Releasing a new video game is a difficult and expensive task that even giants of the industry don’t always get right. From the Atari Jaguar to the PlayStation Vita, history has plenty of examples of consoles that failed for one reason or another. With the usual suspects fighting the usual war, the home console market is all but consolidated, and it’s hard to imagine a new player in the rock paper scissors game that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are playing. I’m sure virtual reality will be the next battlefield, but right now, it’s an arms race to see who can make the first truly affordable headset. But today, I want to take you back to a simpler time when the rise of a newcomer in the console market wasn’t such a pipe dream. To talk about a forgotten console that was ahead of the times, for better and for worse.
This is the story of the Zeebo.
To understand Zeebo’s history, one must first understand Brazil’s gaming landscape back in 2009. The seventh generation of consoles was just starting. Microsoft’s shiny new white marble brought online gaming and the dreaded red ring of death to our homes. Sony’s black monolith doubled as a Blu-ray player, and Nintendo was busy dominating the casual market with a plastic slab called Wii. In Brazil, however, things were a little different. The PS3 would only arrive officially in 2010 in its Slim version, costing around 660 dollars (adjusted for current values to the best of my ability). The 360 was still a luxury item due to the high price (a whopping 1100 dollars), but saw an increase in popularity later, after the advent of jailbreak and reductions in price. The Wii followed a similar path but had the advantage of being cheaper and appealing to the whole family. It’s no wonder then that the Brazilian gamer decided to stick with the tried and true PS2. The console’s extensive library, coupled with ease of jailbreak and a non-insignificant amount of modded games, made it arguably the most popular console in Brazilian history.
In that scenario, we find a company that can’t seem to stop showing up in this series: TecToy. They brought us Sega consoles and games up until the end of the Dreamcast era. Nowadays, they still sell both the Master System and Genesis and are fondly remembered as part of many a childhood (my own included). It was thanks to their efforts that Sega won the 90s console war in Brazil. With localized games, locally produced consoles, and many other perks, TecToy undoubtedly led the video game market. It was a desire to lead again that was the catalyst to creating the Zeebo. That, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
TecToy had never released a console of their design before. When the time came to envision their product, they had the legendary PS2 as inspiration. Or more accurately, as a goal. At the same time, they found success with their mobile division, particularly with the original Sonic 1 for Java phones. Remember, mobile gaming wasn’t the (frankly absurd) industry that you see today. Cellphone games were simple, limited, and cheap. So this was a big deal for them, and that’s when the Zeebo started to take shape. It was conceived as a console aimed at developing countries, forgoing the usage of physical media, with games downloaded straight from a dedicated 3G network—cutting edge technology at the time. Hell, even the modem was built-in. Not only that, but games would not cost more than 15-ish USD at the time. There was just one obstacle in the way: piracy.
I cannot overstate how important the gray market was for the success of the PS2. It’s so ubiquitous that any local shady dealer has one, I guarantee it. TecToy could not afford such a fate to befall their console. Another issue was resources. Releasing a console takes cash and technology, both of which TecToy found themselves wanting. Realizing they were way in over their heads with this project, they sought a partner. That’s when player two of this story enters the game: an American company named Qualcomm. It took 18 months of negotiation, but eventually, they agreed to join the venture. According to Reinaldo Normand, the man who idealized the console, Qualcomm’s development platform, BREW, offered (and I’m paraphrasing here) “the solution to piracy and the functionality of the online store.” So he’d get the tech, the money, and the anti-piracy solution, killing lots of birds with one stick of dynamite. Too bad he got caught in the blast.
Quite literally. The decision to use the BREW was a logical one given the intended purpose of the Zeebo, but this ultimately doomed the console from the start. Qualcomm’s MSM ARM 11 chipset might’ve been decent for the time, but wasn’t developed with a video game in mind. Not only did it have features that were useless for a console, but the simplicity of the hardware made it difficult (and expensive) to port games to the damn thing. This fact made the Zeebo a glorified cell phone without any of the perks.
Any similarities are mere coincidence...
The comparisons with the PS2 were inevitable. The limited power of the Zeebo made it feel like a half-assed attempt at making a PS1 that could maybe, one day, reach the level of a PSP. Remember, this was the age of HD. Sony and Microsoft were competing to see who could better render Chris Redfield’s rock-crushing biceps, so the limited power inside the Zeebo was a huge con against the console. Perhaps worse than that was how its price betrayed the console’s original intent. The Zeebo was announced at USD 250, with a couple of price cuts happening later, bringing it down to USD 160. Far from the affordable “console for the lower-income families” it promised to be. For comparison, the PS2 would only cost around USD 190~200 and offer a much better cost-benefit. The cherry on top of that cake was the near-total absence of third-party support and the late arrival of first-party development. Because a console needs games like a camel needs water, and the Zeebo was dead dry.
In the two years the Zeebo lived—or rather survived—only 55 games saw release for the console, most of them not worth mentioning. When the servers officially closed on September 30th of 2011, due to lack of physical media, that was it. You could never install anything on the console ever again, making whatever Zeebo containing the (very few) great games installed a precious collector’s item. After all, they are irreplaceable. There’s no emulator for the system. Later that year, some crafty people discovered a way to jailbreak the Zeebo, so if anything, no one is doomed to have a brick in console format. Coupled with the archiving of the ROMs, this means that the console’s legacy, however tiny it may be, will be preserved.
But let’s take it from the top. The Zeebo was released on May 25th, 2009, and came with three games pre-installed: NFS: Carbon, FIFA 09, and Treino Cerebral (localized as Brain Challenge outside Brazil). The latter is one of those educational games that were about as fun as staring at the ceiling. The first two were ports of the PSP versions that were, unsurprisingly, worse than their original counterparts. Besides those, three more games were available for free download: Prey: Evil, Quake I, and Quake II. The last two need no introduction, and the first one is a mobile version of Prey (2006). Yes, the Zeebo had a port of a freaking Java game, and this was only the first of many. Due to the 3G technology used by the console, the games had a cap of 50 MB in size. Besides the inherent limitations on both the hardware and 3G, there was also the matter of coverage. Major cities would be fine, but anything further than that and signal quality decay. Another oddity was the price division. The cost of a game was dependent on its size. "Casual" included games limited to 8 MB with a price tag of around 2 dollars. "Intermediate" games capped at 25 MB. Anything else was classified as "premium," but no game ever came close to hitting the full 50 MB in size.
Fun fact: Zeebo doesn't mean anything. It was just a name they could register anywhere on the planet.
The Zeebo would then go on to have its price reduced twice, settling in around 139 USD and finally reaching stores all around the country. It also reached the Mexican market for 169 USD. That version was a bundle that included a keyboard and five games instead of three. The following year, the console bled games, starting with both Quake titles leaving the catalog on June 15th, and not a week later on the 21st, NSF: Carbon followed suit. Fast-forward a few months, and the Zeebo would receive the Zeebo Sports, a collection of four sports games compatible with the Boomerang—Zeebo’s completely original motion-sensor controller. This marked a change in TecToy’s marketing, attempting to promote the console as an educational tool instead of the "fourth console of the seventh-gen" that was originally promised. 2011 marked the end, with an announcement regarding the closure of the servers, the removal of a Monica’s Gang game, and a release on Chinese markets. The latter happened too close to the end of its life, so there’s not enough information on it to warrant discussion. One last curious bit was this ad in the official website circa 2012 mentioning an “Android-based platform.” It obviously never went anywhere.
Thus, the Zeebo came to an end, but it would be remiss of me not to mention some of its most notorious games. One of them was Zeebo Extreme: Rolimã, an arcade game about gravity racing—the scientifically proven best way to break a bone. Next was Resident Evil 4, proving once and for all that Capcom will stick that game in anything that can render a pixel. Also, the zombies were blue, and no, I don’t know why. Last but not least, there was Double Dragon, a full-blown remake of a classic with improved graphics and music, new enemies and bosses, an expanded move set, and unlockable characters. Considered by many as the definitive version of Double Dragon, this exclusive is easily the most valuable game on the console and the reason collectors won’t let go of their Zeebos.
Most of the articles and opinions floating around the time the Zeebo ended its activities had this “so long” attitude towards the console, and I can’t say that I blame them. Looking back, the console was an announced tragedy. A clash of too little experience and too much ambition, resulting in a slow and painful death. The concept was right, but the execution left much to be desired. The BREW was woefully inadequate for a console. Its nature as a single-user OS made it difficult to add a second controller to the Zeebo, eating development time and processing power. It’s unclear to me why Qualcomm insisted so hard on using it when most of its developers thought it was a doomed system. Another failure was the very nature of their 3G network. Because the service was free, that was a drain on TecToy’s coffers, despite limitations in the size of the games and certain online functionalities. Not helping was the cold reception from the majority of third parties that, perhaps understandably, were not thrilled with the console.
There was also a conflict in the visions Qualcomm and TecToy had for the system: the former wanted to promote their chipsets, and the latter wanted to make a console. One thing that I missed when I originally wrote this is the fact that something was off with that statement. Qualcomm didn’t need to promote the MSM. Not only was it already an established product, but it was also not designed for games. It doesn’t make sense, and that’s because the MSM wasn’t part of the original plan. Ten months before the Zeebo hit the stores, they got an unfortunate piece of news: the original chipset would not be ready in time. Its name? The first generation of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. If the name isn’t familiar, just know that if you can play Fortnite or Genshin Impact on your phone today, it’s likely because of this line of chipsets. To quote the Wikipedia page: "The first generation of Snapdragon products supported a 720p resolution, 3D graphics, and a 12-megapixel camera." Now, this sounds more like a video game, don’t you think?
Zeebo's board. Notice the elevation where the Snapdragon was supposed to go.
TecToy decided to carry on anyway with the ARM 11—that was incapable of processing native 3D—being tacked on to Zeebo’s board. Literally. Open the console, and you can see a “second floor” where the Snapdragon should’ve been. Needless to say, that little maneuver made the console lose even more of the tiny processing power it had. It should be said that Qualcomm displayed impatience regarding the launch of the console. TecToy wanted more time to polish the system and its games, but Qualcomm owned the money (they initially invested around 5 million USD while TecToy invested only 2 million), and they wanted the product out ASAP. But our infamous taxes and Qualcomm’s decision to not subsidize the chip resulted in an overpriced product for what it offered and was still not enough to turn a profit.
In the face of all the bullshit, I still believe TecToy had its heart in the right place. If there is anything I learned in writing this series, it’s that they have a genuine love not only for their products but for video games as a medium. Their brief trajectory with the Zeebo is yet another proof. They managed to make deals with companies like Disney, Namco, and most fittingly, their long-time partner Sega. It’s a shame most of these went nowhere. Having a Sega game on a TecToy console would be almost poetic, given their close relationship (and lucky for us, said relationship survived this fiasco). At one point, there were plans to release games like Crazy Taxi and Sonic Adventure for the Zeebo but were ultimately canned. They wanted to make this work but vastly underestimated the resources needed to ship and maintain a successful console from scratch.
Believe it or not... Tekken 2!
Twelve years later, I can’t help but wonder how many of Zeebo’s ideas were forward-thinking. Many of us who still remember the console wonder if it could’ve worked should things have gone differently. Using Android instead of BREW, waiting for the Snapdragon, maybe even the rumored Zeebo Plus, a prototype we know little beyond “it exists.” I won’t pretend to have the answer to that question. But I will do everything in my power to preserve whatever faint memory of its endeavor remains. A console born out of good intentions, doomed by design, and paradoxical in its execution. Yet it was ingenious for its time, attempting to carve a niche that didn’t yet exist. That alone makes it worthy of being remembered, if only as a crash course on how not to release a video game.
That, and the owner of the weirdest port of Resident Evil 4 ever created.