A Look Back on China's Most Beloved Video Game Console

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Even before the ban on mainstream game consoles in 2000, the Chinese have been playing old school video games on third party machines. One of these machines, aptly named the "The Little Tyrant (小霸王)" garners particularly fond memories—memories of a time when things were simpler and gaming was a fun family affair.


The Tyrant, a very bootleg version of the original Nintendo Famicom—and later on, the Super Nintendo—was a staple of many Chinese homes. One thing to point out is that the term "Little Tyrant (小霸王)" is the brand name that covers everything from kitchen appliances to GPS units for cars; its just that to most, the brand is synonymous with its early game console offerings. Many people in China who talk about owning a "Red and White Console (红白机)" mean to say they own an original Nintendo Famicom, but in reality they probably had a Tyrant.

The system itself is shaped like the Japanese version of the SNES, but colored like the Japanese Famicom. It features two buttons, a reset button and a power button, on the console itself, as well as a slot for cartridges.

Oftentimes these cartridges are similar in shape and form to those found in legitimate Nintendo consoles—the only difference would be in the color and graphics. Controller wise, the system comes with two NES-esque controllers, the only physical difference being the addition of two "turbo" buttons in lieu of the X and Y buttons found on the SNES. Graphically the Tyrant is a simple 8 to 32 bit system.

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Despite the obvious lack of horsepower in the Tyrant, the single biggest selling point is the fact that it's dirt cheap. The system costs $6 and comes with a 4 in 1 game cartridge. Games for the Tyrant cost anywhere from a dollar to five in China, and these aren't just individual games. They're huge mega packs of old school Famicom games. Perhaps the best way to describe the Tyrant would be as an emulation box for NES games.

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The games themselves consist of pretty much every great old school game you can think of. There's Bomberman, Mario Bros, Tetris, and Galaxian, among many more others. Basically, when the game cartridge is inserted into the Tyrant and the system is powered up, a really ridiculous makeshift menu appears, listing all the games available. Some of these games are single player, while others are two player.


It's common these days to find these systems at garage sales and flea markets across China, but they've also received new life with the growing hipster movement among young Chinese. It's common to see these Tyrants hooked up to a small TV Chinese bars that cater to the young and the foreign who want to be local crowds.

I found one hooked up in one of Beijing's best hidden bars over the weekend, and was thrilled to see it was working. I ended up playing Karateka for about an hour while I nursed my Carlsberg (I'm trying to quit drinking). Now I'm looking online to purchase one of these for myself.



That word 霸王 keeps turning up in videogame-related terms, I find. Street Fighter is 街头霸王, after all. Is it just a word that sounds cool and so is slapped on a lot of games, or is it because of the association with the 小霸王 that they like to reuse the word?

Also, d'you know if the popular etymology of the common spoken term for 'Arcade Machine', 街机 (Street Machine), being named so for Street Fighter is accurate?