Real life is stranger than fiction. Well, it is if you consider recent reports that in the 1920s Josef Stalin tried to create a race of superwarriors by crossing humans with apes. For reasons we'd probably best not explore here, baboon squaddies failed to materialise and instead the USSR became renowned for other reasons. It was still, however, a first sign that even in the darkest days of Stalinism, Russian minds were focused on at least the 'scientific villainy' aspect of gaming. And come the fall of communism, the entirety of PC gaming was put firmly on the agenda.
Like spies coming in from the cold, Russian developers are knocking on the global gaming door. WWII strategy Blitzkrieg, Perimeter, Battle Mages and so-called 'movie tie-in' Pirates Of The Caribbean all sold enough shedfuls between them to make three and a half sheds. Joining this (Eastern) bloc party, meanwhile, is a cavalcade of other titles that will never set sail on this side of the North Sea - games with funny names like Blue Beard or Safari Biathlon Racer.
Moscow-based publishers 1C lead the pack, developing games in-house as well as selling the wares of others. "Russian developers are quite innovative and are always coming up with new ideas," explains 1C honcho Nikolay Baryshnikov. "Russian teams have great coders and are quite capable of making best-selling hits. There are dozens of Russian-made games on the market, and gamers often don't even know that their favourite title is brought to them from Russia."
Russian flight sims, if you'll excuse the pun, have recently taken off with bird's-eye experiences in Pacific Fighters and IL-2 Sturmovik (both produced by 1C), disproving the aviator's adage that flying is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Oleg Maddox - the brains behind Sturmovik - was inspired while working "in an aviation research every day from 8am to 5pm and, after that, till late at night in the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI)." It was his dream to create the ultimate aircraft sim.
Forget consoles, the PC is where it's at, explains Maddox - this box of tricks is as vital for his country's gamers as snow ploughs are for Red Square. "The PC is still way more universal for home entertainment and I know many people who use it for DVD, TV, photos, video, music and games. Russians are very creative and build their own PCs with separate parts. My home PC - I completed myself," whispers Maddox from behind a pair of loose-fitting flight goggles.
For reasons that remain obvious, PCs were household rarities behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, yet this was also when Russia chose to unleash their finest game since chess: Tetris. The story behind this crumbling puzzler is almost as enjoyable as the falling blocks themselves - an East vs West fable to rival Rocky IV.
BETTER THAN VODKA
June, 1985. A young researcher called Alexey Pajitnov creates Tetris while working at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. The game spreads across Soviet countries like a virus before it's pilfered by a UK software house and then the Americans. Realising it's sitting on a goldmine, the Soviet Government finally cash in on the act and sell the game to Nintendo, although it's years before Pajitnov sees a single rouble for his efforts.
For today's Ruskie developers, Tetris was Year Zero. St Petersburg-based developers WildSnake Software know this better than anyone, having worked with Pajitnov (who now resides in the United States) on new puzzle titles. "The fact that a Russian was able to make a piece of software that brought fun and pleasure to the whole world was important to us," explains WildSnake's Andy Nick. "Every Russian game developer is hiding a tiny Tetris creator in our dreams and souls."