In 1984, Tetris emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and remains one of the most popular games ever. But Tetris isn’t the only game that was developed in the USSR. When the arcade craze went global in the 80’s, the Soviet military saw the propaganda potential in state-produced games and got to work. Military facilities produced around 70 of these hilariously practical games that focused primarily on strength, military prowess and Russian tradition.
If you ever make your way to St. Petersburg, you must spend an evening at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, where three true geek heroes have rounded up a basement full of mostly-functional restored Soviet video games. Begun in 2012 as a way to preserve Russian and gaming history, the curators have rounded up about 60 cabinets, many of which represent the last example of that game in the world.
The most iconic Soviet game is Repka Silomer, or Turnip Strength Tester. Maybe as a child you heard a folk tale about an old woman who can’t pull a turnip out of the ground. One by one, a number of improbable creatures in her village (like a bug and a dog) help her pull the turnip. Alone, none of them could have gotten the turnip out of the ground. Together, they have the strength to succeed. This story was super-popular with the Soviet government (obviously), so they made Repka Silomer, a strength-testing game that you can only win with the help of others.
There’s also Gorodeki, (translation: little village) a digital version of a traditional stick-and-ball game. In Morskoi Boi (Sea Battle), you look through a periscope and fire on the opposing submarine.
Like most video games, war and gunplay are common themes, but there’s a striking difference: none of the Soviet games have a leaderboard. Although you could earn free plays for winning enough times in a row, the idea of seeking out an individual high score was considered to be counter to Communist ideals.
Don’t forget to try a soda out of the Gazirovannaya Voda (sparkling water). One kopeck will get you plain old fizzy water. Three kopecks and you can get a shot of tarragon flavored syrup in your water.
And if you’re expecting a paper cup, forget it. Your soda comes in a glass that is chained to the machine. You’ve got to stand at the machine to drink it, then wash the glass in a little sink attached and leave it for the next thirsty comrade.
A lot of these games are living on borrowed time. Much of the technology that keeps them running, right down to the light bulbs, have been out of production since the dissolution of the USSR. Despite the ticking clock, the owners insist the games be played, experienced and enjoyed.
If you can’t make it out to St. Petersburg any time soon, you can learn more about Soviet games, try a few of them on the museum website and like them on Facebook. Dasvidaniya and happy gaming!