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Chasing the Gorbunok - by Sergei Servianov (first published 2005, some edits to correct timeline)

The first videogames I remember were located in a tiny arcade in what seemed to be the middle of the woods. This arcade was located not too far away from my grandmother's house and I often went there with her as a small child. Inside they had a few domestic arcade machines. Mostly generic racing and shooting games. I also recall a Pitfall clone that had the Pitfall character replaced by Russian fairy tale characters, such as the Gorbunok. The graphics in these games were really horrible and their overall design was years behind Japan. But I tend to get sentimental about them.

After the Soviet Union broke up, videogame systems began appearing. The most popular system at that period 1990-1994 was the Dendy, the comrade from your other interview mentioned that it was from Hong Kong, I always thought it was Taiwanese. At any rate the Dendy was essentially a cheaper Famicom. Cartridges for it were yellow and many times had many games on them (one cartridge I remember playing had both Double Dragon and Duck Tales on it). The cartridges were apparently Famicon bootlegs, since the text in most games was in Japanese. (editor's note: some games were hacked into Russian, such as a Dendy bootleg of Samurai Pizza Cats)

The Dendy, for all its plusses and big elephant schoolboy mascot, was considered to be a children's toy. Not something a self-respecting teenager would busy himself with. Having said that I must say that even with the extreme poverty going around at the time, I remember the majority of the families that I knew had a Dendy. Odd, since it wasn't that cheap, buying it and stocking it with games would cost a good chunk of someone's salary. As I've said, most people had a Dendy, though the mark of a really high class teen was having a Mega Drive. The Mega Drive was Japanese and more expensive, they only sold the Japanese cartridges in Russia. Its graphics were better, so it was kind of a status symbol.

For people who couldn't afford a Mega Drive or SNES, even though the latter never really took off in Russia, arcades started popping up. Not arcades in the traditional sense, even though those existed in Moscow as well, mostly in the center of the city. These arcades were cheaply constructed arcade decks running a SNES or Mega Drive. You would pay for the amount of minutes you wanted to play. These were often placed in supermarkets. They were always filled with people. Bare Knuckle 2 and 3 were very popular among the crowds, as well as Contra: Hard Corps (the first time I saw that beautiful game was in one of these arcades). These type of arcades were a short lived phenomena, as after two years I barely saw them anymore. I think as conditions in the country improved and people had a bit more money they could afford to buy these systems.

The PlayStation changed a lot in the Russian gaming scene. One more thing, Russians usually buy games in street kiosks and street vendors, even though that's been changing recently. Buying a PlayStation was pretty expensive, but the games were extremely cheap. Bootlegging a CD is simple and cheap enough, so street vendors were always stocked with the newest games. Conveniently priced per CD, getting the newest Square FMV packed RPG would take a lot out of your pocket. The pirates must have let the sales go to their heads, because soon console games were translated even. This was horrible because the people who translated them mostly had little understanding of English, much less Japanese, so many games became unplayable. The N64 and Saturn never had much success in Russia.

As I left the country 5 years ago (ed: that would be 2000 when this was written), I can't tell you how much success the current generation of consoles is having.

Let me also mention portable gaming, portable consoles never took off in Russia. Though I remember even in the Soviet period as a child, there were a few handheld games similar to the Game & Watch in Japan.

As for PC gaming, it was always a lot more popular than console gaming. I think a family could justify purchasing a PC for itself because of its other uses. So PC games were always popular. The most popular games seemed to always be RTS and Quests. PC games were bought from street vendors and were obviously pirated. In the last few years this has changed. Companies realized they might as well release games for a cheap price and make some sort of profit. So PC games have a new official life now in Russia. They are released by 1C, to my knowledge Russia's biggest game publisher, professionally localized, in two versions: a cheap version just in a jewel case with a brief manual for an affordable price, and a deluxe version ten times more expensive in a box with a manual.

An interesting practice is publishing a game as an eOriginal' ? which is the game without the localization, released a few months before the localized version comes off.

Not that Russians don't produce their own games, but it's always for the PC. I've never heard of a Russian-produced console game. The PC is an especially good market in Russia, so most of Russia's game developers concentrate in that field. These are mostly quest games as they seem to be a very popular genre in Russia. The quests are very culture specific, meaning they work off cultural references and jokes that wouldn't make much sense to a foreigner, so they wouldn't be released outside of the country anytime soon. Though that never seemed to stop American games of the same time from appearing in Russia.

Yet, a number of Russian game companies have released games outside of the country. This is noticeable if you play a lot of PC Games. Here a brief list from those I remember: Blitzkrieg, IL-2 Sturmovik, Echelon, the recent Pacific Fighters, Cossacks: European Wars, The Conquest of America. Most of these are produced by Studio Buka and published by 1C.

The gaming press in Russia is curious as well. eGame Land' was the largest magazine cross-console magazine. The stories in it are usually longer and allow more opinion in their features than in most Western mags. eGreat Dragon' is another popular magazine, it's marketed to a younger audience, and its poor design and quality make it something of cheaper, less interesting GameFan. eAbsolute Games' is one of the more popular videogame websites. It's reviews are often sardonic, especially when analyzing the often ridiculous stories of Western games that keep pitting EVIL Russians against GOOD Americans (Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six 2, Red Alert, Freedom Fighters, Iron Storm, I could go on for awhile).

Ed's note: Random Youtube video of what appears to be a Russian TV show host, playing Samurai Pizza Cats, aka Ninja Cat, on a Dendy. At the end he also talks about a Dendy-themed magazine.

Moscow's beautiful subway system


Konek Gorbunok game, in the style of Pitfall

The game takes on an intriguing and more complex style

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