Dessie, my girlfriend, turned to me today and excitedly showed me a picture of a games console on her phone. “That’s what I had growing up,” she said, pointing to a picture of a SNES, the ugly American one. It was a nice but unremarkable moment. Then she added: “Except mine was black.” Black? I didn’t remember a black one so I Googled it. And I Googled it and I Googled it but I couldn’t find the machine she remembered.
Did she mean a Mega Drive? I brought up some pictures of it. “No,” she said. “But it has a circle like that,” and she pointed to the top of the machine. Maybe she meant a Saturn? “No,” she said. “But I like the name. It’s because Saturn has discs and the console uses discs right?” Now I don’t want to make myself out to sound stupid but that is the first time anyone ever pointed that out to me.
What could this damned machine be? She was adamant it had cartridges. At my wit’s end (it doesn’t take long to get there as you can probably now appreciate) I decided to Google something a little more direct. ‘Bulgarian 90s game console black,’ I wrote, and like a beam of sun breaking through the clouds there it was. “That’s it!” she exclaimed. We had found it, the sublimely named Terminator 2 console made by Ending-Man.
Her eyes lit up as the memories came flooding back in but I looked at it for the first time. I had never seen this machine before, never even so much as heard it talked about. As far as I was concerned, the Terminator 2 had never existed except for on film – and with a name like that I think I’d remember it. But how can this be? Well, it has a lot to do with where she grew up: Bulgaria.
In Bulgaria, there was Communism, and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria didn’t end until 1990, at which point the market opened up. But even then it was exorbitantly expensive to import things from further west and people didn’t have a lot of money. Most brands, Nintendo included, didn’t see much of an opportunity there, which made way for cheap knock-offs from Russia and China to swoop in. If you imported a NES or a SNES, you were uncommonly rich. Everyone else had a Terminator 2.
It was an 8-bit machine which played counterfeit NES games, which came in bright yellow, scrambled-egg-colour cartridges. It was a Famiclone, as they’ve come to be known. It was made in China and sold across the Balkan countries in the 90s, as well as in India and Italy, where it was known as the equally-ear-catching Top Console.
The Terminator 2 looks more like a Mega Drive in design. It’s black, as we’ve well established, with a circular ring around the cartridge slot and two blue buttons at the front. It came in a box with two very Mega Drivey controllers and – and I’m a bit jealous about this – a light gun. A light gun which looks remarkably like the phasers from the Star Trek 6 film released a few years earlier, not that I’m suggesting anything.
Everyone in Bulgaria seemed to have one. I spoke to some of Dessie’s friends and they all quickly remembered it, and a friend of mine in Serbia remembered it too. These things were everywhere and it’s no surprise, given they cost the equivalent of €10. You could buy them at electronics shops but the real business was done at weekend flea markets, where hordes of people would buy and trade games (CD Projekt once grew out of similar beginnings in Poland) as well as all manner of other things. Seeing all those yellow cartridges lined up together made quite the impression on a young mind, and you could pick one up for one Lev, the equivalent of 50p.
Which games? All the games you probably remember from your NES: Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Track & Field, Jungle Book, Aladdin. They’d often fall apart with time and use, leaving only the chipboard to plug in, but it’s all a comforting part of the memory.
As we browse through photos of the Terminator 2 and watch compilation videos of NES games, I see memories flit across Dessie’s eyes as nostalgia bubbles within. She’s seeing her childhood. She’s seeing her and her brother squabbling over who gets to play, while sitting on the floor near the TV because the cables weren’t long enough. She’s seeing memories like mine.
But isn’t it strange she knows the games but feels nothing when she sees the actual Nintendo machines they were made for? I get all giddy looking at the curvy SNES but all she sees is something she says looks a bit boring and grey, which is an outrageous opinion I will never forgive her for! Nintendo must feel a bit miffed about it.
Then again, if she couldn’t get hold of the real deal, what else could she do – not play the games? As if any kid in their right mind would do that. I bet no one gave a monkey’s as long as the Terminator 2 played the games.
Plus, the blame is partly Nintendo’s for not launching there in the first place. Apparently it wasn’t until Sega saw an opportunity there with the Mega Drive that Nintendo woke up. And what would Nintendo rather, I wonder: all those people be unfamiliar with the characters it would use again and again over the years, or that they develop an attachment to them? Maybe in a roundabout way the Terminator 2 did Nintendo a favour after all. Hasta la vista, baby.