“СТАРТ”. You have to know Cyrillic to realize it, but yes, it is on the START button that this strange Soviet machine asks us to press. START, like any SEGA or Nintendo console from the 1980s.
Except that it does not appear anywhere in history books, anywhere in museums. It was produced in the early 1990s by the USSR. It is the first, last and only communist cartridge console.
“At the end of the USSR, everything was so messy”
How did we find out about it? Random research, when writing a series of articles on the history of communist video games. A simple mention, without details.
“It is one of the most obscure machines, perhaps the most obscure of all. No one knows exactly what day she went out, or where she was available. At the end of the USSR, everything was so messy “, apologizes Ilya Yanovich, founder and creative director from the independent Weappy Minsk studio (the series This Is the Police), who had never heard of it when it came out.
In question, the Soviet production system, entirely vertical. “He didn't take into account what people wanted or didn't want, or where the demand was. Instead, officials arbitrarily decided where the new products would be marketed. Its distribution must have been completely random ”, continues Ilya Yanovich. And its distribution, probably low.
Overshadowed by Asian counterfeiting
At least one element is known: its year of manufacture, 1991, was that of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Its character as a communist object is beyond doubt, explains Anna Colin Lebedev, lecturer at Paris-Nanterre University and specialist in post-Soviet Belarus:
” Economically, when the Union collapses, there is only one country, the USSR. If this console was released in 1991, it is because it was planned before. It was a Soviet product. “
The end of the Soviet system also explains, in part, why this console produced at least until 1993 has remained so little known. “Suddenly the borders opened, and in a few years the market of the ex-USSR countries was invaded by Taiwanese and Chinese clones of the Nintendo NES”, says Ilya Yanovich. The most famous of them, the Dendy, is relatively inexpensive, and the cartridges contain hundreds of pirated Nintendo games. “There was no room for the Alf”, concludes Ilya Yanovich.
Chocolate in exchange for the Grail
Through the largest Belarusian video game publisher, Wargaming, we were able to contact a collector in possession of one of the very few existing copies (he said there were only three left).
This collector is Denis Terekhov, a 44-year-old Ukrainian from Minsk, manager of several student cafes. He had never heard of the Alf either. Until in 2015, it began collecting consoles from the 1990s. One thing after another, out of a taste for rarity, he expanded his gallery of Soviet machines. And discover the Grail: the Alf.
“I acquired it two years ago from an individual, he explains. I bought him lots of stuff, and he wanted to give it to me as a gift. But in the Slavic tradition, we do not accept presents without anything in return. So I paid enough to buy chocolate for her children. “ A case.
Belarus, Soviet Silicon Valley
“This is the first Belarusian console, and the last”, underlines Denis Terekhov, a gleam in the eyes. It would only exist in three colors, white, red and gray, the rarest. Its name, Alf, is that which its creators gave to the dragon which serves as its mascot. About 1,200 copies were produced, he said.
By who ? Zapad and Tsvetotron, two state-owned factories located in Brest, a town in the southwest on the Polish border. The engineers of the first designed the product, the workers of the second manufactured it. Anna Zadora, teacher-researcher at the University of Strasbourg, underlines that Belarus was then one of the centers of innovation in the USSR. “It was a very peaceful, prosperous republic, close to Russia. We decided to develop high-tech industries there. ”
When it came out, the console cost 500 rubles, almost half of a new car (around 1,200 rubles at the time). “It was not accessible for 99.9% of the population”, assures Ilya Yanovich. The vendor from whom Denis Terekhov retrieved it was the son of a dignitary. Without it, he probably wouldn't have had access to it. For Anna Colin Lebedev, this console was not intended for the population:
“The penetration of high technology was very low. Having an audio cassette player in 1989-1990 remained a luxury that we could not afford except thanks to barter and the gray market, so a game console … We can imagine that it was more in terms of technological rivalry with the West. ”
Its packaging, a sober cardboard box, mentions the virtues lent to this object, qualified as “Super useful game and entertainment machine for developing decision-making and thinking”. A classic of Sovietism: in all things, to seek a usefulness, and the promise of human improvement.
Rambo among the Soviets
Several different cartridges were sold, each containing a selection of games. Anyone looking for communist propaganda there would be disappointed.
Most of the programs are trivial action, shooting or driving games, often copies of titles designed for the British ZX Spectrum microcomputer of the early 1980s. Respect for intellectual property was not the primary obsession of communist engineers.
Even more incongruous, one of the cartridges contains the video game adaptation of the Hollywood film Rambo. One of the results of Mikhail Gorbachev's policy. “During the last five years of the USSR, there was no longer any anti-Americanism, but on the contrary an opening to the west, explains Anna Colin Lebedev. American films were no longer prohibited, they were shown in cinemas. “
Among these different titles, at least three were presented to us as original, and entirely locally designed: a shooter game with a helicopter, a car obstacle game, and another shooter showcasing a cosmonaut facing shapes strange space, in what could be a kind of Metroid black and white. Difficult to judge the interest of the games: the joystick of the time reacted badly. The control is rough, the animations minimalist, the arid difficulty.
The Ukrainian collector even has a prototype cartridge, probably dated 1989 or 1990, obtained from the hands of a former Zapad engineer. In the USSR, and a fortiori at the time of the fall of the regime, theft from the factory was common. After all, was it not public? “He recovered everything he could when the factory closed. He offered to give it to me. I quickly accepted before he changed his mind “, jubilee Mr. Terekhov.
A directional metal cross
The hour allocated for our meeting is coming to an end. “My dream is to open a retro café where I can share the treasures I have recovered”, explains our Ukrainian Ali Baba. He has already found premises, and plans to open this winter. Will the Alf be exposed and playable there? ” Perhaps “he pruned, as if worried to see the pearl of his collection abused by careless hands.
Denis Therekov is about to repack. But before, equipped with a screwdriver, he dismantles the console and its components. The console materials are sometimes relatively rustic, with some old components from 1987. But the most interesting detail concerns the controller, directly inspired by that of the Famicom, the Japanese version of the NES, the flagship console of the 1980s.
“Nintendo and SEGA used rubber and plastic for the directional cross. But for the Alf, Soviet engineers chose metal instead. You know why ? Because they wanted the console to last, and they thought the USSR would stay alive for a long time. “ The Ukrainian collector and his Belarusian interpreter exchange a short, circumspect look. Then they explode with laughter.
Find our series of articles “The Eastern block with the levers”
The world last summer published a dossier on the history of communist video games.