Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Appendix: Soviet arcade games

The subject of this week’s mini post didn’t really fit into consumer products, but I thought it was too charming to pass up. The device you see in the picture below is the “Morskoi Boi” (sea battle) arcade machine, and as an avowed video game geek, I can say that they sure don’t make them like this anymore.

It’s not what we would recognize as a modern arcade machine, being more like a traditional fairground machine in function. Instead of an electronic display, the player peers through a periscope viewfinder and fires “torpedoes” at metal cutouts of ships moving back and forth on a chain. It’s the little touches that really make this something special. At the bottom of the cabinet is a pull out podium, so that even the shortest and youngest comrades can have their go at sinking some capitalists. When you fire a torpedo a trail of coloured lights shoots off to the horizon, and if you score a hit you get a blazing flash of fire and a satisfying crashing noise.

However, the rather stern soviet government would never commission something as frivolous as an arcade game without an ulterior motive. As noted in the fascinating “unsung icons of soviet design”, edited by Michael Idov, the game was issued by the Orwell-couldn’t-make-it-up Committee on Amusement, which I can vaguely imagine tying people to chairs in basements and forcing them to laugh on pain of electrocution. The manual claimed that the game was no mere exercise in frippery, but would raise the next generation of soviet sailors, improving “visual estimation and shooting skills”. An interesting parallel can be drawn here with western attitudes towards video games. The communist state embraced the medium as a way to help the young develop skills that would be useful in the future, whereas western media has tended to ignore any possible positive effects of video games and sensationalise the negatives.

You can even play a simulacrum of the original game at http://morskoy-boy.15kop.ru/en/, and find pictures of other soviet arcade games, all of which look pleasingly industrial and unbreakable.

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