Video game bootlegs are an extremely interesting and even stranger rabbit hole to fall into and the kinds of thing bootleggers do with GTA is probably the most interesting part of it all. While most of us have access to legitimate, cheap copies of games that can be bought from the comfort of our homes, in some countries, piracy is literally your only option.
A recently posted image about a bootlegged copy of “GTA V six 6” for the PlayStation 2 being found in Brazil is making the rounds on the internet. But for people who’ve seen game “stores” in places like China and Indonesia, this won’t be particularly surprising.
While for you and me, buying an official, legal copy of almost any game we can imagine through various digital distribution sites without even stand up from our comfy chairs, this isn’t the case in some countries. Certain censorship laws and region locking make buying games legitimately and incredibly difficult endeavor.
I spent 3 years living in China, Shanghai specifically. While legitimate copies of console games could be found, though rare, there was quite literally no source of legitimate PC games. Importing from abroad was the only option, and even that wasn’t always an option due to laws which banned shipping from certain countries.
Sure, the Steam could be used (I’m quite surprised it wasn’t banned), however pretty much everything bought would be locked not even only to China, but mainland China. As a test, I purchased Fallout: New Vegas on the same account while in Hong Kong, and installed it. True enough, upon trying to play back in Shanghai, I was greeted with a message saying the game is region locked to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
As someone who staunchly opposes piracy, I restricted game purchases to whenever I was home in Europe since I knew my time in China would only last 3 years, so stocking up on region-locked games wasn’t financially viable. If I wanted to play, I just used a VPN.
But these measures just weren’t convenient or possible for some people, say, locals. Simply to experience what gaming is like in such a country, I tried out doing things “the local way”, meaning checking out the bootleg scene. Now, I know from experience that there are plenty of legitimate game stores in Shanghai which look the part, but those exclusively sell console games.
Now, going into a gaming store in Shanghai is much different than, say, the US or most European countries. The small store was dimly lit, and at first you’d think you’re in a hardware store or a repair shop. There are pieces of dismantled consoles all over the place. Two walls were lined with shelves behind glass windows, which displayed a variety of physical games related merch – cases, statues, figures, keychains – wider than any European store could muster, and oddly enough, all of these were legitimate.
One thing was notably missing: games. No game cases were present in any shape or form. I walk up to the desk, where two guys were hunched over a computer. Behind them was an open door where a third was seemingly repairing a console – in reality, the Xbox was being chipped – and I told them I wanted to buy a game.
Luckily, they understood English, and produced 7 massive binders, full of plastic sheathes divided into four sections each. Each section was large enough to just fit a disc and had bits of paper with low-resolution game box art printed on them. This struck me as odd, but I assumed it was the local equivalent of putting empty game cases on shelves in the EU, taking the case to the desk, and the clerk would go and grab the actual thing from storage.
So I poked at a game, Section 8 I believe it was. He nodded, grabbed a simple disc from behind the desk, tossed it into the PC, burned a pirated version of the game to the disc, put it into a soft plastic sheath with a printed, low-res sheet of box-art and handed it to me. “15 yuan” he said. That’s $2.
In my travels through Asia, I witnessed similar practices across several countries. One that is most known across the internet is Indonesia, and you can be sure, the stories are true. One of the most frequent games that I saw blatantly bootlegged were GTA games.
But the realm of GTA bootlegs is entirely different. Selling pirated games to players who don’t know how to pirate these games themselves is one thing. GTA bootlegging is an art. If these fake versions of the games are to be believed, the GTA franchise has upwards of ~150 games and crossovers with pretty much every other famous franchise in the world.
When you buy a GTA bootleg – not that you should – you’ll be first met with a poorly photoshopped (or MS Paint’d) cover-art which will be a mishmash of GTA artwork and… well, pretty much anything else. You’ll have crossovers between Saw, Wolverine, Shrek and Donald Duck, as well as mixture crossovers with Mario, Sonic and Spongebob all in one game.
Now, in these cases (and we use the term loosely, usually they’re sold in foil packs) you’ll find either a plain disc or one with very poor printing that is mismatched with the box-art. Upon popping it into either a PC or console, the disc will either be a dud, or a version of GTA San Andreas with some sort of insane mod.
It’s also pretty much always San Andreas, never 3, Vice City, or GTA 4. The mods are almost always something that changes CJ into some other character, like a Saiyan from Dragon Ball or Wolverine. Usually, these are bugged as all hell and feature game-breaking special abilities. Also, changing your hairstyle at the barber will cause the head of the character to revert into the actual CJ, with the body remaining modded.
Some bootlegs go to greater lengths than others. GTA: Dubai City, for example, is more than just a CJ skin. It changes the loading screens to surprisingly well made stylized pictures of Dubai, the opening intro to a tourism advisory video for the city, and all radio stations play Arabic music. CJ is also changed to a white guy with a bugged face, for whatever reason.
These bootlegs are an almost otherworldly window into what gaming is like in countries straddled by censorship and restrictive importation laws. With almost all of gaming’s legitimate history right at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine being a gamer in a country where such bootlegs are your only way to cater to your hobby.
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