You Can Now Play Video Games Developed Behind the Iron Curtain

Experience the collapse of Soviet-style Communism by playing the video games designed by angry teenagers living under it.
January 4, 2022, 4:42pm
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Image:  Slovak Design Museum image.

The Cold War couldn’t stop gaming from thriving in the Eastern Bloc. From the late 1980s through the early 1990s, a generation of young people living behind the Iron Curtain designed and released their own video games and arcade cabinets. Now, you can play English translations of some of these lost classics of early gaming. One is a text adventure where a Soviet military officer hunts and kills Rambo.

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The translated games all come from Slovakia and are a collaboration between the Slovak Game Developers Association and the Slovak Design Museum. During the waning days of Soviet Communism, public life was an oppressive mess and Western art trickled in through underground sources. Curious teenagers watched movies like Indiana Jones and Rambo and were inspired to create art from them.

Computers also crossed over. Britain’s ZX Spectrum made it across the Iron Curtain and was cloned in Czechoslovakia, producing similar machines that Slovak teenagers learned to code for. “There was an active exchange and copying of games on cassettes in Svazarm’s interest groups, fans of personal computers exchanged their experiences, and many of them, following the example of the West, began to create their own games, which were shared among friends and acquaintances all over Czechoslovakia,” a blog post on the Slovak Design Museum’s website explained.

According to Stanislav Hrda, one of the programmers who created the games on offer, making video games was something only kids did. “The games were not sold in shops and the authors were not entitled to remuneration,” he said in the post explaining the project. “Therefore, practically no one could engage in video game programming as a business activity, and adult programmers worked at most in state institutions on large mainframe computers. Thus, video game programmers became mainly teenagers.”

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The computing power was limited and the teenagers' technological knowhow almost non-existent so many of these early games were text adventures. 

“These could also be programmed in the simpler Basic language that every home computer had built in,” Hrda said. “Text-based games offered the opportunity to imprint one’s fantasies into a world of characters, locations, descriptions of reality or fantasy at will. That is why hundreds of such video games were created in the 1980s in Czechoslovakia. The authors from the ranks of teenagers portrayed their friends, but also heroes from films that were distributed on VHS tapes or from the pop-cultural world of the West from the occasionally available comics, films, TV series and books.”

Hrda loved American action movies and programmed the video game Šatochín, a text adventure where a Soviet officer hunts John Rambo. “The game was very hard to win,” Hrda told Ars Technica. “Whenever you made a small mistake, you would die. So before you win, you are killed ten times by Rambo.”

There’s even a hidden minigame where players can take control of Rambo and fight with his Soviet rival in a home for disabled veterans. “The mention of Rambo was unimaginable in the official media, newspapers, or books under the control of censorship,” Hrda said on the website for the project. “But for the aging gerontocracy of the communist kleptocracy, the field of video games and the subgenre of home-made text adventure games were under the radar, and the games circulated freely, mainly among friends, without restriction or censorship, as with inconvenient books by inconvenient authors.”

The project has localized ten games for Western audiences, including Šatochín, with plans to tackle more over the next few years. “The games translated over the next 2-3 years after the end of the project will represent almost the complete video game production from the period of 8-bit computers in Slovakia, with an emphasis on text adventure games,” the site said.

English versions are available here and can be played in the Fuse emulator. The Slovak versions can be played online through the project’s website.