Bootleg Arcades - Brazil's Pirate Amusement Centres

A brief reflection on the Brazilian arcade scene

To anyone with at least a passing interest in arcade video games, bootlegs shouldn't be an unfamiliar topic. From the broken likes of Street Fighter II: Rainbow Edition to the more recent joys of suspicious identicabs from China, most people have played an illegitimate machine, whether knowingly or not. However, something less common is a bootleg arcade. The physical, real life venues themselves, to be clear.

In Brazil - a country which has famously had no end of arcade love affairs, frequently unofficial - multiple bootleg arcades were once a reality. Cribbing branding from the Japanese amusement powerhouses under their noses. Within them, a near-identical selection of coin-operated machines to their eastern and western counterparts, the legality of them under question. One even operated whilst an official example came and went.

Two chains, one long-gone, one still around in a different state, come into play here. The biggest, possibly most well-known example are those that traded (and still continue to) off of the Neo Geo name. And with good reason - a vital part of SNK's legacy is its produce's well-known ubiquity in parts of South America, reflected to this day in its fighting game community's continued preference for the likes of Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, and particularly King of Fighters.

In addition to their cheaper hardware being significantly more accessible, this popularity was in the hands of the pirates, creating and selling hacked Neo Geo arcade systems with gleeful abandon, and bringing escapism to an entire generation of Brazilian gamers. SNK themselves gracefully turned a blind eye, allowing the grassroots scene to grow and ossify into a self-contained industry and vibrant player-base of Neo Geo enthusiasts.

And it's here that the right conditions were also made for a chain of arcades, imitating SNK's corporate hubris in opening super-sized amusement facilities for their home country. For in Brazil, the Neo Geo Parks were the prime destination for the company's greatest 90s works - high quality games and cabinets, housed in clean, family-friendly environments. Asia, Europe, and the Americas had all already saw this trajectory play out during the decade.

Incorporated on August 19, 1997, Neo Geo World of Brazil Entertainment Enterprises set about copying the initially lucrative Neo Geo brand amusement centres seen in Japan. A sneaky steal of an official logo, some bootleg and imported cabinets, and promotion in such prestige Brazilian gaming publications as SuperGamePower, and they were surely set for the same initial success that their official Japanese cousins experienced.

But elsewhere in the country, another company was competing by also pilfering branding from a Japanese video game titan, one of an even higher lustre - Sega. In Brazil, the company put prolific official agreements in place for TecToy to handle its home consumer affairs, and had historically distributed coin-operated machines during a few periods. What nobody seemed to expect, though, was another arcade operator beating them at their own game in the region.

Opening in Sao Paulo’s Shopping Center Norte and subsequently Soho Plaza, Rua Maria Antonia, Brazil received its own little Joypolis centres. For the average arcade fan, the name “Joypolis” conjures up images of full-size Initial D Arcade Stage cars and interactive rollercoasters in arcade-cum-theme park environments. But short of scamming Sega themselves, no Brazilian company could have access to such technology - so the operators made do with simply running an arcade.

In their grey import choices, the owners went for the deep cuts typical of the greatest mid 1990s arcades - numerous giant deluxe versions of the likes of Aqua Jet and Sega Rally Championship, Astro City candy cabinets playing Virtua Fighter 2, and even a couple of storied back-to-back VS City competition machines, one of which converted to run Cyber Troopers Virtual-On. A strong facsimile of the games on offer in Sega’s own official locations elsewhere.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, Sega’s own joint GameWorks venture would later choose Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as one of its first locations outside of the USA and Canada. Unusually for the chain, the Rio venue housed significantly more of the signature large and mid-size attractions found within the original Joypolis parks in Japan, but not the imitation seen in Brazil. The country’s GameWorks would unfortunately have its life cut short, reportedly closing in 2003.

With GameWorks gone and the global coin-operated arcade industry in decline, Brazil’s Neo Geo Parks and Joypolis staggered on, receiving fewer and fewer new cabinets and maintenance. A second wind of sorts came with the arrival of Dance Dance Revolution, particularly seen in the Joypolis locations, but nothing could truly buck the downward trend and renew fortunes. Both disappeared as arcades in the mid 2000s, with most of their competition also following suit.

Neo Geo, however, would ultimately live on in a strange way. Attempting to adapt to shifting out-of-home entertainment conditions, the operators of the venues decided to transition them into repurposed indoor family amusement parks. Though most traces of the faux-SNK association were now scrubbed, the “Neo Geo” name stuck, with their sites becoming known as Neo Geo Family. The move seems to have been successful - some still remain in Brazil today.

Mirroring the current situation in most countries, Brazil’s fighting game and arcade scene has now largely shifted to console play, with rhythm games like Pump It Up being the holdout exceptions in more recent years. Latin America across the board being a hotbed for professional freestyle players, with big names frequently appearing in the World Pump Festival tournaments over the course of the previous few decades.

It is a shame to consider how these endeavours ended up; one, slowly dying through problems that could’ve been fixed, the other repurposed for a safer option. Though not managed by fully-owned subsidiaries in this case, this decline also rang true for other western countries - chains owned by the likes of Namco and Sega faced similar falls, in addition to reinvention away from video game-focused operation to more outward family entertainment.

However, a brief, unsung legacy has ultimately been left behind by independent pirate organisations that ignited the original interest in games made by the Asian amusement giants. In a country where official support was scant, consoles were costly endeavours, and existing arcades poorly maintained and managed, a couple of competitors initially bucked the trends, offering Sega and SNK’s peaks of coin-operated amusement ingenuity from the other side of the world.