I owe a lot to the pirates of Asia. Most of the media I consumed up to the point I was a young adult was pirated. Pirated VHS tapes, pirated games, pirated music. Even the shows on the state propaganda channel were pirated. Hell, even the satellite feeds we got were pirated up until the mid 2000s. People pointed their dish antennas towards the heavens and caught the pieces of the free world that were reflected back.
I don't recall a single notable place in Male’ that sold originals other than a music store called BayWatch. The disks were so prohibitively expensive that it is a wonder they stayed in business at all. The only albums I’ve ever bought from there were the ones I got from their first closing down sale. I remember Sepultura and Anthrax. Metal to dull my teenage angst. Listening to high quality CD audio was a refreshing change from the shitty mp3s we were used to. A lot of the pirated CDs didn't sound much better than these tiny digital files. Nobody really had enough money to afford the real thing on a regular basis.
The same was true for video games. So much so that the availability of pirated media seemed to directly influence which consoles we used. As such the most popular consoles from my childhood were the first two PlayStation systems. The island was dotted with shops that sold PlayStation games for dirt cheap. Buy two get three free. They’d have walls that were covered floor to ceiling with CDs in crinkly plastic covers. It was always PlayStation games at these little stores. Never anything else.
PlayStation mania hit the Maldives relatively late. I was shocked to find out that the console was a product of the early to mid-nineties. The only people that kept up with the West were the well-travelled elites. I’ve only ever seen the competing GameCube and Xbox systems from within their spacious homes. The games for those systems weren’t as easy to pirate back then. This meant that the people who owned those systems had to have the means to buy original discs from abroad. The older N64 might as well have never existed.
What kept PCs from the top spot was that it was both cheaper and easier to get your hands on a PlayStation. For a PlayStation to work all you needed was a CRT TV to plug it into, and everyone seemed to have had one of those. How else would you get your daily dose of propaganda? The first year I had a PlayStation I played entirely in black and white, as the old National set we had didn’t support the correct colour system. I don’t remember minding much. I think it added to the ambiance of the one Medal of Honour game that I had.
As most of the PlayStation catalogue had already been released by that point, the way we experienced these games was all at once. We did not have to wait for a sequel. We never got to appreciate the steady increase in quality. We’d finish them one after the other. We also missed out on manuals and all the little extras one gets for not being a dirty pirate.
Take the case of my quest to play Metal Gear Solid. I became obsessed with it after watching a cousin play through the entire thing. Back then the houses of relatives was the closest thing we had to Twitch. Many a Ramadan was spent watching older cousins trying to suffer through the Resident Evils. Nemesis from R3 used to haunt my dreams. Years later when I got my own PlayStation, the much-requested MGS disc that game with it turned out to be the VR Missions spin off. A fun game but hardly the story driven adventure I had gawked at from my cousin’s couch. I would eventually borrow it from a wealthier friend who had already played its PS2 sequel to death.
A few hours in it has a mechanic where you had to check the back of the CD case for a codec number. It was nowhere to be found on the pirated copy. Believe me, I analysed the cover for a good half hour. Maybe it would appear if I looked at it upside down? Maybe they meant the front cover? Perhaps they used invisible ink? Spies used that, right? Was I ever going to get to play this damn game? Thankfully my friend still remembered it. For that, and letting me borrow it in the first place, I am eternally grateful. Through such goodwill is how most of us got our hands on harder to find titles. It would take a while for pirated PS2 discs to become as widespread because its games, which came on DVDs, were more complicated and expensive to pirate compared to CDs.
The shops that sold PC games were special in that they would make discs to order. You’d pick out a title from their alphabetised display shelf, and they’d burn the disc for you on the spot. They’d even help you out if you had trouble cracking it. All games and software were priced the same, with price increasing only with the number of discs. Once our family computer got a CD burner, I realised that nothing was stopping me from doing the same.
Thus began my short lived yet extremely profitable venture of selling pirated discs to my secondary school mates. I’d have an excel printout that I’d bring to class. In it was a list of all the PC games I had available. I would also borrow as many games as I could, promising to bring the discs back the next day. The more games I borrowed, the larger the list became. The more discs I burned, the better I became at it. Soon I even knew how to duplicate PlayStation games (using some specialised software that I had pirated of course). All you needed to do to make them work (if you didn’t have a mod-chip) was to start the system with an original disc, and then switch it out for the burned copy at just the right moment.
At first I was buying single CDs at the neighbourhood bookshop, but soon I was able to afford a whole spindle. Before long, kids from other classes were visiting me during lunch break to put in orders. GTA 3 and Vice City were two of my best sellers. The Sims series, with its multitude of expansion packs was quite a hit as well. Maxis / EA were really onto something there.
My dreams of riches came crashing down when my mother caught on and began wondering why I suddenly had so much disposable income. Ultimately it came down to the hard truth that getting caught by the school itself could mean expulsion. So I stopped selling, opting instead to just continue growing my own collection. Gotta burn something right. Piracy wasn't going to stay “legal” forever.
It was an interesting taste of the entrepreneurial spirit that brought life to our media starved souls. At the time I certainly didn't care much for the rights of companies that probably weren't even aware of our existence, let alone be capable of pointing us out on a map. Even now, would be capitalists should take note; the free market waits for no one.