Contemporary culture owes a lot to an angry ape, a cheeky plumber and a very hungry circle. The iconic trio of Super Mario, Donkey Kong and Pac Man were the founding fathers not only of a huge global industry but also of a global culture. Thanks to their dominance, the world of gaming is now one of the most homogenous in the world, with the same heroes doing battle in Nagasaki, Nebraska and Novosibirsk.
But this global culture was born in a very specific milieu — the Coke-fuelled, hormone-addled world of the local arcade. True, the games that entertained the mulleted teens of middle America in the Eighties, and later took over the world a decade later, largely came out of Japan. But an alternative existed. All the while, in a galaxy not so far, far away, a subtly different palace of entertainments was keeping delinquents off the streets — the Soviet arcade.
“Substitute kopecks for quarters and many of these machines wouldn’t look out of place down the mall”
With little lasting legacy in the world of contemporary gaming, this culture could have slipped away into oblivion. Which is one reason why the enthusiastic nostalgists at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines have carved out a cosy corner in the backstreets of leafy Baumanskaya in Moscow to preserve forever that youth-club-in-1986 feel. (A new branch is also imminent in St Petersburg.)
As so often when viewing the quasi-commercial cultural products of late socialism, it’s the sameness that hits you before the difference. Substitute kopecks for quarters and many of these machines wouldn’t look out of place down the mall. This convergence is, of course, more technological than ideological: there’s only so much cultural baggage you can inject into manoeuvring a car-shaped blob around a scrolling track. Games like Sea Battle are so infuriatingly obtuse in the gameplay that you don’t have time to wonder whether the battleship you’re sinking is an U-, an SS, or an HMS (You can play it online here).
But the museum’s real charm emerges in the little differences — the quirks that point to a somewhat homelier, family-friendly aspect to Soviet arcades. A classic strength test machine is shorn of any macho connotations by being named Turnip: your task is to pull the recalcitrant root out of the ground; the highest strength rating is Granddad. The touch-sensitive footpads of Skorokhod could have been used for a decadent dancing game; instead your task is to guide a folk-tale character through a maze.
Perhaps we see here some of the remnants of a communitarian culture: steering an imaginary ice-breaker to port may well be fantastically boring, but it has a pleasing sense of social duty about it — none of the individualistic, smash-and-grab glory of Asteroids here. Other games seem to reflect the regnant technocratic spirit of the Soviet Union. The basketball simulator — perhaps because of its utter lack of similarity to actual basketball — is addictive, but the interface, which comprises 15 numbered buttons in a row, acts as constant reminder that this is a planned system of interconnected wires and impulses, not an unpredictable game of capitalistic chance.
These tenuous political extrapolations are, however, antithetical to the joyfully apolitical, nostalgic spirit of the museum. This feeling is encapsulated by the sign perched on top of a hulking grey machine by the entrance: “Yes, this is a real soda machine, yes, it does have real syrup, and, yes, you can use it.” In fact, the whole museum seems to be set up in anticipation of the questions of wonderstruck thirtysomething passers-by: yes, this is the physical embodiment of your childhood happiness, yes, it works, and yes, you can play on it.