In the 80s, the videogame market was very much different to that of today. While perhaps stating the obvious, it is important to keep mind considering this article will analyze an era which we could define, generally, as “pre-globalization”.
Indeed, forty years ago, well before the digital revolution and on-line markets, each nation had a different and unique approach to the industry: this included the number of “gaming” systems available. This is especially true for Europe, a market that followed quite a different set of rules than the US. In order to try and figure out how the European market worked, along with how it shaped the industry and the public for the following decades, there is one thing to keep in mind: there is no single narrative. There are obvious trends running underneath many of the countries I will touch upon, but – worth repeating – there is no single revealing fact or event that might make it easier for someone to understand the way European consumers behaved during that decade nor what exactly happened that might have changed things overnight.
Let us also keep in mind that computers and consoles used to represent two different – almost completely so – market segments, with very minimal overlap. While it was indeed possible for a child or young teen to possess both, they would still have quite different gaming experiences on the two platforms. Except for the obvious that computers would teach one how to program, generally console games were aimed at a younger crowd and offered less variety: mostly arcade, platformers and sport games. There were no adventure games on consoles, except for a few late ports. There were RPGs, sure, but while many of them would not reach a Western audience, many times they were also plagued by simple text and mediocre translation that would make them quite the inferior counterpart to series like Ultima or Wizardry.
But again, since there is no “obvious truth” here nor a single overall narrative, I have decided to call this article a “discussion”. With actual sources and data are definitely few and far between, any writer trying to sell a “one truth” theory is probably on the wrong path. Also, for the sake of the article I will be focusing mostly on Western Europe, but I am pretty sure at least some of these observations can be applied to other Eastern countries as well.
The big videogame crash as an American-only event
Starting in 1983, and well until 1985, the gaming market in the US crashed and burned to a grinding halt. This is an event that has been discussed in great detail by many authors and researchers. The crash happened because of several reasons, among these: the huge number of very similar consoles available and the market being flooded with games without quality control. The Commodore 64 would also play a part, since, in order to try and make up for the not outstanding sales of its previous systems, Commodore offered the 64 to consumers with a 100$ rebate. Many retailers ended up making the situation worse by offering ways to actually gain money on the offer, most often by aggressively cutting prices of old computers. Consumers could, then, buy old computers or cheaps consoles at low prices and then immediately bring them in, gaining quite a bit on the money difference.
The crash was not simply an event that brought several companies to their knees, consumers were also affected: people just did not trust the gaming companies anymore. They ended up being the victims of a system of companies unable to control third party developers and, consequently, failed in providing consumers with quality titles that were worth their time and money. In the end, console games in the US could have seriously proven to be little more than a passing trend.
This catastrophic event for the American industry had very little consequence on the rest of the world.
Despite describing the big videogame crash as a strictly American event, it is still important to consider that the US market was still the most important one. Logically, as much as it might be convenient to discount it, the event still ended up influencing companies’ decisions in the old continent as well. But its other effect, namely the way it shaped consumers’ tastes for the rest of the decade, did not in any way touch Europe. As a very easy to understand example: the well-known decision by Nintendo of America to change the original Famicom design, in order for the NES to better appeal to the skeptical post-crash audience, is a completely useless factor while talking about the success (or lack thereof) of the 8 bit machine in Europe.
Let us first take a look at the generic homecomputer market in Europe in the 80s.
The smashing success of home computers in Europe
If there is one single generally known fact, which could be applied to the whole decade and a good part of the 90s, it would probably be: home computers were much more successful than console as a gaming platform in most European countries. While this is not a generic fact that can be stated without a sliver of research, this is surely true for many of the biggest gaming markets the likes of Germany, France and the United Kingdom, along with smaller ones like Spain and Italy. It is also true for many Eastern European countries, since most of them would not even see a console before the early 90s.
Looking at the gaming companies which led the American market in the 80s and 90s, Nintendo and Sega were in no rush to do the same on to the European market. This is an easily understandable decision, since the US was an easier market to address, both culturally and commercially. While Europe had a potentially similar audience, there was no way a Japanese company could find a single unique effective way to appeal to a continent as diverse as Europe while also taking into consideration different countries’ tastes.
Home computers were easier to sell in Europe (also) because they were more familiar to the audience. Let us not forget that the United Kingdom had quite the strong computer industry, via the BBC, Amstrad and, naturally, Sir Clive Sinclair and his line of generally cheap computers. Not to mention, government backing specific programs in order to teach people how computers worked and how to program successfully. These UK products were exported with variying degrees of success all over Europe. Most successfult of all was the ZX Spectrum, which managed to gain quite a following in many countries.
BBC "The Computer Programme" 1982
Going back to countries close to or behind the “iron curtain”, many home computers were also mainly responsible for kickstarting the industry in countries like Czechoslovakia and Slovenia (which at the time was part of the federal republic of Yugoslavia) where consoles were basically impossible to find. As an example, one of the very first games that is known to have been developed in Slovenia was a ZX Spectrum textual adventure, Kontrabant (by Žiga Turk and Matevž Kmet), where the player smuggled pieces of the Sinclair computer in order to then, build a ZX machine in their own homes. An experience all too familiar to many kids.
This success and influence of the ZX Spectrum – a cheap home computer that was definitely appealing for many European consumers hit hard by recession – did not happen in the US, along with many of the other non-IBM computers that influenced developers in many European countries, were little more than blips on the market. In America, the Commodore 64 got off to a strong start and would outsell its competitors at least until 1986, but still did not seem to bring the same huge influence that would reign over many European countries in the same years. The Apple II was also a strong competitor, mainly for the many companies jumping ship to support it, among those Sierra and Broderbund.
The Apple II did not have the same success in Europe as in the United States, since by the time Apple tried to penetrate the market in the old continent, Commodore and Sinclair were already a strong presence, along with having close contacts with retail sellers, plus it was quite expensive which was also quite the problem for the IBM PC. While the Apple II was not a complete failure in the old continent, it is fair to say it surely never did register important sales, even compared to smaller successes like the Amstrad and Acorn computers.
We might ask ourselves: which computer was the most popular in Europe? That is a question impossible to answer with 100% certainty, for obvious reasons, the answer would vary from country to country. Generally, the Spectrum and Commodore scenes were clearly the most active, they would continue existing well beyond the machines’ lifetimes. In Italy, in 1993, games were still being developed for the Commodore 64, even though by that point Super Nintendo was already a year old. As mentioned, many developers got their start with games for the two 8 bit machines, but this only partially answers our question.
Surely, the Commodore 64 was quite a strong presence in Europe, especially in countries like Italy, Sweden and Spain as well. In Sweden, the computer sold quite well in its first years, thanks to the presence of Commodore Scandinavia, apparently around 100/200k units, Amiga had much less success in comparison. After the closing of the Commodore branch in the region, the numbers start dwindling down and the Amiga probably only sold around 120k units.
In Spain, computers from Commodore arrived pretty early, in 1978, through the local company Microeletrónica y Control S.A. The PET was the first computer to reach Spain, with an initial order of only 50 computers, which the company managers stored in their parents’ house because they did not have room elsewhere. Thanks to the quick success of the PET, in that very same year the first club of homecomputer users in Spain was founded, the Club Data, By 1984, Microeletrónica could count something close to 900 shops in the country, and that same year also distributed the Commodore 16. Three years later, it was replaced by a local branch of Commodore S.A., directed by Santiago de Gracia.
In France, the Commodore 64 did not have the same success because of poor distribution, instead in 1984 the Spectrum saw quite more units sold, along with good numbers also for the Thomson T07 and M05 models. These were especially successful because of the Informatique Pour Tous government campaign which, along with featuring antipiracy laws, gave funds to the fledgling gaming industry and installed 120k Thomson computers in every school in the country. The Amstrad CPC 464 was quite the success as well, also thanks to a memorable ad campaign featuring a blue crocodile as the company’s mascotte. The whole scene of French developers from the 80s and, later, 90s were all influenced by home computer games, as consoles did not really seem to take off until after 1990.
Something also worth nothing: while I have been using the term several times, it is worth remembering that, in many countries, the “video games market” could hardly be defined as such. An electronic product, at the time, would sell mostly on the strength and recognition of its brand, along with its accessible price, as European consumers did not really have the same spending power as American ones. The quality of the games and the marketing were obviously two influencing factors but, overall, probably less important than brand and price
Nintendo and Sega, for example, could not be considered strong brands in Europe because people were not familiar with them, throughout the 80s they did – overall – small numbers, even in countries where they managed to have a recognizable degree of success. Clearly, Sega was a more familiar brand to people for their arcade games and, as mentioned, some of their computers which managed to reach Europe, but overall, it was not a brand familiar to most. In comparison, Commodore and Sinclair were definitely much stronger brands, along with local companies distributing computers. For example, the Amstrad in Germany and Austria was being distributed by Schneider, a division of the Schneider Rundfunkwerke from Türkheim.
Clearly the fact that Europe had quite an active pirate/demoscene should not come as a surprise, considering what we’ve discussed so far. Piracy was not born because of home computers’ success, but mainly together with them. We could define it as a sort of “mutually beneficial relationship”. Europe was into home computers also because gaming was cheaper on those systems, not simply because of piracy.
Having a Commodore 64 in the mid 80s, especially in quite the active gaming market like the one in the United Kingdom, meant it was possible to access a trove of games at accessible prices. While, perhaps, not all of them were even worth that tiny admission price (some were priced at 2 GPBs even), there still was a lot of choice. On the opposite side, gaming on consoles was incredibly expensive. Buying a single console was obviously cheaper than a computer, but each cart would end up costing quite the hefty price and there were no cheaper alternatives.
So, clearly piracy was a phenomenon that has existed ever since the computer industry became open to a wide array of consumers. It was also facilitated when computers started using cassette tapes, a cheap and easy way to duplicate media. This would obviously help sales for both the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 (and, before it, the PET) in several countries. Interestingly, pirate/hacker groups in the 80s would usually call themselves with long evocative names like Remember, while the PC scene – which started in the late 80s – and the limitations of DOS meant that most groups had to use three letters names only.
Software piracy was rampant in many parts of Europe, Scandinavian countries included. This was also because the legislation was much easier to circumvent than in the United States, so much so that single nations like France, Portugal and Italy were forced to create a specific law to try and stop rampant software piracy. Clone consoles were also available in several countries, like Spain or Italy, especially NES clones that allowed players to access a bigger library of games while not having to pay the quite expensive prices that first party Nintendo games would usually sell for.
Consoles having a hard time
Taken at face value, the big crash having basically no effect in the old continent, might lead us to conclude that Europe did not see the abundance of consoles (and clones) that the US were bombarded with. The Intellivision, Atari and Colecovision were indeed sold mostly all over mainland Europe, but their market share was often little more than a blip on the radar. Among several reasons, it might be interesting to note that all these consoles were being marketed mainly to an American audience, along with the games being pretty much tailored for that demographic. It was not possible to think a company could copy and paste their software library successfully from overseas, without even thinking of adapting the content to the tastes of a specific European country. At least, not in the 80s.
And “adapting” might have been indeed a problem for some companies, considering how consoles, back then, needed to be modified over in order to work on the PAL (50HZ) video system. Along with technical limitations, some magazines at the time considered the different kind of relationship that European families have with their TVs, as opposed to Americans. For many, that it might be a struggle to both play and watch television on a single set. Lisa Hondel and Bill Kukel wrote in EG “TV viewing hours begin at 5 PM and end at 1 AM, family members can be found fighting for either the switch box or channel changer in a true death struggle for video supremacy”. While a slight exaggeration, there was indeed truth in how different habits influenced the old continent and its relationship with this new media.
This can be also observed in the way Atari succeded in conquering one specific national market in Europe, that of Germany, remaining on top of the market well until the late 80s. The company set up one of the first branches in Europe, in March 1980, Atari Elektronik Vertriebsgesellschaft mbH in Hamburg, even though the console was already being distributed in Germany (under the name “Atari VCS 800”) by a third party. Because of Atari investing in marketing in the country, with television advertising and full color pages in magazines, the VCS ended up doing pretty well in Germany. In 1980 alone, Atari apparently sold around 450k units by 1984, establishing itself as the industry leader ahead of competitors like Philips with the Videopac.
Since it might sound unfamiliar to several readers, a quick note on the Videopac. It was essentialy the name given in Europe to the console known as the Magnavox Odyssey 2 in the United States. While that console never really had much success in the American market, especially because going against strong well-known competitors like Atari and Mattel, the Videopac G7000 (and, to a lesser extent, its successor G7400) enjoyed quite more attention in the old continent especially because it generally came to the market quite early (around 1978-1979 before both Mattel and ColecoVision). Along with Scandinavia, the model was present on the market also in Italy, France and Germany where it also enjoyed good sales on the strength of the Philips brand.
Italian commercial for the Videopac
Atari also opened a factory in Ireland, but despite enjoying quite vantagious fiscal treatment, the American company never seemed to use it to manufacture VCS consoles in Europe (this is to be 100% confirmed, though). The generous marketing budget which made Atari the leader of the market in Germany was not employed for other countries. In France, the Atari 2600 would come to market years later from its original debut in the US, in September 1981, actually imported by another company, Wea-Records B.V., based in the Netherlands, which was also in charge of distributing the console in that country.
In France, the VCS would go on to sell 600k over the course of eight years, which is quite a good number but, as a comparison, the Master System in a single year of release would sell around 105k units. Competitors for the VCS, like the Colecovision, would come to the French market even later, in 1983, apparently not doing very well. Mattel did try an interesting move, by opening an office in the south of France in 1983 to try to develop games that could appeal to a more European sensibility. For all intents and purpose, it was too little and too late and the office did not really produce anything of note, being sold off less than a year later. Similar experiments were also being considered by Atari but with the big crash impacting their international plans as well, that did not end up ever becoming a reality.
In Spain, the Atari 2600 was distributed by a small company called Audelec, located in Malàga. I was not able to find much information about the Intellivision, but we can be sure it was not a great success. Overall, the first wave of consoles did not seem to make quite the big splash in the country. The Videopac was quite a big presence in Spain too, thanks to good support by Philips. Also, according to my research, one successul console among the first wave was the Colecovision because it had the strongest company advertising it (CBS had a branch in Spain, apparently), but again this is mere speculation since I was not able to find much about the sales numbers.
In Scandinavia, Atari was distributed in Norway by Inter-Salg A/S (based in Nesbru), Sweden and Finland were instead handled by other companies like Cherry Hemelektronik AB, Algavision AB and Alga. In the Scandinavian market, thought, more than Atari and Mattel with Intellivision, there was another console with much more success: the Philips Videopac. The early 80s console market in Sweden, for example, seemed to be evenly distributed between the Videopac and the 2600, at least according to newspaper articles from 1982.
Nintendo in Europe: not so "Super"
In the United States, after the first wave of consoles and their subsequent crash, history goes that Nintendo stepped in and basically conquered the market by directly appealing to the consumers’ tastes, with Sega being a very distant second, at least until the 16-bit era. Again, this did not happen in Europe, where Japanese companies would appear on a country’s market only if there was a specific agreement with a national distributor.
In Europe, one would need a company that would import the console, adapt it to the national market and start doing its very own marketing to try and sell the console and games. Many times, this also meant that the consoles were being distributed by little companies working in an unfamiliar market, with limited budgets. Like in Italy, where the Master System in 1986, was being distributed by a little known company called NBC Italia, which very soon gave up on it. Nintendo of Europe, would only be created officially in 1990, with the company – in the following years – going on to create specific country branches in the Netherlands, Spain, France and the United Kingdom.
There is a bit of confusion on the year the NES first appeared in Europe, with many articles placing it between 1985 and 1987. Apparently, Mattel divided mainland Europe in two regions, with region “A” (which was most of mainland Europe and Scandinavia) getting the console first in 1986, while Region “B”, namely Italy, Ireland and the United Kingdom the year after. In Ireland, with the country going through a tough time economically, the console would barely make a dent into the overall market, going to be become successful only much later.
While Mattel was a big company well versed in doing advertising for toys, they clearly did not have a lot of experience with video games and, at the time, there was no clear single way to market them. This could help explain some of their weird marketing choices. As for the UK gaming market, we have to consider that by 1987 young gamers were already being informed of new systems like the Amiga and Atari ST, so that the then recent NES 8-bit games would have definitely felt primitive by comparison. Also, the pricing of the first party Nintendo games did little to help the success of the console, since they commanded prices around £40 [120 GBP of today]. Comparing that with basically half the price for Amiga or ST games, and a fourth of that for older Spectrum and Commodore 64 titles.
Only by 1990 (when Nintendo of Europe was created), in the UK the NES managed to comeback strongly on the market, mostly because the distribution of the console was passed from Mattel, over to local board game company San Serif which had definitely more interesting ideas. Their first marketing move was, against Nintendo of America’s original intentions, to bundle the Konami Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle game with the console: a brilliant move to boost sales. NES games also began appearing more regularly on magazines, even though it was really too late, considering how the Mega Drive would come out that year as well. This late comeback might actually explain why, looking at sales data from 1994, the Master System and NES seem to have sold basically the same number of units in the United Kingdom.
In Spain, the NES found quickly its public, initially through a solid distribution via local company Spaco. In the late 80s, former Sega distributor Erbe, would also being distributing the NES. The company, which was the biggest national distributor in Spain, had changed the market for the better, coming to save an industry plagued by piracy. In 1993, apparently 750k NES units had been sold in the country, despite there being also several clones available.
Erbe would also distribute both the Game Boy and the Super Nintendo. In 1993, fate would step in again when a big fire ended up destroying the warehouse of Erbe which, according to many of the people who first came on the scene, was not an accidental event. Shortly after the catastrophic event, the company fell into economic troubles, later losing the distribution of Nintendo which basically disappeared from Spain, reappearing only later by establishing an office in Madrid.
In most other European countries, those in the so called “Region A” not handled by Mattel, the NES was distributed by smaller companies like Bienengräber in Germany (which had also distributed the Game & Watch) and ASD in France (pretty late, in October of 1987). Probably also because these smaller companies could not afford huge budget for marketing, along with other countries never having an official distribution of the NES at all (like Portugal, which got the NES only in 1991 through Concentra), it is fair to say that in Europe the arrival of Nintendo’s 8-bit console was affected by problems with pricing, marketing and also distribution.
Generally, it would be fair to say that the NES did not revolutionize the market, there was no “Nintendo generation” in Europe as in the United States. But naturally, there are exceptions. In Sweden (which apparently was the first country to receive and sell the NES in September of 1986, but this is to be confirmed), through the distribution and successful marketing by Bergsala (which also distributed the console in neighboring Northern countries), the NES enjoyed quite the success from 1987 onwards, especially owing it to the release of Super Mario Brothers. Sega would start to get back some of the market share only by 1990 with the launch of Sonic, the Mega Drive and an expensive marketing campaign. Overall, Sweden seems to count for around 8.7% of total sales of the NES in what Nintendo defined as “the rest of the world”, around 740k units were sold, quite an impressive number indeed, considering it’s about twice the share of the rest of the Nordic market.
The System that was the Master: Sega in Europe
The Master System in Europe was definitely a different story, since some of Sega’s computers had already arrived in the continent so it was not an entirely unfamilar brand overall, also because of their quite well known and loved games in the arcade. Overall, the Tokyo company had quite much of a stronger headstart compared to Nintendo. For example, Sega arrived in Italy quite early, by 1984, with their first home computers, which suffered an unlucky fate since the distributor reported huge economical loss that year and decided to cut the marketing budget for the SC-3000 by half. In the end, the computers sold poorly and the relationship between Sega and Melchioni was discontinued pretty soon.
In the UK, Sega made agreements with Mastertronic (later Virgin Mastertronic) which had definitely a stronger grip on the gaming market compared to Mattel in the 80s. Not only there were would be several Sega dedicated magazines in the United Kingdom, but Master System games would be reviewed quite often also on general magazines. The country made up quite a big chunk of the overall European sales for the Master System (1.5 million of units out of the 6.95 million sold by 1993). Also, I would like to address those specific “edgy” Sega late 80s ads that pop up on the internet every once and a while. These come from an agreement between Mastertronic and the adult magazine Viz, so Sega as a company had really nothing to do with them, they probably would not have greenlighted them.
Going back to Italy, after the failed launch of the SC-3000, Sega was distributed by toys company Giochi Preziosi which, right from the start, allocated a huge marketing budget for the consoles, along with sponsors like famous football players (Walter Zenga, Roberto Mancini). The Master System managed to easily win over the NES, at least until – as with the UK – Mattel lost the distribution of Nintendo and GiG took over, in 1992.
In Portugal, as mentioned, Nintendo and Sega would arrive officially quite late, even though it was available on the market a quite successful NES clone which would run official NES carts. In 1991, Sega started being officially distributed via local company Ecofilmes which would bring to the country the Sega Mega Drive, the Master System II and the Game Gear. Ecofilmes later changed the name of their company to Ecoplay and they still are the biggest gaming company in the country.
Promotional Ecofilmes Sega video (1991)
As mentioned before, Spain saw Erbe again taking over the distribution of the Master System, after local company Proein did not really make numbers and lost the license, behind it all there was the magic of local hero Paco Pastor, also a former singer. Despite little faith in the future of consoles, he was approached by the then president of Sega of Europe Nick Alexander, in 1987, to discuss the creation of a Virgin Mastertronic Sega division at Erbe. Sega would then break away from Erbe after the company supported the launch of the Amstrad GX4000. Pastor would then create his very own subsidiary of Sega which would distribute, later, the Mega Drive.
In France the Master System had an interesting history, arriving quite early in 1986 being distributed by the company Master Games. But, apparently, the company had never actually licensed the console from Sega and did not really know what to do with it, so – in the end – only sold nothing more than a couple of hundred systems. On the other hand, the PC Engine sold via the company Sodipeng had quite the success, but this was still after 1990 so it is not part of our discussion.
In Germany, the Master System was being distributed by Bertelsmann which, after Atari started losing their grasp of the market, would quickly make up for some important sales. It was only after 1990, with the arrival of Nintendo with their European headquarters based in the country, that the Master System would start serious losing market share in favor of the NES.
My hope with this small “discussion” on the European gaming market was to, finally, try and put together some of the information spread out there, along with providing a sort of alternate narrative to the prevalent “Nintendo” and US-centric one, so common online. With how unfamiliar consoles and computers felt to the audience, the general population of Europe definitely took more time to get to know what will soon become part of their lives. Consequentely, the fledgling gaming industry ended up taking quite a different direction from that of the US. Clearly this different state of things also ended up influencing the developers that were working in those decades, which is how Europe was home to such interesting studios such as Delphine Software, DMA Design, Radarsoft and Rainbow Arts.
Even all these years later, the way history has influenced the gaming tastes of the population can still be felt, with inspirations that are quite different from country to country. What is of utmost importance is to try and preserve this rich gaming cultural heritage, since it is very much at risk of being lost forever. In an era where every game can be sold everywhere in the world, it might seem strange to go back to a time where consoles needed to be “imported” and marketed to have a chance of success. But this is where we come from, where the industry with all of its faults and problems was born and thrived. If we are to understand and figure out the identity and presence of this “new” medium, history is our necessary introduction.
Sources & References
For more information on the VideoPac and Intron, check out this detailed article [in Swedish but it is easily translatable] by Martin Lindell whom I also thank for the info provided.
Information on Nintendo in Spain from Hobby Consolas. Thanks also to Marçal Mora for the kind help.
Information on Portugal thanks to J.B. Martins, check out his Youtube channel.
Study on the Austrian gaming industry in the 90s by Eugen Pfister.
On Abandonware France, quite interesting article (in English) on the state of things in France and the “French touch”.