A History of Korean Gaming
Part 1: First steps and emancipation
The history of video games in the Republic of Korea begins in 1975. While the odd Pong machine - maybe imported for American GIs, maybe by some illegal underground slot machine room - might have hit Korean shores before, this is the time when a broader public first became aware of the medium. In January that year, three units of the relabeled Pong machine Computer TV were installed in the Midopa Department Store in Seoul.1 The newspaper Maeil Gyeongjae ("Daily Economy") innocently explained "It is called TV game, and from the outside it just looks like a TV set." According to the article, a lot of big companies were producing machines and preparing them for export, like Samsung, Goldstar and many less known companies,2 some long forgotten, just as most of these products are.
Various Pong clones were sold here and there, most of them in tiny runs, but the only Korean video game machine of 1976 that left an impact came from a company called Olympus, who were until then known as manufacturer of digital wristwatches. Later that year, they shipped the Pong console that would greet the world as Gamatic 7600 to several countries around the world, including West Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Canada and Chile.3 In Korea, the machine that supported 4 different play modes wasn't released until the beginning of the next year, there to be known as Otron TV Sports, in tune with their Otron series of wristwatches. A later Model 7800 came with a lightgun and two additional games suited for the new peripheral.4
Olympus fostered plans to continue the line with a console that supports exchangeable cartridges in 1981 and seems to have even entered production, but the company was in financial trouble at the time and accounts of the console are nowhere to be seen, so it remains uncertain whether it was ever sold.5 Next came the Magicom by Taegwang Electronics, also in typical 70s console design with paddle holders and curly phone cords. The manufacurer even claimed it used a 16-bit microprocessor,6 which could mean it was based on the Mattel IntelliVision, although the shell looked different from all known IntelliVision variants. This console can at least be confirmed to have existed in 1983. It appears, however, that the Korean market wasn't yet ready for such a device, as no trace seems to be left of it, either.
Some businesses imported video game consoles like the Atari VCS and Colecovision to Korea, but that was all the more stuff only insiders knew about. Goldstar (now LG) announced in 1984 that they would invest 200 million Won in the development of a game console until the end of the following year,7 although the claim was never followed up on in any further news. Daewoo even seems to have produced a pair of game consoles in 1984, the DPC-80 and DPC-90, respectively. These two product numbers appear in Zemina advertisements until 1987, but literally nothing is knowable about them other than their model numbers, despite them being described as "well received" in late 1985.8
When exactly video game arcades entered Korea cannot be traced accurately, as they typically evolved out of slot machine or pinball rooms, and the first accounts are in fact news about crackdowns on the aforementioned illegal establishments. In december 1976, the US embassy offered "Tele Tennis" machines for a price range of $590 to $1350.9 Until the end of the 70s, "electronic entertainment rooms" (jeonja oraksil) quickly spread around the country, despite fierce opposition by conservative parents and media in a still somewhat Confucian-influenced society.10 Under the long headline "Addiction... the 'electronic fungus' growing from the students' pockets - hotbed for the derailment of youth ... the reality of unauthorized electronic entertainment rooms", the Dong-A Ilbo wrote in 1980:
"Pew pew! Bang Bang!" It's not a battlefield, but it is a site made to resemble a battlefield. An electronic entertainment room, the deformed child of the highly developed electronics industry.
These rooms seduce mostly elementary, middle and high school students. They have it in for their thin wallets, want the money meant for their school supplies, books and even their school fees, have started to grow in numbers rapidly, and have been shown to pose many problems to the guidance of children.
The games are so addictive that once entered, the children can't bear to come out again before they spent all the money in their pockets; the content of the game is mostly the reenactment of war, and the instructions also use pure martial slang, and there are not few worries that they hinder a healthy formation of character. (...)
When electronic entertainment machines were first introduced, most were sports entertainment like soccer, tennis and car racing, but every day new machines matched to the students' tastes are introduced continuously, and now the majority are war games with foreign titles like "Space Invader," "Space Chase," "Super Sports," or "Scramble".11
Neither did the totalitarian regime of the time like the new institutions, which were seen as a cause for a rising youth criminality. By 1980, only 43 arcade establishments were government-approved, while many hundreds operated illegally.12 In March of that year the police enacted a relentless crackdown on those businesses, closing down 361 of 858 known arcades and confiscating all the machines (402 had closed shop voluntarily, following the government's preceding ultimatum).13 But even that couldn't hope to gain a lasting effect, and the shady industry flourished again before long. Two years later estimates were up to 3,500 illegal arcades in Seoul only,14 20,000 in 1983.15 But numbers were always uncertain, as the machines were often hidden away in the back of counterfeit bookstores.16
A first small breakthrough in the eyes of the public came in September 1983, when a new law enforced a distinction between establishments for gambling machines and those for actual video games,17 so games couldn't be blamed anymore for drawing kids to the more vicious pastimes of adult entertainment, at least.
Just like about every country that isn't the US or Japan, the games industry in Korea started as chiefly an import market. Machines, often bootlegs, came mostly from Japan, but also the USA in their original cabinets, without any form of localization. However, the kids needed names to call the games, so clever arcade manufacturers would tape names in Han'geul, the indigenous Korean script, onto the marquees. During that progress, they weren't always completely accurate and at times got inventive. Therefore, Street Fighter was called Jang Pung (Palm Wind) after the Korean name for the Hadouken; Donkey Kong had to become the more famous King Kong; and Bubble Bobble is still better remembered as Boggle Boggle, playing on an onomatopoetic expression that originally depicts bubbles rising from cooking water. Namco's Rally-X received the hardest lot - it was known as "Fart Car" (방구차, Banggucha),18 a choice that is immediately understandable just by looking at screenshots of the game. A later mobile phone port by Eolith even wears that title officially. Even though a dominant title came to be widely remembered for each game, due to their unofficial nature, they sometimes also varied from location to location. This even applied to domestic arcade games later, which were comparatively strong on the export market in their early years in stark contrast to the contemporary home entertainment software, and thus labeled in English by default.
Home computers started becoming available Korea in the late 1970s, albeit they were a rare luxury import initially. Software programming thus remained the domain of institutes like KIST (Gwahak Gisul Yeonguso; later renamed KAIST), where "software for design and various games" was created on an unnamed computer system in 1979.19 A somewhat whidespread circulation wasn't guaranteed until 1983, when the emergence of several domestically manufactured home computers - often clones of Japanese and American models20 - and computer magazines attest a mainstream interest in the new technology. Many companies sold their own nonstandard computers with Z80 or 6502 processors and provided games for their various models in form of tapes and source codes in magazines. Some magazines also started to print their "own" games, later followed by code submitted by homebrew programmers. Those were for the most part very small programs with no more than a few pages of source code, and given their simplicity and age it is quite impossible to determine which of them were original developments and which were mere conversions of foreign source code.
The biggest impact finally came from the installation of computer study rooms in schools throughout the country. Starting with the Seoul Dongdeok Girls' High School in March 1983,21 companies like Samsung offered the hardware to advance the raising of a computer-savvy generation. It was the public schools where the first teenagers learned to program. The young Ha Hyeongjin, who won the first prize at Samsung's Personal Computer Software Competition in Fall 1983, was no exception: The computers at his school in Daegu Gyeseong had just been installed in June.22 "Neoguri", the game that earned him the prize, seems lost to the ages; apparently it was a clone of the Korean favorite Ponpoko, although the description ("climb up the stories to get the bride at the top") also hints at a Donkey Kong influence. Despite having programmed more than 20 games, Ha Hyeongjin claimed he'd never been in an arcade, and his dream wasn't to become a game designer, but an atom physicist.23
Competitions were the source that produced the most software in these days. Samsung used to host them regularly and publish the results on compilation tapes afterwards. Another impressive entry came from one Hwang Geonsun. Lunar City SOS for the Z80-based SPC-1000 earned him the runner-up prize at the third Software Competition in 1984 (the first prize went to an office application this time). His only comment: "I thought it would make first prize. It's a really good program."24 It is uncertain how much of it was his program, as it was really a port of a Japanese PC-8001 game, but features some unique features like support for both the SPC-1000's screen modes. Later his father quit his job to found the company Static Soft and foster his son's talent,25 but soon the prodigy would just resort to the simple converting of Japanese PC-6001 games for Samsung's computer so he could dedicate himself to his true passion for serious applications.
The first known semi-professional independent game programming team of those days was Hayaroby ("White Heron"). The studio consisted of five students (Yi Seokjun, Hyun Minho, Kim Yeonggyun, Park Saehie and Yeo Seunghun) and used to do contract works for computer stores. Hayarobi developed more than 10 titles for the Samsung SPC-1000, two of which are known today: The shooter U.F.O Attack by Hyun Minho and the more elaborate Rally-X clone Mokpyo-neun Jeokkun-ui Gitbal ("Target: The Enemy Flag") by Park Saehie. Like their solo colleagues, the team viewed games merely as their stepping stone and aspired to more serious work. Their other software included English and Han'geul word processors, but there's no record whether or not they ever finished the latter one.26 Neither of the five has been associated with games anymore in later days, and rumor has it that at least one member of the group has been accused of stealing a foreign game code to enter a competition.
As game developer was still far from becoming a viable career young people could aspire to, there was almost no continuity between this early programming scene and the later games industry. The only name of these times to reappear in 1992 with the PC game developing house Makkoya was Hong Donghee. Credited to that name (using "Cosmo Computer Korea" as a team name) was the source code for a game called Monaco GP. Based on the Sega arcade classic of the same title, it appeared in the May 1984 issue of the magazine Microsoftware (no relation to Microsoft).27 There has been no final confirmation that this was really the same person, though.
Things changed when computer models became more standardized after almost all new products since the latter half of 1984 were based on either MSX or Apple II standard. This made it possible to simply import - and then copy, as Korea still didn't protect computer programs through copyright law - foreign games, and effectively ended this generation zero of Korean game development. The technologically much inferior games just didn't stand a chance in the market anymore - a market that was still microscopic and dominated by copying to begin with. Only Samsung continued to actively support the most successful of the non-standard home computers through second parties like Static Soft and Sammi Computer, which supplied the SPC-1000 with ports of PC-6001 and MSX games until 1987, when it was ultimately pushed off the market.
Most American and Japanese games at the time were just dumped on the market as they were, but there were a few early valiant efforts of localization. Since many products at the time were just simple arcade style games, changing the game's title screen into Han'geul was often enough. Hudson Soft's text adventure game Dezeni Land was released in Korea as Disney Land by Sammi Computer and fully translated - although not into Korean, but rather into English. Softmen went one step further and completely put the on-screen text in their release of Time Trek (originally developed by Policy) into Han'geul.28
Early commercialization of Korean-developed games: The Apple-MSX years
After first experiments in gaming machines with the obscure DPC-80 and DPC-90, Daewoo's console business only took off properly after December 1985, when they released the Zemmix. A consolized, cartridge-only MSX computer, the machine was compatible to all MSX1 cartridges up to a size of 256Kbit. Thanks to its reasonable pricing at 70,000 won (81,000 won with joystick) and the huge library of imported and pirated games available for the system, it became the first successful dedicated gaming hardware and kicked off a whole industry of bootlegging. Computer store chains like Zemina, Prosoft, Clover, Topia, Screen Software and Aproman started advertising "their" games - pirate copies of Japanese titles with a new "copyright" notice hacked in, so many would think they were actually developed by those companies. Some also produced a wide range of peripherals, like light guns, music cards, and even adapters for Famicom games. In the beginning, the Zemmix' success failed to fuel any domestic game developments. It was simply not necessary from a market perspective, with the wide variety of Japanese and other foreign games freely available for illegitimate distribution.
The situation would change dramatically on July 1, 1987. On that day, a law protecting copyright ownership of computer programs was came into effect for the first time in Korea,29 mostly an effect of the country caving in to much pressure from the US, who sought to protect the interest of its software creators internationally.30 This law was heavily debated in Korean tech. While many companies still considered the copying a necessary stepping stone for the fledgling industry and only saw in the law the preparation for an advance of foreign firms into the Korean market, others felt the copying only led to stagnation and caused Korea to fall behind even more.31 The media generally welcomed the change, showing a concern about foreign influences on children and a lack of cultivation of self-image. Especially Japanese influence was frowned upon, given the troubled relationship of the two countries after the colonial period. (Some may say even since the Imjin War in the 16th century.) The magazine Computer Study wrote:
"When going out into the market and paying close attention to which countries' games students are playing, it's predominantly American and Japanese games. Apple games are almost all from the US and MSX games are almost all made by Japanese companies. The only Korean software are a few works selected from competitions for the Korean-produced(?) SPC-1000. Whay may these students be thinking as they play games made in Japan and the US? Won't they resent having been born in the Republic of Korea? Who can say that they won't grow up dreaming of becoming Samurai, like the people who grew up in the colonial era longed for 'Kikkoman Soy Sauce'?"32
At any rate, the new law left at least the more reputable store chains without any new games to distribute. On one hand this lead to several proper licensing agreements with Japanese companies. Especially Zemina worked out several deals with Japanese companies in order to bring recent MSX2 titles such as Gradius 2, Ashguine and Drasle Family to Korea.33 But not only the former copycat store chains took to trading with those they previously simply took from - some of the larger conglomerates also saw an opening into the software business thanks to the new limitation. SK Chemical, formerly only known in the computer business for their production of floppy disks, launched the SKC Soft Land brand by licensing the MSX2 version of Cloud Master from Hot-B, which was released in Korea as Son Ogong-ui Daemoheom ("Son Wukong's Big Adventure"), together with several educational programs made in Korea.34 Another newcomer to games publishing was Daou Infosys, who published Konami's Quarth under the title Sagak-ui Bimil ("Secret of the Square") on May 25, 1990.35
Another approach to dealing with the copyright law resulted in first efforts of smaller businesses in producing and publishing games in a somewhat professional manner. Like many years before in the West, the development often started in the homes and schools of computer nerds. The title that is known today as the game to kick off Korean game development wasn't made for the Zemmix, but an American computer that still competed with the MSX standard for dominance on the Korean home computer market. Much like Richard Garriot did in the US in 1979, Nam Inhwan programmed his first game during his high school days on the Apple II. Sin'geom-ui Jeonseol ("Legend of the Holy Sword", later officially translated to just Legend of the Sword) was no industry revolutionizing innovation, but rather more than just a little bit inspired by Garriot's Ultima. Released via the hard- and software store chain Aproman, it was nonetheless celebrated as the first fully-fledged Korean computer game ever, and Nam Inhwan became known in later days as the pioneer who started Korean game development actual. Players were amazed to be able to play an RPG in their own language and script for the first time - even the name input was realized in Han'geul. According to a contemporary interview, Nam was already working on a second chapter at the time of its release,36 but he ended up taking a long break from game development due to the lack of success with the first game. A sequel wouldn't come about until eight years later.
Sin'geom-ui jeonseol didn't arrive in an entirely empty void. SunA marketed its first in-house developed arcade machine Goindol in 1987 as well, and even exported it to North America. Development for MSX machines also got off the ground in the same year, as Zemina came up with Brother Adventure, a simple Mario Bros. clone. Exact release date information is hard to determine, but SunA seem to have been the first to register the copyright for Goindol, as early as September 1987.37 Brother Adventure soon followed, while Shin'geom-ui Jeonseol still wasn't listed by the end of November.38
The lack of personnel and experience led many of the earlier developers to staying uncannily close to their Japanese influences. Unofficial ports of popular games, mostly from the arcade or the Famicom, became a popular trend for Korean MSX/Zemmix games. Many of the stores that formerly used to pirate foreign games now started to port them over from other systems. Prosoft and Clover were particularly active, but Zemina became the most representative Zemmix game publisher of that time. Game development still wasn't actually their main business, though. A lot of their money was made through the selling of peripherals like joypads, memory extensions or Famicom-to-MSX converters.39 Zemina was the first business to form an internal development team, which created Brother Adventure, but also relied on outside programmers such as Jeong Chanyong and his brother Chanil, who produced several clones of Bubble Bobble for the company. Later releases brought Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and even Street Fighter to the Korean console.
Kim Eulsuk, the head of Zemina's development section, said during an interview in the August 1990 issue of the computer magazine MyCom: "The ideas are the most important aspect during game development and at the same time the aspect causing the most headaches. I tend to get ideas from other games, and in a team of two the development takes about 3 months, with costs amounting to about three to four million Won (between US$4,000 and 5,600 at the time)."40 From that statement and his products it becomes clear that he may have been a decent programmer, but not much of a game designer, at least at that time. This kind of plagiarism wasn't unique to the region, of course. China/Taiwan, where South Korea got most of its Famiclones from, and South America don't even have to be mentioned here, but one just has to think about The Great Giana Sisters, one of Germany's most famous early home computer games and a rather blatant clone of Super Mario Brothers. However, while the C64 game enriches it's foundation with unique ideas and - maybe even more importantly - with original art and music, Zemina's Super Boy has to be viewed as no more than a demake of the same source.
So, how come there was no legal persecution of this rampant plagiarism and continued copying? For starters, the law was initially rather vague and didn't specifically cover those ports of foreign games, as it protected only the code itself and not the IP. Korea's relatively seclusive market at the time also led to little concern about the interests of foreign copyright holders who didn't have much means to defend their rights directly or even be aware of smaller stores still selling pirate copies of new games. So the stream of pirate copies through shady sources continued to flow. This is especially true in the case of Japanese products, as anti-Japanism was still ubiquitous and many people felt they had the right to retaliation for the severe exploitation their own country suffered through Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century. The overall sentiment at the time was described like this: "They're Japanese games, anyway, so it's patriotic to copy them even more and distribute them cheaply, isn't it?"41
Finally, on November 12 and 26 of 1990, a group of Japanese companies around Nintendo (including Taito, Konami and Capcom) concerted legal action against Haitai and Young Toys, who had provided their Famicom clones with copied software from the industry giants. Young Toys tried to defend itself with the fact that most of the games used for their product Pascal were released before July 1987, and as such the Korean copyright law didn't apply to them at that time, but both companies were in trouble with recent releases such as Super Mario Bros. 3. They sought a settlement out of court, but the exact conditions remain unknown.42 Young Toys exists to this day. Haitai was one of Korea's big conglomerates then, but today only the foodstuffs branch remains. Hyundai Electronics, the Korean distributor of Nintendo hard- and software, welcomed the action in hope to gain market share for the Comboy, but didn't partake in the matter directly.43 The incident led to a singular crackdown on pirate copies of newer titles the same year, but without any lasting consequences.
A few years later, in 1993, legit Korean game and console publishers first started marketing campaigns to fight piracy on their own (there were actual staged pirate software burnings, if only for publicity effect).44 The same Hyundai that kept standing at the sidelines in 1990 went so far as to claim that Famicom clones caused eye damage.45 Consistent persecution really only came into existence with the WTO in 1995, and there still remained a lot of leeway until decades later, as the bootlegged games that filled every game store in Seoul well into the 21st century attested. The more prestigeous Famiclones even used to be advertised with TV commercials, magazine ads were commonplace.46
That doesn't mean there weren't any original games at all. Many software houses saw the 1987 copyright law as an opportunity to establish a proper domestic game development industry, which by the time consisted almost completely of pirate copies and conversions of foreign games.47 In their later years, even Zemina put out a few less plagiarizing games, such as the vertical scrolling shooter Cyborg Z, and the final two Super Boy episodes, which still use stolen graphics from Super Mario World, but feature unique levels and gameplay elements.
Most of the creative energy was found in smaller independent teams, who often produced only one or two games and then disappeared again. Kim Gwanglae, Jang Changsoo of Mickey Soft developed Kkoedori in 1988, a puzzle platformer similar to Solomon's Key, but sufficiently creative to be called a game of its own, featuring interesting variations on the concept. The game music by Jung Kyungtaek was less inventive, though. It consists of imitations of the Korean title songs to the then popular Galaxy Express 999 and Magical Princess Minky Momo. Mickey Soft had produced a few MSX edutainment cartridges before, but was never heard of as a game publisher afterwards, and neither were the two main developers. A better fate met the members of New Age Team, lead by Lee Sanghun, Lee Kyuhwan and Lee Sangyoun. The latter two would later rise to fame with Phantagram and the Kingdom under Fire series. Their first MSX title was the single screen action platformer Legendly Night (1988) for Topia. Both Legendly Knight and Kkoedori were appreciated enough to appear with strategy guides in Computer Study, who commented on the former: "Finally a game worthy of the name(?) has been produced in Korea by Topia. Maybe this is a bit of a consolation for users whose self-esteem was hurt due to the copies of Japanese games."48 But the students weren't actually Topia employees - they had just made the game during after hours from their individual homes. Afterwards Lee Sanghun and Lee Kyuhwan turned to freelancing for Zemina to program an MSX port of Double Dragon and the ultra hard shooter The Three Dragons Story.
A major problem for Korean software was the fact that illegal copying was never reduced sufficiently, causing a huge gap in the perceived value of a game and the prices Korean companies had to ask for in order to justify the investment for in-house development. In 1989, Kim Eulsuk lamented: "I think if Korean games are going to establish their place more firmly, we need to get rid of the copying entirely. It's easy to copy a fun foreign game for a thousand won, so there aren't many who want to pay 8,000 or 5,000 won for Korean games, which still have some deficiencies."49 Contemporary students' views on game pricing confirm this concern. As Kim Juhyeong, a high school junior at the time, confessed to Meeting With MSX:
From the standpoint of a student, the prices of software are the biggest problem. When a new mega game comes out, I have to split more and more from my allowance for about two weeks in order to be just barely able to afford the copying fee.
To a student, a few thousand won are a lot of money - especially to me. Korean games are so expensive I can't even dream of buying them. I would like it if the companies wouldn't charge the high sales price, but rather copy their developed games for only a small additional fee.50
Jung Kyungtaek, co-developer of Kkoedori also expressed disappointment at the reaction to Kkoedori, which he didn't feel compared to the amount of work he and his friends put into its creation.51 Another issue was rivalry between the publishers, so shops wouldn't sell the products of another store chain, so Kim Eulsuk: "I also think that the few businesses selling games need to actively pull each other up. It's good not to copy things of another company, but the mental process of not even trading with other companies' products and only slandering them is very bad, I think."52
Topia continued producing some more games without the future stars, focusing on action-RPGs for various platforms. Aproman also remained a very active supporter of the domestic industry during the eighties, with at least seven original titles for Apple II and MSX overall. Together with SKC Softland, they also issued a sponsorship for aspiring developers in 1988, which included a publishing deal for the winning entry, the arcade style maze game Miss Apple. But none of these early home computer game publishers quite managed the jump to the next generation of hardware, and they soon dropped out of the game business. By 1991, only Zemina remained as the sole producer of Zemmix games.
The Zemmix was updated with several revisions and alternate color schemes throughout the years and dominated the home entertainment games market for most of the late eighties. The Zemmix Super V, released early in 1990, even complied with the MSX2 standard and had ports for a keyboard and a floppy drive.53 Daewoo attempted a final big marketing push with events like a nation-wide Zemmix Competition.54 But when the MSX2+ based Zemmix Turbo was released in October 1991, the days of the platform were already over, resulting in the extreme rarity of this revision.55 Developers stayed focused on the MSX1, with very few exceptions, such as Best Soft's Devil Zone or Topia's possibly unreleased Future Boy Conan.
The most ambitious and best remembered MSX2 title was Mirinae Software's The Day 2 (Geu Nal-i Omyeon 2 in Korean). It arrived in 1990 for the MSX2 on three floppy disks, hence it was incompatible with most Zemmix consoles. While some other games made decent use of the standard Zemmix/MSX1 capabilities, The Day 2 was a fulminant sidescrolling shooter that didn't need to hide from the likes of Gradius or Aleste for the system. But why only part two? The MSX version of the first game was heavily advertised in Korean magazines, but ultimate the team deemed it not suitable to compete with Japanese games, and in consequence Mirinae completely scrapped the game instead of improving it and went on to the sequel, keeping the confusing numeration. Mirinae's old website in 1997 also listed a "board game" (presumably meaning a PCB) by the same title, which is claimed to have been shipped to Japan.56 It seems the company entertained ambitions to release The Day 2 overseas as well, as all the in-game text is kept in (bad) English. Being the only developer of that time to stay in business for most of the nineties, Mirinae went on to produce three more entries in the series, amongst a lot of other games.
New competition - Samsung Gam*Boy, Hyundai Comboy, and more
Of course the field wasn't left to the MSX/Zemmix alone forever. Imports of the Japanese Famicom were sighted as early as summer 1986,57 but apparently the 130,000 Won the store chain Lovely Software was asking for were still too much for a game machine in the economic climate, and it didn't leave any noticeable impact. A steep rise in incomes (South Korea's GDP per capita boasted a yearly growth of more than 10% each year between 1986 and 198858) soon changed that, and the many rebranded imports and clones that started appearing everywhere in late 1988 were more successful, although the fracturing of the market meant that each individual seller remained humble - the company Frog proudly proclaimed that their Frog Computer, a Famicom with only the label replaced, was selling 500 units per month. Actual clone consoles of the first hour, presumed to have been manufactured in Taiwan, include Zemina's Family Game, Acetec's Joycom and Papa Sangsa's Micro Genius. At the same time, Oacs Korea started importing the Sega Mark III, which was sold through HiCom.59
After these guerilla efforts followed official publishing deals by the big conglomerates. Since it was difficult for foreign enterprises like Sega and Nintendo to enter the market by themselves,60 they licensed their consoles out to Korean companies. Samsung took care of Sega's Master System, which was released in April 1989 as the Samsung Gam*Boy.61 They initially put a lot of effort into the venture, and where the first to really localize video games. Most releases in the 8- and 16-bit days were just thrown onto the market in their original language. Phantasy Star 1 was the first completely translated Japanese RPG in Korea, but also some less text-heavy games were localized. Kenseiden was even renamed to Hwarang-ui Geom (Sword of the Hwarang), after an antique Korean knight order, to conceal the fact that the hero was supposed to be a samurai. The Japanese knights used to be not very popular in Korea ever since a series of invasions between 1592 and 1598, and especially after the occupation during the first half of the 20th century.
The NES was even a bit later to the party than the Master System - it arrived during fall of 1989.62 Compared to Samsung's active support, Hyunday delivered a somewhat lazy release, and officially translated games were nowhere to be seen. Other than the Samsung consoles, the Hyundai Comboy still carried the original Nintendo logo, but it was accompanied by the new name in Han'geul. The console was based on the American NES rather than the Famicom, maybe to distance itself from the mass of illegal Famiclones that had been circulating for a long time by then. However, that was at the same time one factor that doomed it to insignificance, as the Famiclones were cheaper and much more games available for them. Even the few unlicensed games developed in the country were Famicom-based. The PC Engine was also available, first distributed by Daewoo as the Zemmix PC Shuttle, later (in 1993) as the Haitai Vistar (which used the pinout of the North American TurboGrafx-16 for the cards, but used a completely redesigned shell), but it turned up just as marginal as everywhere else in the world outside of Japan.
Domestic game development on the new platforms started slow. After all, the equipment and software necessary to program for a consolized home computer was much more readily available than for the "real" consoles, whose manufacturers limited distribution of development kits to official licensees. Most companies soon found ways to simply convert their MSX games to the Master System / Gam*Boy due to the similar hardware architecture of both devices. In very few cases this later led to exclusive Gam*Boy and Famicom titles, like Zemina's Super Boy 4 and Magic Kid Googoo.
After Zemina's demise sometime in 1992, the two major companies to provide for a steady flow of domestically developed games for the two consoles were Daou Infosys and an affiliated development house called Open Production, which was founded by Kim Eul Suk and consisting of several former Zemina employees and freelancers. Together they published games for both of the consoles under the label Jaem Jaem Club (Fun Fun Club), which Daou had already used for the official release of Quarth on MSX2.
Daou's internal team was focused on licensed games. Their debut was based on the 1987 animated TV series Agi Gongnyong Dooly (Baby Dinosaur Dooly), which itself was an adaption of the comic series of the same title about a small dinosaur who lives to see the modern times after being frozen in an iceblock for millions of years. It has also been reimagined lately with a new TV show. Agi Gongnyong Dooly the game was still first released on the MSX, but all of Daou's subsequent games were Famicom or Master System exclusives. Their other prestigeous license was Janggun-ui Adeul (The General's Son), originally a three part gangster epos by director Im Kwon Taek, which spawned a fighting game on the Famicom and a brawler on the Gam*Boy, both going by the same title.
Open, on the other hand, was responsible for original IPs. Their first games appeared independently in late 1992, but they became a second party to Daou in 1993.63 Most of their games were platformers more or less similar to other famous series, but much more inventive compared to the products of the Zemina years. All feature original sprites, levels and gameplay, but for some reason minor background elements in some releases are still stolen from various Super Mario titles, spoiling the otherwise flawless impression a bit. When Daou backed out of the game production in 1994, Open continued to develope a few PC games for a handful of projects. A few Open games apparently were also produced in cooperation with the distributor SIECO and a store called Game Line.
Two games by this company duo even got picked up by the American publisher Innovation Technology were almost made available in the US as inofficial carts, but in the end, neither of those got released. For the Master System (or would-be Game Gear in North America) version of The Dinosaur Dooley, Daou requested a tape of typical Western music from Innovation, purportedly to get a feeling for what kind of music Americans liked.64 What they ended up with was a localization of the game full of cover versions of popular songs. It is easy to see how this game had become problematic to release. Not as clear is the reason why Buzz & Waldog for the NES met the same fate.65 Open Production's surprisingly good platformer released as Koko Adventure in Korea, could only have bothered Nintendo for a few grass sprites stolen from Super Mario Bros 2, and they wouldn't have been fond of unlicensed games to begin with.
Eventually, some Open games made it to "the West", but it was Australia where they were finally released. HES, a publisher of several items of unlicensed stuff, brought out the cartridge "4 Pak All Action" with Open's Wonder Kid, Toto World 3, Suho Jeonsa and Twin Mouse (the titles for all games differed from the Korean versions).66 That was in 1995, though, when the Master System was as good as dead even in Korea herself.
About a year after Open came about, the hard- and software distributor HiCom also used the two consoles for a series of games based on Kkachi, a famous manhwa and animation character by Lee Hyunse. This only resulted in a platformer for the Aladdin Boy titled Gaegujangi Kkachi, and on the Famicom Kkachi-wa Norae Chingu (Kkachi and his Singing Friends), a karaoke set for kids.
The Game Boy and other handhelds might seem to have been predestined for the contemporary Korean industry, as it would have guaranteed short and cheap development cycles, but for some reason it was almost completely neglected. The Japanese company NCS once announced a planned cooperation for Game Boy titles with a Korean company called Gametech, but it appears that those plans never came to fruit.67 There were, however, a few select instances of handheld developments for other markets outsourced to Korean programmers. Capcom had the Game Boy version of The Little Mermaid programmed by Jang Sunmok,68 while Lee Sanghun created the Game Gear port of Sega's GP Rider.69 Both projects took place at the companies' quarters in Japan, though. Truly outsourced was the Game Gear version of Bubble Bobble, which was done in Korea entirely by Open staff.70 Furthermore, Open's Street Fighter II clone Jang Pung II appeared as a special Game Gear version in several European and South American markets as Street Blaster.
The Mega Drive officially arrived in Korea already the next year. Initially it was named Super Gam*Boy, but eventually all Samsung consoles had their names changed from Gam*Boy to Aladdin Boy in late 1992.71 Samsung also dared to produce a single game by themselves: Uju Geobukseon ("Space Turtleship") was a solid but technically unimpressive vertical shoot 'em up, released in 1993. More games were announced, but Uju Geobukseon remained the only one that saw a release.
The SNES or Super Comboy was officially available in Korea since 1992, but developers like Open and HiCom never made the successful transition to the 16-bit console generation. The reason was an alternative platform that was already beginning to shape up - more readily available, easier to program for and without even a licensing policy to violate.
The IBM PC becomes the major gaming platform
Up to 1992, Korean developers never saw any hope to catch up with the competition from Japan or North America. First releases like Singeom-ui Jeonseol and Brother Adventure could score some successes and even held top-10 places for several months, but after the first excitement about "our games" wore off, things got stagnant. By 1990, the industry found itself in a serious slump, while the import market flourished.72 Programmers as well as designers (who were still one and the same person more often than not) were quick to admit their own technical and substantial shortcomings. Kim Eulsuk declared in 1989 "Because only two people made [Brother Adventure], it's lacking professionalism in terms of sound or graphics, and since we distributed the creation of routines between the two of us, parts of it were inefficient",73 while Kkoedori's Musician Jung Kyungtaek lamented the fact that players' standards had been elevated by foreign software to a level domestic developers were just not able to reach.74 A bit more optimistic about the skills of Korean programmers was Jeong Chanyong, but he came to an equally bleak conclusion concerning the industry realities: "I don't think at all that the level of the Korean game developers I have met is inferior to Japanese ones. But because the tools and devices are insufficient or the companies are not divided into divisions and therefore not specialized, and due to unlicensed copies new games hardly get any recognition when they come out, they don't get the chance to properly display their abilities."75
He might have been right insofar that lack of skill wasn't the main problem: Budgets and manpower were even much more sparse. The largest teams used to consist of no more than four or five main staff members, and many published games were still actually homebrew developments done by students in their free time. Development cycles were limited to a few months in order to make the endeavor financially worthwile to begin with.
Just like in the West, the IBM compatible PC didn't start out as a popular gaming platform. Due to the fact that few people owned one with a color graphics card, almost all programs until 1992 were displayed in monochrome only, with very few exceptions. Known homebrew CGA games are a Tetris variant called Korean Tetris, and Bong Bong. The latter was programmed by one Lee T.K, then a computer science student at Yonsei University.76 Done in 1989, Bong Bong was yet another a single screen platformer based off the now seven years old arcade game Ponpoko. Pak Seonggyu, the programmer of Korean Tetris, later founded the arcade game manufacturer F2 System.77 Popular EGA games of this period were Kim Sungshik's (Danbi System) unofficial port of Knightmare, completed in August 1990, and yet another Ponpoko titled Doraon Neoguri ("Raccoon Returns").
In this vein, the first years on the PC were dominated by freeware developments, mostly ports or adaptions of traditional board and card games. The only known commercially published PC titles before 1992 were Aproman's unauthorized version of Konami's King's Valley, and Pungnyu Hyeopgaek, an action RPG by Topia set in ancient China, both published in 1989.
But everything changed when PC systems that were able to display colored graphics became more commonplace in Korea. The industry made an instant jump to VGA graphics and by 1992 produced games that could at least try to compete with what was available on consoles at the same time, and some of them wouldn't even have had to hide too far behind at least the average PC game on the contemporary international market. Of course, they held nothing against big budget productions by American market leaders like Origin or LucasArts, which were also brought to Korea by SKC and DS Game Channel, respectively, the two major PC game publishers for the first half of the decade. However, the industry had developed a very flexible pricing scheme by then, and a blockbuster title like Ultima Underworld could cost twice as much as the average game.78
The first developer to wholly embrace the new market was Hong Donghee's newly founded company Makkoya. Makkoya's early games still weren't very impressive - the company was always most famous for a series of puzzle games called Segyun-jeon (literally "Bacteria War"; but the games were officially titled Spread Out in English), which first appeared in March 1992. It was a simple adaption of Reversi / Othello, with cutesy graphics and various starting constellations. Initially the game was ignored by the press and the users, but in time it became very popular, and rip-offs or fan remakes appear every once in a while until today. Makkoya's other 1992 game was Yojeong Jeonsa Dwijuk ("Fairy Knight Dwijuk"), an exploration based sidescrolling platformer with shareware-esque flair, but with a concept not unlike the more adventurous Wonder Boy sequels. Another early title was Sping, the winning entry for Hyundai's "Second National College Student Software Contest", but it went under the radar just as much as Makkoya's first game.79
Much more suited to advocate the newly emerging industry was Soft Action's Fox Ranger, released in May the same year through SKC. Cutscenes, screen-filling weapon effects and bosses, Sound Blaster and Roland support, voice samples and parallax scrolling in this solid horizontal scrolling shooter did almost as much for the reputation of the domestic game development as Soft Action's president Nam Sanggyu did with his energetic promotion, and helped to overlook the fact that the gameplay was pretty average and uninventive. Fox Ranger became the first hit of the industry and changed the way domestic games were perceived in Korea. It even managed to convince game development pioneer Nam Inhwan to give the industry another try.80
Before long, Mirinae also returned with a first IBM PC game, a vertically scrolling shooter with a small management element. It was released by DS Game Channel, another huge publishing house mainly focused on American games. Defender of Freedom looked and sounded noticably less impressive than Fox Ranger, but it was enough to spur a perceived rivalry between the two companies that should secure plenty of shooters for the following years. But most importantly, these Korean developers finally managed to stand their ground against the tide of technological innovation through foreign titles with these games, and began to enter an era of growth from then on.
A shift in publishing affairs marked another turning point. While the first generation of Korean games had been built almost entirely on the back of computer store chains, now the conglomerates had become aware of the business. In the wake of SKC followed Goldstar (now LG), which opened the first ever educational institute for budding game developers on March 8, 1993. In August the same year Ssangyong entered the market as well through Softnet, a jointventure with the computer import enterprise Saem Electronics. Besides their ongoing console investment, Hyundai and Samsung also made small forays to publish domestic PC games.
But Korean games still had a long way in front of them, and soon they slowly started to lose one of their greatest advantages - the language. After Samsung's first steps in localization on the Gam*Boy, several companies picked up the same idea. SKC Softland published Prince of Persia and Carmen Sandiego in Korean, while DS Game Channel countered more massively with Eye of the Beholder, Alone in the Dark and Legend of Kyrandia.81
Translations of English games stayed the exception rather than the rule, though. American companies weren't all too ready to supply their source codes to a country notorious of its rampant software piracy. But this was of no real concern from a Taiwanese point of view. With Jigwan, a company formed in late 1992 that was entirely focused on the localization of games from the island. Their mighty partner was the Taiwanese software giant Softworld, who stood on the forefront of an already well-established PC RPG industry, while Korean developers only started to stumble into the genre in 1993 with Hong Gildong-jeon, a rather coarse attempt at a Dragon Quest style RPG, but based on a traditional Korean tale.
Both vanguards of the new generation returned for a second round in 1993 with sequels to their debuts. Mirinae's Geu Nal-i Omyeon 3: Dragon Force became an instant hit, holding its position in popularity and sales charts for most of the year and sold 25,000 copies.82 This might not sound like much, but for a Korean game at the time, it meant a huge success. Fox Ranger 2 on the other hand ended in a debacle. After many delays the game shipped in a bug-infested state, and publisher Goldstar was buried in complaints, so that they not only started a massive recall action, but also gave out a 50,000 won graphics software to every buyer of the game with the patched version of the game, which itself only cost 33,000 Won.83 On top of that, Fox Ranger 2's troubled development also entailed a scandal that not only left a big stain on Soft Action's image, but also became a signifier for the industry's contemporary state as well as a signpost for the struggles to come in the following years.
1. Maeil Gyeongje 01/29/1975, page 4
2. Maeil Gyeongje 10/18/1976, page 4
3. Maeil Gyeongje 11/13/1976, page 5
5. Maeil Gyeongje 3/17/1981, page 7
6. Dong-A Ilbo 12/27/1983, page 6
7. Kyunghyang Shinmun 08/17/1984, page 5
8. Computer Hakseup 1/1986, page 98
9. Kyunghyang Sinmun 11/4/1976, page 4
10. Kyunghyang Games 6/29/2004: History of Korean PC Games (1) (archived)
11. Dong-a Ilbo 2/21/1980, page 7
12. Dong-a Ilbo 2/21/1980, page 7
13. Dong-a Ilbo 3/14/1980, page 6
14. Dong-a Ilbo 9/20/1982, page 10
15. Kyunghyang Shinmun 10/20/1983, page 9
16. Dong-a Ilbo 3/12/1982, page 11
17. Kyunghyang Shinmun 7/9/1983, page 11 & Game Champ 2/1994, page 72
19. Maeil Gyeongje 12/05/1979, page 3
20. As Kyunghyang Shinmun 12/19/1983 writes on page 6, Goldstar's Famicom was built on modified specs of NEC computers, while Samsung's machine supposedly combined the Apple II and the Sharp MZ. The Spotlight was cited as a TRS in disguise, Dongyang Nylon's HyCom a slight modification on a Commodore model. The Trigem finally was supposedly an Apple II clone. More information about the machines can be found on a dedicated page.
21. Dong-a Ilbo 03/26/1983, page 1
22. Kyunghyang Shinmun 04/23/1984, page 2
23. Maeil Gyeongje, 10/17/1983, page 8
24. Computer Hakseup 12/1984, page 138
25. Maeil Gyeongje 4/11/1987, page 11
26. Computer Hakseup 5/1984, page 6
27. Microsoftware 5/1984, page 79
28. Computer Hakseup 1/1986, page 100
29. The Law for the Protection of Computer Programs, bill #3920, was passed on December 31, 1986 in accordance with an international agreement pushed by the USA and came into effect on July 1, 1987. Computer Program Protection Law
30. Computer Hakseup 5/1986, page 36
31. Computer Hakseup 2/1989, page 101-102
32. Computer Hakseup 5/1986, page 36
33. Zemina advertisement in Computer Hakseup 12/1988, page 57
34. Computer Hakseup 3/1989, page 69
35. Computer Hakseup 6/1990, advertisement
36. Computer Hakseup 10/1987, page 115
37. Maeil Gyeongje 09/07/1987, page 8
38. Maeil Gyeongje 12/05/1987, page 8
40. MyCom 8/1990
41. Ups and downs of the Korean Games Market (1) post on Ruliweb
42. MyCom 1/1991, page 71
43. MyCom 1/1991, page 71
44. Game Champ 5/1993, pages 45 and 104
45. Game Champ 3/1993, page 41
47. Measured in titles released. This statistic includes educational programs, it would be expected even higher for games alone. Computer Hakseup 10/87, page 37.
48. Computer Hakseup 10/1988, page 107
49. Computer Hakseup 3/1989, page 140
50. MSX-wa Mannam 9/1988, page 20
51. Computer Hakseup 3/1989, page 143
52. Computer Hakseup 3/1989, page 140
53. Computer Hakseup 12/1989, page 99
54. MyCom 6/1990, page 81-82
57. Computer Hakseup 7/1986, page 129
58. The World Bank - GDP growth (annual %)
59. Computer Hakseup 3/1989, page 66-68
60. There are many misconceptions in English sources about the status of Japanese products in Korea. This will be elaborated further in part 2, for now it should be enough to note that this particular issue did have little to do with them being Japanese companies.
61. Gamer'Z 12/2009, page 181
62. In August, the company announced a planned release for September (Maeil Gyeongje 8/21/1989, page 7), but advertisements showed up quite a bit later (the first known example was printed in Dong-A Ilbo 11/11/1989, page 20).
63. Game Champ 3/1993, page 38
64. Originally covered in Video Games & Computer Entertainment, quoted by Frank Cifaldi on Retronauts Episode 20
66. Gamefaqs.com - HES Australian Games Rarity List
67. Game World 6/1991, page 54
68. Game Champ 4/1993
69. GDRI - Blog: More Trans-Asian Outsourcing
70. IBM PC World in Game World 1/1995, page 57
71. Game Champ 12/1992, page 25
72. Was the share of imported game soft- and hardware in 1988 no more than 21.2% (though admittedly a lot of pre-1987 legal pirate copies were still sold then), it skyrocketed to 91.7% in 1990 (Gameworld 6/1991, p.210). Until mid-1992, it rose even higher, to 97% (PC World 8/92, page 47).
73. Computer Hakseup 3/1989, page 140
74. Computer Hakseup 3/1989, page 143
75 Computer Hakseup 3/1989, page 141
77. Game Journal 5/2007, page 84
78. In 1992, DS Game Channel Prizes ranged from 4500 Weon to 29000 Weon, SKC Softland's from 10000 to 39000 Weon (PC World 8/92, pages 61-63). Some examples: Infogrames' Alone in the Dark was sold at 29,000 Won, Fox Ranger went for 15,000. This wasn't a pure foreign/domestic dichotomy, though, as many less prestigious international titles were equally well-priced.
79. PC World 3/1993, page 226
80. PC Champ 1/1996, page 248
81. PC World 8/1992, pages 61-63
82. Game World 2/1995, page 80
83. Game Champ 10/1993, page 54