The video game industry has become an important aspect of global culture in the early years of the twenty-first century, and video games are played by billions of people around the world. Software produced today has achieved life-like similarities, with graphics and screen resolutions matching those of cinema theaters. Narratives range from Greek mythology to futuristic sci-fi settings, espionage, military operations, even sociological and human phenomena such as politics and sexuality. However, beginning with the first generation of video games in the 1970s, there was little to no relationship between national policies and video game production. Software and hardware production was a novelty, and legislation for it was still in its infancy. With the expansion of the home console market in the early 1980s, and the video game industry becoming a huge market in the US and abroad, circumstances changed. Further, in the 1980s in Brazil a combination of events occurred that triggered the production of cultural hybrids in the gaming industry, which had not happened before, nor has ever since.
If in the early eighties the video game market was booming in the US, mostly due to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), in Brazil it lagged, since the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s made imports highly inaccessible. The Brazilian dictatorship started officially in 1964, and during its first decade, the military government focused on a nationalist agenda, pursuing infrastructure development and anticommunist ideas. Bridges, railroads, factories, steel mills, and highways were built all over the country. By 1985, Brazil had been under a dictatorship for twenty-one years, and the so-called Brazilian miracle (milagre econômico brasileiro) between 1968 and 1973 was over, leaving behind long-lasting consequences for the Brazilian economy.1 The oil crisis of 1973 and the energy crisis of 1979 resulted in Brazil becoming one of the most indebted countries in the world, with a total debt of roughly US$92 billion (equivalent to nearly US$300 billion in 2021). The country was facing one of its worst economic crises, and national industry was heavily affected. As Emmanoel Ferreira explains, the Brazilian government, in an attempt to support electronics production and safeguard the national industry, imposed heavy restrictions on the imports of electronic components, particularly those in informatics.2 On top of that, foreign companies could not sell their products in Brazil. Since Brazilian companies lacked the know-how to develop their own console parts, and an entirely national console production was therefore not possible, other means had to be implemented so the video game industry could flourish in the country.
Considering the technological and manufacturing limitations Brazil faced, a set of protectionist laws, more specifically the Política Nacional de Informática (PNI, National Policy of Informatics), triggered a wave of changes that brought to life some of the most interesting cultural hybrids the gaming industry has ever seen. The PNI law, ratified on October 29, 1984, determined that in order to compete with foreign companies, particularly those in technology, certain products could be reproduced in Brazil by national companies using the same technology as their original counterparts abroad.3 This policy resulted in the release of several NES rip-offs (a.k.a. famiclones4) in Brazil, more notably the Phantom System (fig. 1), produced by Gradiente and released in 1988, and Dynacom’s Dynavision 2 (fig. 2) in 1989.
Gradiente’s Phantom System console. The first Brazilian famiclone, which used a design heavily based on the Atari 7800. The original plan was to release the Atari 7800 with the same company, Gradiente. Gradiente never released the Atari 7800, and it is believed that the company used its frame with the Phantom System. Also pictured: the gun that worked with same games as the NES Zapper. (Image courtesy of the author)
Dynacom’s Dynavision 2 console. Another popular Brazilian famiclone. Although it never achieved the success of its predecessor, Phantom System, the design was closer to the original NES, copying its gray color with details in red. Dynacom advertised adaptors that would allow it to run original NES games as well as the Japanese famicom ones. (Image courtesy of the author)
While these systems differed aesthetically from their original counterparts, some could use the same cartridges as the original NES, while others could not, and had to release national versions of the games, such as Phantom System’s Gauntlet (fig. 3) and Ghostbusters. Several systems were released after the initial Phantom System success, such as the Top Game (by CCE) and the Hi-Top Game (by Milmar).5 The PNI ultimately led to sanctions from the US government under then President Ronald Reagan, who implemented trading restrictions against Brazil that resulted in the legal prohibition for Brazilians to import US consoles at the time.6
Gauntlet cartridge of the Phantom System with manual in Portuguese. Although the software was exactly the same as the NES one, the cartridge had a different design, all black. The manual is in Portuguese but game subtitles are in English. The cartridges from the Phantom System wouldn’t work on the original NES, nor would NES cartridges work on the Phantom System. (Image courtesy of the author)
If in the United States Sega learned a hard-earned lesson from its incursion against its rival Nintendo (NES dominating at a certain point 94 percent of the US market versus Sega’s Master System 4 percent), the gap between market shares of the two companies was not the same in Brazil.7 Sega recognized its mistakes in the software distribution model in the US (mostly due to a Nintendo policy for third-party software development) and tried to adapt to the Brazilian legislation. Eventually, Sega started a partnership with the Brazilian company TecToy.
TecToy was founded in Brazil in 1987 as a high-tech toy company, as its name implies. In 1988 Sega licensed TecToy to release its laser-tag gun Zillion, based on a popular Japanese anime, and the partnership was a success. Sega realized that TecToy could be the ideal partner to distribute its products in Brazil, and in 1989, Sega’s Master System was released in the country. Unlike Sega’s approach in the US, where its marketing department was composed of only two people, TecToy invested heavily in advertisement in Brazil, leading to a diffusion of its brand in the market that was, up till that point, still warming up with NES rip-offs. The marketing campaign that cost TecToy two million dollars in 1989 (roughly US$4 million in 2020) was in place until Christmas of that year, and the company had a revenue of $66 million, 50 percent of which was attributed to the console market. The console was an instant hit. Over 280,000 units were sold, and by the time Nintendo was finally able to find partners in the country and release a Brazilian version of the NES in 1993 (ironically under Gradiente, the same company that released the most successful famiclone in Brazil, the Phantom System), TecToy’s Master System had already claimed 80 percent of the Brazilian market, almost an inversion of what had happened in the US.
But the marketing campaign was not the only difference in the console wars in Brazil. TecToy not only understood the Brazilian market much better than Sega (or Nintendo) at that time, but also had, as a national company, a much better grasp of the particularities of Brazilian culture and history, which provided an edge over its competitors. TecToy recognized exactly what was trending in the country, and since it had the technological and manufacturing support of Sega and the means to produce its own developed games, it did just that. In 1991, TecToy released Mônica no Castelo do Dragão (fig. 4), roughly Monica in the Dragon’s Castle, a video game based on the Brazilian comic Turma da Mônica (Monica’s Gang). Monica’s Gang is a comic-book series that started out in 1959 as a comic strip by cartoonist Mauricio de Sousa, and it is arguably the most well-known comic series in Brazil. The game itself was a modified version of Wonder Boy in Monster Land, a game that had been released previously in Japan and the US, using its core code but modifying its graphics and its text accordingly. Mônica was released entirely in Portuguese, and TecToy simultaneously began offering a phone hotline for tips and tricks for players as well as support for consoles and games. Although the game was not among the best-selling games for the console in Brazil, it marked the beginning of a series of partnerships between TecToy and Sega.
Case cover (back and front) for Mônica no Castelo do Dragão . Based on one of the most recognizable characters in Brazil, the game was ported from Wonder Boy in Monster Land , using modified graphics and written entirely in Portuguese. (Image courtesy of the author)
After the release of Mônica no Castelo do Dragão in 1989, TecToy released in 1993 Chapolim x Drácula: Um duelo assustador (Chapolim versus Dracula: A frightening duel) for the Master System (fig. 5). Like Mônica, Chapolim was a redesigned version of another previously released Sega game, Ghost House, released initially in 1986. The main character of the Brazilian version of the game, Chapolim, is himself imported from a very popular Mexican TV show that starred Roberto Bolaños (El Chapulín Colorado), but even though the character had been famous at that time in Mexico for over fifteen years, the game was never released in the country. It was an unprecedented and incredibly unique example of cultural hybridity: a Brazilian company using the core programming of a Japanese game to develop a Portuguese-language version with the main character from a Mexican TV show fighting Dracula. In 1993, TecToy released for both the Master System as well as its portable console, the Game Gear, a sequel to Mônica no Castelo do Dragão, Turma da Mônica em: O Resgate (Monica’s Gang in: The Rescue), this time using Wonder Boy III’s base game with a few plot changes alongside the graphics and textual translation/adaptation. But Sega continued to produce its hybrids in Brazil as the console generations evolved.
Case cover (back and front) for Master System’s Chapolim x Drácula: um duelo assustador . Information in Portuguese details the game’s story, also pointing out that the character was licensed through Mexican actor Roberto Bolaños, Chapulín’s creator. Despite the character being well-known in Mexico, the game was never released in the country. (Image courtesy of the author)
Back in 1990, TecToy had released the Brazilian version of the Sega Genesis, dubbed Mega Drive, and the practice of adapting games continued for its fourth-generation console. In 1992 Sega released Ayrton Senna's Super Monaco GP II worldwide (fig. 6), which was fundamentally an inversion in the software development model, at that time a mostly top-down approach (US/Japan being the top, the rest of the world being the bottom). Most games were developed in Japan and in the US, then exported for sale (or ported under a different brand/name) in markets in the rest of the world; however, the situation for Senna’s GP was slightly different. The game was in fact suggested to Sega by TecToy, having in mind Brazilian audiences which at that time were interested in Formula 1 car racing due to Ayrton Senna’s F-1 championship wins in 1988, 1990, and 1991. Senna became a celebrity in Brazil, and TecToy perceived a chance to monetize that. Sega’s executive vice president Shoichiro Irimajiri had met Senna while Irimajiri was an executive at Honda, the manufacturer of the engine that was used in Senna’s F1 car, and Senna himself supervised the development of the game.8 The game became the eighth-most sold Mega Drive game by Sega/TecToy in Brazil, surpassing sales of powerhouses such as Street Fighter II and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.9
Case cover (back and front) for Ayrton Senna's Super Monaco GP II . The back cover explained in Portuguese: “Produced under the supervision of Ayrton Senna and Ayrton Senna da Silva Promotions Limited.” The game was released worldwide and was the eighth best-selling Master System game in Brazil (Image courtesy of the author)
Another interesting twist in the relationship of Sega and TecToy was the 1996 release of Férias Frustradas do Pica-Pau (fig. 7), which could be translated as “Woodpecker’s National Lampoon’s Vacation.” TecToy developed and released the game both for the Mega Drive as well as for the Master System, in yet another distinct and unique example of cross-cultural references in game production and marketing. The game was not released outside of Brazil, even though the main character is based on a very well-known cartoon in the US. The title of the game in Portuguese alludes to the title of the 1983 American movie National Lampoon's Vacation, starring Chevy Chase, which was inaccurately translated in Brazil as férias frustradas, roughly “frustrated vacations.” Following up on the huge success of the movie (and its sequels) in Brazil, the title translation became a well-known term during the 1980s and 1990s, when the movie(s) were constantly being rerun on TV. The game producers most likely tried to associate the game title with the movie title’s (mis)translation, hence the title Férias Frustradas do Pica-Pau, roughly “Woodpecker’s Frustrated Vacations.” The game was entirely developed and produced in Brazil, and according to critic Sebastian Sponsel, it would have been a good game were it not for “[s]ub-par graphics, annoying audio, poor level design, broken controls.”10 Interestingly enough, his final verdict about Pica-Pau is really not that different from many AAA titles produced by software powerhouses in recent years, such as Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed: Unity (2013), Bioware’s Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017), or, more recently, CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 (2021): “Even though executed badly, you can see that a lot of thought went into the game.” Many other games were produced following the same method, such as Sapo Xulé vs. Os Invasores do Brejo (Smelly-Feet Frog versus the Swamp Invaders, 1995) and Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum (Rá-Tim-Bum Castle, 1997), but not with the same level of hybridity as its predecessors.11
Case cover (back and front) for Férias Frustradas do Pica-Pau . The game, developed in Brazil and never released in other countries, is an amazing example of cultural hybridity. The game title is a reference to a mistranslation of a 1984 American movie, National Lampoon Vacation starring Chevy Chase. The movie was released in Brazil as “ Férias Frustradas ,” or “frustrated vacations.” (Image courtesy of the author)
The dominance of TecToy in the video game industry continued up until 1997, when the Asian financial crisis hit Brazil and inflation rates in the country skyrocketed. At the same time, the unemployment rate increased, and financing for electronics became virtually nonexistent, decreasing TecToy’s profits considerably. Because of the economic crisis, department stores that distributed TecToy’s products in Brazil (such as Mappin and Mesbla) were not able to honor their agreements and debts with TecToy and had to either close or file for bankruptcy.12 TecToy itself could not keep up with its losses and the company filed for bankruptcy as well, with a final closure in 2000.
Since then, the company has continued producing consoles, having rekindled its partnership with Sega in 2017.13 However, even though it diversified its portfolio, offering home products such as the videoke (a video-clip version of karaoke), Blu-ray players, and a Brazilian version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the company never fully recovered from the 1997 crisis. By 2012, over 150,000 consoles were sold yearly by TecToy, among its impressive console line of over forty different consoles, either Master System or Mega Drive versions.14 After Sega withdrew from the home console market in 2001, TecToy could not manage to keep up against Nintendo and Sony, which by then had already released the Nintendo 64 in 1996 and the Sony PlayStation in 1997. Moreover, the tepid sales for the Sega Dreamcast released in Brazil in 1999 could not compete with other sixth-generation consoles, particularly the PlayStation 2, released by Sony in 2000 and an absolute sales winner in Brazil, and the Xbox, released by Microsoft in 2001.
The peculiar case of TecToy in Brazil warrants further research, though it is extremely difficult to find archival information on the topic, particularly due to the company’s bankruptcy and Brazil’s poorly implemented and well-known inefficient bureaucratic institutions. Most sources found were tied back to video game users, not journalists or researchers. At that time Brazilian journalists had very little interest in electronics, much less so in video games, and therefore one can assume details regarding TecToy’s rise and fall may have been lost. In any case, the example of TecToy in Brazil will continue to be one of the few cases in the world, if not the only one, in which protectionist policies ended up leading to the creation of unique cultural artifacts mixing characters, software, and references from different countries. And even though these products remain unknown in the countries from which they drew their creative sources, these games continue to be amazing examples of cross-cultural hybridity.
I would like to thank all individuals and companies who allowed their images/pictures to be used in this article, in particular Antonio Carlos Moreira Diniz (AcmsStore).
1. ^ Luiz Aranha Correia do Lago, “Milagre econômico brasileiro,” CPDOC—Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil, http://www.fgv.br/cpdoc/acervo/dicionarios/verbete-tematico/milagre-economico-brasileiro.
2. ^ Emmanoel Ferreira, “Clonagem e pirataria nos primórdios dos videogames no Brasil,” Revista do Centro de Pesquisa e Formação, SESC São Paulo, December 15, 2020, https://www.sescsp.org.br/online/artigo/14982_EMMANOEL+FERREIRA.
3. ^ Federative Republic of Brazil, Lei n. 7.232, de 29 de outubro de 1984, planalto.gov.br, accessed May 25, 2021, http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/LEIS/L7232.htm.
6. ^ Ronald Reagan, “Statement on Trade Sanctions against Brazil,” Reagan Library and Museum, n.d., https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/statement-trade-sanctions-against-brazil.
7. ^ Ken Horowitz, “Sega-16—Interview: Mark Cerny (Founder of STI),” SEGA-16, December 5, 2006, https://www.sega-16.com/2006/12/interview-mark-cerny/.
8. ^ Sebastian Sponsel, “Interview: Stefano Arnhold (Tectoy),” SEGA-16, November 16, 2015, http://www.sega-16.com/2015/11/interview-stefano-arnhold-tectoy/.
9. ^ “‘Mortal Kombat’ e ‘Sonic’ são campeões de vendas da Tec Toy,” UOL, November 18, 2004, https://www.uol.com.br/start/ultimas-noticias/2004/11/18/mortal-kombat-e-sonic-sao-campeoes-de-vendas-da-tec-toy.htm.
10. ^ Sebastian Sponsel, “Férias frustradas do Pica-Pau,” SEGA-16, March 18, 2012, https://www.sega-16.com/2012/03/ferias-frustradas-do-pica-pau/.
11. ^ Rafael Monteiro, “Lista relembra os jogos exclusivos brasileiros do Master System,” TechTudo, February 20, 2016, https://www.techtudo.com.br/listas/noticia/2016/02/lista-relembra-os-jogos-exclusivos-brasileiros-do-master-system.html.
13. ^ Luiz Nai, “TecToy Celebrates Partnership with SEGA, Announces New Genesis Game,” SEGA Nerds, May 9, 2017, www.seganerds.com/2017/05/09/tectoy-celebrates-partnership-with-sega-announces-new-genesis-game/.
14. ^ Théo Azevedo, “Vinte anos depois, Master System e Mega Drive vendem 150 mil unidades por ano no Brasil,” UOL, July 30, 2012, https://www.uol.com.br/start/ultimas-noticias/2012/07/30/vinte-anos-depois-master-system-e-mega-drive-vendem-150-mil-unidades-por-ano-no-brasil.htm#fotoNav=7.