In early 2008 my life had reached a certain low point. Partly responsible was having to prepare for my final university exams while also struggling with what basically amounted to two jobs at the same time. Additionally, more personal reasons had me being stuck in a rut for quite some time I felt an almost desperate urge to break away from everything, to get as far away as possible.
That’s why in April 2008, only six days after I had taken my very final exam (and without having any confirmation whether I had actually passed or not), I found myself sitting in a plane heading for Argentina, twenty thousand miles from home. I had scrounged most of my saving together to finance a trip including stay, a four-week crash course in Spanish at a language institute, and a adjourning six-week internship at a local magazine. It was intended as a trip to clear my mind, leave old ballast behind and get a new perspective on my life and my surroundings. To a degree, I’d say I achieved that. However, this trip also brought me an experience I never would have expected beforehand: It re-ignited, almost violently so, my passion for console games, an interest I had lost a long time ago. Specifically, it was there when I regained my interest for the Sega Mega Drive, the console of my childhood. I experienced my very personal renaissance of gaming.
When I arrived in Argentina, I hardly spoke a word of Spanish. The idea was to learn the language on location. I lived with a host family in Córdoba, an elder lady and her nephew, neither of whom spoke any English or German, so communication was next to impossible over the first few weeks. The language institute was in a different district, and taking a bus there was an adventure in itself. The first time I tried, I ended up going in the wrong direction, and I wound up on the opposite part of the city. My distrust of the public transportation system thus led to my decision to walk to school and back every day.
So there I was, one Friday at about lunch time, on my fifth day in Argentina . The language class had ended, and I prepared myself for the long walk back to my home from home. My teachers always gave me strange looks over that decision – not only did I have to walk at least twenty blocks, it was also during Siesta – everyone else was taking a nap. I didn’t mind, however, that I ousted myself as an “extranjero,” a gringo, by doing so, I actually kind of enjoyed having the sidewalks almost for myself, and it gave me the opportunity to explore the city I would spend the next three months of my life in by myself, on foot.
I can’t recall what drove me to that action, but that day, I tried a short cut; instead of exploring the streets, I decided to cut through a shopping passage. Of course, since everyone held Siesta, every store had closed. I sort of meandered along, not really paying attention to the store fronts, which mostly displayed DVD covers, camera equipment and other forms of digital entertainment. But then, suddenly, something very odd caught my eye, and I stopped dead in my tracks. It was a single cartridge. Well, basically it were six Genesis cartridges, on display in a storefront window, but one in particular stuck out to me. On it, I recognized a soccer player wearing the colours of the Argentine soccer team, kneeling in celebration, and over his head I read the words “Copa Mundial Alemania 2006.”
Now, I hardly understood any Spanish by that point, having only been in the country a very short amount of time, but one of the first things I learned was that “Alemania” meant “Germany.” Being from Germany, I distinctly remembered the Soccer world championship that had taken place in 2006 in my home country. Now here I stood, and before my eyes was a game – for a console I had believed discontinued for at least twelve years, mind you – for the soccer championships that had taken place only two years ago! Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Now, of course I immediately realized what this had to be: A fake! A hack! A bootleg! A pirate cartridge, produced without official rights or license. But a hack of what game? International Superstar Soccer, or FIFA Soccer? If so, which version? And 2006? At that point I had never believed to actually see something like this with such recent a release date! All right, I knew that the Mega Drive was immensely popular in Brazil, where it boasted a lifetime that surpassed its American or European brothers, but I never had thought that this popularity could also be extended to the neighbouring country Argentina, and that it was still going strong! Anyway, I had only one thing on my mind: I had to find out more about that game, and seeing that it only cost fifteen Pesos, about three Euros, I had to own it! So the next day I returned, money in hand, prepared for anything, or so I thought.
What followed when I entered the store was well, kind of embarrassing. Equipped with only a poor knowledge of Spanish and faced with an Argentine store owner who didn’t speak a word of English or German, any attempts of my own at trying to get any information about this game was next to impossible. Heck, it was hard enough to get across to him what I even wanted to see. But finally I got him to show me his selection of Mega Drive cartridges, and thus began my journey into bootleg heaven.
Once I purchased these three games, I felt like my eyes had been opened. Suddenly I seemed to find stores sporting the familiar blue SEGA logo everywhere. Legions of games, almost exclusively of the pirate cart variety, could be found virtually anywhere. At toy stores, at the mall, at electronics shops – even at the central bus station. I almost felt like a little kid again, when I got my first Mega Drive at the age of nine, venturing into the world of 16-bit gaming for the very first time. As the weeks went by, my Spanish improved, and so did my inquisitions into the nature of all the weird cartridges I encountered. I found myself entranced and strangely enthralled by these games. Even the simple sprite or palette-swapped games held a certain magic quality for me, even if only for the few new graphics that had been added. And some games, a select few, even held completely new Mega Drive experiences for me. I bought myself a dirt-cheap Model 3 Genesis, and spent many an afternoon with an Argentine friend I made, playing that soccer game (which turned out to be a very bad hack of FIFA International Soccer) or getting my ass handed to me in a Mortal Kombat (sprite hack). The spirit of 16-bit games had entered me again and hasn’t left me since.
I spent four months in Argentina , living there and traveling around. When I left Córdoba I gave my Model 3 Genesis away as a farewell present. During the last few days I spent in the country, following a hint another local Mega Drive fan gave me, I found another literally overwhelming selection of stores carrying Genesis bootlegs in Buenos Aires . I returned to Germany that summer carrying bags and bags of cartridges in my luggage, food for my Mega Drive and nourishment for my gaming-starved soul.
Of course, these weren’t the only impressions I brought back with me, far from it. But it was that key experience, that chance encounter of a bootlegged, hacked game in a storefront window, that made me enjoy gaming once more, brought me back to the Mega Drive , and in the end led me to penning articles about my several findings and impressions regarding the 16-bit Sega scene – including this one 😉