Late last year, the Slovak Design Museum released a translated collection of 1980s text adventures from the region. The games, often programmed by teenagers, capture a moment in history when the first generation of Slovak developers learned their craft to share with their friends.
The museum was not always about games. Maroš Brojo, the general manager of the Slovak Game Developers Association, pitched the multimedia collection he now manages. “When you get the patronage of a museum… it gives you a lot more credibility,” he says. “Suddenly people start to have a very different view of the fact that this is part of something important. Our culture and our heritage.”
The 10 games that make up this first series of translations and reissues have been selected for their historical significance. They conquer part of the late 80s in what was then Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite state. In a, atochín, the titular Soviet major fights Rambo in Vietnam. “I don’t want to say” [it was] against the regime, but it is very subversive,” says Brojo.
One of the developers behind atochín, Stanislav Hrda, was also involved in the translation and conservation project. He was 16 when he and some friends published atochín after being fascinated by the American films that crossed the border on VHS tapes. “This game makes jokes [about] the regime… and the Soviet army,” he says. “It’s hard to win. So if you are playing Rambo will kill you 10 times because you [were] no luck, and you made the wrong choice. It was very funny for my friends.”
Ten might undermine it – in my experiments with atochin, the Soviet soldier lost his life in a handful of horrific ways, including being crushed against a coral reef, within just a few minutes of starting the game. Hrda also integrated an Easter egg into the game, where binding the “KGB” keys as controls would allow the player to play as Rambo himself.
Game development was mainly a teenage hobby at the time. Since games were not sold in stores, there was no chance to make money from them. Hrda and others shared these games with their friends for entertainment rather than profit. At a given moment, atochín came into the hands of František Fuka, a developer from Prague who had previously inspired Hrda and his friends. In Hrda’s words, he said, “Yeah, you guys made such a fun, fun game, but be prepared and bring a toothbrush because if the police come to get you, you should be ready.” Hrda laughs when he says it, but admits he was “a little scared” afterward.
But he and his friends continued to make games and called themselves Sybilasoft. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 led to more democratic governance and a market economy in Czechoslovakia, Hrda, then 18, created a real company to sell games. Now that funding is available, he says, programmers in Czechoslovakia have been able to create “very high-quality games for the ZX Spectrum.” But in the West, people had moved to more advanced computers, making Hrda, Fuka, and others’ creations played mainly in Eastern Europe.
But a few years ago, Hrda was involved in an exhibition at the Design Museum that showcased these 80s games, allowing people to play them on the original hardware. More exhibitions were planned – before COVID got in the way. Brojo calls the website “kind of a backup virtual exhibition, but he also says he’s happy it could be the start of a database as they develop the project further.” In addition to the games themselves, which run on emulators on modern PCs, there are images of the hardware, box art, and so on from that period. Brojo says his next goal is to add scans of Slovak game magazines from the 80s and 90s.
In addition to the translations, the website also makes the games accessible to a wider audience. Brojo says the team was lucky that much of that work was done by ZX Spectrum fan communities like Spectrum Computing, so they didn’t have to save much from cassettes and the like. And finding the original developers to get their permission was usually easy. “Most of the community was very friendly, so a lot of the authors know other authors and they were able to put us in touch with them,” he says.
The tricky part was taking the games apart so that Slovak text could be replaced with English. Programmer Slavomír Labský and translation coordinator Marián Kabát wrote about some of their experiences in a post on the website of the Slovak Design Museum. Labský explains his process of taking the games apart and replacing them once the translations are delivered to him, taking into account difficulties such as the short lengths of the text segments. Kabát described the challenges of contextualizing era- and location-specific references, such as those to popular folk singers.
Brojo says he hopes the nuances of the games will return in these translations, such as the subversive writing in atochín. On the other hand, he mentions that the game from 1987 Pepsi Cola seems to be the one that English speaking people are most interested in on social media. It is partially developed by Fuka and the player has to steal the secret recipe of the potion. Brojo assumes that the recognizability of the brand is curious about western players. “It might be a little bizarre that we also knew Pepsi Cola in the East before 1989,” he says. “Although Pepsi Cola was actually one of the most popular soft drinks.” (It has been sold in the Soviet Union since 1972.)
But the historical value of the games isn’t the only reason they’ve been made available. Instead, Hrda just wants people to enjoy it like his friends did when he made them. “I [hope people] will have a lot of fun with it, even though those games are very old,” he laughs. “Keep playing good games, and if you’re brave enough, you can try ours.”