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Keywords
bootleg, consoles, piracy, Micro Genius, TXC, platforms, cloning, clone consoles, Famiclones, Taiwan, India, Poland, Russia

The Bootleg Connection

Micro Genius and the Transnational Circulation of Early Clone Consoles

Ian Larson (University California, Irvine)

Abstract

Video game histories often depict the medium’s global rise as untroubled, with video games emerging from North America and Japan and meeting little to no resistance. Recent game scholarship has shown the flaws in this narrative, specifically its Western-centric bias and failure to acknowledge the numerous regional markets and local developers who contributed to the medium’s global popularity. This paper continues this work by considering an alternative, bootleg network of transnational gaming circulation. By exploring Micro Genius devices and their transnational legacy as a case study of bootleg gaming brands, this paper contends that alternative gaming experiences are not only important but critical to game history and the global game industry’s extraordinary reach. Originating in Taiwan, Micro Genius devices had an undocumented impact on the growth of the regional gaming market. Subsequently, the brand had an extensive afterlife as a transnational clone via three regional variants: the Dendy in Russia, the Pegasus in Poland, and the Samurai Micro Genius in India. The case of Micro Genius and its various rebrands shows how pirate brands not only invited regional communities into the video gaming market and culture but did so through complex transnational networks comparable to those of leading companies like Nintendo and Sega.


 

Introduction

In 2008 photographer Eric Lafforgue took pictures of a group of North Korean children playing video games at an international children’s camp in Wonsan, North Korea.1 This was noteworthy given the scant evidence of video games as a medium in North Korea. However, the game the children played was perhaps more interesting to the video game community at the time than the presence of gaming in the country.2 In one photo children gather around a television to play Double Dragon 2 (1988). In another they select a game from four options: Contra (1987), Leff Fuhace [sic], Green Bert SectonZ [sic], and Jackal (1986).3 The games are played on a gray rectangular device that looks somewhat like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES, 1985) console, but instead bears a bright blue and red logo and the name Micro Genius (fig. 1).

Figure 1

Logo of the Micro Genius brand by TXC, circa 1987. (“Micro Genius,” published source unknown, Bootleggameswiki, https://bootleggames.fandom.com/wiki/Micro_Genius?file=Micro_Genius_logo.png)

The device in question is the Micro Genius IQ-701 (fig. 2), one of many replications of Nintendo’s Family Computer (1983)/NES platform that was released under the Micro Genius brand between the 1987 and the late 1990s.4 Created in 1987 by the Taiwanese TXC Corporation, Micro Genius has become synonymous with pirate and bootleg gaming devices worldwide. Its mysterious appearance in North Korea highlights the Micro Genius brand’s journey beyond its country of origin into unlikely and unsupported markets. Many regional entrepreneurs and burgeoning game companies would use distribution deals with Micro Genius to jump-start local gaming markets. These bootlegged devices served as important foundations for regional gaming.

Figure 2

Image of the Micro Genius IQ-501, the console played in Wonsan North Korea, circa 2018. (Image from Amazon listing, https://www.amazon.eg/-/en/Retro-Micro-Genius-IQ701-Grey/dp/B091CXN22H)

This paper offers a case study of Micro Genius devices and their transnational legacy to consider the critical importance of bootleg gaming brands to game history and our understanding of the global reach of the games industry. Starting first with the brand’s origins in Taiwan, I argue that Micro Genius devices had an undocumented impact on the growing gaming market in Taiwan. Subsequently, I present the brand’s extensive afterlife as a transnational clone brand via three regional variants: the Dendy in Russia, the Pegasus in Poland, and the Samurai Micro Genius in India. Taken together, Micro Genius and its various rebrands show how pirate brands not only enabled regional communities to participate in gaming, as other scholars have discussed, but did so through complex transnational networks like those of Nintendo and Sega.

Micro Genius’s Place in History

Criticism of video game history has often focused on its homogenous description of the medium’s emergence. Most accounts document a combination of well-known developers, devices, and the supposed “hacker heroes and game gods” who made up the nascent years of the video game industry.5 Major events such as the US game crash of 1983 and the subsequent home boom by platform manufacturers like Nintendo and Sony show the turbulence underlying the medium’s advent as it gradually evolved into today’s global industry. Still, this narrative envisions a medium that rose from North America and Japan on an effortless trajectory to success, as if this form of play were everywhere at once—a history that many scholars have rightfully dissected.6

Concurrent with challenging popular narratives, scholars have worked to include voices, perspectives, and histories of game communities outside of the hegemonic norm. Game historians have lobbied researchers to investigate regional histories of play, decolonize game culture, and reexamine the dominant account of game history through a feminist media lens.7 Much of this work counters the illusion of a standardized game history and the notion of a universal global games industry. Thus, scholars like Mia Consalvo have called for a “need to reconsider how disparate actors are making different marks on a diverse industry and how different segments of a games industry are taking shape.”8 Jaroslav Švelch, Gleb J. Albert, and Alison Gazzard have expanded this scope by soliciting input from pirate developers, software crackers, emulation preservationists, and fan hackers, who are generally considered peripheral to the games industry.9 Building upon this work can illuminate other neglected contributors to the medium and construct alternative and more accurate histories of play.

Regional gaming participation through unofficial adoption and local production has undeniably served as the foundation of gaming communities globally. In Gaming the Iron Curtain, Švelch argues that imitation functions meaningfully to promote gaming participation, especially in communities at the geographical margins of the video game industry.10 Using instances of well-known developers like Square and ID Software that emulated other developers in their early efforts like Doom (1993) and Final Fantasy (1987), Švelch claims that imitation of foreign products is a standard and generative practice within the traditional games industry. Yet, unlike their dominant industry peers, imitative gaming products are rarely analyzed as historically significant. Consequently, Švelch seeks to “ascribe value to the processes of transformation and imitation, which tend to be underestimated in comparison to a romanticized ideal of an original work.”11 Echoing this perspective on imitation, Dongwon Jo and Sara X. T. Liao separately contend that the early games industries tapped bootlegging, piracy, and cloning as the infrastructural foundation for legitimate participation in the games industry in Korea and China, respectively.12 The work of Švelch, Jo, and Liao provides rich case studies for the foundation of gaming participation through alternative markets, but Micro Genius illuminates a wider transnational circulation that extends beyond individual countries and communities: an alternative bootleg network existing alongside the legitimate games market.

This reorientation of alternative narratives of gaming consumption and production coincides with the scholarly move to find meaning in game production and participation at the geographical peripheries. This move fits into what Bjarke Liboriussen and Paul Martin call regional game studies: “a growing body of research that investigates games and gaming cultures at a range of geocultural scales, identifies connections across and between these scales, highlights and addresses unequal global power relations within gaming culture and within the academic study of games, and enriches the field with new perspectives drawn from regional cultural contexts.”13 Likewise, the anthology Gaming Globally pushes the field of game studies to consider local, global, and transnational connections between gaming markets.14 Melanie Swalwell observes this tension between transnational connection and the local and global, contending that early auxiliary gaming markets were “at once in touch with, yet also distant from, all the major centers of game development and consumption.”15 Bootleg consoles like Micro Genius exemplify this point since they afforded global participation but through a tenuous connection that is solidly grounded in local contributions. Analyzing narratives at this intersection can reveal how presumably disparate regional communities were associated through unofficial transnational circulation overlooked by game history.

Clones, Piracy, and Bootlegs

Unlike the study of the historical impact of well-known gaming devices, analysis of Micro Genius devices falls into unique territory because unlike lesser known, failed, or peripheral gaming devices, recent game scholarship has placed devices like Micro Genius consoles into distinct categories due to their direct connection to imitation and piracy.16 Micro Genius devices are often characterized as clone consoles, referring to unlicensed reproductions of proprietary gaming hardware made to be compatible with a competitor’s library of software.17 Micro Genius devices directly reproduced Nintendo’s Family Computer/NES platform. Not all clone consoles are illegal or unlicensed, but Micro Genius manufactured the devices illegally because Nintendo still held active international hardware patents on Famicom and NES at the time.18 As result, such devices are often designated as bootleg consoles: a communal term for hardware that plays proprietary software without the consent of the platform holder and that violates a contemporary patent.19 The line between legal clones and bootleg clones is undefined and mostly superficially designated, but both terms negatively position a device against a more well-known or dominant platform.

Accordingly, borrowing components and technical ability from proprietary products directly ties Micro Genius’s history to that of video game piracy. Game scholars have suggested piracy and imitation are culturally meaningful acts.20 This coincides with a larger movement within digital infrastructure studies to reinterpret piracy as a complicated act of resistance against expanding global capitalism.21 These scholars infer that discounting the impact of imitation and piracy outside of the dominant sites of production (i.e., the US, Japan) potentially reifies problematic narratives within gaming histories that depict these sites as less technologically adept. As Ann-Marie Schleiner discusses in Transnational Play, game studies often reproduce narratives in which the global South and developing nations lag behind in both technology and video games.22 While she notes that the consumer games industry in many countries developed differently from the West, game studies narratives often presumptuously posit the supremacy of the Western model. Rather than discounting regional gaming participation founded in piracy and unauthorized adoption, Schleinerr calls for adopting alternative narratives to modernization—ones that not only legitimize different paths and definitions of modernization but also acknowledge infrastructural, political, and access issues. Undoubtedly, the history of Micro Genius highlights the many hurdles regional communities face in gaining access to video games.

Speculative Bootlegged Past

Alongside navigating the complex context of Micro Genius in game history at large, research into bootleg and pirate platforms requires atypical approaches compared to the study of traditional devices. Given that the Micro Genius brand and its numerous variations are foreign products that violate international intellectual property rights standards, little documentation and few sources exist. Fan repositories, such as the BootlegGamesWiki and the work of hobbyist game historians, provide the little information available. While traditional historical practice generally shuns such resources, I endorse media scholar Michael Z. Newman’s sentiment that “any source that speaks to the history of video games in everyday life is welcome in my archive.”23

Accordingly, I rely on nontraditional sources and perspectives such as fan sites, Twitter threads, communal wikis, Youtube videos, discussion posts, and the like although these sources still only permit a speculative and murky account. Historical scholarship typically eschews speculation, but as Paul E. Bolin contends: “the writing of history, more often than not, consists of the historian's ability to choreograph a dance of compatibility between the fragments of a known past, and a world constructed through reasoned imagination and grounded speculation.”24 To me this dance of speculation corresponds to Laine Nooney’s “speleology” method of diving into the past: “a phenomenologically imprecise encounter” of uncovering the past “that ‘gropes toward its limits.’”25 This essay attempts to begin bringing Micro Genius into the broader context of game history.

TXC and Taiwan: The Origins of Micro Genius

Delving into Micro Genius’s transnational footprint first requires a discussion of the bootleg brand’s origins in Taiwan’s computing and gaming history. The emergence of video games as a medium aligns with the tail end of unprecedented economic growth in Taiwan from the 1960s to the late 1980s. Analysts often attribute this period of growth, referred to as the Taiwan Miracle, to policies that favored international exports with support from foreign technocrats and aid.26 The Taiwan Miracle terminated with an electronics boom, often associated with Taiwan’s position in personal computing, but rarely alongside Taiwan’s role in game history.27 In the 1970s and 1980s, Taiwan’s early gaming scene revolved around imported arcade cabinets and clones of Western devices and games, including Pong (1972) and the Atari 2600 (1982) console.28 As gaming grew in the arcade space, electronic firms contracted local developers to begin replicating Japanese cabinets in mass quantities. However, a 1982 ban on arcades curtailed this developing scene as the government attempted to discourage gambling and dissuade Taiwanese youth from congregating in inappropriate places.29 Manufacturers who found themselves with an excess of microprocessors shifted their attention to the emerging microcomputer scene, where Taiwan had become a hub for cheap labor and efficient PC production.30 Despite the ban on arcades and Taiwan’s PC industry supplanting the early game boom, home gaming steadily grew. American and Japanese games industries expanded, and imports and gray markets of foreign gaming products popped up throughout Taiwan. A few local game developers, including Bit Corp, used the opportunity to create unique titles for both local and international audiences on imported platforms like Colecovision (1982).31 However, the arrival of Nintendo’s Famicom (1983) sparked greater coordination among firms within the country.

Any account of game history will discuss the impact of Nintendo’s Famicom platform—as well as its North American and European counterpart the NES—on the gaming industry, but contrary to its relevance to gaming history, the device was not distributed as internationally as consoles are in today’s global market.32 Taiwan was one of many gaming markets Nintendo did not support commercially. The Japanese company has never publicly discussed why they chose to market their early devices in some areas and not in others, but in the case of Taiwan, Nintendo may have perceived excessive piracy as too great a threat to the market—a topic to be discussed more closely later.

In place of official Nintendo products, locally produced unlicensed clones of the Famicom hardware began to spring up in the country.33 The arrival and production of these clones coincided with Taiwan’s adoption of the international IP standard, which Taiwan barely enforced until the 1990s.34 These famiclones, an affectionate term used within the retrogaming community to refer to any unlicensed clone of the Famicom, reproduced the essential components of the Famicom platform, enabling users to play games meant for the Famicom on cheaper and more readily available consoles. Of the many Taiwanese famiclone manufacturers, TXC Corporation’s Micro Genius devices were undoubtedly the most prolific and well-known, due to their wide variety and competent build quality.35

TXC Corporation, the company behind the Micro Genius brand, was founded in 1983 as a manufacturer of electronic consumer goods.36 During this period, many of the now-senior Taiwanese electronic manufacturers gained experience by manufacturing diverse types of electronic goods such as microcomputers and computer chips, and TXC likely saw home gaming as a potentially profitable market.37 To this day, TXC primarily produces frequency control products, including crystal resonators, crystal oscillators, and timing modules.38 Despite this specialization, and perhaps to the company’s dismay, it is still known within the video game community for its production of Micro Genius devices, games, and accessories during the medium’s second console generation. The now-senior company has seldom discussed its foray into gaming, and little official documentation of its motivations and experiences exists.

The Many Models and Quirks of Micro Genius

Between 1987 and 1992, TXC successfully developed a family of consoles designed to reproduce Famicom hardware under the Micro Genius brand.39 The company’s first outputs were fairly blatant knock-offs of the Famicom hardware. Likely one of the first models TXC produced, the Micro Genius IQ-180 (see fig. 3, white and red device), features a design that is aesthetically equal to the Famicom and even advertised itself as a “Family Computer.”40 Potentially due to this direct replication, no one knows whether the IQ-180 even made it to market or if the design was deemed too blatantly stolen. Questions of release are clearer with other Micro Genius models, which resemble the design of the Famicom rather than duplicate it. Models such as the IQ-201 (see fig. 3, black device) look like the original Famicom but have design features that differentiate them, like the location of three operation buttons on the front of the device. Changes that distinguished Micro Genius devices from the Famicom hardware would become more apparent as later Micro Genius models dabbled in novel technology. For instance, the IQ-901 Handy System allowed wireless play by using a radio frequency to transmit the console’s output to the television. Other models like the Micro Genius IQ-1000 further promoted wireless play by implementing infrared controllers that interacted with a sensor built into the console itself.

Figure 3

An early ad for Micro Genius products that features the IQ-180, the IQ-201, and an Infrared accessory, circa 1987. (“Micro Genius,” Bootleggameswiki, https://bootleggames.fandom.com/wiki/Micro_Genius?file=Microgenius1987-ad.jpg)

Inside the shells was a hodgepodge of components that mirrored many of those in the Famicom. Hobbyists have attempted to catalog the chips found in Micro Genius devices, as well as other similar famiclones produced by other companies, and have found a mixture of unknown and comparable chip sets.41 Generic logic chips like the 74LS139 and 74LS373 are present, but alternatives to essential chips—like the Famicom’s 6502 CPU core—also make up the Micro Genius console motherboards from companies like United Microelectronics Corporation and Toshiba. This usage of distinctive chipsets indicates that TXC had partnerships with local and foreign chip manufacturers and was not merely reskinning Famicom devices.42 Although the parts essentially reproduce the Famicom platform, the replication was not one-to-one, and hackers have discovered quirks in the operation of Micro Genius devices compared to their Famicom peers. Hobbyists have coined the term Dendy Timing to designate the slightly faster CPU clock speed compared to official European region NESs.43 This faster clock speed was likely due to attempts to provide the maximum compatibility to Japanese and North American games in the North American region NESs.44

These devices have numerous other models and peculiarities, but their variation highlights TXC’s extensive effort to differentiate itself from the platform being replicated. People often assume that devices categorized as bootleg consoles are cheap imitation products that cut corners by using less reliable parts, but the early Micro Genius products show that this is not always the case. Rather than being simply one-to-one clones, many of these devices improved or altered the Famicom foundation in interesting and meaningful ways, a trend seen throughout the wider history of regional gaming clones. This effort and variety may also explain the appeal of Micro Genius brand devices for foreign investors trying to avoid direct parallels to Nintendo’s console.

Had TXC stopped at reproducing proprietary devices, its place in gaming history might rightfully be classified as wholly pirate, but the company contributed to what many would consider legitimate gaming participation as it expanded the Taiwanese market. It developed unique accessories and published licensed games from game manufacturers that were also at the peripheries of the game industry.45 TXC would go on to acquire Taiwanese game developer Idea-Tek and subsequently republished its games under the Micro Genius brand.46 Including the Idea-Tek games, TXC issued around fifteen games, with some exclusive titles, for the Taiwanese market. Thunder Warrior (1992) and Chinese Chess (1991) attempted to provide Taiwanese audiences with experiences inspired by trends in Japanese and Western titles. Thunder Warrior, for example, features many scenes and assets that are remarkably similar to those found in popular NES/Famicom titles like Castlevania (1986) and Mega Man (1987).47 Today, many of the games developed under the Micro Genius brand and its partners are ridiculed for their usage of copied and reused assets and are rarely included in the legitimate library of NES and Famicom because they lack Nintendo’s approval.48 Despite being “illegitimate” bootlegs, these games are still eagerly sought by collectors (many are considered rare by Famicom availability standards), and some have never been successfully preserved online.

The USTR Comes Calling: The End of Micro Genius?

TXC corporation halted production of Micro Genius consoles in Taiwan in 1992.49 By 1989 the United States included Taiwan on the United States Trade Representative (USTR) Section 301 watch list.50 This list allows the USTR to impose tariffs and trade restrictions on any country or territory that fails to comply with international trade regulations. Such taxes and trade restrictions would have dramatically impacted the Taiwanese economy. For the regional pirates, this change would have made business significantly more difficult.51 According to Lawrence Liang, threats by the USTR typically resulted in an increase in policing, raids, and hyper profiling of piracy in mainstream media in listed countries.52 While the video game industry certainly was not the only reason Taiwan received this classification, influential international developers like Nintendo urged the USTR to impose fines and citations on the country for loss of revenue.53 All of this resulted in Taiwan moving to adopt stricter regulations, as signaled by amendments to Taiwan's Copyright Act in 1992 and the creation of government-funded organizations that oversaw violations.54 As Andy Sun discusses, the early 1990s marked a drastic turn for Taiwan’s stance toward international IP. Not only did Taiwan reverse its stance toward piracy, but Taiwan sought to be “seen as a shining-knight, waving the banner of international intellectual property protection.”55

But why did TXC drop out of the games industry completely? Why didn’t it instead pivot toward more legal gaming efforts like game publishing and accessory production? Conversely, why didn’t TXC use market foundations to strike deals with Japanese developers to officially distribute devices in the region? Fan historians have speculated that TXC did not see video games as a primary asset of their company. By 1992 TXC’s most profitable sector was already the production of quartz crystal and oscillator products, which primarily grew their business from NT$3.1 million to NT$473 million between 1983 and 1992.56 Fan historians have also surmised that TXC did not merely stop production overnight but rather sold off the manufacturing plants and the Micro Genius brand to manufacturers in mainland China who would continue to make and distribute devices worldwide.57 This would account for the continued circulation of Micro Genius devices toward the end of the century, well after TXC ceased production.

It is difficult to ascertain how much Micro Genius and TXC helped grow the Taiwanese gaming market. After the company’s departure from the game industry, Taiwan would see a growing market of unique creations, like the Super A’Can (1995), and adoption of mainstream devices, like the Super Nintendo (1990). This growth signals that TXC and other companies had a market that was appealing and viable enough for foreign companies like Nintendo to finally take Taiwan seriously. Without sales figures, the financial success of Micro Genius remains unknown, but its proliferation and documentation—which is high compared to other clones—suggests that the Micro Genius line had a fair amount of success in Taiwan. Astonishingly, Micro Genius’s success would only grow as it shed its home market and TXC.

A Genius of Many Names: Micro Genius’s Prolific Afterlife

Micro Genius’s role in popularizing the Famicom platform in Taiwan is meaningful in its own right, but the brand’s post-Taiwan journey demonstrates an even greater impact. Game scholars have analyzed the postmortem life of games and the secondary afterlife that specific consoles have gained via fans and regional communities.58 This work frames how we can view Micro Genius’s post-TXC life, but the case study of Micro Genius reveals singular intricacies due to the transnationality of its afterlife. As previously discussed, Nintendo’s market for the NES and Famicom was highly concentrated in a select few countries, leaving much of the world market unsupported.59 During TXC’s short lifespan with the Micro Genius brand, the company would supplement existing gaming market gaps by expanding the Micro Genius brand to nearby countries, including Malaysia and China, where the brand was known for its durable build quality and large number of games compared to other regional clones.60

But the distribution of Micro Genius products did not stop with nearby countries, or even with the apparent separation from TXC. Well after TXC officially ceased production, Micro Genius devices continued travelling the globe. In most cases it is unclear when and under what circumstances these distribution networks were formed, but the brand’s continued circulation deep into the 1990s proves that the story of Micro Genius did not end with TXC or Taiwan. Certain Micro Genius devices developed after 1992 signal a shift to Chinese manufacturing and new owners of the brand, though little is known about these companies.61 By the early 1990s, such companies were promoting the Micro Genius brand to foreign distributors seeking to create gaming markets in various countries.62 This transnational journey represents Micro Genius’s greatest contribution to the global games industry and, accordingly, warrants further research.

Before expounding upon more of these afterlife variants, it should be noted that many of these regional variations are profoundly undocumented and unarchived. Whereas Micro Genius’s role in Taiwan is at least marginally preserved, the same cannot be said for the devices in other parts of the world. In the following, the Micro Genius variants of the Dendy, the Pegasus, and Samurai Micro Genius will be discussed to the extent possible. Even among these three documented cases, the amount of evidence and discourse varies, and the speculative nature of the discussion will reflect the availability of concrete evidence for each console studied.

Dendy: Micro Genius’s Russian Elephant Offspring

Among the many clones to populate gaming history, one of the most well-known would come from Russia and Micro Genius. Russia’s early gaming scene looked much like those in the West, complete with regional copies of Atari’s PONG and handheld devices like the Game and Watch series.63 But the microcomputer and handheld game market soon overtook the popularity of the consoles and emerging arcade scene.64 Although clones of Western devices were available, the most popular electronic devices were those developed locally in Russia. Throughout the 1980s, the Soviet regime regulated what devices were and were not permissible, favoring state-sponsored products like the Elektronika BK-0010 Microcomputer over foreign machines. This tight control decreased as the Soviet Empire crumbled, and by its fall in late 1991, foreign exports of electronics were already becoming more common.65 It is likely due to the Soviet regime’s power during Famicom/NES’s peak that Nintendo didn’t see the region as a viable market.

In late 1991, the Soviet Empire ended and local entrepreneurs could explore Western business trends.66 This was the case in 1991 for Victor Savyuk, who was looking for an affordable way of revitalizing the home gaming market in Russia. The solution Savyuk found was to acquire a distribution deal with Taiwanese clone manufacturers who could offer the Russian gaming market significantly cheaper devices than their more official competitors.67 Savyuk received funding from Russian electronics manufacturer Steepler, a company that already had experience localizing software and computer hardware for the Russian audience. Steepler was also willing to branch into video games with full knowledge that it would be distributing counterfeit products. In an interview with Eurogamer, Savyuk states: “The law didn’t protect IP [intellectual property] like games, consoles in Russia. There, our business was absolutely legal. But of course, in America and Europe, it was completely illegal. And of course, Taiwanese manufacturer [sic] did not care about that.”68 Such a piracy scheme would not have been unusual for the Russian consumer goods market. By the early 1990s, piracy and replication of Western games and products were already the norm, and the country had seen its fair share of clone consoles and pirated games.69 With funding in hand to test the market for console gaming in Russia, Savyuk sought to secure distribution with a Taiwanese clone manufacturer, and he opted to partner with Micro Genius. Steepler invested substantially enough with TXC and Micro Geniusto to be able to rebrand Micro Genius devices with a new name: Dendy.70

Throughout Steepler’s stint in the Russian game industry, it produced multiple consoles and variants. The most memorable devices were the Dendy Classic I and II, which were rebranded versions of the Micro Genius IQ-501 and IQ-502, respectively.71 The devices are technically similar to their Micro Genius counterparts, but Steepler applied its own aesthetic to give the devices more visual flair and connect branding across products. A primary component was the mascot Dendy the Elephant (see fig. 4), an anthropomorphic cartoon elephant wearing a hat and clothes who would appeal to a young audience. Steepler furthered its investment in the developing gaming market by introducing new console models, gaming shops, a magazine, and even a television show called Dendy: The New Reality.72 The weekly show promoted various games, many of which were either hacks or pirated versions of popular Western titles.73 As Savyuk recounts, these efforts were meant to educate the Russian audience about home gaming.74

Figure 4

Advertisement featuring the Dendy, a rebranded Micro Genius IQ-50, circa 1993. (“Dendy,” Video-Acc Dendy Magazine , no. 1 [July 7, 1993], https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dendy)

Steepler’s investment in Micro Genius products paid off. During the mid- to late 1990s, Steepler grabbed an estimated 70 percent of the gaming market in Russia, selling between 1.5 and 2 million devices each year.75 Not only did Steepler score a financial hit with Dendy, but it also cornered the cultural gaming market of Russia. Many Russian gamers remember Dendy being so synonymous with gaming that all gaming products were referred to as a Dendy, mirroring how North American consumers referred to all gaming products as Nintendo.76

As in Taiwan, the legitimate games industry, including industry giant Nintendo, soon noticed Russia and the market share of these pirated consoles. Surprisingly, the company chose to crush the pirate games market not through legal avenues and the USTR as it did in Taiwan, but instead by partnering with Steepler to officially license its products. According to Savyuk, “Nintendo understood that we built the market and that it was now ready for 16-bit consoles like the Super Nintendo, and we agreed that we would sell only originals.”77 We can only speculate about Nintendo’s greater leniency with the pirate Russian market, but Russia likely proved a harder market for the company to manage firsthand due to myriad cultural differences and the substantial physical distance between Russia and Japan.

However, greater legitimacy combined with the bootleg market Steepler helped create may have resulted in its downfall. Officially distributing 16-bit devices was costly, especially in a market where pirated clones were cheaper and widely available.78 Savyuk recounts that Nintendo forced Steepler to sell the SNES at a minimum margin, a tactic that simply would not work for the market in Russia.79 Within a few years of making the deal with Nintendo, Steepler left the video game industry, and another decade would pass before Nintendo products had an official presence in Russia again. Although Steepler has never fully disclosed why it left the game industry, accounts suggest a mix of circumstances including the advent of newer technology and possibly a dispute with the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information.80

Regardless of how and why Steepler exited the market, many gamers in the region and worldwide still know and love the Dendy brand. Savyuk estimates that Steepler sold a total of around 6 million devices, which is more than many legitimate consoles in dominant markets.81 Similar to Micro Genius’s short-lived yet trailing presence in the market, Dendy’s postmortem life would continue well beyond its retirement. Various bootleg devices with no affiliation to Steepler are still on the market carrying the Dendy brand, resulting in a confusingly poetic situation: bootlegs bootlegging a brand of rebranded bootlegs. Many of these newer Dendy-branded devices are inferior to the original Micro Genius devices since they are no longer true clone devices. As technology has advanced, more contemporaneous pirates have switched from using comparable hardware to employing a singular chip that replicates all of the essential functions of the Famicom/NES hardware, affectionately referred to as an NES-on-a-chip or NOAC.82 These lower quality devices have negatively impacted the reputation of both Micro Genius and Dendy, lending more credence to the reputation of bootleg consoles as cheap and poor imitations.

Pegasus: Micro Genius Takes Flight in Poland

Like Savyuk in the Russian gaming market, Polish importer Marek Jutkiewicz saw an opportunity to bring famiclones to a market untapped by the official distributors. Similar to other countries east of the iron curtain, Poland’s early gaming scene focused mainly on microcomputers, and the government strictly regulated product availability throughout the 1980s. However, the exorbitant prices of microcomputers limited access. The average Polish consumer could not procure a device for personal use, let alone for recreational gaming.83 Though unique game development on microcomputers began in the 1980s, until Soviet control decreased, foreign products would remain scarce and affordable home consoles would be unavailable.84

Unregulated copyright likely kept the legitimate games industry out, at least at first. As P. Konrad Budziszewski recounts, the late 1980s and early 1990s represented a period of “unchecked, practically institutionalized piracy” in Poland.85 The status of Poland as a pirate market is more positively depicted by the work of Graeme Kirkpatrick, who through narrative interviews reveals how the first generations of pirated and locally produced PCs in Poland embodied a sense of liberation from technical and political constraints of the Soviet-dominated market.86 This would work in Jutkiewicz’s favor, as a lack of oversight allowed him to strike up a distribution deal with clone manufacturers rather than legitimate game companies like Nintendo. In 1989 when Jutkiewicz was on a routine trip to Taiwan to procure trousers with the intent to export them back to Poland, a famiclone caught his eye. Jutkiewicz became enamored with the machine and brought it back to Poland to show his business partner.87 Under the brand name Pegasus, Jutkiewicz and his newly created company Bobmark International brought famiclones to the Polish market. The first Pegasus model would be the MT-777DX, a clone with seemingly no relation to Micro Genius or TXC.88 Oddly, these first clones did not shy away from making the connection to Nintendo. Early box art and advertisements placed the Japanese company’s name on the front, signaling the compatibility with the Famicom/NES library of games. However, as time went on, Bobmark would seek new models to brand as Pegasus devices. Their next iteration would become their most popular console: a rebranded Micro Genius IQ-502.89 Advertisements for the machine (see fig. 5) appeared prominently in local comics and magazines.

Figure 5

Advertisement for the Pegasus line of gaming products, circa 1993. (Adamstar, “Materials, Posters, Commercials, and Articles about Pegasus,” published source unknown, https://forum.pegasus-gry.com/index.php?topic=3139.0)

The more physically rounded IQ-502 was distributed across various markets, but the Pegasus is undoubtedly the model’s most well-known version.90 Unfortunately, no one knows how Bobmark connected with Micro Genius, but with the help of the Micro Genius IQ-502, the Pegasus line of devices would turn out to be a lucrative one for the company, which earned an estimated 2 million zloty (roughly $450,000 at the time) in just three years.91 Again, without sales figures and direct documentation, the importance of the Pegasus for Poland’s emerging game market is difficult to properly contextualize. Polish game community members recount calling all game consoles Pegasus, as the brand solidified certain terminology in Polish vernacular like cassettes for cartridges, and even introducing the word Pegasus into the region’s common parlance.92

But the popularity of Pegasus would be short-lived. Jutkiewicz and Bobmark would seek to further their success with additional consoles like the Nintendo Gameboy (1989) and would become an official licensee of Sega to release the Mega Drive platform in Poland under the name Power Pegasus.93 Unfortunately, the Power Pegasus never gained the same degree of popularity as the IQ-502, likely due to a combination of competition from more powerful machines entering the market like Sony’s PlayStation (1994) console and a major transformation of Polish IP law in 1994.94 This change led Bobmark to get out of the games industry. Even without the once popular Pegasus, Poland’s gaming scene continued to grow as the decade went on, and the market would mature into the thriving community for game development and participation of today.95 As for Jutkiewicz and Bobmark International, they turned to other investment opportunities, including a profitable stake in a soda manufacturing company. Their most well-known drink is a Coca-Cola clone called Hoop Cola.96

Samurai: Micro Genius Cuts into India

Unlike previously discussed variants, Micro Genius devices in India evolved from a failed attempt by Nintendo to distribute official consoles. According to Souvik Mukherjee, the early history of video games in India is difficult to document, and as a result, there are not extensive accounts of how gaming emerged in the country.97 Maitrayee Deka paints India’s early gaming market as one centered around local electronic bazaars where individual importers would bring together a mixture of local and foreign goods. Importers assembled the games and consoles with foreign chipsets right there in the market.98 This informal electronics distribution network aligns with maneuvers to get around strict government regulation of goods in India. During the 1980s and early 1990s the Indian government placed tight restrictions on foreign products, attempting to prohibit foreign companies from accessing the Indian economic market.99

But that would not stop regional entrepreneurs from bringing in foreign goods. On a trip to Japan in the 1980s, businessman Mahesh Toshniwal purchased a Famicom console for personal use. Upon bringing it back to India, Toshniwal and his family immediately saw the appeal of the device and believed it would be a big hit in India. Arguing that India was a viable market, Toshniwal persuaded Nintendo to license him the NES for assembly in India under the name Samurai. He chose this name because he thought the connection to warriors would appeal to consumers. This 1987 deal permitted Nintendo and Samurai to skirt restrictions on foreign products, since Samurai was assembling and distributing the devices locally.100 Under this license, Nintendo allowed Samurai to produce official Samurai-branded NESs in India—an official variant that is increasingly rare in the world today.101

Despite the legal maneuvering, the officially licensed Samurai Entertainment System was ultimately a failure. Rakesh Dugar, who was the head of a competing games company of the same era, estimates that Samurai was only able to sell a few hundred devices per month. It did not take long before Nintendo lost interest in the country, and the distribution deal ended after a short period.102 Tension between Samurai’s method of acquiring consoles and the Indian government may have also contributed to the failure of its distribution.

The lack of sales for official devices did not necessarily equate to a lack of interest in home gaming. After official Nintendo products failed to take off, the history of Samurai gets increasingly murky. In a 1991 interview with India Today, a spokesperson for Samurai notes that heavy taxes made selling expensive electronics goods difficult. However, the spokesperson assures readers that Samurai had addressed the high price tag by introducing a “cheaper model at two-thirds the previous price.”103 Given the lack of additional officially licensed Nintendo models, one might surmise that these cheaper models were unlicensed clone devices. Patents filed by Samurai between 1992 and 1996 for Video Racer and Samurai Micro Genius devices support this deduction.104 Within a few years, these cheaper Samurai-branded consoles supplanted the officially licensed NES devices, as indicated by personal accounts and television advertisements (see fig. 6). Though no direct sales figures exist, the most commonly found Samurai Micro Genius variants are the bright red IQ-501 (see fig. 6, middle device) and a similar gray IQ-501 (see fig. 6, lower right device), signaling that these were potentially the highest-selling models. However, Toshniwa has not publicly discussed selling these clone devices and, in fact, denies that Samurai ever engaged in piracy.105 Given the sheer number of advertisements, patents, and artifacts of rebranded devices, it is unknown why Toshniwa denies the company’s engagement with Micro Genius and other clone devices.

Figure 6

Screengrab of Samurai television advertisement, circa 1992. (Nakamanga, “Samurai Electronic TV Game System (Indian NES)—Commercial,” June 2, 2022, video, 1:12, https://youtu.be/-XuIZg_lUqU)

This distribution arrangement with Micro Genius would only last a brief period. The market would move onto more powerful devices, and competing companies collaborated with official developers like Sega when India began loosening foreign restrictions.106 Samurai-branded Sega devices suggest the company attempted to move beyond the NES hardware, but these devices are exceedingly rare. In subsequent years, Samurai and Toshniwa would leave the games industry in favor of producing video hardware until they shuttered late in the first decade of the 2000s.107 The Indian game market would continue to have difficulties due to rampant piracy and high foreign import costs. The advent of mobile gaming and free-to-play titles allowed India’s gaming market to flourish.108

The Bootleg Connection

Micro Genius devices undoubtedly reached other countries as well, either rebranded or with their original Micro Genius labeling. Other accounts about similar Micro Genius artifacts around the world signal a wider distribution network beyond the devices already mentioned. In Colombia, a rebranded Micro Genius IQ-501 device called the Nichi-Man was one of the most popular clones offered to consumers, and the brand’s superhero mascot helped distinguish the device.109 An advertisement for the Marpes 7600 Micro Genius in Italy displays another unique regional variation.110 Gamers in Iran fondly remember playing the Micro in the early 1990s, though it is unclear which console model made its way to the country.111 Rebranded Micro Genius devices under the name Gentry even made their way to the United States in the first decade of the 2000s, illustrating that the brand reached beyond unsupported regions.112 Figure 7 depicts a number of these Micro Genius variants, though there are undoubtedly more.

Figure 7

Visualization of Micro Genius devices around the world. (Image created by author)

Each reiteration of Micro Genius devices is less documented and more rarely discussed than those previously mentioned. Yet their discovery and further research on them will illuminate gaming communities with their own rich cultural norms and foundations, aided by the Micro Genius brand and regional actors. The aforementioned variants demonstrate that the work of bringing gaming devices into a new market involved more than just selling foreign devices. Regional companies like Steepler and Bobmark invested in marketing; educating the consumer about their products through advertisements, shows, stores, and magazines; and even publishing unique titles for their specific communities. Scholars of regional game studies stress that localization work is imperative to understanding global games history, and this labor can clearly be seen with clone distributors.113

The network fostered through the distribution of these bootleg devices spans the globe and accounts for more than just disparate regional stories. Without sales figures, it is hard to estimate the scope of Micro Genius, but it is feasible that Micro Genius devices were distributed in quantities comparable to successful official devices; the Dendy alone places Micro Genius devices into the top thirty best-selling consoles of all time.114 Such an extensive distribution accounts for more than just a few regional adopters and signals a much larger connected distribution network for bootleg consoles. Entrepreneurs who brought devices to their regions perhaps unintentionally engaged in a transnational network of bootlegged devices that connected them to both the legitimate games industry and other regional markets. This bootleg connection not only illuminates how the game industry owes some of its ubiquity to bootleg developers but also how video games’ global emergence was not, as often portrayed, a smooth path into dominant markets, but a rocky one with diversions, missteps, and alternative paths that eventually converged.

Attack of the Clones: More Connections Yet to Be Discovered

This essay attempts to show that the Micro Genius brand exemplified a transnational network of bootleg consoles. After contributing to the foundation of Taiwan’s early home gaming market, Micro Genius devices circulated throughout the world where they transformed and adapted to regional markets. Although each variant is often seen in isolation, analyzed together they show how regional markets were both connected to and separate from a larger distribution network of games and devices; they had an unofficial connection to both bootleg device manufacturers and the legitimate games industry that neglected them. This bootleg connection has mostly been left unexplored within the field of game studies, but this piece has attempted to show its scope and relevance to game history at large.

More connections await discovery. Although Micro Genius may be one of the most prolific bootleg brands in gaming’s history, it certainly is not the only bootleg brand that helped grow a gaming market left untapped by the Western and Japanese game industry. The area of bootleg consoles has countless other stories of companies, laborers, and regional translators and localizers who have helped grow the industry into the global one it is today and who are similarly unacknowledged in gaming history. Cases including the Phantom System in Brazil, the Subor line of devices in China, and the myriad of clones that make up Korea’s early gaming history are all relevant to understanding gaming’s global emergence.115

The connections between these bootleg devices, their manufacturers, and their regional adopters are still shrouded in mystery, and the evidence of their histories may prove even more speculative than that presented here. With games scholarship advocating more inclusivity in how we view alternative development practices and the importance of platforms outside of the traditional scope of analysis, game history should take more plunges into the unknown and illicit history of bootleg developers and devices.116 In adopting new perspectives on alternative paths to gaming participation, game history can welcome the histories of play of those who have historically been seen as existing at the peripheries of gaming culture and value those histories as both meaningful and contributive. Rather than discount these paths, game history can show that the bootlegged history of these communities is the history of video games.

Footnotes

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57. ^ Hally (VORC) (@hallyvorc), “Thanks for the info! At least Chinese versions of the ‘Profession’ was sold by 勝明實業有限公司 from Hong Kong/Macau. By summing up those info, there were at least two different distributors related to the ‘Profession’ model,” reply to Taizou (@taizou_hori), “ʻTajen & Smartain Holding’ was actually the company that owned the trademark, ‘Tajen Electronic’ of Taiwan registered it in the US and advertised some early Micro Genius consoles in trade magazines,” Twitter, March 7, 2020, https://twitter.com/taizou_hori/status/1236361446981873665.

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