2018-08-06 12:57:06  + video 

SHANGHAI — Thirty years after its inception, a gaming giant of yesteryear that gave many Chinese their first button-mashing experiences is attempting a heroic comeback.

Just as console makers like Atari and Sega hold a special place in the hearts of Western gamers, the nostalgic equivalent in China might be Xiao Bawang, meaning “Little Tyrant.” The Guangdong-based company — which goes by the English name Subor — produced some of the country’s first video game consoles and gave many Chinese their first taste of gaming.

On Friday, Subor announced the release of China’s first-ever high-spec video game console, armed with enough computing power to go toe-to-toe with top foreign consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro. The Subor Z+ was officially launched at last weekend’s China Digital Entertainment Expo & Conference — better known as “ChinaJoy,” Asia’s largest gaming and digital entertainment expo.

Thirty years after its first product release, Chinese electronics company Subor announced the launch of a new high-end gaming console at this year’s ChinaJoy electronics expo. By Lu Yunwen and Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

The 4,998 yuan ($730) console is unique in that it can be used as either a dedicated gaming device or a multifunctional Windows PC. It also has impressive specs, including a processor one foreign vlogger described as “monstrous.” But it will still face all the usual challenges. Although China is now the world’s largest video game market, virtually no Chinese people play on consoles. In 2017, console gaming accounted for a paltry 0.7 percent of China’s gaming market, compared with an average of 30 to 40 percent in Western countries.

The tiny domestic market is due in part to a 14-year ban on the import and sale of foreign consoles, said Zhao Yanlin, managing editor of console-focused online media outlet GAMECORES. The policy, introduced on the premise that it would protect the physical and mental health of minors, wasn’t abolished until 2014. This, along with other restrictions on the development, distribution, and promotion of console games, is what led to PCs — whose games are far easier to pirate — and later mobile phones emerging as China’s dominant platforms for gaming, Zhao told Sixth Tone.

Subor’s CEO, Wu Song, is optimistic that the dual computer-game console nature of the Subor Z+ will be a bridge to helping gamers understand “console culture.” He told Sixth Tone that if China’s tiny console gaming market increased to just 7 percent, this would represent a 10 billion yuan increase in market size. For now, however, Wu is only looking to compete locally, as the device has been specially tailored to a Chinese audience.

The console has another thing on its side: nostalgia. “Subor is a very powerful brand that left a lasting mark on China,” said Wu, who himself has fond memories of playing on his Subor console as a child.

On microblogging platform Weibo, users disagreed on whether the price was reasonable and expressed confusion over why a machine that can run Windows should be called a gaming console. Others joked that it should keep its old name, “Study Machine” — the company’s old consoles branded themselves in this way in hopes of appealing to parents in a staunchly anti-video game era.

Zhao, the editor, is also unsure of how successful the company’s reboot will be. “The current setup [of the console market] is very mature, so [in order to succeed] they won’t be able to rely on so-called nostalgia or nationalistic sentiment alone,” he said. “This kind of attempt is good, but as to whether it will meet expectations, we look ahead with caution.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the price of the console as 4,888 yuan. It will be sold for 4,998 yuan. In an earlier version of this story, Subors name was incorrectly spelled Supor. 

Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.

(Header image: Subor employees and guests raise their fists — fitted with boxing gloves, the company’s symbol — following the unveiling of the Z+ console at the ChinaJoy gaming and entertainment expo in Shanghai, Aug. 3, 2018. Courtesy of Subor)