The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines

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From the late 1970s until the economic downturn in the Soviet Union during Perestroika, Soviet military factories produced a series of arcade games alongside more commonplace military products. Because the production period is very sharply defined - once the Soviet government no longer provided the funding for the factories, game production was scrapped - an extremely distinct period of game production results. To a Soviet gamer of the time, the fact that the U.S.S.R. did not allow foreign games to be imported compounds the sharp definition of this era. This moment in time was resurrected in 2007, when a professor at Moscow State Technical University and two of his students tasked themselves with finding and repairing as many of these arcade machines as possible.

The result of their project is a called the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, which is essentially a basement converted into an arcade inside of a time capsule from the early 80s, albeit one that has been shaken around and mussed with, as not all the games are playable and many of the games do not run consistently. On their website, the herculean efforts of the Museum's curators is merely hinted at, but it is easy to perceive the difficulty of making these games function as many are mostly mechanical, half of them owing as much to puppetry and cardboard cut-outs as they do to a digital screen. Only a couple of the many machines have been preserved in emulators or other digital formats, and since the games' production ended long ago, most of the games and artwork on display in the Museum are profoundly rare.
The question of the games' cultural identity is a tough one, as many of the games are clearly based on early games from the West and Japan. Wired ran an article about the Museum just after its creation that pointed out a lack of high-score lists among the games, which was attributed to the lack of competition in Soviet culture, but the often primitive nature of the games prevents them from such a capacity as well. The fact that the games were produced by the military does has some impact, as the original factory documentation for several of the games states that they intend to improve players' "visual estimation and shooting abilities." Included among these is Morskoi Boi (play Flash version here), a simple periscope-perspective torpedo game with one button: "FIRE."

Morskoi Boi was built in the same factories that built actual nuclear subs, which can be seen in the very polished periscope (perhaps a by-product of real periscope production), but at its heart the game is a near direct port of the American Sea Battle (English for "morskoi boi").Perhaps the Soviet version's charm in its cardboard components, or the bright analogue lights confirming a ship rightly torpedoed.

morskoi view.jpgUnquestionably more bizarre to an American gamer is Repka Silomer or "Turnip Strength Tester," a strength-testing game akin to the American carnival-style hammer and bell games.   The Soviet version isn't concerned with mere hammer-swinging ability however; instead it focuses entirely on one's capacity to yank a turnip from the ground. The concept is born from a folk-tale in which the combined strength of a multitude of characters (including a mouse!) are required to free the obstinate root veggie, but in Repka Silomer only one player at a time may give it a go. Once this aspiring King Arthur has given their best shot at the turnip in the stone, the game will evaluate the attempt on a scale that scolds weaklings with ratings like "Mouse" or "Little Girl."  

Indeed, the ethos behind the development and maintenance of the Museum is given far more to nostalgia than to cultural investigation. A few years after the games were no longer being created, the Iron Curtain fell and the former Soviet states were infiltrated by Nintendo consoles and PCs. The Soviet-era games faded into obscurity and disrepair.  Thus, the Museum is the last public-minded space where the games can be appreciated. 

So, while a Westerner might dismiss the Museum's collection as little more than an assembly of kitschy curiosities in a basement (a familiar concept made bizarrely foreign), any person who grew up with these machines only to see them fade into obscurity would be completely overwhelmed by such a collection. The enthusiasm among Russian gamers for the exhibit speaks of a delightful involuntary memory called to light, the Museum a dank basement full of Proustian Madeleine cookies. Though these games can be mostly accounted for as remakes of foreign titles, even a slight touch of authentic home culture (sometimes even as subtle as correct use of the language) changes the way a game might speak to Soviet gamers. To the people who continued playing Japanese and Western games after the Soviet arcade games were finished, the Museum is much more than an antique exhibit - it is a return to a forgotten childhood, where games existed within their specific culture in a way that would never be seen again.

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