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Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines

Moscow's interactive museum dedicated to video game nostalgia of the late regime

by Jacob Resneck in Design on 22 March 2012

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Six years ago two young friends from Moscow were reminiscing about a favorite stand-up arcade game from their youth in the late '80s and early '90s. Few are aware of the fact that while the Soviet Union was in its final days, its military factories were churning out arcade games with names like Морской Бой "Sea Battle" and снайпер "Sniper" that were strikingly similar to the ones enjoyed by their ideological enemies in the United States.

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The group of friends found a broken-down Sea Battle game in a shuttered arcade park and were able to buy the machine for the cost of moving it. Fast forward to 2012 and these friends now operate the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines in Moscow, where about 40 games click, whirr, whistle, flash and beep to the delight of visitors from around the world.

Few of the machines are video games with computer microprocessors—instead they rely on servos, wheels, levers and all manners of moving parts that were all cutting-edge technology when released in the '70s, up until 1991 in the final days of the Soviet Union.

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"Sea Battle was made at a factory that made real rocket guidance systems for the Soviet Navy," says 29-year-old Alexandr Stakhanov, museum director and one of the founders. "Military factories had a lot of free personnel and resources and they had to find ways to maintain levels of production."

Sea Battle can be played online, but others like the slightly less sporting Танкодром "Tank Training"—in which players drive a real plastic tank around a field blasting an array of parked military vehicles—and Воздушный Бой "Aerial Combat" are likely only available to operate at the museum.

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The museum's beginnings were modest—Moscow State Technical University, where Stakhanov studied economics, donated the use of a disused bomb shelter. There, Stakhanov and his team pieced the units together, often cannibalizing three or four machines into one working specimen. Stakhanov doesn't hold onto any nostalgia for those early days. "It was a terrible place, broken down—there were no windows," he says.

For the past six months the museum has found a home in an airy, 3,660-square-foot former industrial building in a quiet neighborhood in eastern Moscow. Natural light pours in and restored vending machines sell artificially colored tarragon and pear flavored sodas.

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Visitors are given a cup of Soviet-minted 15 kopek pieces and set loose to explore and play the various games, whether shooting down N.A.T.O. jets or playing goalie for the Soviet hockey team, it's the standard adolescent male fantasy world—and a treat for pop culture and history buffs—delivered at the drop of a coin.

The team is constantly traveling across Russia looking for potential museum additions or spare parts to keep the games functioning, and their blog (translated from Russian) offers ongoing updates on new and improved games.

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The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines is located at Baumanskaya St., 11, Moscow, Russia.

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