As someone born towards the tail end of the arcade days, I always felt like they were the time when gaming was at its best, even if I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with them. Not only they had a unique atmosphere but as every kid that ever spent all of their lunch money in Street Fighter 2 will attest, arcades were instrumental in igniting that passion for gaming. Naturally, Brazil was no different in that regard, the arcades played a large role in our gaming culture, but there was one company whose history was as curious as it was legendary. It’s a story of bootlegs, Brazilian ingenuity, and a Russian refugee.
This is the story of Taito of Brazil.
If the name Taito sounds familiar to you, it bloody well should. They played an instrumental role in the early days of gaming, being responsible for hits such as Space Invaders and Arkanoid. Founded by Michael Kogan, a Russian man that went to Japan just before World War II started, looking for a better life. There, he founded Taito Trading Company in 1953, and they sold everything, from vending machines to vodka. After introducing the people of Japan to the ways of the booze, Taito started producing their own pinball machines in 1960, and later in ‘73, they launched their first arcade game, Elepong—a precursor of sorts to Atari’s Pong—and that’s when they changed their name to Taito Corporation. Then in ‘78, they changed the course of history with Space Invaders, the second most popular arcade game of all time, kicking off the golden age of arcades.
Now in Brazil, the coming of Taito was a little different. Before arriving in North America in ‘73, Taito was already present in the land of green and yellow but under a different name: Clover Electronics Amusement, founded in 1968 and later renamed to Clover Amusement - Taito’s Brazil Representative. The company known as Taito of Brazil was only born in ‘72, and the reason for that couldn’t be more Brazilian: at the time, for foreign companies to operate in the country they needed to be associated with a national company. So the solution was to create Clover as that national company and then incorporate Taito later down the line. This wouldn’t be the last time they’d find a workaround the rules but I’ll get there soon.
The company operated in a fairly straightforward way: the machines were either imported from North America or assembled here from parts that came from Japan. From there, the pinballs were sent to their parlors, either for play or for rent. It’s worth noting that Taito was not the first one to bring pinball machines to Brazil. As early as the 1930s, cassino owners were bringing pinball machines into their parlors to spice up the business, something that probably contributed to putting games in the same category as gambling as far as the government is concerned. Thanks, guys.
Business was booming. Under the leadership of Abraham “Abba” Kogan, Michael’s son, Taito found huge success in the following years, opening no less than three pinball parlors in São Paulo alone. They had the occasional problem that ranged from petty things, like the one time a kid was discovered using fake coins made of ice to play for free, to not so petty things, like the fact the TTL technology used in some of these machines was not only hard to do maintenance, but would occasionally give free credits thanks to strong electric sparks happening close to the machine’s door. But the biggest issue involved the ever-increasing price of importation and the governmental notion that pinball was gambling, and as such, the machines were heavily taxed.
That all came to a head in July of ’76, when a market reserve for computers was installed. In case you’re dumb like me and don’t know what that is, it’s basically a policy that states that if there’s a national alternative to something, you’re forced to buy that version. For Taito that was the worst-case scenario. Brazil simply couldn’t provide them the hardware necessary for developing the pinball machines, let alone the more complex arcade games that would come later down the line. Unable to import the machines, Taito did what everyone else was doing: they bought smaller companies, opened a factory and produced their own!
This was a lot of work. While the obstacle distribution was the same as the copied machines, the art had to be either adapted or created from scratch, and the logical circuits needed to be produced locally as well. At the time, the concept of outsourcing wasn’t a thing in Brazil, so Taito made everything themselves. This naturally led to a smaller production quota but arguably resulted in higher quality machines. And what machines those were! Out of the many official bootlegs, Taito developed, two of them deserve special mention: Cavaleiro Negro (literally Black Knight) inspired by William’s Black Knight (no shit) and Oba Oba, inspired by Pally’s Playboy. The former deserves double special mention because it had a voice synthesizer that could actually verbalize Portuguese, albeit with a heavy Murican accent. In total, Taito bootlegged 36 different pinball machines, but they weren’t the only ones doing it. LTD also took advantage of the market reserve to profit. Sometimes they would even bootleg the same machine, as it happened with Bally’s Xenon: from Taito it came Zarza and from LTD, came Zephy, It’s worth noting that thanks to the efforts of a lot of people, virtual emulation of most of these machines is possible, and it pleases me to see that part of history preserved. Fate threw a curveball at Taito some years down the line that made these machines extremely rare collector items, so much so that half of them cost nearly as much as my car, and the other half costs more!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Taito, in ’78 the company made a technological leap. After a huge investment from the Japanese branch, Taito of Brazil managed to develop a microprocessor with an actual CPU, which brought their machines up to speed with their American and Japanese counterparts. This effectively turned the pinball machines into computers and of course, allowed for copies of the more advanced machines. Over the next few years, they experimented with different processors for their pinball, but the most interesting fruit of said experiments was instead found in another place: the arcade division.
By the time Space Invaders took the world by storm, the market reserve was already in effect in Brazil, meaning that there was no way the Brazilian branch could import the machines. Remember, each arcade machine had its own set of boards and components, and Taito of Brazil had no way to develop their own boards. So take a guess at what they did next. Yup, bootleg it is!
The way you bootleg an arcade game is by making the original run in a board that isn’t their own. For the sake of both convenience and time, Taito chose to use a “default” board when “porting” the games. Their choice was the SMC-2FJ, developed by Nichibutsu for their game Moon Cresta. That board actually powered a lot of bootlegs around the world, since it was a relatively accessible and complete board, making the process of adapting a game relatively easy. And this is where the history of our arcades takes a turn for the silly.
Although their bootleg operation was technically legal thanks to the market reserve—making this the third time Taito danced around the law—they couldn’t use any trademarked material. So each and every game they released over here needed some modifications, name, art, the works. Same deal as the pinball machines, but what made this different was the fact that for some reason, they kept the name in English, despite the fact that the game itself was in Portuguese. There were a few exceptions to that, but for the most part, that was the norm. Case in point, Galaga became Fantastic, Missile Command became Missle X, Donkey Kong became just Kong—they got lazy on that one—just to name a few. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of confusion when people try to find their favorite game from back then.
Taito’s end was abrupt. While business was expanding and the money was coming in, that all changed on February 5th, 1984—the day Michael Kogan died during a business trip. The company was managed by the employees until ‘86 when it was bought by Kyocerra. At the same time, the golden age of arcades was coming to an end, when home consoles like the Atari 2600—that arrived in Brazil in ‘83—and PCs were starting to become a reality. The nail on the coffin was the arrival of rival companies interested in the growing gaming market. All of that was too much for Taito’s business model, and the value of their machines just plummeted, to the point where people were throwing them on the trash or using them as firewood, making the surviving machines extremely precious collector items.
All of that culminated in Taito’s termination in 1985. No bankruptcy, the company honored its debits and closed, simple as that. Abba went to live a millionaire life in Monaco, and that marked the end of Taito of Brazil. Fun fact, before ending their business, Taito sold the SEGA license they owned in Brazil to TecToy, which kickstarted the story I detailed in this blog. But that wasn’t really the end of it.
Even back then, there were people that knew the value of those machines, and the preservation process started even before they became the rarity they are today. It was a slow process, but one that was happening nonetheless. You can still find dedicated communities like the Club Pinball or Pinball Mania, a store specialized in selling and restoring pinballs, the Pinball Museum in São Paulo, just to name a few. And those are just the pinballs! There’s an equally dedicated number if people preserving the arcade games as well. Some you can even play online! Taito’s legacy is legendary, their importance can’t be overstated, and these conservation efforts are a testament that. And this was their story in Brazil.
Thanks for reading.