Picture life behind the Iron Curtain in the 70s and 80s and most people think of endless propaganda, a lack of basic necessities, secret police, political purges, and a massive curtailing of individual freedom. And this is by no means an exhaustive list. But dig a little deeper and you will discover some unexpected parallels between life in the West and life in the USSR. They may have had their own gaming zombie apocalypse. The best example of this may be the Soviet passion for arcade games. You won’t find much on this topic in your history textbooks but the best place to discover more is the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games in Moscow.
From Humble Beginnings…
Set up in 2007 by Maxim Pinigin, Alexander Stakhanov and Aleksandr Wugman this part museum part arcade is home to around 60 Soviet era arcade machines from the 1970s and 80s. At any one time 40 are in working usable. The trio run the busy arcade and it is open to the public 7 days a week. The project was initially housed in the basement of a Engineering school in Moscow but as the collection expanded they had to first relocate to a bigger premises and then later set up a sister arcade in St. Petersberg, opening in 2013.
On entering the arcade you are given a bag of 15 hammer and sickle engraved kopeck coins which are a small reminder of the iconography of the past. You are then truly spoilt for choice with the massive selection of arcade machine of varying themes including war, hunting, racing, sports and Russian fables. You can try your hand at Zimniaya ohota (Winter Hunt), Magistral (TV Racing), Pepka (the Turnip), Konyok-Gorbunok (the Little Humpbacked Horses), Tankodrom (Tank Battle), Skachki (Horde Races) or the popular Morskoi Boy (Sea Battle). Flash versions of the some of above games have been created so feel free to click on the links.
A Brief History of Soviet Arcade Games
Arcade games were first shown to the Soviet people at an exhibition in 1971. There was a great deal of demand on the day with people waiting hours to play. This got some in the upper ranks of the politburo to thinking. Why not produce our own versions of the machines. The motivations were three fold. National pride, a means to distract the populace, and a lever of propaganda. Four years later the first machines were released and over the next decade many more followed. Some were entirely original ideas while others were not so subtle clones of their western counterparts. The members of the team tasked with the project all had a background in the military. 22 military factories were involved in production and in the end more than 100 different models were built. Many of the parts used including the periscopes and rifles are in fact genuine equipment reconditioned for use on the arcades.
A sad ending to this story is that the museum is running on borrowed time. A lot of the parts that are used in the machines are no longer in production. This means that the ongoing restoration work becomes more expensive as time goes on. In the end without philanthropic help the museums may end up closing. The added irony being that in putting these machines on display for the public to use, they are limiting the amount of time these machines will be available. So on that note, I would advise all those interested to visit sooner rather than later, and if a trip to Moscow is out of the question then these is always the flash games linked to above.