June 14, 2007 / 12:25 PM / 12 years ago

Russians recall bygone era with Soviet game museum

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Forgotten and broken down Soviet-era arcade games are being restored for Moscow’s newest museum, just opened by volunteers nostalgic for childhood days spent playing games like ‘Tankodrom’ and ‘Sniper’.

Alexander Stakhanov, a Soviet arcade machine enthusiast, repairs a video game called "Circus" in the Museum of Soviet Slot Machines in Moscow, June 13, 2007. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

Secret military factories across the Soviet Union churned out the arcade games from the late 1970s, but they were discarded in favour of shinier western imports after the collapse of communism in 1991, explain the museum’s founders.

While youngsters in the West played Pac-man on their first home computers, their Eastern bloc counterparts from Dresden to Vladivostok were queuing up to play the latest arcade games.

About two years ago, a group of students decided they’d like to resurrect some of their childhood memories — a project that has evolved into the Museum of Soviet Slot Machines, recently opened in a temporary home beneath a college dormitory.

“We remembered our childhood and the games we used to play, so we came up with this idea. It wasn’t easy tracking down the machines and most of them didn’t work,” explained Alexander Stakhanov, 25, now a graduate student in economics.

Hidden away in Moscow’s suburbs in the basement of a 1950s building, the museum has an underground feel. After descending down some stairs, you pass through heavy steel protective doors installed at a time when the Cold War could have become very hot, very fast.

Around 20 of the 50 machines are now in working order. They operate with old Soviet 15 kopek coins, the hammer-and-sickle emblem of which itself conjures up a bygone time.

The museum’s website www.15kop.ru pays homage to the simple pricing policy of the games.

Visitors to the museum can try their luck with games like ‘Sea Battle’, where the player looks through a periscope and pretends to be a submarine commander, attempting to torpedo passing ships. In ‘Tankodrom’ the player tries to knock out rocket launchers and jeeps with a small plastic tank.

CUTTING EDGE TECHNOLOGY

The machines were once considered the cutting edge of Soviet technology, which meant they were produced at unknown locations by anonymous hands, explains Stakhanov.

This may have prevented the CIA from poring over the production manuals to steal advanced Soviet knowledge, but it has created an enormous headache for the curators as they try to make the games playable.

Machine innards, dated electronic fuses and transistors lie scattered about a workshop where a portrait of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev smiles down benignly. His presence, insist the founders, is just a joke, not some literal desire to turn back the clock.

Their graphics and controls may be primitive compared to even the smallest modern handheld device, but the ageing games can still be fun, with visitors to the museum competing to sink as much enemy shipping as possible in ‘Sea Battle’.

The museum also features Soviet pinball tables, ice-hockey games for two players, a target shooting game called ‘Sniper’ and early video games with titles like ‘Gorodki’ and ‘Skachki’ (‘horse race’).

“For us, growing up was a good time, there was no politics and these arcades were part of our childhood,” said Sasha Wugman, a 25-year-old engineer.

Slideshow (9 Images)

“Maybe people who are older than us remember the sixties and seventies, when things were different. I only remember good things,” he added.

The founders now hope to attract outside funding so they can move the collection to a more central location in Moscow and expand its opening hours to offer more visitors — both Russians and tourists — a hands-on taste of a Soviet childhood.

“I remember going to the cinema with my dad every Saturday and playing these games, so I want to save them,” said Stakhanov.

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