Video game arcades are alive and well in Havana, though you might not recognize them.
Where arcades in places like North America and Japan are often large expanses of space packed with buzzing, screaming, pinging machines and people jostling for their turn at the joystick, Cuba's arcades are a much more laid back affair.
They're also illegal — more speakeasy than nightclub.
While pinball machines have a history that can be traced back to the 1700s, it wasn't until the 1970s, with the advent of the integrated circuit chips, that home consoles and modern arcades began popping up.
But by then Cuba had already been under strict U.S. embargoes for decades. While elements of those embargoes have come and gone over the years, the trade embargo, which limits American companies from conducting business in Cuba or with Cuban interests, remains in effect, making it the longest held trade embargo in modern history.
That embargo, coupled with Cuba's own customs regulations that banned importing things like DVD players and game consoles, technically blocked most games from the country.
But game consoles still managed to show up in the country. Gaming in Cuba was driven by a black market that brought consoles in from the U.S. by Cubans with a legal reason to travel between the countries. Often ambassadors, commercial pilots, government importers and others would smuggle in the systems and games and then charge a premium to the game-hungry Cubans.
Antonio Pablo Martinez, who makes a living modding and repairing consoles, says the country's growing gamer population coupled with the inability for most to buy the systems led to a golden age of Cuba's own take on the arcade.
"The pilots' sons had video games and consoles because of their parents, and people that [had] those consoles started renting them because they knew not everyone [could] afford or have access to it," he says through a translator. "So they started making a business renting their own system."
Initially, people opening their homes to friends and neighbors and charging them to play was a rarity. But by the mid-'90s, the Super Nintendo (called the Super Famicom in Cuba, as in Japan) brought with it an explosion of home-based arcades, he says.
Next came the Nintendo 64. Known in Cuba as the Nintendo Ultra, the system quickly spread across the country. By 2000 those systems were being replaced by the PlayStation and eventually the PlayStation 2, and with those systems came another wave of home arcades.
There was a brief period of time when video game arcades were sort of legal. In 2010, Cuba president Raul Castro announced that more Cubans would be allowed to work for themselves and hire employees, a stark contrast to the country's communist economy. That led to licenses for certain businesses and people finding loopholes to create things like arcades that weren’t specifically allowed.
But by 2013, the government decided that the private business licenses issued for such work were at times being abused. The country cracked down on home-based movie theaters and video game parlors.
But some of those neighborhood gaming centers prevailed, despite being illegal.
It was these backroom video game parlors that helped shape a whole generation of gamers in Cuba. More often than not, today's twenty-something gamers grew up playing games side-by-side with friends in a stranger's home for pocket change. And the country's youngest generation often breaks up its free days spent playing in the streets and countryside of Cuba with visits to darkened gaming rooms.
Talking to more than two dozen people in Havana who study, sell, play and create video games, I always ask them what the first game was they played. Their answers help to paint a picture of a Havana gaming scene that grew up around different sort of influences than you might find in other gaming countries.
For the older, first-generation of Cuba gamers, Pong is a common answer, followed closely by the original Zelda.
Victor Agrelo, who now helps to organize DOTA 2 tournaments in Havana, laughs when I asked him about his introduction to gaming as a child, and then seems almost embarrassed to admit that the game was Pong.
“The most primitive tennis you can find,” he says through a translator.
His first console game, he says, was the original Zelda.
Cuba’s best pro StarCraft 2 player also lists Pong and Zelda as his first two games. He was 8, maybe 9 when he started playing, Javier Vidio Hernandez says.
“The first game was probably Pong,” he says. “But what I remember the most is the first Zelda.”
Both the 20-something gamers I speak with and those who are well into their 40s mention Nintendo games as among their favorites.
Where the U.S. received the Nintendo Entertainment System in the '80s, Cubans from that era grew up playing on Nintendo’s Family Computer smuggled in from Japan.
Repairman Martinez says his first system was the NES and so does Rafael Rivas, who works at a store that sells pirated games. Rivas started playing when he was maybe 5, he tells me.
“I used to run out of my place,” he says. “My mom didn’t know. I used to go three block away from my place where they used to rent Super Nintendo, and I would stay there, just watching while they played.”
Eventually, Rivas, now 26, convinced his mom to give him money on occasion so he could rent time with a game system.
“I would ask her and she would tell me, ‘Well, I’ll give you one hour for you to play and then after that you have to study,’” he says. “I didn’t complain about that.”
Initially Rivas stuck to fighting games like Killer Instinct because those games were the ones with the best graphics. Eventually, he transitioned to games like Mario Kart and Star Fox.
The developers I tracked down often seemed to get their start on computers or hybrid systems.
Jorge Romero, who was part of one of the country’s oldest indie game development groups in the early '90s, says his first gaming system was the MSX, a home computer system designed by Microsoft and released in the early '80s. It mostly gained a following in Japan, attracting games from the likes of Konami and Hudson Soft.
“It had a Z80 CPU,” he says. “I played games on it using a cassette player.”
His favorite MSX title was Galaxian.
While both Josuhe Pagliery and Johann Hernandez, two of the country’s first modern indie game developers, currently play computer games, they both started out on consoles when they were kids.
Pagliery has fond memories of playing games like Demon Attack, Astrosmash, Tron and BurgerTime on an Intellivision.
“A close friend of mine, his father was a foreigner, they had a console in like 1985 or 1986,” Pagliery says. “That was not common at all in Cuba. Then I had the luck to have almost all of the consoles that came out later. But my golden days were in the '90s with the Super Nintendo.
“That was really what made me see the possibility of someday making a game. I really looked at things differently from that point on.”
Nowadays, Pagliery says he likes to play games on his PlayStation 4.
“I like a lot of games like Bloodborne, like the Dark Souls series,” he says. “I played The Last Guardian because Fumito Ueda is like the best director ever. Even with his bad controls and bad camera, I don’t care.”
When he was younger, like most Cubans, Pagliery got most of his games through an extended network of friends and fellow gamers. Once a game was finished he would trade it with someone for a chance to play something different.
While Pagliery recently returned to Havana from the U.S., he didn’t buy any games.
“Honestly, I didn’t,” he says, when I ask him. “My family [living in Miami] presented me Uncharted 4 and Bloodborne when I [visited]. It was nice, I got it for free, man.”
Hernandez, who is co-creating a game with Pagliery, says he grew up playing Mario games on the Famicom.
“Then I jumped to PC video games and that moment happened when games were still on MS DOS and were prehistoric, like Prince of Persia, that kind of thing,” he says. “From that point on, I began to only, only play video games on PC.”
The group of young journalists running Cachivache Media fondly remembers playing games like Kung Fu Castle and Circus Charlie on the MSX. Later, most of the grew transitioned over to the Famicom and it’s slew of famed Nintendo titles featuring Mario and Zelda. Eventually, several of them transitioned over to computer games.
“I used to go to my father’s work and play games on his computer,” says Rafa Gonzalez, one of the editors of Cachivache. “That was pretty common, kids going to their father’s work and playing games there.”
Among his favorite games from that time were classic role-playing games like Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island.
When they entered college, most of them stopped playing games, at least temporarily. But they’ve all returned to it. Cachivache even hosts regular meet-ups for its readers, where they can gather to play video games on a large projection screen.
“People went crazy with it,” says Daniella Fernandez, the publication’s community manager. “They loved it. People who have never, who haven’t played a game for a long time, they reconnected with it and they loved it.”
On one day in March I follow along as a small group of gamers walks me through the side streets and alleyways near central Havana.
They take me to homes where they heard a local arcade was running. It's not until our second or third stop that we find what we are looking for.
A middle-aged woman opens the door after one of my guides knocks. She eyes us suspiciously, but after speaking with my guide quietly for a few minutes she welcomes us into her home.
Inside the lights are dimmed, the drapes drawn.
The small front room is empty with the exception of a couch and two gaming stations. Each station consists of a twenty-something-inch television, an Xbox 360 and a loveseat facing the setup.
Two young teens sit in front of one of the televisions lost in a game of FIFA. A younger boy sits at the other television, absentmindedly scrolling through an extensive list of games already loaded on the Xbox 360, trying to decide what to play next.
A third station set up further back in the house is temporary home to another FIFA match and two teens.
The woman, who declines to give her name because of the legality of the arcade, describes herself as a neighborhood mom. She tells me through a translator that the setups aren't actually her's. They are managed by someone who maintains the three televisions, the Xbox 360s and the systems' games.
She runs the place, she says, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, charging about 50 cents an hour. Children in the neighborhood tend to run around playing outside until it's their turn for an hour on the machine, she says.
Everyone involved seems happy with the arrangement.
The children zipping around outside, lost in play, seem completely oblivious to the time that needs to pass before they can get on the machines and despite being an arcade, the home inside is pleasantly cool and almost eerily silent.
"This,” she says, “gives them somewhere to hang out during the day."
You just read one entry in Polygon’s 12-part series on video games in Cuba. Check out the rest on our hub.