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Camel Trophy Videogame twenty years later:

behind the scenes of Italy's first commercial videogame and the home computing roaring years

It was a dark, stormy night

A look inside the retail box

Camel Trophy Videogame: a look inside the retail box.

Gusts of wind were howling in the thick of night when time itself seemingly stopped running, and the body, too tired to wait for a sleep that will never come, short-circuits its circadian rhythms abnormally expanding the subjective perception of the temporal axis. Few of those who were spending their holidays in Corfu, the Korkyra of yore, had a peaceful, undisturbed sleep during that night of August 1995. The island was hit by a violent storm of wind and rain, one like only abyssal creatures can summon to show their contempt for those noisy tourist crowds that each summer turn a peaceful corner of the Mediterranean into a nightmarish cacophony of languages and sounds of disparate origins.

Corfu, 1985

Corfu 1995: tree falling on a Camel Trophy sticker.

The following morning everything had more or less returned normal. Save for a stronger than usual undertow on the western coast of the island, few traces of what happened during that nightly preview of Ragnarok were to be seen - with a meaningful exception though. A curious accident had caught my eye in the main square of the town of Corfu: with unbelievable precision, a large tree had fallen over a single parked car without even scratching the other vehicles at its sides. This seemed normal to me once I noticed a sticker on the back of the wrecked car. A yellowish patch (color "Pantone 116C", as I had occasion to learn) with a familiar lettering style to compose the "Camel Trophy" logo. Striking so close, the gibbous curse had crossed space and time to recall of its mischievous effects. I wondered if the others had found their way out of it.

Ten years and a life earlier

Summer 1985. A handful of enthusiast computer programmers were milling out assembly code in the proverbial sultriness of Milan, fighting against time to reach an ambitious goal: the first major commercial videogame for the Italian ZX Spectrum marketplace. Camel Trophy Videogame, or the home computer version of an annual event that during those years drew much attention from the general public and the media with off-track expeditions wherever one or more (preferably all) of the following could be found: abysmal distance from civilization, unbearable weather and climate, malaria, trypanosome (aka sleeping sickness), obnoxious natives, and hungry beasts.

It was the heyday of the home computing revolution. For the first time ever, information technology was readily available to consumers bringing forth the promise to change forever the way families lived. A frequent claim from creativity-strapped advertisers charged to promote what indeed was a truly revolutionary product, was: "...unbelievable power to manage your personal finances, help your kids with their homework and organize your recipe scrapbook in the kitchen." A recipe scrapbook. In the kitchen. Indeed - the killer application that even the founding fathers of the computer such as Charles Babbage and Vannevar Bush would have dreamed of.1

Luckily enough for those advertisers and their bottom line, home computer vendors soon found a different market than the kitchen-bound housewives niche their spin doctors originally envisioned. Success came from programming, videogame, and programming and videogame enthusiasts: a wide, far-reaching customer base started buying computers as fast as the manufacturing plants could churn out. Apple II and Texas Instruments TI-99 in the United States, Sinclair ZX-81 and ZX Spectrum in Europe, Commodore VIC20 and C64 all the world over. The convenient - albeit expensive - recipe scrapbook was ushering millions of families in the 21st century almost twenty years earlier.

But the fast success of the home computer was not matched - at least in Italy - by legitimate software distribution channels, whose time had still to come in due course. In the early or mid-Eighties only a handful of original (and often outdated) titles could be found in those same computer shops dealing, with a greater economic return, in hardware and peripherals. Those who could not content themselves by just reading the reviews of the incessant flow of new and innovative videogames released each month by the burgeoning British and American software markets, had no alternative but to buy abroad - not an easy thing back then when credit cards were still unusual and fax machines a rarity. The easier and cheaper alternative was going for the piracy channel, often inextricably linked with the above mentioned computer shops.

You'd Better Run

RUN no.1

The inaugural issue of Run magazine.

But things were moving even in Italy and, in November 1983, Sinclair ZX Spectrum users could find in the newsstands the inaugural issue of Run, the first magazine-on-a-tape which had to be read on a computer screen. Feature articles, code clips, games: the bi-monthly founded by Simone Majocchi while at Elettronica 2000 (one of the then leading publications for electronics hobbyists), which soon left to become a wholly independent publisher, introduced the home computer software to the most ubiquitous sales and distribution channel in Italy - the newsstands. The success of Run quickly generated a copycat phenomenon on a massive scale, albeit with important differences.


Simone Majocchi in 1985.

Other than being patented, the concept of a "computer magazine on a tape" championed by Run was less than appealing to the competitors for two more reasons: a prolonged editorial cycle - and indeed Run was published once every other month - and hefty production costs. All these reasons considered, scores of imitators decided to turn to piracy on an industrial scale. Localized into Italian, with a new title and slightly different graphics, unlicensed games (mainly British for the Spectrum, British-American for the Commodore 64) took the newsstands by the storm. Not magazines, of course, but collections of cracked games, often malfunctioning and poorly translated, which could appear at the same time on different publications by different publishers with different titles - much to the confusion of the end users, especially those naive enough to believe they were buying originals.

Producing a collection of pirated games was not that difficult. A source for original software with frequent weekly arrivals from abroad, such as the underground channel already supplying less reputable computer shops; a few young crackers who could circumvent the ever growing and more sophisticated copy protection schemes, translate text strings into Italian and write down terse and often incomplete instructions; and a magnetic tape duplicating facility to turn the master reel into tens of thousands of compact cassettes. Many game collections were produced without even an editorial office - today we would say they were just "outsourced" to the enterprising young generation depicted by the movie War Games, computer whiz-kids whose only goal in life apparently was to break the number of games cracked the month before. A true industrial assembly line that was soon to be helped by a score of useful hardware gadgets (the so-called "interfaces" for copying and cracking memory-resident computer programs), with an atrocious track record in terms of quality and reliability. And sometimes a pirate publisher was hauled in the Courts by the few regular distributors of the really few original games imported and sold on the official market.

A short digression: many are still convinced that the newsstands piracy phenomenon was made possible by the lack of proper rule of law concerning software copyright, which in turn helped hindering the development of a legitimate software market such as it the one that finally emerged in the early Nineties. Indeed, this is only a part of the truth. Even in absentia legis, especially in the latter half of the Eighties, many publishers were successfully prosecuted for software piracy in the Italian Courts. Within the hacker/cracker milieu circulated "black lists" of original software houses whose products were to be excluded from unlicensed game collections. Local distributors taking legal action against pirate publishers could expect a quick out-of-Court settlement worth between 3,000 and 6,000 euros (which, in 1985, was a clerk's yearly pay): for them it was often more than the market's worth of a game, and for the pirate publishers an acceptable "tax" on an otherwise lucrative business. 2

Geek Magnet

All this newsstands craze was strikingly different from Run, a passion-driven magazine packed with a notable share of original material. Whether because it appeared on the newsstands first, or because it was a "real" magazine on a level apart from mere game collections, or maybe because it was backed by an effective and dynamic editorial office, soon Run became an attraction point for a diverse group of regular contributors, all sharing a burning desire to experiment with the ZX Spectrum and raise the bar for the common programming practice of that time.


Twenty years later: Eugenio Ciceri at Varese Retrocomputing 2005.

Many free-lance contributors soon turned into permanent staff. The first one was Eugenio Ciceri, whose role as "Master Supervisor" was best described just like a resident hacker of sorts. As it later happened to many after him, Eugenio dropped into the office seeking back issues... and Simone Majocchi turned him into a contributor. His first work, Run Blaster, appeared in spring 1984 on issue no. 4; soon his involvement with the magazine grew and he got a full-time assignment shortly thereafter. Eugenio became a well-known figure for all those gravitating around the magazine, and helped to alleviate the significant amount of work borne until then by Simone Majocchi and a handful of part-timers.

As a friend and neighbor of Eugenio, I could resist but a few months to his enthusiastic descriptions of his new job. I was introduced to his colleagues in July 1984, and coming September I had my first work delivered for publishing in issue no. 6. Once established as a regular contributor, in December I also took office as Master Supervisor for the German, Austrian and Swiss edition of the magazine - now circulating with the name ZX Soft since in the German-speaking markets there already was a paper magazine called Run.


Twenty years later: Bruno Molteni at Varese Retrocomputing 2005.

Further help soon came by Bruno Molteni, another reader turned into contributor when visiting to request some back issues. Bruno got noticed for a compelling piece of code enabling to display text with proportional typefaces (as it was customary for most home computers of that time, the ZX Spectrum used a fixed-width font only). Enthusiastically adopted since Run double issue no. 10-11, Bruno's hack allowed to print much more text in each "video page" with a neat look and great readability. This brilliant program, known inside as MiniWP Proporzionale but officially named Word 4.0 Standard Writer, was the on-screen equivalent of a visual redesign for a traditional magazine.

Those were the months when the V-Visitors series was all the rage on Italian television, IBM was touring the world with its ExhiBIT roadshow, and Ronald Reagan was getting hold of his second term leaving only a record-setting two electoral votes to his opponent. What we did not know at that time is that behind Run's scenes the Great Gibbous Game had moved its first steps.

1 - This masterpiece of applied creativity reared its ugly head again in the early Nineties with Philips' half-baked attempt at promoting the CD-I, a computer disguised as a hi-fi appliance similar to the Commodore CDTV. Back to text

2 - Just to give a rough estimate, an Italian tape and disk duplication company still in business claims on its website to have produced millions of copies of software collections for the newsstands - and we are talking about only one of the several duplication service bureaus available back then. Back to text