True Pakistani gamers will recognize coin-operated arcade games as the precursor of present-day gaming in Pakistan. The arcade games were operated in small shops in almost every little locality of the country, especially the big cities, and ‘tokens’ cost about 50 paisas. All around the world and in Pakistan during the early 90s, boys and young men were taken in by fighting game called Street Fighter II. They would spend hours and hundreds of rupees worth of pocket-money improving their ‘fighting skills’ in their bids to reach the end of the game. Indeed there were unofficial local champions at these watering holes that everyone aspired to beat. These ‘video-game shops’ or ‘game ki dukaan’, as they were called here, were the bane of any parents’ existence at the time, should their son have been bitten by the gaming bug. It was increasingly common to see fathers, uncles and sometimes even mothers walk into these shops and slap their children all the way home, because they (the boys); had taken hours to buy a single packet of biscuits for guests at home who had finished their tea, wrapped up their visit and left. These hours had of course been spent playing games at the shop, but despite the beatings the boys returned; such was the lure of the ‘game’. Ryu, Ken, Guile and other characters of Capcom’s global hit were no less than alter-egos for the gamer boy, each fighting his way to beat the ‘boss’ and walk away to find newer, bigger challenges. Some of the more fortunate kids were bought gaming consoles such as the Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive to keep them at home, but the graphics and game play was nowhere as close to the ones found in arcade games, and there was of course the element of competition that could only be experienced at the ‘game ki dukaan’.
In the mid to late 90s, a new fighting game challenged the popularity of Street Fighter II. King of Fighters was the ‘new kid on the block’ of fighting games. Developed by SNK Playmore, King of Fighters (KOF), the game introduced mostly new characters with new abilities. Some of these characters were inspired from old Street Fighter favorites, but the cleaner, sharper graphics and updated game play, in which players could pick a team of 3 characters. Street Fighter II seemed grossly outdated when compared to KOF, and the old Street Fighter players eagerly took up the newer challenge, while the younger, less ‘skilled’ lot practiced with Street Fighter. NAMCo closely followed with Tekken, and slowly Street Fighter II became a thing of the past.
Network and Console gaming
From the late 90s to the early 2000s, there was a marked increase in the affordability of PCs, which meant that more and more gamers were staying at home and playing games such as Need For Speed. High-speed internet was still out the reach of many, so games were bought on CDs. While the arcade game shops were still living off the excitement of face-to-face competition that fighting games provided, the more serious and perhaps sophisticated gamers were discovering the obsession of tactical gaming with Counter-Strike, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (abbreviated as MOHAA) and Command and Conquer. Just as most games were out of the reach of everyday people in the 1990s, so were the hardware and internet connectivity needed to enjoy network gaming in the early 2000s. In Islamabad for example, Gamers Den opened up in F-11 Markaz and was followed by other gaming cafes/zones all over the city and indeed the country. These zones were the new ‘game ki dukaans’, and they offered special all-night packages during the month of Ramazan and summer holidays. The 2000s saw multiplayer gaming taken to a whole new level, with tournaments not just being organized by the gaming zones, but colleges and universities as part of their extra-curricular activities. International telecom companies operating locally organized national-level gaming tournaments, with the winners sometimes being picked to participate in international competitions. This goes to show that despite hurdles such as load-shedding and unavailability of original games, Pakistani gamers have what it takes to be pitched against the best in the world.
The 2000s also saw the increase in popularity of more powerful gaming consoles such as the Play Station 2, Nintendo’s GameCube and Wii, and Microsoft’s X-Box. The accessibility of quality gaming consoles also meant that more girls were taking up gaming, and this writer has spoken to some who count Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Skyrim as their favorites among others. This, accompanied with more affordable high-speed internet diminished the need for gaming cafes, although like their predecessors; the arcade game shops, they still operate on a small scale, but more of these provide console-based gaming. Strategy-based games such as Halo, Call of Duty and Defense of the Ancients (DOTA) are more popular on consoles, and the availability of high-speed internet makes multi-player gaming while sitting in the comfort of your home possible.
Smart phones have also proved to be a game changer as far as gaming is concerned. With the availability of cheap Android handsets and even iPhones penetrating the Pakistani market, games such as Angry Birds have been instant hits. With more homes now installing Wifi modems, downloading games off app stores became hassle-free, and indeed many of these games offer online multi-player options.
Pakistani gamers are a community in themselves, complete with their own online space that is funded completely by members of the community. The website provides gaming updates from all over the world, guides, tips, reviews, videos, a marketplace and blogging space for Pakistani gamers. Members organize regular meetups and tournaments, and ensure that the gaming ‘scene’ in Pakistan is here to stay.