This is the console Chinese gamers remember most fondly
Questions over the future of knockoff console maker Subor draws an outpouring of nostalgia on social media
Let’s play a little guessing game. This console is red and white. It allows you to plug in a cartridge to play classic titles like Super Mario Bros or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was a hit in China before the government introduced a ban on gaming consoles in 2000. What’s the name of this machine?
Nope, it isn’t Nintendo’s Famicom, the Japanese version of the NES. I’m referring to the Subor Video Game System, which bears a striking resemblance to the classic Nintendo console.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, in the heyday of the Famicom and NES, the Subor Video Game System was the hottest Nintendo console knockoff in China. At a time when most regular families struggled to afford the real thing, Subor’s copycat version gave millions of Chinese children their first taste of console gaming.
Then came China’s console ban. The popularity of Subor’s gaming products started to wane, until they largely became a cherished relic from the past.
Last year Subor, known as Xiao Bawang or Little Tyrant, made a gaming comeback. In an announcement, the company introduced a console-PC hybrid called the Subor Z+ and said it would “attach high importance to protecting copyright.” Over the weekend, however, Chinese media discovered that the Subor Z+’s official website was no longer accessible.
That set off a wave of nostalgia on Chinese social media as netizens recalled fond memories of the Subor from their childhood.
“Without Little Tyrant, there wouldn’t have been so many Chinese-made multi-game cartridges, allowing poor children to play so many games. Memories of the Little Tyrant commercials are still fresh,” said one person on Weibo.
“Chock-full of memories!” wrote another. “I still remember when I was six, my dad bought a so-called learning machine. Led by dad and my older brother, we leapt through different levels.”
That person was referring to one of Subor’s most memorable products: The SB series learning machines. Marketed as educational devices (with actor Jackie Chan as brand ambassador), they let children learn English typing and Chinese vocabulary with the attached keyboard and controllers. And, of course, it allowed them to play games.
Today, consoles are once again allowed in China, where the ban was lifted in 2015. However, Subor’s glory days seem to have passed. Demand for consoles also remains weak in China compared with PC and mobile games, despite the presence of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One, according to Niko Partners.
That hasn’t stopped Nintendo from dipping its toes into the market, though. Tencent confirmed last month it’s collaborating with the iconic Japanese gaming giant to sell the Switch in China.
It’s not clear if the Switch will fare better than the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One in the country. Gamers after a nostalgic kick, though, can still find Subor’s Nintendo Famicom knockoff on shopping sites like Tmall and JD.com.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, owner of Tmall.)