Gaming in Russia: From the 90s to This Day. Part 1

Hello everyone. I am omeniel. I live in Moscow, Russia. I have been gaming for almost 20 years now. You may ask what is special about this. Well nothing particular interesting here, I just feel like sharing my experience of being a gamer who comes from Russia. Some may have already noticed my articles on TAY. If not please have a look at them and share your opinion. Here I have set myself a goal to shed light on gaming in Russia based on my personal experience. I will start from my childhood where I got my passion for video games and will guide you to this time and maybe have a look at the future. So this is my story. A story of a Russian video gamer.

I was born in 1986, the year designated as the International Year of Peace by the United Nations. It was the year when USSR launched the Mir space station, a mishandled safety test in Chernobyl Nuclear Plant led to a radioactive disaster and a soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov was permitted to return to Moscow after years of exile.


The 80s was tough time for USSR but everybody in my country could feel 'the wind of change'. My family lived poorly, my mother raised me and my brother on her own during the eighties because my father was in prison for illegal exchange transactions. He was a taxi driver. He bought foreign currencies from international travelers and then sold it on the black market. The official exchange rate was very low, so tourists preferred to turn to speculators like my father. He was making very good money, so my family could afford to buy a new NIVA (a Russian SUV), spend summer time near the Black sea. But unfortunately I did not have a chance to meet with the good times as my father went to prison in 1986, the year I was born.

VAZ 2121 Niva

And then the 90s came in. The era of freedom and democracy. Wrigley's, Snickers, Coca-Cola, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, LEGO and of course video games. I am a 90s child through and through. I love and miss this time. My father left prison in 1991, a day before the actual end of his sentence. He associated it with the fact that Boris Yeltsin won the presidential election for the Russian republic. I highly doubt it because there was no amnesty that year but I do believe that my dad respected Yeltsin a lot, so it was his manner of showing estimation. At last my family was together again. And I was learning to live with my dad, who was a very difficult person. But the fact that he was with us and we could live happily in new Russia was very inspiring.

Of course the early 90s was even tougher than the 80s. I remember standing in queues with my mother to buy bananas. They were green, so my mom wrapped them in a newspaper and put them in dark place so that they could be in. I remember lots of queues, empty shelves in shops, empty shelves at home. But in spite of everything we lived happily. This was the time I was introduced to LEGO, VHS and video games. My mother was an accountant and worked for a guy who traveled with his wife and son a lot. They lived in Australia, Europe and Canada, so they had loads of cool toys in their flat. I have never seen so many LEGO bricks in my life. There were tons of them in my friend's room. It was even hard to come in to his room, bricks were on the floor, under the bed and on the shelves. It was a LEGO cathedral. So we played with LEGOs a lot. He had pirate sets, knight sets, city sets. His collection was huge. And I fell in love with Danish bricks and from now on I would ask only LEGO for New Year and Birthday.


My first experience with video games was brief. There was a large electronics shop near our place. It was called ELEKTRONICA. This shop shared a name with the company which produced consumer electronics: watches, calculators, tape recorders and other stuff. We went to the shop to buy me my first electronic watch and of course there was a long queue. We were in the shop for several hours, I was tired and bored of waiting, so my mother suggested me playing an arcade game called 'Ohota' (Hunt), a light gun game where you score by shooting deer. I was not impressed at all. And the watch I got that day was not worth the time we wasted there.


In 1991 at the age of five I went to school. My mother was still working as an accountant in her friend's firm. They had an office in one of the Moscow's schools. At this time schools suffered from lack of funding, so the principals had to get money from other sources. One of the ways was to rent spare spaces out. The school where they rent office space was a boarding school with several blocks: a teaching block, two dormitory blocks, a canteen and a gym all connected by an air-bridge.They rent the second floor in one of the dorms. My mother took me to work from time to time, so when I had to start my education my mother decided to send me to this school.

At the end of my first year at school our principal arranged a great festival. She hired different artists, clowns and acrobats. It was a wonderful party mainly because that there were a lot of soviet arcade machines "Magistral" (Turnpike) . The game resembles an Atari 2600 game where you control a car driving along a highway while trying not to crash in oncoming cars. There were over a dozen of these machines. Not all of them worked, but we could still enjoy the game. As with the "Ohota" machine I was not blown away, but it was more fun. 'Magistral' was the first racing game I played.


During my first summer holidays my parents sent me to a recreation centre in Moscow region. It resembled a summer camp with the only difference that kids lived in twos in double rooms with toilet and a bathroom. It was one of the best summer times from my childhood. This centre was located in a very picturesque place with a large lake. There were lots of facilities: a swimming pool, a gym and a healthcare centre. Our daily routine consisted of swimming, manipulation treatment, playing sport games and in the evenings we would either watch all the new hits from Hollywood, action and sci-fi movies mainly on VHS or... play PC games. Oh yeah, this was by far the most popular pastimes. There were several PCs with tons of games: Wolfenstein 3D, Goblins, Dangerous Dave 2, Wing Commander and many-many more. These were the most popular games among us. We would take turns to play, sometimes we would argue and even fight over the PCs. We were hungry for digital entertainment. For many of the kids in this camp, it was their first time they saw a PC and touched a keyboard. And here they were playing games with amazing graphics, addicting gameplay, they were shooting Nazis, killing zombies, controlling spaceships. Our lives would never be the same again. We became gamers without even knowing it.

A Russian PC game we played at the camp. It was based on a very popular TV show 'Field of Miracles' (Wheel of Fortune in US)

Two years passed. My mother got a new job, she now was a chief accountant in small bank. My father bought a used car and started cabbing. Many drivers in the early nineties did it. Most of Moscow's taxi stations were on the edge of bankruptcy, the taxis were in poor condition, so people began to leave and work for themselves. So things started to get better for my family. My brother went to the university, my mother had good job and even my father seemed to find his place in life after prison.


This was the time when video game consoles were introduced in Russia. Consoles were the new big thing among kids. Video game programs started to appear on Russian TV. But consoles were very expensive and only few could afford to have one. Unlike Europe, North America and Japan where home consoles were brought to the market in generations, 8-bit and 16-bit consoles hit shelves almost simultaneously in Russia. 8-bit consoles were cheaper and more popular. There were tons of games, bootleg mainly. We saw 50-in-1, 200-in-1 and even 9999-in-1 cartridges for 8-bit consoles. The console everybody played on was Dendy, a Taiwanese clone of Nintendo Famicom. It had an elephant called Dendy as its mascot. In 1994, Steepler, the company which owned the Dendy brand signed an agreement with Nintendo and received exclusive rights to distribute Super Nintendo (SNES) in Russia. R-style, a competing company in home console business, sold another 8-bit clone called Bitman. They also had a 16-bit machine, a Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) clone named Super Bitman. You could even buy a SEGA Mega Drive but it was produced by Nisho Iwai and Forrus, another bootleg console. The competition was very tight.

One of the Dendy TV ads

Another Dendy ad


I got my console in 1995 for my Birthday. It was a Super Bitman, a 16-bit machine with only one cartridge and it was Disney's and Virgin's Aladdin. Aladdin is one of the best Disney's cartoons with beautiful visuals, great music and excellent humor. In my Top 3 Disney's cartoons of all time it takes the third place, with Lion King taking the second place and Sleeping Beauty winning the first position. If I remember correctly Aladdin was one of the first Disney's movies I watched. And it was the first game for my new console. Everything seemed amazing, the visuals, music, sound design (I used to listen to sounds from the game in options for hours), gameplay. It was one perfect game. I was proud of owning it and would boast at school that I was playing a 16-bit hit. I was blown away, my jaw dropped and hurts to this day. From that day forth I had my own console and would play videogames.

But as we all know life is a complicated affair. A year before in 1994 my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the insulating covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged. The damage results in wide range of symptoms from physical pain to psychiatric problems. She began getting tired very quickly, could not work full days. After all my parents decided that she would quit her job. I was shocked and our happy life was ruined. And videogames became not only my hobby but my escape.


End of Part 1

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