This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.From the mid-80s until the year 2000, Italy was a global hotspot for video game piracy. But it was like no other dodgy black market around. “It was an industrial phenomenon,” says Carlo Santagostino, a teacher, computer scientist, and entrepreneur. “I describe it that way to distinguish it from the piracy we saw elsewhere in the world at the time,” he says. “In Italy, it was carried out by properly registered companies who had real employees and real financial statements.”
Pirated games were everywhere in the 80s. In addition to being sold in actual video game stores, you could find them stocked alongside playing cards and confectionery at newsstands up and down the country. By 1987 — a groundbreaking year for the gaming industry, which saw the debut of franchises like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, and The Legend of Zelda — an underground network of illicit Italian programmers could be found in pretty much every Italian region.Known as “crackers”, some of these programmers worked alone and had agreements with specific newsstand operators, but the majority of them were employed by companies that distributed pirated products. These included Armati in Bologna, Sipe in Milan and Edigamma in Rome.
In the very early days of gaming, the console was king. But, as Santagostino recalls, “the cartridge-based systems made the cost of reproducing games too high”. The arrival of home computers and storage devices like cassette tapes and floppy disks were pivotal to the development of Italian piracy, making the process relatively affordable for programmers desperate to cash in on their talents.It wasn’t just home computing titles that were emulated and redistributed to skint gamers for around 10,000 lire (less than £5) a pop. Enterprising specialists known as cantinari (cellar men) managed to disassemble arcade cabinets piece by piece, and recreate replicas that could be distributed across the country.
That part of the industry came to an end when an Italian-pirated version of the legendary Mortal Kombat arcade game – a gory fighting game developed by U.S. company Midway – made it to Latin America. In 1993, Midway filed a complaint with the authorities. “After that,” Santagostino says, “Italian pirates were forced into giving up on the arcade front.” While the result of the lawsuit has never been made public knowledge, it was enough to keep the pirates out of the arcades for good.But it wasn’t quite over – the Italian piracy empire lasted until the year 2000. If you’re wondering just how the pirates and the distributors got away with it for so long, it’s because Italian copyright law of the era — somewhat unbelievably — didn’t extend to video games. Legitimate publishers and developers attempted to fight this phenomenon in court but, for the most part, they were completely unsuccessful. At most, Santagostino says, “a magistrate would order the seizure of copied titles three months after their release”. By then, though, it was too late. “Countless other copies had emerged.”
Despite the enticing legislative vacuum, regularly distributing pirated titles on an incredibly public market was still quite risky – especially when it came to bigger, better-known games like Nintendo’s Super Mario. The solution the programmers came up with was as simple as it gets – they’d just loosely translate their versions’ titles and change the front covers.
Namco’s Pac-Land became Pallino (Little Ball), while Commodore 64 classic Impossible Mission found itself lumbered with the slightly more prosaic title of Computer Spy. Fluffy arcade favourite Bubble Bobble was renamed Bollicine (Little Bubbles) or Bad Guys, and Turrican was translated with nonsensical words like Jehl, Go or Job. It’s worth pointing out that even though many of the programming pirates were affiliated with and paid by distribution companies, they took sole responsibility for the work itself. That meant that the companies – should they ever find themselves taken to court – retained a level of plausible deniability. This was third party work, they’d argue, and they weren’t to know that there was anything illegal about it. At one point, during the 80s, piracy was so rife that it was easier to find illegal copies of games than the legitimate versions of them. “One day I was at a shop called Supergames in Milan, having read an enthusiastic review of a ZX Spectrum game called Atic Atac,” says Santagostino. “When I asked if they had it in stock, the assistant said, ‘Yes, do you want the original or the copy?’ At the time I had no idea what that meant but the price difference was huge. You’d even get an actual receipt!”Within months, that question became no longer necessary, as the originals seemed to have vanished into thin, digital air. By the end of the decade, the pirate market was so widespread and stubborn that very few studios had the courage (or desire) to invest in original games. Many foreign software houses simply gave up on the Italian market.
The sway that the pirates had over the official industry is demonstrated well by the case of Francesco Carlà, founder of one of the first major Italian software studios, Simulmondo. Despite being a vocal anti-piracy presence in the country’s gaming industry, he was forced to make use of the pirates as the upper hand was truly theirs.Simulmondo’s first original games – such as Bocce (Bowls) and Tombola (Bingo), both programmed by a man called Ivan Venturi – came out under Italvideo, the company which the aforementioned studio Armati was hiding behind. Carlà later decided to leave the agreement, but those first steps were indicative of how, in Italy, only the pirates seemed to have enough money to fund the legitimate gaming industry.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that things changed from a legal perspective. A revamping of Italian copyright law — requested by the European Union — saw games finally being offered the same protection as films and music. But even when it was still in full swing, the country’s piracy wasn’t entirely positive for Italian gamers. The inexpensive pirate titles at newsstands fuelled a general perception that games were not really worthy of attention or protection. This was reinforced by the usually hasty, sometimes shoddy, work of the pirates, who inadvertently filled their games with bugs and spelling mistakes.“Piracy caused serious delays for the Italian gaming market,” says Santagostino. “While in England a budding programmer could become rich with an independently developed game like Manic Miner, it was difficult for some Italians to get paid.”That’s why, despite the fact that Italy had all the cultural, entrepreneurial, and economic features to become a major player in the international video game industry, it never quite took off. Today there are very few development studios based in the country. The major exception is the Milan-based team Milestone, responsible for racing titles including the MotoGP and Ride. Laying the blame squarely on the piracy ecosystem of nearly 40 years ago is perhaps too simplistic. What is certain, though, is the massive impact that piracy had on how games were perceived in the country in the early days of the industry. Last year, Italy’s still small video game industry grew by 50 percent, taking its total employees over 2,400. So, while its gaming culture might’ve started off on the wrong foot, it may now be on the right path to make up for lost time.