The Extraordinary, Underground Museum Of Soviet Arcade Games

Back in 2007 I read an article on BoingBoing about a small “museum” of Soviet-era video games that had been opened by a couple of students in the basement of a small technical university about 30 minutes outside the centre of Moscow. The article was accompanied by awesome pictures of hulking consoles that looked like they were designed with the same sense of fun that an engineer would use to construct a hospital waiting room.

It was an amazing article, but as I browsed the collection I never imagined that two years later my wife and I would find ourselves descending into the Ploshchad Revolyutsii Metro station, about to take that 30 minute ride to the outskirts of Moscow.

It was only 6.30 in the evening, but this was December and Moscow had already been dark for two hours. We were originally scheduled to spend four nights in the city, but transportation complications caused by the bombing of the train line between St. Petersburg and Moscow delayed our arrival and gave us only a day and a half in the city. We spent that morning running around to see as much as we could: Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Tomb, The Kremlin… we were exhausted but as we navigated the busy subway we were probably more excited than we’d been all day.

To be honest, we really weren’t sure what to expect. The museum seemed amazing, but the small print was a little strange: It was only open two or three days a week, and not until 7.30 at night. The brief articles I’d read never mentioned anyone else being in the museum, so we wondered if the reporters had arranged private tours or we were about to visit a guy sitting by himself in a basement. Regardless, we figured that whatever happened it would be an amusing adventure.

It was only about a five-minute walk from the subway to the school, a brick building on the corner that didn’t look much different from the apartments that surrounded it. There were a few uneven steps leading up to a metal door where a small, unlit sign identified it, in Cyrillic, as the Moscow State Technical University. We walked through the door and found ourselves in a small lobby facing a guard sitting behind a desk a few feet away. Just to the right of the guard was a flight of stairs heading down. Not speaking any Russian, we gestured to the basement and said “Here to see the museum?”

“музей?” (muz-yey?) he replied, which sounded close enough and we nodded vigorously. He got on the phone and in a minute an excitable guy with a wild head of hair came hustling up the stairs. Speaking to us quickly and only in Russian, he buzzed us through the turnstile and led us downstairs.

So far this article has been text-heavy, which is bad form, but was intentional. I wanted to do my best to recreate the experience of walking into the museum because Imagineers could not have done a better job of designing the atmosphere.

These are the stairs leading down to the basement.[imgclear]

This is the hallway that leads to the museum: Teal cinder block walls with a dirty red tile floor (that’s not the door, the actual door is behind us).[imgclear]

The photo here is inside the museum, looking back at the front door. It’s a military-grade metal door with locking levers in each corner. Those aren’t for show; that’s still how the door is opened and closed. Also, the chipped bricks and general structural decay was consistent throughout the space. And yes, those are florescently-lit yellow and pink walls.[imgclear]

I wish I had done a better job of documenting every step of the process, but even the best photos in the world can’t do it justice as they don’t capture the atmosphere, which was perfect. As soon as you walk in you feel like you’ve discovered some secret bunker of fun and we couldn’t wait to start trying everything.

This is the main room that you walk into.[imgclear]

Alexander Stakhanov, the guy who met us at the door and one of the four people who started this museum, gave us a quick rundown about which machines work and which don’t, how to put coins in (some are finnicky) and the general lay of the land. We actually understood most of it, though he was speaking rapidly and entirely in Russian. It wasn’t until after he was done and I said to Anjel “maybe we can leave our coats here” that he realised that we were American.

He apologised for being able to speak so little English and we apologised for not being able to speak any Russian. He ran through a few of the key points again, handed us each a small plastic cup of 15 Kopek coins and excused himself to duck into the other room. At this point it was just a little after 7.30 and we were the only ones there. I took as many photos as I could before I just had to put down the camera and start playing.

This was one of the first games we tried. It’s called “Репка Силомер” (Repka Silomer) or “Turnip Strength Tester.” Later that night, we showed the photos to our homestay host, hoping for some sort of explanation. She had never played the game but told us that the concept was based on an old Russian children’s story.

The tale is called “The Giant Turnip” and is about a family who planted a turnip that grew so large that they couldn’t get it out of the ground. The Old Man tries pulling on it, but it won’t budge. The Old Woman grabs on to him, but still no luck. Then the Granddaughter grabs hold, the dog, the cat and finally, with the help of the mouse, they’re able to pull it out.

It didn’t seem like the most exciting children’s story, until I looked into it and found that in the original Russian it’s much more lyrical. As the verses progress it almost becomes a tongue twister. The final line reads:

Myshka za koshku, koshka za Zhuchku, Zhuchka za vnuchku, vnuchka za babku, babka za dedku, dedka za repku, tyanut-potyanut–vytyanuli repku

(“The mouse took hold of the cat, the cat took hold of the dog, the dog took hold of the granddaughter, the granddaughter took hold of the old woman, the old woman took hold of the old man, the old man took hold of the turnip, they pulled and pulled–and finally–out came the turnip!”)

To play this fairy tale adaptation you simply pull on the handle and the counter displays “Ваша сила” (vasha sila – your strength). Since I wasn’t sure how rough one should be with a 20-year-old video game, my first pull was pretty tentative. It resulted in a 67 and the achievement of “Mouse” level (pathetic). Having been duly slapped down by the game I tried again, this time with one foot braced on the machine and pulling as hard as I could (as my wife demonstrates, left). That netted me a 161 and got me up to “Dog” level – two up from Mouse but still one step below the little girl (sigh).

This was Anjel’s favourite game: “подводная лодка” (Podvodaya Lodnka which translates to “submarine” or, literally, “underwater boat”). It was a combination of a mechanically moving sea floor and electronic sights and torpedoes.

This was a great two-player game called “торпедная атака” (Torpednaya AtakaTorpedo Attack).

It was also a combination of physical and electronic elements. Ships move slowly back and forth (like ducks in a shooting gallery) while you train your sights on them and try to time your torpedo shots to intercept them.

There was also a little viewing window where your buddies could watch you play (though it was much cooler looking through the sights).

When the game is being played, the background is much darker and the ships are just silhouetted against the it. When you hit a ship, the background goes completely black and there’s an awesome red “explosion” light with an accompanying sound effect. At some point (if you’ve sunk enough ships?) it even switches to a “night” mode where all the lights turn off except for an actual spotlight (no wider than one ship) that shines out from your sights – increasing the difficulty significantly.

This next one is a racing game called “Магистраль” (Magistral), which is very similar to Grand Prix for the Atari 2600, except the track runs vertically and the other cars move back and forth across the road (apparently veering constantly and madly).

This game is kind of the poster-boy of the museum and seeing it in person was (embarrassingly?) very similar to the first time one sees a ubiquitous-but-famous piece of art in person: “Wow, this is the Mona Lisa.” Each driver is on their own parallel racetrack and crashing into one of the computer cars on the track momentarily stops you. There’s actually a playable version of this game online on the museum’s website but, as with most emulators, it captures the spirit, but not the soul.

The gas pedal has a satisfying spring action to it and the steering wheels on the console are bare metal, lacking the plastic covering that Pole Position had. Like most of these games, though, you play them gingerly at first. The only way to win is to really whip the wheel side to side to avoid the other cars. It’s awesomely satisfying.

There’s also a large floating head that appears when the game is not being played.

This next one didn’t seem to be working too well, or we were just really bad at it. It’s called “Air Fight” (воздушный бойvozdushnyi boy).

I could explain it, but it’s pretty straightforward and this video can do most of the heavy lifting.

This is a children’s turkey ride. I did not climb on, for fear of breaking it, but it did work. Between the bright colours, industrial-looking structural base and years of wear, it falls into that “uncanny valley” between whimsical and terrifying.

We’d been wandering around the museum for 15 minutes or so when another couple showed up, followed shortly by another – and within a few minutes, our entire experience had changed. As I mentioned before, the previous articles I read gave the impression that it was only the reporter in the museum. Maybe it was empty because the museum was relatively new, or because a private viewing had been arranged, but by the time we had been there for 30 minutes, the place was packed with about 20 people.

The air was filled with the sounds of games, and it was exactly like walking into any bustling arcade.

It made the whole experience even more fun, as people weren’t visiting the museum with some sort of ironic detachment or casually looking around – everyone was there playing games and having a blast.

This next one was a skill crane game that wasn’t working. “зонд” (zond) translates to “probe” and I’m hoping the word has different connotations in Russian, as that’s the least playful skill crane name I’ve ever heard. (Thanks to a helpful commenter, we now know that “Zond” was the name of an unmanned Soviet space program that ran from 1964 to 1970.)

These were some of the prizes inside.

This video shows “Winter Hunt” (Зимняя охотаZimniaya ohota). Different animals light up and move across the board while you shoot them with a light-sensitive rifle. After a first round of hitting almost nothing, Anjel dialled in the sights and went to town, throwing down a score of 240. Our video of some of the ass-kicking in progress.

Not surprisingly the video setting on my point-and-shoot camera distorts things a little bit. The running animal doesn’t appear as a big circle of light, instead you see the lit-up silhouette of the animal. When I zoom in near the end of the video you can see what the animals look like to the right and left of the one that’s lit up.

This is “авторалли” (avtoralliAuto Rally). Don’t let the beige exterior fool you, this is a fast paced game.

You and a buddy race cars around a driving area littered with oil slicks and obstacles that slow you down. There are a number of flags on the board, most of which are red, one of which is green. The object is to be the first to reach the green coloured flag, thereby winning the number of points on the flag.

As soon as one person reaches the flag they get the points, the flag turns red and another flag lights up as green. There’s a bit of strategy involved as the point values differ. Some flags are six-pointers, others just one. If there’s a one-pointer all the way across the board, it might not be worth racing all the way over for it. The seven-pointer in the middle is clearly the jackpot.

We didn’t actually play this next game. It was really hard to figure out and seemed to somehow involving knowing and choosing correct traffic signs.

After the fact, we learned that “викморина” (viktorina) translates to “quiz” – in this case one involving traffic signs. Exactly what it looked like.

This next one was a fantastic game that we only played once – for good reason. “Баскетбол” (Basketball) consists of a large plastic dome with nets at either end and a small rubber ball. The “court” consists of 15 divots, with two bumpers at the bottom (one for the Red Team, one for the Blue). Each divot is numbered, and the object is to launch the ball into the opponent’s basket by pressing the button of whatever divot the ball is in (which triggers the bumper, which launches the ball).

It is fantastically fast-paced and ridiculously competitive and luckily the first game ended in a 12-12 tie. Anjel and I looked at each other and sort of laughed, saying “ha ha, that was fun… we should play something else.” I think we both saw that this could easily become a battleground game that would have quickly turned into a best two-out-of-three, three-out-of-five… situation.

This next one is probably my favourite game in terms of design. If I could have one game to sit at home as a playable piece of art it would probably be this one. It looks like it was designed as a companion to the Soviet space program.

It’s called “теле-спорт” (tele-sport) and features five different variants of pong.

We played Soccer where each person controls two “players” on the game board: the Goalie and the-guy-that-does-everything-else (we’ll call him the Forward). Moving the joystick up and down moves the Goalie and the Forward up and down in sync. Moving the joystick right and left moves the Forward back and forth across the field, but the Goalie stays in the same plane in front of the net. If the ball hits the Forward (or Goalie) from behind, it will pass through (slowing and changing direction slightly). If it hits them from in front, it bounces off like a standard pong game.

This next one was a little strange. The title of the game is “Городки” (gorodki) which translates to “little structures.” On the screen there’s a white cube that moves back and forth. Inside the white cube are simple patterns made up of black tiles which are represented three-dimensionally in designs across the front of the game.

The game is more than a little cryptic, so I had to send my Russian friend Ilya an email asking for a little help with the explanation. According to him, the mechanics are based on an old Russian game. He says:

The goal is to knock out those figures by hurling a wood stick about 5′ tall and the thickness of a shovel stock. It’s a variation of Bowling and the score depends of how many pieces you knocked out with one strike. I never played it myself but have seen people playing it in a park when I was about 7 years old.

As if that didn’t answer all the questions I might have, he went on to add: “the name ‘gorodki‘ derives from Russian ‘gorod‘ (town or city) which derived from old Russian word ‘gorodit‘ (with a soft T) which means to build , so “gorodki” means “little structures”.

Each level has a different formation, and each formation has a name: Canon, Star, Water Well, Artillery, Machine Gun Hole, Sentries, Shooting Range, Fork, Arrow, Jack shaft, Racquet, Cray fish, Sickle, Airplane and Envelope.

In the arcade version of the game the player has a right-and-left moving joystick with a red button on top that releases a spinning stick. The spinning stick can’t be steered once you’ve sent it on its way. The object is to hit each of the black tiles in the white cube. When you’ve destroyed all the tiles it moves you on to the next level (new formation). I recorded a video of this one as it was a little hard to understand – plus it had a neat “theme song” when the game starts and ends.

This is “Tankodrome” (Танкодром). Either it wasn’t working right or we just couldn’t figure it out.

The right lever moved the tank by the old “magnet under the gameboard” technique. The other was (we think) some sort of fire lever, but anything that happened seemed to be by chance, rather than our own efforts. There was one “danger zone” that you drive through and cause a counter to rapidly scroll up to 50 in a cool electro-mechanical way – though its effect on gameplay was unclear. (Watch this game in action.)

It was pointed out in the articles I’d read that none of these games featured a high-score list. This originally jumped out to me as a fantastic cultural difference – you could be rewarded for a high score by a free game, but in the spirit of Communism, there was no recognition of individual achievement. Before we visited the museum I would usually mention that aspect of the games to friends, but to be honest while we were there I completely forgot about it and in fact never noticed the lack of a high-score board.

Most of these games were either entirely mechanical (foosball, basketball) or a combination of mechanical and electronic elements (Torpedo Attack, Submarine) and even the American versions of those types of games didn’t necessarily have high-score lists. There were a couple of games that could have had a list (and perhaps didn’t for ideological reasons) but on the whole it wasn’t as glaring a difference as I had expected.

Still, it’s an interesting little difference between Soviet and American gaming.

Here is another mystery machine. The title translates roughly to “Information“. It seemed to be a collection of schematics and was fantastically ominous, but we couldn’t make any sense of it. After we left I was bummed that I didn’t ask more about it, but there was a lot to see at the time. Instead I sent an email to Ilya’s brother Alexi (who still lives in Moscow and who we spent an afternoon with while we were there) to ask him about it.

He confirmed that it was not in fact a game and was a collection of various diagrams and charts, like the one here of “motorised infantry company in defence”.

Finally, I’ll end with the most utilitarian soda machine ever.

“Газированная вода” (gazirovannaya voda) translates to “sparkling water”. Though not exactly a game, these used to be a common sight on the streets of Moscow. There are three options: one Kopek for plain soda water and two 3-Kopec options for flavoured soda.

In the top photo you can see the slot in the middle of the machine where the soda was dispensed. Each machine would have a glass (an actual glass glass) that would be used by everyone. The soda came out of the left side. On the right side, there was a small bit of water that could be used to “rinse” the glass. Alexander said that, when he was a child, his parents had forbidden him from ever drinking from the machines – which was probably sound advice.

And with that, having spent almost two hours playing games and taking pictures, we finally headed back into the cold Russian night to make our way back home. It was a fantastic experience, and, though I don’t know that one can justify a trip to Moscow solely to visit the museum, if you find yourself in the city I would absolutely recommend giving it just as much weight as any other tourist destination.

The entrance fee was 300 rubles (about $US10) and was 100 per cent worth it – especially considering that the guys that run the museum have put countless hours into getting these machine up and running again. You can visit the museum website here, though the English language version of the site doesn’t have nearly as much content as the Russian.

You can click here to see our complete Flickr set of photos from the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games.

There were also a number of fantastic signs and posters around the museum like the one below. You can click here to see our complete Flickr set of Soviet Video Game Posters.

Connal Hughes enjoys travelling around with his wife and then writing about it like some sort of… travel writer. Check out their site, A Dangerous Business, for more stories.

This article originally ran on January 5, 2010. Republished with permission.

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