Featured in Atlas Obscura – Fall 2015
For this investigative piece, I went to Russia to investigate the underground world of restoring Soviet Arcade Games for Atlas Obscura.
WHEN YOU WALK INTO THE Museum of Soviet Arcade Games in St. Petersburg, the first thing you’ll see is a series of gray, hard-edged soda machines from the early 1980s. If you choose the one in the middle, it will dispense a tarragon-flavored and slightly fermented soda whose recipe relies on a syrup that has not been mass produced since the fall of the Soviet Union. It tastes not unlike a mix of molasses and breath mints.
All around us are beeps, pings, and shot blasts coming from rickety old machines that seem like they’ve time-traveled from the golden era of American arcade games. And yet, everything’s in Russian, we’re using kopecks as currency, and there is no Donkey Kong here.
This is not your typical museum. For one thing, everything is not only touchable, but playable. Designed to look like a 1980s USSR video game arcade, the museum is filled with restored games carefully modeled after those in Japan and the West and manufactured to the approval of the Cold War-era Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
Now, 24 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian families spend their afternoons here playing the propaganda arcade games of their youth, drinking increasingly hard-to-find sparkling beer from 1980s soda machines, and popping Soviet coins into strength-training and eye-coordination games that were approved by the Soviet government in the 1970s and 1980s as having “real” value to today’s Russian children.
The museum has recovered nearly 60 games, many of which are the last remaining ones in the world. The project began three years ago when four college students in St. Petersburg decided to rescue the bulky relics from obscurity, and teach the country about the USSR’s improbable arcade gaming history.
“The fact that some of these products are in danger of disappearing is why they are beloved,” says Dr. Stephen Norris, a Professor of History at Miami University of Ohio who specializes in Russian and post-Soviet studies. “Nostalgia for the video games of the 1970s and 1980s is part of a larger nostalgia for Soviet consumer products of late socialism,” a period when Russians were introduced to many popular items, from wall-mounted radios to beveled drinking glasses to vacuum cleaners.
Read the full story in Atlas Obscura.