3. September 2023.

Video games tinged with nostalgia

On the development of gaming and popular video games in the regions of former Yugoslavia

With the appearance of the first personal computers in the 1980s, the first digital games emerged on the territory of Yugoslavia. The story of how digital games, along with computers, arrived in Yugoslavia at the time, and thereby in Serbia, is unusual because it was mostly based on piracy, but also on the efforts of enthusiasts and individuals who designed different adventures, logical and action games on their own. Although arcades did exist in Serbia and former Yugoslavia, according to Ljiljana Gavrilović, they were never as numerous as in the Western world – primarily in the USA, Japan or Great Britain, nor were they so widely popular. Therefore, it can be assumed that the games had never actually been analog, but that they fully emerged only with the appearance of computers, in their digital format. The precursor of video games was the game “Pong” (mini table tennis), which was created by Atari in 1972. The game marked the Golden anniversary of its release in 2022, and while Pong was not the first game ever created, its appearance paved the way for a video game industry that soon began to develop.

In 1982, Magazine Studio from Zagreb described the craze for video games in the following way: “Special teams of people are creating new schemes and designing new games every day. Today, the market offer comprises of more than 120 types of different video game cassettes, which – as confirmed by regular tests – are mostly purchased and used by young men. Women are not neglected either: it is currently being investigated which types of games could attract girls the most. In a nutshell – No. 1 business of the decade, and it all started in an ordinary garage with a $500 capital! That is, at least, what the legend disseminated within business circles states, proving – if nothing else – that the birth of legends in the modern world does not take several decades or hundreds of years. The hero of the story is Nolan Bushnell, an engineer who lives and works in Silicon Valley, south of the San Francisco Bay, known as the “heart” of American computer manufacturing.

On the other hand, in our region, programs, as well as games, were developed using the basic programming language – BASIC. Although the name BASIC is actually an acronym, it points to the primary purpose of the language: namely, BASIC represented the basis for all those who wanted to take the first steps in programming and later master more complex computers more easily.

BASIC programming language

As Dejan Ristanović vividly explains, the whole process was performed via magnetic tapes: “If you put it in a tape recorder and start listening to it, you will hear a very unpleasant sound that only appears to be an even buzz. Your computer is quite familiar with this sound: it is enough to connect the computer to the magnetic tape recorder using a special cable and type in one word, and the computer will start listening to the tape patiently. After a few minutes, a message will reappear on the screen indicating that the text has been read and understood. Then you type in another word and the computer will start performing the action that was recorded on the tape. A game of chess, or a new video game will then boot up, the computer will give you a mathematical problem, or a cartoon will just start playing on the screen.”

In addition to BASIC, a machine language was also used, but BASIC provided the ability to understand and analyze, which was also a form of entertainment.

The road to the game is paved with – radio waves

Different games were distributed in a very interesting way – via radio. So, for example, in the 1980s, audio recordings of the games were broadcast in Zoran Modli’s show Ventilator via waves of the “Belgrade 202” radio, and the listeners had to record the audio, then insert the tape into a cassette player and after a few commands, as stated in the lines above, they could enjoy their game. The largest number of games broadcast were suitable for the Galaksija computer, and the existence of different models of computers meant that not every game would be compatible with all computer models, which created diversity among gamers, but also the unity of those using the same computer models.

Jovan Regasek and Voja Antonić assembling a Galaksija computer

The creator of the Galaksija, Voja Antonić, designed a multitude of games for this computer on his own, including Zamak (The Castle) – graphically very similar to the Snake game on mobile phones. The aim of the game was to collect the keys through the labyrinth, while avoiding the snakes.

In Slovenia, however, one of the first notable games for ZX Spectrum – Kontrabant was created. The publisher was youth Radio Študent, with one of the creators being Žiga Turk, who was later a Slovenian minister. The aim of this text-based adventure, presented at the Book Fair in Belgrade, was to assemble a computer. In Kontrabant 2, the aim was to find the door for the year 2000.

Žiga Turk

If it works – we share the profit, if it doesn’t work – we share the attempt

There is also a recorded case of Jovan Mitrović from Zrenjanin, who sent the letter to the magazine Računari u vašoj kući, which read: “I am addressing you as I would like to ask if I could use your scenario for the American Ninja as a foundation for my game. Publicly. If the game works and a million copies are sold in England, we will share the profit. If it doesn’t work, we will share the attempt.”

There were many such enthusiasts, but only a few managed to realize Jovan’s idea. Namely, after 710 hours of work, Damir Muraja and Duško Dimitrijević, came up with an innovative concept of combat that was recognized by the English company Bug-Byte. The authors received 30 pence per each sold cassette, fulfilling the dream of a large number of kids of the time.

Yugoslav gaming was also marked by the Zagreb company Suzy Soft , which published video games by local authors for ZX Spectrum, C64 and Galaksija during the mid-80s.

Despite the fact that several pirate cassettes could be purchased for the price of one domestic game, they still achieved great popularity. Among about 15 titles that Suzy Soft released, Ali Baba from 1985 stood out – resembling Pac-Man, and Pac-Man apparently served as the basis for the game Cvećar (the Florist), which was released by the same publishing house in 1987. The aim, as you may guess, was to plant flowers, while being distracted by a team of hooligans. At the time of the release of Ali Baba, a special positive attitude towards this game was present, caused by the fact that Mario Mandić, its creator from Osijek, was the winner of the Moj mikro award, that was awarded to the winner of the domestic IT magazines contest.

Svemirska priča (Space Story) was also noted, although it has been labeled as uninteresting, due to the fact that its creator is Tomislav Talan, a former author of Pilot Video, the first Croatian computer gaming magazine.

The example of students from the 14th Belgrade Gymnasium who designed two games (XIV and XIV2, in 1984 and 1985), in which the main characters were teachers, students and school staff (most likely inspired by real people) is also interesting.

The game named Na Balkanu Ništa Novo (Nothing New in the Balkans) (1989), in which the aim was to save the Lake Dojran, dealt with the political events in Yugoslavia in 1988 and the characters were real individuals from that period (Fikret Abdić, Janez Janša, Slobodan Milošević, Đorđe Balašević), as well as pop-culture characters (Đekna) and local mythical creatures (fairies of Neum) of that time.

It is clear, therefore, that there were games designed for the domestic market, written in Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian, but there were also those purchased by foreign publishers, some of which were Coyote Software, Visions Software Factory and Imagine.

The Golden Age of Piracy

The mid and late 1980s were just an overture to the piracy boom that reached its peak in the 1990s. At the very beginning, pirates advertised in magazines, but markets and stalls in the streets were piled up with pirated tapes as well. Of course, they were much cheaper than the original games. Piracy even managed to survive in spite of the war and sanctions that affected the territory of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The unspoken rule was: the more popular a computer model is, the more pirated programs it has.

However, piracy was not the only thing to disrupt the development of domestic video games. In the mid-1990s, there was a standardization of computers that used much more advanced software, which included new, higher quality games, with multi-member teams participating in its development, which meant much more money that was necessary to create games.

However, the most important thing among gamers, however, was not the origin of the game they were playing, but the hacking of the game to extend the playtime and trick the system so that they do not lose their lives while trying unsuccessfully to complete the level. All with the aim of infinite enjoyment, as the screen would not show them the message reading – GAME OVER.

Lokalna istorija digitalnih igara: prvi koraci u srećni, novi digitalni svet, Ljiljana Gavrilović
Totalna istorija video igara, Manojlo Maravić

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