How a design museum unearthed a treasure trove of classic Slovak games
Late last year, the Slovak Design Museum released a translated collection of 80s 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 has not always covered the games. Maroš Brojo, General Director of the Slovak Association of Game Developers, presented the multimedia collection he now manages. “When you get patronage from a museum…it gives you a lot more credibility,” he says. “Suddenly people are starting to have a very different view that this is part of something important. Our culture and our heritage.
The 10 games that make up this first batch of translations and reissues have been selected for their historical significance. They capture part of the late 80s in what was then Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite state. In, Satochin, the titular Soviet major fights with Rambo in Vietnam. “I do not want to say [it was] against the regime, but it’s very subversive,” says Brojo.
One of the developers behind Satochin, Stanislav Hrda, also participated in the translation and preservation project. He was 16 when he and some friends posted Satochin after being fascinated by American films crossing the border on VHS tapes. “This game makes jokes [about] the regime… and the Soviet army,” he says. “It’s hard to win. So when you play Rambo will kill you 10 times because you [were] bad luck, and you made the wrong choice. It was very funny for my friends.
Ten can undersell it – in my experimentation with Šatochin, the Soviet soldier lost his life in a number of gruesome ways, including being crashed into a coral reef, just minutes into the game. Hrda also integrated an easter egg into the game, where binding “KGB” keys as commands would allow the player to play as Rambo himself.
Game development was mostly a teenage hobby back then. Because the games were not sold in stores, there was no chance of making money from them. Hrda and others shared these games with their friends for entertainment rather than profit. At one point, Satochin did it at the hands of František Fuka, a promoter from Prague who had already inspired Hrda and his friends. In Hrda’s words, he told them, “Yeah, you made such a cool and fun game, but get ready and take a toothbrush with you because when the police come and catch you, you have to be ready.” Hrda laughs as he says it, but he admits he got “a bit scared” after that.
But he and his friends continued making games, calling themselves Sybilasoft. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989 led to more democratic governance and the establishment of a market economy in Czechoslovakia, the then 18-year-old Hrda set up a real company to sell games. With the funding now available, he says, programmers across Czechoslovakia have been able to create “very high-quality games for the ZX Spectrum.” But in the West, people had moved on to more advanced computers, leaving the creations of Hrda, Fuka and others to play mostly in Eastern Europe only.
But a few years ago, Hrda took part in an exhibition at the Design Museum that featured these games from the 80s, allowing people to play them on the original hardware. More exhibits were planned – before COVID got involved. Brojo calls the website “a kind of virtual back-up exhibit, but also says he’s glad it can be the start of a database as they continue to develop the project.” In addition to the games themselves, which can be run on emulators on modern PCs, there are hardware images, box art, and more. of the time. Brojo says his next goal is to add scans of Slovak game magazines from the 80s and 90s.
Apart from translations, the website also makes the games accessible to a wider audience. Brojo says the team was lucky that much of this work was done by ZX Spectrum fan communities like Spectrum calculation, so they didn’t have to salvage much from the tapes and such. And finding the original developers in order to get their permission was usually straightforward. “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 dismantling the games so that the Slovak text could be replaced with English. Programmer Slavomír Labský and translation coordinator Marián Kabát wrote about some of their experience in an article on the Slovak Design Museum website. Labský explains his process of tearing down games and replacing them once the translations have been delivered to him, taking into account difficulties such as the short length of the text segments. Kabát described the challenges of contextualizing time- and place-specific references, such as those of popular folk singers.
Brojo says he hopes the nuances of the games will carry over into these translations, like the subversive writing in Satochin. On the other hand, he mentions that the 1987 match pepsi-cola seems to be the one that most interests English speakers on social networks. Developed in part by Fuka, it tasks the player with stealing the drink’s secret recipe. Brojo assumes that the brand’s recognizability is curious for Western gamers. “It might be kind of a weird thing 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 had been sold in the Soviet Union since 1972.)
But the games’ historical value isn’t the only reason they’ve been made available. Instead, Hrda just wants people to enjoy it like his friends did back when he created them. “I [hope people] will have fun with them even though these games are very old,” he laughs. “Keep playing good games, and if you’re brave enough, you can try ours.”