A series of interview answers from Russian native Alex Smaliy, and Frenchman Fabien Delpierre who lived extensively in Russia during the 1990s.
AS: The very beginning that I remember, there was nothing but arcades and Pong. The arcades before 1991 would be pretty bizarre by today's standards though.
FD: I spent considerable time living in Russia, in places from Moscow to Lake Baykal. Personally I never saw any arcades anywhere.
AS: Most if not all early arcades had submarine battle and sniper games, moving model ships in the first and light sensitive targets in the latter, which you had to hit with a tracing light. The submarine hunt game involved a small metal ball bearing. There were also table hockey games. Later on, arcades in Russia were typically located inside amusement parks. The one I used to live near had Street Fighter and beat-em-ups like Double Dragon, in addition to marksmanship booths and video ninepins (a game similar to bowling, but with stackable pins). The Street Fighter machine always had a big crowd around it. I didn't play often since the tokens cost a fortune and the machines tended to eat them.
EDITOR'S NOTE: check out this site for more on Russia's arcade history.
FD: I was more into PC games, but you rarely see legitimate ones. They're pretty cheap by Western standards ($20-25) but too expensive for the Russian masses. Bootleg games are, on the other hand, widely available and publicly sold from simple stalls in all sorts of places, like squares, parks, open-air markets, metro stations, etc. Though in metro stations they’re more like semi-permanent booths.
AS: There were also computer 'enthusiasts' who would set up 'computer rooms' at summer camps and company resorts. They had ancient Apple II machines and other archaic stuff, running Atari and NES-era games: overhead shooters, Joust, etc. You paid by the minute. A Russian PC called BK, with some rather primitive games, was also there - it was a terminal that connected to a server on the local network I believe. The biggest hit was a port of Lode Runner. There were also places with even Spectrums set up, complete with magnetic tape decks as storage devices! This was rare since most Russian Spectrum clones used a floppy disk interface.
FD: PC gamers today though seem to play mostly in LAN centres and internet cafes. Mainly because they either can't afford a decent PC or good internet connection. This is slowly changing in big urban centres though, as the middle class increases. The Russian gaming teams (Counter-Strike, Quake 3, etc.) are pretty famous in online and offline international competitions; for being skilled, pugnacious, and excellent sports. Their main problem is that whenever they compete online, they have serious issues with their country's bad connections to the "outside world", a disadvantage that often forces them to play outside of Russia.
AS: During my last visit some years ago, all the neighbourhood kids seemed to spend a bunch of time at a parlour that opened down the street where they paid by the minute to play Russian hacks of Diablo, Starcraft, and Crazy Taxi. It was still run by a hobbyist with horn-rimmed glasses and there were a lot of older teens and rich kids whose parents you didn't want to upset. Everything cool or new in Russia always seemed to get there via less than savoury channels.
FD: I've seen only two shops selling legitimate console games; both of them were in Moscow, in luxury supermarkets that only foreigners and rich locals would step into. I didn't stop to look at the prices. I haven't seen many bootleg console games, maybe they're as easily found as bootleg PC games, but I just didn't notice them.
AS: In the early 1990s, my grandparents saved some money and bought me a console. It was a black, rectangular plastic box from Hong-Kong with a NES chip inside. It was called Dendy and had a picture of Babar on the front. I started with two games: Power Blade 2 and Jungle Book. Actually, Jungle Book was a two-for-one cartridge, with a bad burn of Robocop as a sort of bonus. There were a lot of 'omnibus' carts floating around. Prices went up based on how many games there were on the cart and how advanced the graphics were. All the carts were obvious HK hack-jobs, mostly with the Chinese or Japanese text intact.
When I got tired of the two games, I started trading games with friends; just for a few days at a time. Everybody did it. Later I discovered that there was a videogame parlour two tram-stops from my house; you could trade your old carts for new ones for a pretty small fee. I never had more than two or three games at once.
This was followed by Sega machines, then PS. There was the odd Dreamcast available as well, but I don’t recall ever seeing an N64 or any of its accessories/games for sale. PS2/XBox/GC never really took off here. Hardcore console enthusiasts do buy them, mostly PS2s (available pre-modded, if asked nicely enough), but both the consoles and the games are still priced too restrictively to become mainstream. The problem with current gaming though is cracked Russian localization. After a few failures - namely FF tactics and Arc the Lad 2, I vowed never to touch a localised crack again.
FD: Ataris were pretty much commonplace before 1992 I think. The semi-rural town (pop. 10,000) that I once stayed in had two parlours by 1988, and I remember having read an editorial about the 'influence of Western video games' in a magazine from 1987 or so.
AS: Yes, and there used to be a videogame show on my local TV station that covered 'gaming in America', but it didn't air too regularly. I remember when the PlayStation release was announced, they covered it in depth. I am really amazed what a vast loanword vocabulary kids who play games in Russia have. Mostly D&D and RPG stuff: quest, mage, paladin, weapon names, and so on. The Russian language, of course, has words for all of those things, since we also have a wealth of heroic myths from feudal times to match the Arthurian canon of the English-speaking world. Just another example of cultural dominance.
The Bogatyr. A band of Russian heroes who took on demons and monsters. Their number included ILYA-MUROMETS and MIKULA. Although mortal, they had various special powers such as super strength, swiftness of foot, and bucketfuls of heroic pluck. Like a somewhat down-to-earth version of the Knights of the Round Table, they were a motley collection of farmers who were elevated to hero rank and starred in many celebrated dragon-busting tales.