There’s something special about a game arcade, isn’t there? So many people have fond memories of shoveling coins onto bulky machines to play their favourite game, to beat their high-score or to compete with others, whether it be a friend or a name on the scoreboard.
In American movies the arcade serves as a symbol of childhood, nostalgia and growth. They often stand in as a representation of an innocent or iconic society before the film’s hero embarks on their journey into a more treacherous and cut-throat world.
It’s no surprise that arcades carry such meaning, as at the height of their popularity they balanced comfortably between technical innovation and wholesome entertainment. In many ways they helped define a generation while at the same time propelling the world of gaming into the future.
When I imagine an arcade the prevailing image that comes to me is informed by retro American pictures or those banking on the retro image. The Last Starfighter, Tron and Stranger Things. Perhaps for some it invokes a more modern image of high-tech Tokyo arcades with all their lights, elite customers and pop-culture heroes.
Whatever the word arcade makes you think of I would be willing to bet that it doesn’t include lines of excited children during the era of the USSR queuing up to play the latest and greatest games.
But this is exactly the image that a visit to the Museum of Soviet Arcade machines, located on Konyushennaya square in St Petersburg, invokes. Here you can find all manner of retro arcade machines from those with super basic design and graphics to the mind boggling complex.
Wandering through the arcade was like taking a crash course in the history of game design. Among the oldest designs we found machines that run pong and variations of it using 1 bit graphics, and also a phenomenally fun racing game called чемпион-м (Champion-M).
From there we made our way through the roughly assembled catalogue, testing various racing games, a side-scrolling adventure game called Снежная Королева (Snow Queen) which was a bit like a Soviet Zelda, and a whole host of ‘table top games’ like table basketball, hockey and, of course, football.
My favourite machine was the impressive торпида атака (Torpedo attack) which used the technical limitations of the time in such an impressive and inventive way that I couldn’t help be impressed even by today’s standards. Using a blend of lights, cardboard cut outs and sound it manages to be incredibly innovative while beautifully retro. The game is this: You look down into a periscope which in turn aims out at the playing field. In the distance small ships sail out, silhouetted against a backlit sky. Your job is to track them and, when they’re in your sights, pull the trigger. This sends an underwater torpedo, represented by a line of red light, shooting from the front of the machine’s playing field to the back where the ship will explode by dropping out of view as the sky behind it flashes a harsh red. It’s a wonderfully straight forward game made with simple technology but it blends the game concept with hardware in a way that very few games do nowadays. By making you look down through the periscope instead of directly at the field it immerses you in the game’s world and by using three physical dimensions (as opposed to the three digital dimensions of modern games) it gives the game weight and makes the distance between yourself and the targets feel more real.
The best thing about the museum is the way in which the vintage machines are displayed. Like ‘arcade’ the word museum conjures certain images and preconceptions too. On the way I had assumed the museum would be a ‘look but don’t touch’ type affair, but there are no such rules here; no display cases, cabinets or fences. The machines here aren’t only collected and preserved but they’re kept alive and working. Here, the word museum is used in the loosest of ways. What’s fantastic is that it’s not only geeks and pop-culture historians that visit the museum. While I was there the place was jam packed with kids and young people all playing the games without any care that they came from a different era. This is a place that young people actively come to hang out. There’s even a large screen which, at the time, was showing a bizarre Soviet Tom & Jerry knock off but was looking forward to a Studio Ghibli season.
Something I love about video games is that they seem to capture the essence of the time in which they were made. If you look at a game made 30 years ago in comparison to a recent one, more often than not they’re incomparable. They’re like time in a bottle. The museum of Soviet Arcade Machines doesn’t just take the bottle and stick it on a shelf to be admired, it uncorks it and offers you a drink.
If you ever find yourself in a Russian city with one of these museums and have either an interest in retro games or a group of young people to entertain be sure to check it out.