Compared to other media, videogames are a relatively new form of entertainment. But even with less than a century of existence, sometimes their history can feel dense and impenetrable as if it was written by the most insane of the Elder Gods. I think part of that comes from an annoying tendency the medium has to not want to preserve its history and part from the fact that they came a long way in a relatively short span of time. During these explorations of my own gaming culture, there was one thing bothering me: where did this all start? So before I continue to go forward, I wanted to take this opportunity to go way back. To the game that started everything for our industry. And how its influence is still felt to this day.
The year was 1980, and the great video game crash of ‘83 was just around the corner. As consoles slowly approached complete global saturation and dropped in popularity, the PC market was growing. The beginning of the 80s saw a big increase in said market, thanks to the release of the ZX80 in England at a very affordable price, greatly increasing the number of computer enthusiasts around the world. The machine was limited even for the time, but it was perfect to learn some basic programming skills, and with the current state of consoles, PCs were a tempting alternative that offered benefits beyond gaming. One such enthusiast was Renato Degiovani, and it’s with him that our story begins.
Renato came into contact with the world of programming in 1980 while studying technical drawing at the university. During that time he managed to get himself a NEZ80, a clone of the ZX80, and from there he started programming. His search for knowledge led him to eventually find a magazine containing programs compatible with the Sinclair ZX81. There, he found City of Azlan — a primitive adventure title about escaping from the titular city — that became a big source of inspiration for Degiovani. Back then, programs needed to be typed into the computer. You basically played at the same time you programmed it, using the codes that came in the magazines. The game was very simple since it had to respect the limit of 16kb RAM of the current generation, and was programmed in Basic.
Degiovani in the flesh.
It served as a learning experience, one that fascinated Roberto and made him decide that he wanted to create his own adventure. Because of the language barrier (he mistook the word “wood” for “earth” and nearly didn’t finish the game) and simplistic nature of City of Azlan, he wanted to make a game that was meant to be played in our language, so using Brazil as a backdrop made perfect sense. Considering that, he chose the Amazon rainforest because it had “Indians, jaguars, snakes, vestiges of ancient civilizations, deforestation and every now and then, planes happen to crash there.” It was a setting that offered a perfect blend of danger and adventure by its very nature. With the backdrop defined, Degiovani got to work.
Renato spent the next six months working on his game. His goal was to have a complex title that pushed the system to its limits, and for that, he dedicated all of his spare time to the project, pulling all-nighters and even entire weekends of endless work. But his plan went far beyond just programming the game. The program was to be distributed in a cassette tape, along with an instruction manual, a booklet containing the source code, and instructions on how to use the OS. The idea was not only to have a product that had the same standards as the games released internationally but also to allow other users to create their own adventures, effectively making his game one of the first open-source games ever. This didactic approach would become a trademark of his, as well as his endorsement for the use of Brazilian culture and folklore as inspiration for games.
At the end of six months, he had his first game ready: Aventuras na Selva (Adventures in the Jungle), and much like City of Azlan, it was played entirely in text. It was a game about escaping the titular Amazon after a plane crash, avoiding the local fauna and finding your way back to civilization. Unlike the latter, the user interface was a lot cleaner. You can tell Renato put a lot of care into it to make sure the presentation was elegant and organized, there was a hierarchy to the way information was displayed and there was no cluttered text on screen. Which makes sense, since one of his hobbies was to design board games, and he had a major in Visual Communication, so that experience carried over to his virtual games. The guy was a game designer before the term even existed. But now that the game was ready, he had a problem: how the hell was he going to distribute it?
Renato always considered himself a writer first. He didn’t have the resources or the means, so producing the game was beyond him. But as fate would have it, in ‘83 he would get the chance he needed. In October 1981, the Brazilian market saw the rise of its first magazine focused solely on computers: Micro Sistemas (Micro Systems). By ‘83, it had become the biggest source for programs and programming tips, and naturally, Renato was a reader. Not only that, he frequently sent them letters with feedback and suggestions. His passion and knowledge impressed them so much that he was invited to collaborate with them, and he snagged the chance in a heartbeat.
The magazine didn’t want to risk too much with him at first, so instead of producing, they opted to just distribute his games. The first one to see the light of day was Aeroporto 83 (Airport 83), a game where you clear a landing strip with bombs before landing your airplane, sorta like a reverse Space Invaders. Developed in a month and distributed in a cassette tape, the game was an explosive success, and if you want to be pedantic, it was technically the first-ever Brazilian game to be commercially released. So naturally, he was invited to collaborate with the magazine again.
In the next issue, Adventures made its debut. If Airport was a stick of dynamite, this one was a nuke. The issue sold out so fast it became a collector’s item, and how could it not? Archaic design aside, the game was a classic adventure that did push the system to its limits, with around 40 different screens, a fuck ton of items to find and combine, and many ways to die! Renato even programmed it to recognize common abbreviations, something that definitely made it more comfortable to play.
Title screen and some images from the title. Bear with me, this is the best resolution avaliable...
The complexity of the game, coupled with Renato’s didactic approach to gaming, inspired a whole generation to follow his footsteps, either by adapting the existing framework from Adventures to make their own (all of which also used our culture for the setting) or straight up making brand-new games in other genres. It was the birth of our gaming industry.
And as for Renato, this was merely the first step.
Degiovani would still revisit his game many times throughout the next three decades. The first of them was during the end of ‘85 when he remade Adventures for the then-modern ZX Spectrum. With even more locations (around 70), more detailed descriptions, new dangers, and a code written in Assembly, this new version was renamed as Amazônia which became the definitive name for the game. As expected, this new version was also a big deal. With ads in pretty much every magazine under the scorching Brazilian sun, and dedicated points of sale in all major cities around the country, the game was another hit, and a year later the MSX also got its own version of the classic. Spoilers: it sold well there too.
For the next three decades, Amazônia would see a number of different versions that would take far too much take to cover in a single blog, so let me just rapid-fire them at you: In 1990 it was released for PC; in ‘91 it got a version with actual graphics; in ‘93, a version with 16 colors; in ‘95 a version with mouse support was released, making it play more akin to the adventures we know today. In ‘96, a 256 color version was released exclusively in CD format, the first of its kind in Brazil. A version for Windows was also released in ‘96. Between ‘97 and 2010, it became part of the TILT Magazine, created by Renato himself with the goal of teaching a new generation of game makers. In 2010, the game would go back to being an open-source application.
In 2012, it received a version in HTML, compatible with a touch screen and even cellphones with small screens. It’s naturally the most accessible version and the one I played the most for this write-up. Not gonna lie, I couldn’t finish it, but now I’m digressing. Finally, in 2019, for the 36th anniversary of the game, Renato created a pseudo-sequel named Amazon - The Rescue, a mix of novel and adventure with multiple narratives in a single scenario, with the premise of going back to the original setting trying to find a missing body. It’s a cool way to spice up the original premise. You can download all of these versions for free at TILT’s website, in Portuguese of course.
The importance of Amazônia for our gaming culture cannot be overstated. With his passion and vision, Renato quite literally created our industry, inspiring and leading the way for others to follow in his footsteps. Even in between all those re-releases, he never stopped developing or teaching. Whether it was as an editor for Micro Systems, making racing games for the ZX, creating computer tools for other creators, or teaching the first game design course in Brazil, Renato always did his best to push our industry forward.
He firmly believes that our culture has untapped potential for gaming, and in the globalized world of today it could make all the difference in setting our games apart from the rest — an opinion that I personally share. To this day he continues to create, teach, and promote the industry he helped create.
And I, for one, am eternally grateful.