Pegasus & Other Famiclones: How Polish Kids Discovered Nintendo Games in the 1990s
At a time when the video game industry was much simpler and the Polish economy was only just starting to open to the West, one video game console took Poland – and only Poland – by storm, years before Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox appeared on the scene.
Is there a gamer out there who doesn’t love Nintendo? Since the 1970s, when the Japanese company took its first steps in the video game industry, it’s always delivered high quality hardware and software and raised more than one generation of dedicated gamers. One can only imagine how exciting it was for a 1980s kid living in America to go into a big electronics shop, find the red Nintendo logo on one of the shelves, take the grey NES (short for Nintendo Entertainment System) back home and plug it into the TV for the first time.
The experience in Poland was quite different. For starters – Nintendo’s first home video game system did not arrive in Poland until 1991… kind of. To get yourself some Mario action, you could not go to the official Nintendo shop – there were none. Most probably you could not even go to an electronics shop. Instead, you went to a local bazaar, where you could find video game consoles being sold next to potatoes, home-made pickles and knock-off trainers smelling of cheap rubber.
If you’d somehow had the chance to hold a NES in your hands before, you would immediately notice there was something fishy about the one being sold at the bazaar. It was lighter, the colours were off, the packaging looked cheap and… Wait a minute, what in Donkey Kong’s name is a ‘Funstation’? This isn’t a Nintendo at all!
A grey console in a grey area
The 1990s was a peculiar time in Poland. After the system-wide transformation in 1989, Poles were only just starting to get accustomed to the free market economy. Even though we did not waste any time in fulfilling our long-suppressed consumerist fantasies to the best of our financial capabilities, the law did not catch up with the changing market quite as fast.
As unbelievable as it is today, until 1994 there were virtually no intellectual property laws in Poland, which in turn allowed the bootleg market to thrive and prosper. At bazaars, flea markets and even in regular stores, one could buy ‘legal’ bootleg clothes, music, films, video games and – thanks to Marek Jutkiewicz – video game consoles.
In 1989, Marek Jutkiewicz was just a regular jeans vendor. He discovered game consoles during a business trip to Taiwan, from where he imported clothes.
I went to Taiwan to buy trousers and I found video games there. I thought it would be a great business and instead of jeans I bought these games. At that time the price of trousers in Poland plummeted – you bought them for five dollars in Taiwan and sold them for one dollar in Poland.
He reminisces that he shut himself in a hotel room for a week and all he did was play video games – specifically a bootleg Taiwanese version of the Famicom (the original version of the NES for the Japanese market). Then it occurred to him – it was the perfect time to switch businesses. With the help of Dariusz Wojdyga, another Polish businessman, he imported a batch of Taiwanese Famicom clones to Poland and started the BobMark International company. Beginning in 1991, they sold the consoles under the Pegasus name and marketed them on Polish TV, which was a very brave move.
The system’s logo (bearing a ‘®’ mark, even though it was not approved by the patent office) mimicked the official Nintendo logo and at the same time mentioned the Japanese company on the packaging of the first MT-777DX version. This, as well as the lack of intellectual property control laws, led many to believe that the Pegasus was a genuine game system. Nintendo did not seem to care – the NES was never officially sold in Poland (Nintendo did not have official distribution until the late 1990s) and the low average Polish wages at the time made it very difficult to import it.
There were three different Pegasus versions released by BobMark International. The first one (MT-777DX) resembled the Japanese Famicom, while the other two (IQ-502 & MT-888DX) looked more like the Super Nintendo (the 16-bit NES follow-up), even though they were still only compatible with 8-bit NES games. Each of the versions included two gamepads and a ‘Zapper’ light gun and cost around 150 zl. There was also a Pegasus Game Boy system which differed from the original version only in that it lacked multiplayer functionality, but it did not become very popular.
It had ‘game’…
A video game console is nothing without exciting games and the Pegasus, unlike most new systems sold today, had them from day one. In fact, it supposedly had so many of them that ‘168 in 1’, ‘1000 in 1’ and even ‘9999999 in 1’ cartridges could be found in every household which owned the console. Only after launching the cartridge would the player discover that there were actually only about a dozen different games in such collections and the rest were just slightly modified versions (with bonus lives, starting from a different level or with a different-coloured Mario for example). Still, they were the cream of the crop. The most popular games on the Pegasus were beloved NES classics: Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Bomberman, Adventure Island, Donkey Kong and Contra among others. The latter was an especially big hit thanks to its engrossing co-op gameplay.
Even though the Pegasus was compatible with Famicom cartridges, and also some modified NES cartridges, everyone was playing the bootleg ones. They were often made from low-quality plastic, poorly manufactured, mislabelled and sometimes simply did not work – buying Pegasus games at a bazaar was a lottery in itself. Fortunately, the bootlegs were also inexpensive and a lot of kids in the 1990s owned a Famiclone, which made it easy to swap with friends.
There were, however, officially licensed releases available as well. The most well-known ones were the so-called Golden Five and Golden Four collections released in Poland by Codemasters with manuals written in Polish. Although a little more pricey, they were considered to be the Holy Grails of Pegasus goodness. The games in the collections (Micro Machines, Dizzy, and Super Robin Hood among others) were highly entertaining and featured beautiful 8-bit graphics, and even the cartridges themselves were made of better quality plastic.
…but then others came
The Pegasus was probably the most successful system in Poland’s video game history – more than 1 million copies were sold and earned BobMark International 2 million zloty (around $1 million as of 1994) in three years. It was a very popular gift for special occasions, such as Christmas and first communion. Ultimately, it became a victim of its own success. The console was so popular that other importers wanted a piece of the pie as well. The market was flooded with even cheaper Famiclones and BobMark could not do anything about them because their product was essentially a bootleg itself, even if its quality was much better. Even though the Famiclones had such exciting names as ‘FunStation’, ‘Polystation’ and ‘Ending-Man Terminator’, everyone in Poland called them ‘Pegasus’ anyway.
Brand awareness did not help Jutkiewicz and Wojdyga earn money though, which is why they had to think of something new. They started a new company, signed a contract with major game developer Sega and released a licensed ‘Power Pegasus’, which was essentially a clone of the 16-bit Sega Mega Drive console, compatible with the games of the original system.
Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful because of the 1995 European release of the Sony PlayStation, which featured rich 3D graphics and was superior to Sega’s console in many aspects. Jutkiewicz and Wojdyga had to change businesses once again. They started a soft drink company Hoop, which is still manufacturing today. Fittingly, their flagship product is… a Coca-Cola knock-off named ‘Hoop Cola’.
Various NES clones can be found at bazaars and internet auctions even today, with price tags ranging from 15zl to 150zl. They come in different shapes and forms, imitating the appearance of not only Nintendo consoles, but also different iterations of Sony’s PlayStation. However, because Poland’s video game market has caught up with the West, hardly anyone is interested in them now.
Still, the Pegasus will always be remembered by a generation of gamers as the system which introduced them to video games and provided them with many happy moments in a time when video games were much simpler, but no less entertaining.