Alternative Retro Gaming Cultures: South Africa

Retro gaming has taken off in a big way in the past few years but the coverage is still generally from the perspective of the UK, US or, if you’re an all-out hipster or someone with a manga obsession who uses the word ‘gaijin’ unironically, Japan. But gaming thrived all over the world, giving rise to individual cultures that were probably eventually absorbed into a global singularity with the rise of the internet, but for a while at least existed in their own unique bubble.

South Africa was one of those; the insanity of apartheid and its legacy are well established (and this really isn’t the forum to go into it), but by the time I got a console Nelson Mandela was out of prison, and the De Klerk government was tearing down racist legislation in preparation for the election that would lead to Mandela becoming president. For understandable reasons, the cultural embargo was slow to lift, and that led to its own issues, but this is pretty much what was what in the early 90’s:


Gaming culture: Like most other parts of the culture, what people experienced was the weirdness that flowed from the last gasps of an almost arbitrary, but fiercely enforced racial class system together with a cultural blockade that reduced most culture to a scrapped together mix of middlebrow whiteness (think commercial rock and mainstream Hollywood) and pirated offshoots of other stuff, like horror VHS’s or pirated metal or hip hop tapes.

The pirate culture meant that it was pretty much a free-for-all, both at console and arcade level. For instance, you could play an 8-bit version of Street Fighter 2 called Mario Fighter 2 that was equipped with six characters, one of which was a large-size Mario with Ryu’s move set that competed in a level of giant mushrooms (see main pic).

Imagine this, but with a black or cyan chop shop paint job
Imagine this, but with a black or cyan chop shop paint job

There was basically one game console, a bastardised version of the Japanese NES – the Famicom – but free of any Nintendo markings. Everyone had one, there was no consoler dual. Individual game cartridges could be bought from a variety of stores or rented (the video shop rental culture was alive and well there too), but the general home game culture was much like it was here – swaps included. Magazines were available, but only ever imported and expensive.


8-bit gaming: As mentioned above, the Famicom and in particular the multi-game cart was king. The most common variety was 4-in-1 but the number of games essentially doubled (I had a 32-in-1) until you got up to an insane 125-in-1. They wouldn’t be top notch games, more like a shedload of earlier arcade-type games like Dig Dug or Frogger, mixed with earlier or less complex NES standards like Super Mario Bros or Tetris.

Then you could pay for individual games and, if you wanted, a version of the Zapper to play games like Duck Hunt. Castlevania, Megaman, Mario 3 and a lot of the rest were freely available, but only in cart form, free of manuals and boxes.


16-bit gaming: Once sanctions were lifted Sega took the opportunity to enter the market properly, and we got to actually play games we’d only seen in imported games magazines, albeit a bit later. Sonic was obviously the star, though the Famicom’s ubiquity and the greater expense of the Master System, and especially the Mega Drive meant the systems, at first anyway, didn’t really get the same kind of foothold in SA as they had elsewhere. The SNES wasn’t really a fixture until later but just seeing the Mega Drive was a treat.


Arcade games: Arcades thrived just as much, if not more than in the UK, thanks to bigger convenience stores and a range of bowling alleys, cinema complexes and specialised large-size arcades.

There are about 12 million Sonic TV shows and comics and these losers aren't in any of them. What does THAT tell ya?
There are about 12 million Sonic TV shows and comics and these losers aren’t in any of them. What does THAT tell ya?

Apart from the odd Afterburner or Lethal Enforcer, there was a shortage of the huge concept games with gimmicks like the big Daytona USA cars, handheld machine guns or, most amazingly of all, the massive Ridge Racer game that used to be in the Trocadero (£3 a go in 1994!). But in a weird parallel with the American cartoons that were ubiquitous we got pretty much everything else, especially beat-em-ups: Streeet Fighter 2. The Simpsons. Knights of the Round. Samurai Showdown. Every other game that ended up on the Neo Geo – we had it all and they were cheap as hell.

There were also plenty of the infamous pirated SF2 Turbo’s, which were played at twice the speed, and where Ryu and Ken’s fireballs either came out as twin fireballs that moved in a figure-of-eight motion or in the form of eight at once, and a Japanese Sonic game that preceded the virtually unplayable SegaSonic arcade game by about a year.


So how about everyone else, what’s your alternative retro gaming experience? If you have an interesting one, get in touch.


Rob L

3 thoughts on “Alternative Retro Gaming Cultures: South Africa”

  1. Cool article, I experienced this firsthand, growing up during the 80’s and 90’s in South Africa. I can also remember the original Game Boy being released here one xmas – there were TV ads and a big display at either CNA or Reggies, I can’t remember which – but it never really took off, being quite pricey at the time (if I recall, R200 back on the tail end of the 80’s was a lot of money!).

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