The machines were designed and constructed in defense factories that mostly produced things like ICBM electronics and yield sensors for underground nuclear testing.
I went to Moscow this fall and while there, I quit drinking forever. I hadn't planned this, so, like anyone finding himself in an ancient metropolis with unexpected free time on his hands, I pulled out my phone and Yandexed "video game museum Москва."
It was a total stab in the dark, so I was pleasantly surprised when a place called the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines popped up high in the search results. The description said the museum collects, maintains, and lets visitors play dozens of arcade games from the 1970s and 1980s. This sounded like my bag!
Already pretty excited, I clicked on the link and right there, on the front page of the museum's website, was a big picture of Morskoi Boi (Sea Battle), my favorite submarine torpedo gunner game of my childhood!
Actually, I'd forgotten this game existed until I saw its picture on the museum website. But seeing that picture and pictures of some of the other games in the museum's collection, like Freeway:
did spark an instant happy recognition that felt simultaneously vivid and hazy, like seeing a kid in the same exact strange pants that used to be your favorite when you were nine. I simply had to go check the place out as soon as possible.
The next day I rode the preposterously stately Moscow Metro to Baumanskaya station, named after Nikolai Bauman, whose main claim to fame is being the first Bolshevik to be killed for his beliefs.
Stepping out of the Metro station, I found myself in a New Russia open air mini-mall purgatory of cell phone shacks and Panera clones. After walking north a few blocks on Baumanskaya St., past the campus of the prestigious Bauman Moscow State Technical University (the Soviets were not known for being subtle about their idol worship), I came upon the museum founders posing for a photo shoot in front of the entrance:
Ok, things didn't actually work out so nicely. The founders weren't really there when I walked up to the entrance, but that is a real file photo from 2012, the late middle era of the museum's short but dynamic history.
The story begins in the mid-2000s, when the friends realized they shared fond childhood memories of playing games like Morskoi Boi, and decided to see if they could track down and restore some old cabinets. Their early efforts were met with mixed results; mistakes were made and machines may have been ruined. But the trio quickly realized that they had stumbled upon a great opportunity—there were a great many more of these machines rusting away around the country, and nobody seemed to want them or understand their value.
The games haven't always been so neglected, and the birth of the Soviet arcade boom actually has its roots in the West. In ancient Soviet times (1971, to be exact), an exhibition of foreign arcade machines at the Gorky Park Center for Culture and Recreation proved so wildly popular that the organizers decided to just buy all the games and clone them. Remember that Morskoi Boi cabinet? Here's a 1970 Midway ad:
And here's SEGA's 1966 Basketball:
Most Soviet citizens were none the wiser, probably, and wouldn't have cared if they'd known they were playing knock-offs of Japanese and Western games. The homegrown Soviet versions became popular and ubiquitous attractions, found at summer camps, park pavilions, rec centers, and even subway stations.
Inside, these clones were hardly exact duplicates of their Western inspirations. The engineers who designed and built them had to work with different parts and within different technical and financial constraints. This led to anything from changed circuit designs to implementation changes that directly, if subtly, affected the gameplay. In Morskoi Boi, for example, the player's torpedoes can only fire in one of eight directions, each depicted by its own ray of light bulbs under the painted-glass sea.
This is a more reliable design than the actual-moving-torpedo analog controls used by Midway, but it changes what Steve Swink calls the game feel and makes the game harder and less predictable, since a slight turn of the periscope now sometimes results in a disproportionate change in aim direction. To an action game designer who spends a lot of time thinking about controls—to someone like me—it felt almost like playing a different game, despite the dramatic similarities in concept, scoring, and cabinet design.
Many of the roughly eighty game cabinets built by the Soviets, clones or not, reflected a desire to improve as well as to wholesomely relax the player, making the Soviet government a pioneer of the shitty edutainment tradition. Here's a page from the Freeway technical manual, featuring its statement of purpose:
Here is a game designed to improve players' familiarity with road signs:
And here's one designed to develop comrades' shooting accuracy:
My favorite Serious Game at the museum, though, was Motorace:
This game kept punishing me by suddenly stopping and resetting my motorcycle, dropping me back down the field. It felt cruelly unpredictable and was making me race in a high-strung yet timid manner. Turns out, those were road signs popping up off on the side of the screen at random intervals—road signs I was supposed to be obeying. My mistake was that I was breaking the speed limit while trying to win the race.
Then there were some games that were just unpretentiously good, like Safari:
You have two minutes and a limited number of shots to bag separate quotas of three different kinds of game animals. The game squeezes a lot of depth out of the fact that the closer animals flip from targets to obstacles once you reach their quotas.
There were even one or two games, like this ancestor of Dance Dance Revolution, that made me feel something approaching the awe one feels towards an ancient sacred presence:
Just think of it, whole cultures have sprung and spread out from this root! (And have now moved so far away from it that they can probably return to it for fresh design inspiration.)
Unfortunately, as you've probably guessed, these machines were delicate and breakdown-prone,especially the electro-mechanical ones, whose large number of moving parts meant that they needed service as often as every few days. This little peek inside Morskoi Boi starts to give you an idea:
The purely electronic cabinets had fewer moving parts, but much more complex circuitry. Here's a circuit diagram from the technical manual for the simple racing game Autorally-M:
According to the museum, the machines were designed and constructed in defense factories that mostly produced things like ICBM electronics and yield sensors for underground nuclear testing. This made a kind of demented sense: the factories had the right kind of parts and engineers with the relevant expertise. But it also meant that a maintenance manual for a racing game might be considered a classified document, and that replacement parts and maintenance know-how became hard to come by once the Soviet Union collapsed.
The museum's existence is proof that these problems weren't insurmountable, but finding machines and bringing them back to life proved difficult. In the post-Soviet hyper-inflationary gold rush chaos of the 1990s, with so many obviously high-value state assets to plunder, so little public appetite for iconic reminders of the Soviet era, and so many new computer games to pirate and play, it wasn't worth the trouble to repair and maintain obsolete arcade cabinets, or to retrofit them with acceptors for bills instead of the now-worthless 15 kopeck coins. Many machines were left broken, abandoned, and forgotten.
They were still rusting away in summer camp storage sheds and rec center basements when the museum's founders started looking for them, and though some had been gutted for rare parts by radio enthusiasts, many were still more or less in one piece and could be had for a pittance by anyone willing to cart them away. Since no one else had taken to restoring long-lost Soviet arcade games, the guys suddenly found themselves saddled with a conservation responsibility as well as a business opportunity.
Whatever drove them, the founders started scouring the country for cabinets, and after restoring about three dozen to working condition, opened the first iteration of the first branch of the museum in 2007. The space was a former underground bomb shelter at the university some of them were attending:
Word quickly spread about the new museum in cool kid circles, and the venue soon attracted a hip young crowd:
In 2010, the museum marked its third anniversary by moving to its current larger above-ground location. Since then, two new branches have opened, one in St. Petersburg and one in Kazan.
The Moscow branch seems to be doing well—on my two visits, most of the machines were working and there was a steady stream of kids with parents, tourists, and awkward teen couples playing the games and buying the gift shop merch.
Still, an uncertainty hangs over the venture's future. What happens when the spare parts run out? That moment is not far off in many cases. For instance, the museum estimates that it has 89 percent of the world's remaining stock of a discontinued light bulb model used in one of the games. The museum can and will find replacements, but what if that stops being cost effective? Already there are some concerns about the Kazan branch being sustainable, as the people in that city have less disposable income.
Without the institutional support that game museums like The Strong receive, the only way the museum can finance collection and preservation efforts is by exploiting the very artifacts it tries to conserve, which means they're only going to wear out faster. While it's doubtful whether preserving old arcade cabinets indefinitely is possible, it's clear that the museum's operating model can't last forever. Perhaps one day a rich philanthropist will take up the cause and make a proper museum out of this retro arcade franchise, but in the meantime, hurry to Moscow while the original cabinets still work.