a few years later and then get another malfunction soon after that.

Another SuperCOM

No, it sure wasn’t. That thing cost me 250$ – a fortune by those standards. I was going to be smarter next time. Soon after, I got back to basics and bought another Famicom clone, again a Super COM. I was better informed, though. Mine used these yellow cartridges, which were much, much cheaper – closer to 5$ each. With this, even with my allowance alone, I could afford a new cartridge every few weeks. Each month, I would walk for 5 miles to get a new one at the only place in the area that had them, but it was oh so worth it.
Yellow Pirate CartridgeI never got any of the legends. The closest I got to mainstream was James Bond Jr.

My neighbor wasn’t as lucky and this marked the start of me consistently defeating him. His console broke, which was sad, because we never got to play our favorite game – Batman Flash – again, until recently when I managed to find a ROM for it. After that, he bought a Sega Mega Drive II, or so would you believe, until you realized that it was also a Famicom clone (the normal 40$ price should have been a big hint). This thing still used those big grey Famicom cartridges, so he didn’t get to play on it much, because of the cost. He did have an amazing basketball game, though.

The SuperCOM was extremely sturdy

I used this console for years, and boy was it sturdy. The best way to portray the sturdiness is probably to tell you a short story. A friend of mine had one of those two, and he had a few good games on it. Sadly, a lightning storm fried it, and we couldn’t find a cartridge with these games anywhere. We broke open the console with a hammer and found a chip with a plug that was the exact same width as the cartridge plug. It was soldered to the mainboard, so we tore it out and used sandpaper to remove the soldering material from the plug. We plugged this chip in my console cartridge slot, and it worked perfectly, just like a regular console.

As I said, due to the sturdiness, I used this console for years and played many a great game on it. The only two better things I’ve ever seen in those years were my Sega Mega Drive and a Super Nintendo that another friend owned. Again, this was the real deal, but it was never as fun as what I had. All he had on his console was Prince of Persia, Super Turrican and Super Mari Kart – never anything else. On the other hand, I owned a few dozen cartridges, each with one or more great games. The graphics might not have been as nice, but hell if we cared about that.

A PlayStation of My Own.

Anyway, by the end of the nineties, everyone was still playing on these consoles, but soon it was time for an upgrade. My sister started working in Germany, which means our standard suddenly, though very slightly, improved. I was an IT illiterate at that time and started dreaming about a laptop where I would play any game from any console imaginable. Of course, this didn’t exist back then (emulators not as hot) and I had no idea what I was dreaming about. One summer I went to visit her in Germany and then realized how silly I actually was Any laptop was too expensive and it wasn’t about games at all. What I needed was another console. so I went and got one.

I got myself a brand new PlayStation! I never even dreamed of owning something like that, but it happened. It came with a demo disc, and I also bought two games – Rascal and ReBoot. Both games sucked, but back then, I didn’t know better. I came home and the second golden age started. Everyone was back at my place again, playing Tekken with Eddie Gordo and Ling Xiaoyu; the only two characters available in the demo. As I said, Rascal and ReBoot sucked, so no one, including myself, wanted to play those two.

A PlayStation of Everyone’s Own

A few months after I got mine, a lot of the people who played at my house started getting their own PlayStations. Then around 1998 the first Croatian PlayStation magazine – PSX, started circulating. We finally had access to information. Something else happened to. I realized I made a mistake for buying mine in Germany. The ones bought in Croatia were only slightly more expensive, but you could also get a mod chip built in, which allowed you to play pirated copies of games, which would cost around 5-6$, compared to 90-100 DEM or 50€ later for my originals.

I tried moding mine, but the few stores that did it turned me down, saying that there’s an issue with my German console that makes the chip unusable. Still, I was never envious, because I could hardly get a pirated copy of the games I liked. This brings us to the next chapter.

Final Fantasy VII

The third game I got, I wasn’t enthused about. Then my sister’s boyfriend, today my brother-in-law, got me that one. It was Final Fantasy 7. All I knew back then were platformers, fighters, racers and shooters – action games. This Final Fantasy was weird. It didn’t play right. Still, I gave it a shot – AND I NEVER LOOKED BACK! This game made me realize I love role-playing games. After this one, no action game would ever be as fun for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a one genre gamer, but RPGs will always have a special place in my heart.  Maybe it’s my love for math and statistics, or my love for a good story, but this is simply how I am. Grandia, Final Fantasy 7, 8 and 9, Legend of Kartia – all these games gave me months of fun.
Legend of KartiaLegend of Kartia was the first game I played that had two stories.

My First PC

Still, while the PlayStation was great, I found the PC was always intriguing to me. I just had to get one of my own. Of course, I again had no idea what I was going in to, but I just knew I wanted one. I eventually got one in seventh grade, when I was 13. It was crap – A Pentium at 200MHZ, with a 1MB VGA and 4MB of EDO RAM. Gaming wise, it was a complete downgrade from the PlayStation. It opened up a door for me, though, which will never close shut. I could now freely explore this device, figure out how it works, figure out how to bend it to my will and I was grateful for that. I had trouble with it, it broke frequently and badly, but every issue that arose increased my knowledge of its inner workings.

A year later, I got Internet access and that was another great leap forward. Suddenly I had access to so much information, so much stuff I needed and wanted to learn. I realized I could even get games on the Internet. Sure, the graphics weren’t as great, but the style, the approach, the complexity of the RPGs. Then I realized you could also use it to emulate old consoles. Suddenly I had access to the entire NES and SNES library at my fingertips.

However, there came a point where I realized the specs where holding me back. There was so much stuff that I could do, if I only had a bit more power. Heck, even the monitor only supported a 640×480 resolution. Everything was advancing around me, and there was less and less that I could use.

Finally, in 2001, I got a new computer. It was Pentium IV at 1,7GHz, with 256MB of RAM and a 32MB GeForce2 Ti GPU. What a leap that was. Suddenly I could not only run PS1 games on my computer, but even run games with graphics that rivaled the PS2. From that moment, I never looked back. From that point, I was on the road to what I am today, to what I want to be in the future.

There, this was my story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. What’s your story?