Griboedov Canal is home to many of Saint Petersburg’s most famous sights, such as the Church on Spilled Blood and Kazan Cathedral, as well as the mighty Russian museum. In such a place, it’s easy to overlook lesser-known attractions which somehow melt into the myriad of souvenir shops and freeze in the shadows of their looming neighbors. But on the bank directly opposite the Church on Spilled Blood, you can pass through a gate to find the humble facade of the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, and step back in time.
The Museum of Soviet Arcade games has existed in Saint Petersburg since 2013 following the success of its predecessor in Moscow which opened in 2007. They currently have over 60 games. Despite the fact that some are being repaired, there are over forty that are functional at any given moment.
For me, visiting the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games was a no-brainer: as a child of the 80’s, I had grown up playing video games, particularly the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Arcades were a ubiquitous part of American life as well as a place where youth could gather not to just kill time, but to socialize with friends and meet new people. So it should come as no surprise that the arcades were popular in the Soviet Union, and for anyone of my generation, it’s interesting to see how people behind the Iron Curtain entertained themselves. And surprisingly, it wasn’t that different from what Westerners were doing.
The museum also houses a section that contains a plethora of items from daily Soviet life, such as a Soviet-style telephone booth, milkshake machines, and various toys; however, it’s the main exhibition of vintage Soviet arcade games that is the main attraction. Taking up two floors, the games run the gamut from shooting games reminiscent of Duck Hunt to others which require a bit of skill and foresight. Games such as Sea Battle (which seems to be the most popular game) would have fulfilled childhood dreams of martial adventure without a trip to boot camp, whereas Gorodki, which involves “throwing” a rotating stick at a moving stack of geometric figures to break them, involves not just quick reflexes, but spatial reasoning. There are variations of car racing games, such as Magistral, which give you an approximation of driving, as well. And let’s not forget sports as well: there are virtual versions of billiards, hockey, and even hunting.
The games themselves have been kept in their original condition, with just enough restorative work done to keep them in a functioning condition, but preserving their unique charm. To add a further element of authenticity, your admission price of 450 rubles (350, if you qualify for a discount) includes 15 Soviet 15 kopeck coins, dumped into a paper cone. These are, of course, to be plugged into the games themselves, just as they were 30 years ago.
Unlike their Japanese counterparts the Soviets seemed to be lacking in the aesthetics so the gameplay could be clunky at times, and the graphics are pragmatically simple. However, one can easily find that this only adds to their charm and helps reinforce the qualities that made life in the Soviet Union (and Russia) more enjoyable: making do with what is available and developing an appreciation for simplicity and function.
Perhaps the most curious of all games is Viktorina, a tower of questions and answers that acts as a sort of quiz show. If you haven’t spent all your kopecks by the time you reach it, you can answer questions pertaining to road signs. And whoever said that video games didn’t help develop a person’s knowledge of life skills?
If all that joystick twiddling has given you a work-out, there’s a vintage Soviet soda machine located near the exit, which can serve up such thirst mutilating beverages as tarhun, apelsin, dushes, and cream soda, the sweet fizzy beverages flavoured with tarragon, orange, pears, respectively, and the old time favorite kvas that were so revered in the Soviet Union and remembered with fond nostalgia to this day (note: the flavors are subject to change, and sometimes do). Though the kvas is a modern recipe, the other beverages use the same flavoring that was developed in 1991, and remains unchanged to this day. There is also a small cafe that can serve up coffee and other hot beverages, if you prefer to stay in the modern day, but it too features Soviet appliances to whip up milkshakes. Just next to the cafe, you can also find a vintage photo booth, which uses will capture your image, and develop it in about ten minutes, using the same technology and chemicals as it did back in the day.
In addition to being a fantastic display of arcade games, the museum also features events and workshops. Recent events have featured gum wrappers, mobile phones, and other video game consoles. Occasionally, they play films and cartoons, via a projector. And if that doesn’t keep the kids busy, they also offer a workshop where children could make their own films strips and then show them. Doesn’t that make you wish you were young again?
The Museum of Soviet Arcade Games is open daily from 11AM to 8PM, and is located at Konyushennaya Ploschad 2, lit B. You can find their website, and even play some of the games on-line at 15kop.ru, although you won’t get nearly the same enjoyment as playing them on the original consoles.